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June 2019



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Primal Issues

What few in the media (but a great many down on the street) are saying about the Virginia Tech massacre is that law enforcement botched the whole thing. Between the time Ho began firing in the dorm and when he started exterminating people in Norris Hall was a gap of two hours, during which time very little was done. The criticism is not exactly fair, but that doesn't matter—it's the perception that the public is taking away from the incident: The police are unable to protect me. This is a political issue with some interesting wrinkles.

Any hoped-for momentum toward additional restrictions on firearms will be more than balanced by the crawling fear that self-protection is the only viable option if the police can't be trusted. (Chicago's recent scandal of a police officer videotaped beating a female bartender toppled the city's police chief and—again, unfairly—cemented the conviction in many people's minds that the Chicago police are thugs.) This is worsened by the fact that the victims were college students—people's children, albeit legally adult children—whose parents had entrusted them to the university and, by implication, to the local police. People are notoriously irrational when it comes to the safety of their children.

Gun control is one of a class of political issues I call primal, because the passion they evoke in many people is older than and runs deeper than reason. It's about fear, specifically fear of death, which is about as primal a fear as they come. Primal issues easily become political "third rails" that politicians fear to deal with, because primal interest long outlives casual interest. (CNN has an interesting short article on this topic.) The nation as a whole is already losing interest in the Virginia Tech massacre, but gun rights advocates are taking notes on who's saying what in the political realm, and those notes will be organized, retained, and remembered next fall, and for years and years after that. Bill Clinton himself admitted that Democratic anti-gun activism cost the party control of Congress for twelve years. Even Obama touches that rail at his peril.

There's another primal third rail out there: abortion. Abortion rights advocates are just as primal in their support of abortion rights as gun advocates are in support of gun ownership rights. Abortion advocacy isn't based on anything as simple as fear, but on the complex strategies for human sexual reproduction that evolution has handed us. I could never figure out why abortion was so primal an issue until I read The Red Queen by Matt Ridley. That's worth an entry or three all by itself, but if you're interested, do read the book. The point I want to make in this entry is simply that if you want to understand politics, you must understand the primal nature of certain issues, including gun control, abortion, and Social Security, which is another third rail based on the primal fear (sometimes even the rational fear) of being put out on the street and starving to death.

The tribalism that infects our whole political process is energized by primal fears, most specifically the confoundingly deep fear that if the other tribe gets control, they will destroy my tribe and all that my tribe stands for. Pressure groups use such primal fears to make people cough up money and get them to vote for their tribe. Saving democracy in this country is mostly the process of identifying our primal fears and defusing them before they make us slaves of one tribe or another, both of which exist solely to make the world safer for their leaders and largest donors.

Primal emotions (fear, anger, jealousy, and all the others) trump reason, and can be easily manipulated to bring us into bondage. Basically, every night before you go to bed, look in the mirror and ask, "Who owns me?"

Answering that question honestly is the most important single thing that you will ever do.


Interestingly, these primal issues aren't particularly primal in Australia, a country that otherwise has entirely too many things in common with the US. Abortion is generally seen as a necessary evil, something that everyone wishes was unnecessary but which would only become far worse if it were banned outright. Social Security, in a country that has enough beneficial socialism to avoid being as third-world as the US, is only an issue when there's nothing else more pressing on the radio shock-jocks' agenda. And gun control? Gun control is widely seen as an indication that americans are stark raving lunatics and that the Founding Fathers should have been considerably more careful with their misplaced commas and dangling participles.

We've had massacres. The Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania ten years ago killed two more people than the recent Virginia thing. The government started a gun buy-back scheme that had, as far as I can see, a slight effect; but we just don't get the sort of bulk of shooting deaths that the US gets, because it's hard to get a gun. And the men who have guns seem to see them as tools, not as penis extensions.

Guns are not a "right" here. In fact, we're one of the only democracies without a Bill of Rights, but one of many without a matching Bill of Responsibilities so I don't see that it makes much difference anyway. The US could do with throwing out large swathes of its constitution and starting again, but until the Canadians move down and take over, I guess that will remain a pipe dream...
The reports that I've read suggest that the police were behaving entirely reasonably during the two hours after the first two murders. It looked like a domestic violence case, they knew that she'd been with her boyfriend that weekend, that the boyfriend had guns, and they went out and picked him up leaving campus. The fact that his story about where his guns were was different from what the police had been told by the girlfriend's roommate (I think) was a big red flag for them.

They were completely wrong, but also completely reasonable.


"Who owns me?": If the answer for the majority of the citizens of the US of A isn't "No one." then this country is in deep trouble indeed. :-(



Lunatics on loose.

There is somekind of a lead poisoning epidemy or...




The Emotion Machine.

Jeff have you read The Emotion Machine by Marvin Minsky. He thinks we are just machines engineered by the cleverest among the engineers called evolution. Reminds me of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_%26_Golem%2C_Inc.:_A_Comment_on_Certain_Points_Where_Cybernetics_Impinges_on_Religion