Personal Responsibility

18 12 2008

Whatever happened to personal responsibility?

A few days ago, a co-worker happened to mention an accident involving Plaxico Burress. Intrigued, I asked what she meant. I was then treated to a little speech about the “accident” where Burress managed to shoot himself in the leg at a nightclub in New York City.

The word “accident” implies that the person involved had no means of preventing the incident. This word gets used a lot, generally to imply that someone who suffered some sort of misadventure was not really at fault. “It was an accident.”

Let us look at the circumstances of this particular “accident”. I am sure that Burress did not intend to shoot himself in the leg, but the resulting injury and criminal charges are entirely his fault. He made the decision to purchase a firearm in Florida. He then chose to take the firearm from Florida to New York City, which is a violation of NYC statutes (even if Burress didn’t know that, ignorance of the law is not a valid defense). He deliberately stuffed a locked-and-loaded pistol into the waistband of his sweatpants (carrying a concealed firearm without a permit is illegal almost everywhere) and took it to a nightclub (which is illegal in many states- including New York). He chose to consume alcohol at this club, when any moron of average intelligence could tell you it is a bad idea to mix booze and guns.

Because Plaxico Burress made a series of bad decisions (carrying an unlicensed concealed weapon in NYC, carrying the loaded weapon stuffed in the waistband of his sweatpants, drinking and dancing with a locked-and-loaded weapon in the waistband of his sweatpants), his stupidity caught up with him and punched a hole through his leg. He was stupid, and is paying the price for stupidity. No accident involved.

I have a concealed weapons permit. I sometimes carry my weapon when I go out in town. I never touch alcohol when I’m wearing, using, or working on any weapon, because that would be stupid. I always carry my weapon securely strapped into a holster. I don’t carry my weapon anywhere it would be illegal to do so. I don’t carry my weapon unless I have a reasonable suspicion that I might need it. I never carry a weapon when it would be more likely to get me into trouble than it would be likely to get me out of trouble. I always treat my weapon with respect and care, and I always remember the responsibility inherent in the right to keep and bear arms.

Maybe the difference is a matter of money. Plaxico Burress is a wealthy man. He has had a remarkable, marketable talent, which earned him a great deal of wealth and fame. He earned that wealth because he was good at what he did, and people were willing to pay him to do it. More power to him. But he seems to have developed the idea that his wealth and fame made him immune to the effects of reality. The cultural medium in which we live does promote the idea that money trumps everything.

Plaxico Burress is (hopefully) just now realizing that the Law of Averages trumps money. I hope he learns something from it. I hope other people learn from his mistake. Check out this series of Tank McNamara comics.

Of course, Plaxico Burress is not the only wealthy person to assume money and fame would shield them from the consequences of their actions.  This story from the Houston Chronicle shows that attractive white girls have the same wrong idea.

And we’re back to my original questions: What happened to personal responsibility? Taking responsibility for your actions lets you learn from your mistakes. Unfortunately, everything we see in print, on TV, or online tells us that nothing is our fault. Everything that happens to us is entirely beyond our control, and is usually fodder for expensive litigation. In the 80’s, for example, a few people managed to hit the wrong pedal in their cars and accelerated instead of braking. This led to a whole series of lawsuits against various car makers (especially Audi), because the drivers of those vehicles refused to admit responsibility for their actions.

What the Hell is wrong with these people? Everything that happens to you is the direct result of some decision you have made. Every choice you have made has led you to where you are right now. Choice. If you want to know whose fault it is that you’re not a multimillionaire, look in the mirror. Some circumstances can be beyond your control, but how you react to those circumstances is your responsibility. You made the decisions. Choosing not to make a decision is also a decision, so you can’t escape your responsibility that way.

I made a stupid mistake five years ago. As a result of this mistake, I am in pain every day of my life. I used to run three miles a day. Now, I can barely walk. This was my fault. I stopped paying attention for a few minutes and screwed up the rest of my life. Worse still, I wasn’t the only one affected. My command had to find an emergency replacement for me. My wife has had to make some serious changes to our lifestyle and finances. The big difference between me and those people who blame everyone but themselves is that I accepted responsibility for my “accident”, and did what I could with my remaining assets.

I refuse to believe that I’m special for doing this. Anyone can do it- all it takes is accepting personal responsibility. Pity that so few Americans seem to be willing to do anything of the sort. Especially those with money, fame, or power.

Current status: Irked

Current music: Coffee Song by Frank Sinatra

Get Over It!

10 12 2008

After the 2000 election, many Democrats started lamenting the decline of democracy in America and asserting, “He isn’t my President!” Republicans largely ignored this as typical post-election bitching. Most conservatives took pains to declare that this was not a useful attitude, and urged the sore losers (as they called them) to deal with the loss and work on the next election. To their credit, most Democrats did just that.  A modest number of liberal Americans continued to grouse and complain at great and annoying length- especially on the internet. After a couple of years of this nonsense, conservatives got tired of hearing it and told the whiners to “get over it”. Conservatives asserted that they would not be so petty if the election had gone the other way. After the 2004 election, liberal whining continued unabated, prompting renewed calls from conservatives to get over it. Conservatives again declared that they would not indulge in this sort of whining nonsense if they were the group out of power.

Time to live up to the promises made when you were flushed with victory and smugly certain that you’d never be put in such a position, conservatives. As of tomorrow, Barack Obama will almost certainly be the official President-Elect. It is vaguely possible that the Electoral College will ignore the popular vote and choose someone else to be President- but it is a vanishingly unlikely possibility.  It is now time for conservatives to make good on their boasts about how they would deal with electoral defeat. After the Electoral College finishes voting tomorrow, I demand that every prominent conservative loudly and publicly congratulate the new President-Elect and announce their willingness to work with the new administration in the best interest of the country. Anything else would demonstrate self-serving hypocrisy.

Fortunately, my expectations are safely low when it comes to political activity. The Aluminum-Foil Deflector Beanie™ crowd has members throughout the political landscape. One need only look at the nonsense being brought before the Supreme Court recently (tip o’ the hat to Deus Ex Malcontent for the link). Take a good look at the folks described (and quoted) in that article. If you are a conservative, you should immediately and forcefully denounce these wingnuts forthwith- possibly even fifthwith. These people are bat-shit insane. If conservatives do not wish to be lumped together with this sort of conspicuous ass-hattery, they need to act publicly to distance themselves from these kooks. Aside from the utterly specious claim that Obama is not an American (completely debunked by reliable sources), these wingnuts also claim that he is a Muslim. My reply to this last is, “So?

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not vote for Obama. I wrote in Joseph Worzlebacher and Jon Stewart. My politics are generally socially liberal and fiscally conservative, so I’m not fond of Obama’s legislative record and dislike many of his stated policy goals. My opinion (or anybody else’s) on the subject of his fitness to be President is moot- the Electoral College will make the final decision tomorrow.

For those of you who are dithering incoherently about the possible perfidies of an Obama administration, please remember that the President does not run the country. The President of the United States has sharply limited powers granted by the Constitution. The really dangerous powers are vested in the House of Representatives and (to a lesser extent) the Senate. Members of the House only serve for two-year terms. The Founders set it up that way on purpose, so the People would have greater control over their country.

Of course, the AFDB-clad members of the Republican party are unlikely to be swayed by facts or logic. To those people I say, “Get over it!

Current status: Annoyed

Current music: Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull

Unintended Consequences

1 12 2008

There used to be a very good show on BBC called Connections. I highly recommend this series (actually three separate seasons) for anyone curious about how things happened in just the way they happened. In one episode, James Burke (the host) explained how an Indian prince suffering from a headache in the 8th Century led more-or-less directly to the US space program. Fascinating stuff- especially if you’re interested in the unintended consequences of various actions and/or inactions.

For example, Henry the VIIIth of England was tired of his wife, which has led more-or-less directly to the real possibility of a nuclear war in south Asia. Bear with me, here. I’m not nearly as good at this as James Burke, and I don’t have a BBC research team backing me up. I’m operating solely on remembered history, some fast Google searches, and a healthy dose of W.A.G.s (Wild-Ass Guesses).

Let us begin, Hank the 8th was tired of the lovely young thing he’d married, and wanted to bed a different lovely young thing. Since he was officially a Catholic, he couldn’t get a divorce. Since he was King, he figured he ought to be able to get rid of the wife and marry the new girl, so he drop-kicked the Catholic church and started the Church of England (basically the same except for that pesky no-divorce thingie). Unfortunately, England was now a Protestant country at a time when the superpowers of the era were very cognizant of the political benefits of being on the Pope’s side. When the Pope excommunicated Henry, the King of Spain was all too willing to enhance his public perception of piety by doing his best to undermine the English monarchy.

As a result of this long-term enmity between England and the Catholic monarchs of Europe, England was cut off from a lot of raw materials and manufactured goods from the Continent- and later from the Americas. The Brits did what they could by fighting the odd war at sea, making fast voyages to Protestant ports in Europe, and generally learning how to build and maintain a recognizably modern Navy (a wonderful asset for any island nation). When the Spanish and French tried to keep England out of the treasure troves of MesoAmerica, the English turned to piracy (improving their nautical abilities) and colonizing marginal areas in the Caribbean and in North America (giving them strongholds, supply ports, raw materials, and someplace to plant surplus population).

This simultaneous expansion of naval capabilities and overseas territories led England into multiple conflicts with the European powers. When the MesoAmerican plunder-fest finally died out with the last of the easily-accessible Incan and Aztec gold, the three major European powers (England, France, and Spain) found themselves increasingly locking horns over North American territories. Defeating near-equal military powers is expensive, so England started increasing the taxes on their North American colonists. When those colonists complained that they were getting excluded from the political process used to raise or lower taxes, England decided to spank their impudent behinds to remind them that mama knows best.

The colonists were understandably miffed, and foolishly decided to rebel against the most powerful nation on Earth at that time- hoping mainly to stay alive long enough to coax at least one other European power into the fight on their side. Luckily for the colonists, the French decided to play, and England lost their biggest and most prosperous overseas colony. Even handily spanking the fledgling country in another war two decades later couldn’t bring the Americans back into the fold, so the English and Americans eventually started doing business together. The British still had extensive colonies elsewhere overseas, and managed to hang onto many of them- partly as a result of lessons learned during the American affairs.

A century later, the new country even joined their British cousins and French former allies in a massive cluster-fuck of a war in mainland Europe. This was so successful that they decided to do it again thirty years later. By this time, the British Empire was huge- stretching across half the planet and including a significant percentage of the world’s population. One of the jewels in the British crown was India. Another was the area we now call the Middle East.

After WWII, Britain started to slowly divest itself of its various colonies. The vast tribal areas of the Middle East were divided into a patchwork of “nations” based on almost no ground research, a great deal of wishful thinking, and a modest amount of biblical misinformation. Thus the arbitrary lines on maps in Europe divided tribes and clans in Arabia, and their rulers were all propped up by British guns- so long as the rulers behaved themselves. Worse still, those arbitrary lines on the maps left clans and tribes which had been historical enemies in the new “nations”.

India managed to convince the British that trying to hold such a large country with the few thousand (at best) troops available was a losing proposition, and became their own country. The British managed one last attempt at guiding the future of the sub-continent by spinning off the easternmost and westernmost provinces into independent nations, using the high-quality decision-making processes that worked so well in the Middle East. Thus were Pakistan and Bangladesh created.

India had a huge population which was deeply stratified along caste and religious lines. The well-thought-out British partition of the sub-continent left millions of Muslims in the predominantly Hindu nation of India (and thousands of Hindus in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation of Pakistan.) Indian society (and human nature) being what it was, these minority groups immediately suffered the fate of most minority groups throughout history. Violence escalating to war was the result. Repeatedly.

In the Middle East, things were going beautifully. Everything was puppies and rainbows and unicorns. Wherever the population was overwhelmingly Muslim, sectarian violence flared up. Wherever large non-Muslim minority groups were present, the infidels often suffered from pogroms and violence. The only preventive measure against large-scale ethnic cleansing was the existence (or creation) of powerful dictators, who would keep order through overt military might. The presence of vast reserves of petroleum under the area drew the new power-brokers to the regional and sectarian conflicts. In the typically benevolent manner of such interactions, the two superpowers made things worse by adding ideological reasons for violence and hatred.

After a few decades of coups, revolutions, wars, counter-coups, counter-revolutions, and more wars, one of the superpowers went home to nurse their wounds while the other started strutting about the planet like we owned the place. The fact that there was no longer a realistic military counter to American power made the covert and overt meddling in everyone’s business even more galling. Everybody started disliking American policy- not just American citizens and the French.

Mix loads of oil-created wealth in historically unstable nation-states created whole cloth from the remnants of the British Empire with swaggering American boorishness. Add in a healthy dose of longing for the mythical “good old days” of the Caliphate and several liberal helpings of Superpower guilt. Cook vigorously for years in a stew of extreme poverty, deliberate ignorance, and despotic ruthlessness. Sprinkle with plenty of religious whackjobs. Et voila! A feast of knives ensues.

The loons who planned and committed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hoping that the resulting American counterstrike would cause the Islamic world to rise up against American domination and return to the purity and glory of the early Islamic world, but with AK-47s and (hopefully) nuclear weapons. Instead of vaporizing Riyadh, Mecca, and Medina, however, the US struck first at the home bases of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Since Al Qaeda was allied with the fundamentalist ass-hats who ruled Afghanistan, they had to go. The US overtly aided the Taliban’s enemies with air power and special forces teams. With that kind of backing, the Northern Alliance eventually drove the Taliban (and their Al Qaeda allies) out of Afghanistan.

Into Pakistan.

Like the arbitrary and artificial “nations” created by the British in the Middle East, Pakistan was a hodge-podge of tribes and clans and long histories of mutual antipathy. Parts of Pakistan were not even nominally under the control of Pakistan’s “government”. Pakistan’s military was only nominally under the control of the government- and often it was the other way around. The Pakistani military was legitimately obsessed with the threat from India, and the military intelligence services had a history of using religious fundamentalist whackjobs to carry out proxy wars with India to help even out the conventional military disparity between the two rivals.

The Americans told Pakistan that they could either join in the Global War on Terror or the US would immediately and totally support India against Pakistan. Joining the GWOT would get Pakistan some international street cred (something the military dictatorship in power needed desperately), access to US military intelligence assets, and wads of US dollars. The Americans would even put pressure on India to warm relations with Pakistan, allowing the Pakistani military to devote time and assets to dealing with the obstreperous hill folk in the so-called “tribal areas”.  Giving aid and comfort to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, on the other hand, would earn Pakistan a sky full of hostile aircraft loaded with precision weaponry.

Unwillingly, and with plenty of private caveats, reservations, and dark thoughts, Pakistan agreed to join the GWOT. This proved to be a serious mistake for the military dictatorship, since American public opinion loathes dictatorships. Political pressure in the US caused the State Department and the White House to put increasing pressure on Pakistan’s ruler to open up his political processes. Dictatorships rarely last once the dictator stops applying the lash, and Pakistan was no different. Out with the latest in a long line of military overlords and in with a weak (but more-or-less democratically-elected) civilian government which was automatically at odds with the military and intelligence organizations. These groups chafed under US pressures to handle the increasingly-violent tribal areas and were in no mood to help the civilian government out with a Muslim population also unhappy with infidel troops occasionally raiding across the border from Afghanistan in pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

With all of this nonsense going on, a lot of Pakistani militant groups got to thinking about ways to further reduce the military pressure from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that starting a new face-off with India would do the job nicely. The last time an Islamic terror group from Pakistan had operated in India, a six-month bout of troop maneuvers and other saber-rattling had ensued, diverting Pakistani military attention away from the Tribal areas and toward the Indian border. So a group of local nutjobs trained hard for a few months while gathering intelligence on politically-worthwhile targets inside India, then they viciously and publicly murdered a couple of hundred people in Mumbai this past weekend. To make damned sure the blame would land on Pakistan, these terrorists broke most of the counter-intelligence rules and left obvious clues behind everywhere they went- such as a satellite phone with lots of calls to known Kashmir- based terrorist groups.

Now, public opinion in India is demanding an energetic response from their government. The US is trying very hard to keep the two nuclear-armed countries from going for each others’ throats, and so are the civilian governments of both India and Pakistan. If another blatant Pakistan-based terrorist attack occurs in the near future, India’s government might be forced to respond militarily- such as by mobilizing reserves and moving troops to the Pakistani border. Pakistan would be forced to respond in kind. A few more atrocities by hot-heads on either side of the border could easily precipitate a shooting war. India could crush Pakistan in a conventional fight, and both countries know it. Pakistan could very easily end up using nuclear weapons to defeat India’s vastly superior conventional military. This could very easily result in a full-scale nuclear exchange. Here’s an excellent article on the probabilities and possible consequences.

A bit long-winded, full of plausible historical notions and some guesswork on my part (along with a great many egregious shortcuts with history), but that is why Henry VIIIth’s inability to keep his codpiece at home could lead to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

Current status: Exhausted

Current music: War Pigs by Black Sabbath