Symbolism

I heard a story the other day that kind of set my head spinning. Terrell Owens, who is apparently a mildly annoying football star, was playing against the Dallas Cowboys on their home turf a some time ago. After a touchdown, he took the ball and ran out to the center of the field to attempt a celebratory spiking on the huge star. One of the Cowboys, incensed by this lack of respect, tackled him.

Now having seen the footage, the hit was far less violent than I had been led to believe by the storyteller. Wearing that much protection, it was little more than rough-housing. Still, the tackler had to be pulled away from Owens, presumably because he wanted to inflict some more damage.

Apart from the idiocy of getting that worked up about a game, I was struck by the sheer number of levels of symbolism and misplaced understanding at work here, mostly from the fans who were booing Owens.

When discussing this with someone more sport-savvy than me (i.e. someone other than me) I was told, in effect, “That’s something you just don’t do.” The subtext was that violence was a valid response to spiking a ball in the center of the Dallas Cowboys Stadium field. And, trying to wrap my brain around that got me thinking about symbolism.

So, when Owens spikes the ball on the Dallas Star, his action symbolizes disrespect. (It also symbolizes jubilation, but that’s irrelevant to the Cowboys fans.) But, technically, at this level, it is only disrespect to the Star itself.

At the second level, the Star represents the Cowboys. A team of however-many football players, and the attendant staff. But really (and this is where things get a little muddy) the symbolism also extends to the entire history of the Dallas Cowboys, back through the mists of the last half of the Twentieth Century.

But why would the fans care? Because the Dallas Cowboys function as a symbol of Dallas, and to a lesser extent, all of Texas. (A case could be made that they symbolize the entire USA, what with the talk of them being, “America’s Team”. But that’s not going to sit well with fans of… well, any other NFL team.)

Still, why would the fans care if Owens disrespects a graphical symbol of a team which is a symbol of a city? Because they see the city as a symbol for themselves. “I am a Texan, therefore disrespecting that Star means you’re disrepecting me!”

So, my question is, how is it reasonable to have such a deep emotional reaction, to the point where violence is not only indicated but desired, when the only thing happening is a symbolic gesture (spiking) against a three-times-removed symbol of a person: Star->Team->City->Me? This is a remarkable example of a large group of people each confusing the symbol with that being symbolized. If someone wants to spike a ball into your head, yeah, I’ll condone the use of violence to stop that action. If someone spikes a ball into a star that’s a stand in for a team that’s a stand in for a city that’s a stand in for you…? Not so much.

What’s more amazing is how often this kind of thing shows up. How much better would the world be if people stopped confusing symbols with that which is symbolized? No more fights about burning a flag. Also, no more flag burning. No more calls for the killing of cartoonists who dare draw an unflattering depiction of Muhammad. No more cross burning. No more outrage at cross burning. No more Twitter explosions when a young man of questionable musical talent steps on a picture of a Native American that’s been plastered onto a high traffic parcel of floor.

I wondered, then, if I am simply being a hypocrite. I don’t care about football, so there’s zero chance I would care about symbolic gestures that disrespect a football team. On the other hand, what do I care about?

I care about movies. But if someone writes a bad review of a film I really like, I don’t feel compelled to punch them. I feel compelled to argue with them. I feel compelled to respond in kind. If someone were to stage a public burning of posters of the Lord of the Rings films, I would not vow to bring them to justice. I would actually find it funny.

In a less trivial example, I care about my country. I could not care less if someone burns a flag. I suppose I might care if that’s an indication that they want to do something actually damaging. But fire-roasted colored cloth does little to move me.

The 9/11 attacks were a great example of something which was both a symbolic and a real attack on the US. The symbolic attack is irrelevant, at least when it comes to the use of force. The actual attack is what’s important. The actual attack started a war, and got lots of people (including the guy who ordered the attack) killed. That’s rough justice, but in the arena of global terrorism, that’s really the only justice to be had. The symbolic attack required a symbolic response. We’re building an even taller building on the site. We’ve created a memorial. These are absolutely the right responses to the symbolic attack on our nation and its institutions.

Hopefully, if the 9/11 plot had been to toilet paper the World Trade Center, America would not have expected the government to hunt anyone down to kill them.

I just wish humanity could pull themselves out of this sort of caveman thinking that pictures can have as much meaning as people.

 

Kate’s Body

bbSo, there are people talking about Kate’s baby-bump, and telling her how to get rid of it.

Then there are people talking about those people, telling them that they shouldn’t be shaming her like that.

Then there are people talking about those people, telling them that by calling attention to the first batch of people, they’re really still shaming her by telling her “It’s okay to look that way,” as if it wasn’t already.

Then there’s the reporter telling me about all of those people.

(Then there’s me writing this post.)

((There there’s you reading this post.))

Talk about a meta-waste of time.

Can-Be/Is

There are a couple of stories that have been in the news lately that brought to my attention an interesting aspect of policy. The Can-Be/Is dichotomy.

There are some things that we, as a society, just accept are always bad. Murder, biological weapons, spiders. (Okay, maybe it’s just me on the spiders.) We may differ on how to minimize them, but there’s no substantive arguments that they shouldn’t be limited as much as possible. Other things (abortion, gay marriage) are the subject of argument, but these are black/white, up/down arguments about the basic morality of the thing in question.

But there are way more things which are controversial because they can be bad.

The two stories that caught my eye were the flap over GMO crops and the story about the NSA routinely filing away telephone call metadata for (if necessary) future analysis. Neither of these things is inherently bad. Some GMO crops are valuable to the functioning of our food supply. Analysis of phone records can bring terrorists to justice. Similarly, both of these things can be bad. (A genetic mistake could devastate an ecosystem. Poorly policed governmental spying could become 1984.)

Neither of these particular stories bothered me. I’ve been eating GMO food, fat, dumb and happy, for years. (Probably decades.) And if the NSA  wants to analyze who I call and for how long… more power to them. They will, of course, be incredibly bored by the results. (Though, if they have any ideas about a cheaper calling plan, I’m open to their suggestions.)

But there are plenty of other Can-Be issues that really do concern me: personal gun ownership, hard drug use, spiders. (C’mon. Have you ever actually seen a tarantula? Yikes!)

What’s interesting to me is that these kinds of things don’t seem to follow any party/ideological lines. A gun or a GMO ear of corn can be bad, and a lot of liberal folks will campaign hard to get rid of it. An ounce of coke or a porn mag can be bad, and a lot of conservative folks will campaign hard to get rid of it.

So, what’s the difference then? Is it a disagreement about the likelihood of the bad outcome? About the probable severity of that outcome? Is there any way to parse these issues to get to the core of why some can-be issues bother some people, and others don’t?

I don’t really know. If you were expecting an actual conclusion to this post, I’m going to have to apologize right now. I just wanted to get this overall concept down before I forgot it.

Some Thoughts on Gun Ownership and Murder Rate

A couple of weeks ago, I got pulled into a Twitter argument about the following graph:

Image

This graph, which conveniently does not include the United States (which would pull the trend line closer to level) and which does not take into consideration different cultures, different population sizes, or any countries you would call war torn, posits that more guns equals fewer murders. (Not to mention it assumes something as complex as the interaction of gun ownership on human activity must be a linear relationship.) I don’t buy it, but then, there’s nothing really to buy. Yes, with this sample, there is a trend. I could cherry pick my own countries and generate a line in the other direction. This, however, doesn’t advance the debate.

I really think the biggest factor that this graph ignores is culture. Japan is a monolithic culture, England and France are awash in immigrants, and Estonia was part of the USSR for fifty years there. (BTW, where is Russia on this graph?)

So what about the US? We are (red/blue arguments aside) a pretty reasonably homogenous group. Or at least, homogenously heterogeneous, if you get my meaning. So I wanted to evaluate these statistics using the various states of our fair Republic. If you graph gun ownership percentage against murder rate you get this:

gomr

Wow. It doesn’t get any flatter than that. This indicates there is essentially ZERO correlation between gun ownership and murder. Good to know.

But wait. Something doesn’t feel right about this analysis either. There is something substantively different between Alaska and Connecticut. That’s population density. I wonder if there’s any correlation between the density of gun owners and murder rate? In other words, does simple proximity between gun owners increase the likelihood of murder?

gdmr

Awesome! Point proven. More guns in a smaller area increases the murder rate.

Wait. No. That doesn’t prove anything. Just living cheek by jowl with our fellow humans might, guns aside, have an impact on the murder rate, right? If we look at generic population density against murder rate, it’s probably just as much of a trend, probably more. Let’s find out…

pdmr

What do you know. Slight trend downward. So, close proximity to humans is slightly less conducive to murder… unless there are guns involved.

(Full disclosure. The murder rates I got for 2008 from the Justice Department. Gun ownership data I got from http://www.uscarry.com, based on 2007 data. Size and population data for the states courtesy Wikipedia. If anyone has any better resources, I’d love to crunch the numbers. Also, any gun ownership data on DC would be instructive, I think, since it’s obviously both highly dense, and highly murdery.)

Wealth Gap

I was thinking about this topic even before Obama showcased it in his SOTU (which I haven't listened to yet).  But, here goes:

I don't want to get into a huge ideological argument about redistribution of wealth or job creation. But I am curious about the widening wealth gap, particularly in this country, though this applies over most of the world.

I have no problem with a free labor market, but I am forced to wonder why rich and poor are further apart than they've been since before the Great Depression. What about the market has driven this gap? I have a couple of theories, but none ring true:

Wealth sliding up the scale is an inevitable emergent property of any free market. Money has its own gravity, and it seeks to pool. Artificial interference (income taxes, a culture of philanthropic giving, etc) is required to reverse the trend. I hope we can all agree that uncontrolled upwardly sliding wealth isn't healthy for the economy. Bill Gates needs someone to sell Windows to.

Problem with this theory: It's not an answer. It's an appeal to a mysterious force. I want to understand that mysterious force.

The emergence of India, China, Brazil, et.al. is devaluing most every job that can hop overseas, and company officers are about the only jobs that can't. (Yet.)

Problem with this theory: This would imply that people like plumbers, mechanics, doctors and nurses, people who can't be outsourced, aren't being impacted. I find that unlikely.

It's just temporary, because of the recession. Jobs at the top (and people who are independently wealthy) are disproportionately buffered from the effects.

Problem with this theory: It's got to be a factor, but I don't believe it's the whole story.

Some shift in the culture of compensation at most organizations has driven dollars upward, and the rank-and-file don't have the leverage (job-hopability) to reverse it.

Problem with this theory: I'm not sure how so many organizations all over the country could be impacted similarly, unless this is an unintended consequence of some federal regulation or tax code.

I do think it's ridiculous that a secretary can pay a higher total tax rate than her boss… that's just dumb policy. But I also don't think we need to return to 90% top marginal rate. (Even though that's what it was in the US's crazy-boom-50s.) I'm not interested in taking money away from people. I'm interested in the tweaks that need to be made to the overall system to encourage money, via the market, to find it's way to more people. Maybe that's a pipe dream. But it does seem that something is needed to keep everything sustainable. Another couple of decades like we've just been through, and the US is going to start looking like a third world country.

Russell on the Super Committee

Here's my take on the most (and least) likely scenarios of how the Super Committee will handle the debt reduction project:

Least Likely — They find a solution that both sides can live with, which equitably addresses the problem.  My version? (Though certainly not the only one that fits these criteria.)  Increase the retirement age, reduce SS and drug benefits for the top earners, cut the military by 25%, institute a new, unloopholeable 50% tax on golden parachutes.  (You want to make a ton of cash at a company?  Stick around and earn it, jerk!)

Average Likely — They deadlock and the predetermined $1.2 trillion cuts go into effect.  (Which wouldn't make me cry, incidentally.)

Most Likely — They weasel out somehow.  I mean, they passed the Budget Control Act, they can always repeal it.  Or, they can fudge the numbers to make it look like they're cutting, but they're really significantly overstating future economic growth, or underestimating defense spending, or some other accounting BS.

Why is that one the most likely?  It's not like the debt is top of mind like it was a few months ago.  I mean, come on!  There's a sex scandal in the Republican nominating field and Kim Kardashian just got divorced.  Divorced!  They can quietly screw over our financial future.  And the quieter the better, if you're going the weasel route.  I've got to think that the sheer volume of doom-saying coming out of Washington probably had something to do with those rating drops.

That's just my entirely unfounded opinion.

The Teadrop Tea Infuser

Teadrop, a tea infuser that combines a timer and a filter to make a consistently perfect cup of tea, is the brain child of Michael DiStefano.  It’s currently in the funding phase on Kickstarter.com; I heard about it via Twitter from noted tea fanatic Kevin Rose, and signed up as a backer.  Looks like a neat little gadget.