Monthly Archives: December 2012

Self-Defense Is a Weird Argument for Owning a Gun

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In this dialogue between Ta-Nehisi Coates (take away all the guns!) and Jeffrey Goldberg (give everybody a gun!), much of the argument hinges on this hypothetical:

let me ask the Augustinian question: Let’s say you’re in the mall with me, or another friend, and a psychopathic shooter is approaching us, AR-15 in hand. In this situation, my life is at stake, as well as yours. I’ll ask the question again: Would you want a gun in hand to help keep us alive, and to keep the strangers around you — each one a human being created in the image of God (I know you lean atheist, but you get my point) — alive as well?

We’ll get to the other questions later, but this is important: In the situation I just described above, would you rather have a gun, or rather not?

I know NRA types think that when you say ‘I would rather have a gun’ in this scenario, they’ve won the argument. But I don’t think they actually know what argument they’re making.

It’s a bit like someone asking you ‘If you were to stumble upon a black cobra, would you rather have a mongoose with you, or not?’

I would like to have a mongoose with me in that situation (and many others, obviously). But what is that an argument for? That I should own a mongoose? That everyone should?

Personally, I would rather live in a society that minimizes black cobra attacks than one where I am required to take care of a vicious rodent to survive. Just seems more efficient that way.

I can’t think of other political arguments where  an extreme, once-per-lifetime scenario is used to justify everyday behavior. ‘If an air conditioning unit fell out of a sixth-floor window and was hurtling toward you, would you rather have a steel parasol, or not?’ 

If I was in the mall and a dude was marching toward me with an AK-47, sure, I might want one of my own. But so what? If he was driving toward me in a tank, I might want one of my own. If he was flying toward me in an F-16 I’d probably want one of those too. These scenarios all equally irrelevant. The real question is, do I want a lethal object in my home, in my bedroom, on my hip every single day on the off chance that such a situation might occur?

We’re all used to this argument in America because the NRA talks loud and carries a big stick. But the ‘more guns’ people aren’t interested in keeping you safe, they just want to feed the cobras.

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Filed under America, Serious

The Best Longreads of 2012

Originally posted at Longreads.com

I read news when I want to be entertained. I read features when I want to learn something. Here’s nine articles I read this year that changed the way I look at the world, and made me wonder how I seem when it looks back.

“Diary of a Mad Fact-Checker,” James Pogue, Oxford American

It’s been a bad year for truth. From Mike Daisey and Jonah Lehrer to Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney, 2012 felt like a yearlong debate about the role of exaggeration, hyperbole, fact-checking and outright fabrication in the pursuit of an argument. Pogue’s piece, a kind of letter from the extreme-pedant end of the spectrum, illustrates how fidelity to facts can obscure the truth, and how embellishment can reveal it.

“Lost in Space,” Mike Albo, Narrative.ly

Maybe I only feel like I learned something from this essay because I’m in essentially the same position as Albo. I’ve been single for almost 10 years, and I’m realizing that that if I had applied all the hours I’ve wasted on the promiscu-net to something useful, I could have knitted a quilt, learned French, mastered Othello and read all of Wikipedia by now.

If our society has learned anything from the first 20 years of internet access, it’s that looking for what you want isn’t always the best way to get it, and that getting it is a great way to stop wanting it. Albo’s essay couldn’t have been written by any gay man in America because they’re not as good at writing as he is, but I get the feeling it’s been lived by most of them.

“The Innocent Man,” Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly

and

“The Caging Of America,” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

OK, so it’s not exactly earth-shattering news that America’s prison system is problematic and that “Texas justice” is an oxymoron. But this year brought a new impetus for action, partly due to new numbers (the widely reported stat that 1% of America’s population is incarcerated), legislative action (Obama’s plan to combat prison rape, scorchingly reported in the New York Review of Books) and, qualitatively but no less essentially, longform pieces like Gopnik’s and Colloff’s.

People are always quoting the MLK-via-Obama line “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” and articles like these—one a macro view of the problem, one micro—is what that bend looks like.

“Does Mitt Romney Have a Soul?” Wells Tower, GQ

It’s easy now to forget that this was an election year, and that we spent basically all of it squabbling, speculating and pontificating about its outcome, which we now say we knew all along.

Most election reporting is disposable, either gaffe play-by-plays (“Binders Full of Women: Interactive Timeline”), instantly obsolete hypotheticals (What if Romney picks Christie for VP?) or politically orchestrated profiles (“Obama’s audacious plan to save the middle class from Libyan airstrikes”). If you remember these articles past ctrl+w, it’s only until events catch up, and then they poof out of your consciousness forever.

Towers’s Romney profile is one of the few still worth reading after the election. Nominally a standard “let’s hang out in the campaign bus!” piece, it transcends its premise by capturing the conflicting forces tugging at the hem of the Republican party, and how Romney’s sheer empty-vesselness managed to please, and displease, everyone at once.

“Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation,” Max Fisher, The Atlantic

Maybe it’s just the ubiquity of its subject, now the most-viewed-ever video on YouTube, but no article stuck with me this year quite like Fisher’s. In a culture that strains to call itself postracial, sharing “Gangnam Style” on Twitter and Facebook was a safe, quiet way to shout ‘look how weird Koreans are!’ and invite your friends to gawk alongside you.

According to Fisher, “Gangnam” isn’t an expression of Korean culture, but a satire of it. Psy was saying the same thing we spectators were, only in a visual language (and, obviously, a verbal one) we couldn’t understand. He was laughing at his culture too, he just had no idea how easy it was to get the rest of the world to join him.

“The Truck Stop Killer,” Vanessa Veselka, GQ

It’s all in the execution, they say, and nothing demonstrated that this year better than Veselka’s harrowing investigation into whether the guy who kidnapped and then released her on the side of the road in 1985 was a serial killer.

She never finds the answer to her question. But who cares! It’s a great piece, super interesting, suspenseful, creepy, introspective in all the right places. We all know that compelling stories don’t always need happy endings. In this case, it doesn’t need one at all.

“The Bloody Patent Battle Over A Healing Machine,” Ken Otterbourg, Fortune

and

“How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,” Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, New York Times

I admit it: I have no idea how the international economy works. I used to feel about this the way I feel about not being able to describe asexual reproduction, or the Spanish Civil War, or how to grow tomatoes. I can see why somebody’s got to do it, I just can’t see why it’s got to be me.

Since the 2008 crash, though, knowledge of economics has gone from nice to have to can’t miss, and things like competitiveness, productivity and efficiency have taken a place in politics previously reserved for life-and-deathers like sports doping and the Ground Zero Mosque.

Patent trolling and outsourced manufacturing aren’t the only issues facing the US economy, of course, but both these articles demonstrate how businesses, governments and consumers have made the wrong thing too easy, and how the hard thing might not be the way back.

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tl;dw: Movies I Couldn’t Be Bothered to Finish in 2012

The best thing about streaming movies is that there’s no sunk costs. I don’t have to sit there and suffer through another sequel, another superhero, another indie misanthrope just to justify the $8 I’ve already spent. Ever since I started watching movies on my laptop, I start more than I used to, but my completion rate is down to like 50 percent. Now that I have a smartphone, a second screen to distract me, it’s pushing 25.

Anyway, here’s 12 movies I watched this year that failed to be more interesting than whatever I found an alt+tab away.

  • John Carter: After watching this for 20 minutes I stopped to do an image search for ‘taylor kitsch rippling shirtless’ and never unpaused.
  • We Bought a Zoo: So the title’s not a metaphor? It’s, like, the actual premise for the movie? Oh yeah fuck this.
  • Friends With Kids: We know you’re a playwright, OK, now can every line of dialogue stop telling us that?
  • The Hunger Games: I told everyone I know, like ‘It may not be High Art, but it’s a genuine cultural phenomenon, we have the obligation to see it.’ Like all intellectual pledges I made this year, this required a longer attention span than I possess, and I turned it off to read articles about it 25 minutes in.
  • We Need to Talk about Kevin: After Tilda’s third metaphor-rich juxtaposition with her environment, I figured my time would be better spent experiencing mine.
  • Your Sister’s Sister: I made it like 90 minutes in, and I was all proud of myself for concentrating on nutritious, prestigious Cinema, then the third-act twist was so bonkers and implausible that I shut down my Macbook and set it on fire.
  • Shut Up and Play the Hits: Love this movie and love this band so much that I turned it off to go dancing at Berghain after 25 minutes.
  • Shame: If I wanted to watch hot guys go jogging, I’d go hang out in Tiergarten. Oh wait, that would be more interesting than this, seeya.
  • This Means War: Five minutes went by before my middle school social studies teacher, in my head, went ‘Is this how you want to live your life?’ and I returned to watching cooking videos on YouTube.
  • Brave: This hurts. Pixar’s been good to us, as a society, and we owe it our attention and our allegiance. Still, halfway in, I wasn’t seeing anything I haven’t seen before. Sorry little hopping lamp, I let you down on this one.
  • Twilight: Is this a TV movie? Why does everyone look like they have the flu?
  • The Campaign: I love it when dick-joke comedies spend the last 30 minutes trying to convince me of the wrongness of their villains’ political opinions.    

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The Best Headphone Songs of 2012

I don’t know if everyone else is like this, but for me, music has gone from something social to something solitary. I listen to music when I work, when I walk, when I bike, when I read, when I write. Almost the only time I don’t listen to music is when I’m with other people, and if I do, it’s something backgroundey and ignorable.

This has created this weird dynamic where the more important a song is to me, the less I want to share it. When I was younger, all of my social activities had soundtracks. Now, they have footnotes. And what I hear on the way there and back feels like mine rather than ours.

I don’t know if this is an actual trend or just feels like one because it’s happening to me. I don’t really care. These songs are how I spent most of my nonsocial time in 2012. Don’t tell anyone I know!

 
Ekki Mukk - Sigur Ros

Why listen to the mindless clacking around you at work when you can listen to a twinkling drone and soprano vowels instead?

 

Express Yourself – Diplo

Because sometimes you just want to listen to something that sounds like a homeless person shouting at a fax machine.

 
Anything Could Happen – Ellie Goulding

Try to listen to this song without tweeting something optimistic, just try.

 
Lots - Dan Deacon

No matter what you’re doing, this makes you feel like you’re jogging up a mountain to an orgy.

 
Four Seasons - Max Richter

I crave this album whenever I’m walking around London because it makes me feel condescending and imperial.

 
Dangerous and Sound - Tingo

I refuse to believe indie artists are making albums without rap mashups in mind

 
& It Was U – How to Dress Well

This makes me wish I dated ladies, just so I could clench my fists when they left

 
Bad Girls – M.I.A.

Listening to this in public will turn your walk into a swagger, I promise.

 
Four Walls - Burial & Massive Attack

You can tell this song is dark and profound because it is longer than your commute to work.

 
Third of the Storms – Mike Simonetti

This shit is so catchy you’re amazed it isn’t a cover of a Sesame Street song.

 
Ms Jackson (Jean Tonique Remix) – Outkast

Can we keep remixing our favorite songs from the ’90s, to keep reliving our teenage years forever? No seriously, can we?

 
Grimes – Oblivion

Every single hipster who biked past you on a fixie this year was listening to this song.

 
Bang – Rye Rye

You know that anxiety, when you’re late for something you don’t even want to go to? Now that feeling exists in musical form!

 
Wrath of God – Crystal Castles

This will not only drown out your surroundings, but also your feelings.

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In Continent: Pictures of Europe’s Boringest Cities

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For the last two weeks I was on an epic work trip.

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To Geneva, Brussels, London and The Hague. This is the ceiling of the UN!

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You know that movie that you liked when you were a kid, and you watch it now, and it sucks, and it makes you hate it, and it makes you hate your younger self for ever liking it? That’s exactly how I feel about Geneva.

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Look how obnoxiously beautiful it is, the whole country is an elaborate commercial for LL Bean.

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Even the statues are look passive-aggressive, like, ‘oh you only have one watch?’

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Next up: Brussels! The only people who hate it more than the tourists are the people who live there.

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The city’s neighborhoods are either dioramas for tourists or slums, nothing in between. Walking long distances is like going from Narnia into Mordor.

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Hoping Belgium had more to offer, I took a daytrip to Gent, which is Flemish for disappointment. I ate canal fish and waited for the rain to stop. The local residents have been doing little else for 600 years.

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I did go to a great art museum, though, where I got shouted at for taking pictures of a quotidian machine and a projected image.

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I have no idea what these signs mean.

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Did I mention that I’m a 30-year-old man?

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Later that week, I went to a meeting at the European parliament. The wallpaper symbolizes how you can all be the same color, yet still not mix.

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This building is only two stories tall, I’m just that short.

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Europeans have to color their cities to make you forget how little alcohol is in that hot wine.

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London is only photogenic twice a year. The queen alerts all her subjects by text message.

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Here’s some graffiti that I thought looked kind of like me. Especially the buildings coming out of the face. 

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The Shard was just completed, but it’s being torn down next year because it makes it harder for the pigeons to see St. Paul’s.

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Two weeks later, I’m back in Berlin, same as I left it: Cold, grey and covered in cocaine. Thank God. 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Berlin, Personal, Pictures, Travel, United Kingdom

Literary Playlist: ‘The nameless sorrow one must feel when one exits the club realizing none of those breasts were for you’

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I’ve been traveling for work this week, which means I finally had a chance to catch up on all my queued-up Instapapery.

  • This is the shortest of the bunch, a plea for an integrated approach to HIV in the African-American community.
  • Here’s a copy editor talking about how being professionally correct can ruin the experience of reading. When I was a copy editor, I used to tell people it was like being a bouncer at a strip club.
  • In the same vein, here’s a fact-checker talking about how, just because your facts are correct doesn’t mean you’ve said something true: ‘Essayistic truth is both factual and beyond simple assemblages of facts.’
  • I discovered this Wells Tower guy last week through his Romney takedown, and I’ve been plowing through his other work—sellin’ weed! Hangin’ out with porn stars!—nonstop since.
  • My friend Paloma wrote a great article about our shared professional subject.
  • Here’s a fascinating primer on why it’s so hard to fight diseases on a grand scale these days.
  • Speaking of health, here’s the life story of a very specific, very lucrative medical device and, somewhere in between, a description of why the US healthcare sector is so dysfunctional.
  • I’m hella gonna read this book about why people in totalitarian states don’t resist them.
  • The history of Kraft Mac & Cheese!
  • A profile of the guy who ‘made’ Justin Bieber. It’s a good article and everything, but considering that every other pop act ever has sued their manager, I’m afraid we’re gonna look back in 10 years and see this as a kind of ‘before we really knew’ article.
  • This piece on a Las Vegas megaclub had me alternating between ‘god it’s dire!’ and ‘I want in!’ This may have been intentional on the part of the author.

So anyway, not all of these are perfect, but they are, I can assure you, demonstrably more entertaining than Brussels and The Hague.

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Happiness is Irrelevant

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Claude S. Fischer’s terrific article about happiness research in the Boston Review:

What do we know about happiness? We know that people’s reports of immediate joy and misery fluctuate from activity to activity—sex is an upper; commuting is a downer—and often diverge notably from the summary answers they give to questions about their happiness “these days.” We also know that subjective well-being can be complex. People can be happy about work and sad about love; the latter usually matters more. The opposite of happiness, research suggests, is not necessarily despair, but rather apathy; some people just don’t feel much of anything.

Nonetheless, people who say they are generally happy tend to be economically secure, married, healthy, religious, and busy with friends; they tend to live in affluent, democratic, individualistic societies with activist, welfare-state governments. The connection between reporting happiness and personal traits often runs both ways. For example, being healthy adds to happiness, and happy people also stay healthier.

Human rights organizations debate these issues endlessly. What is development? If ‘happiness’ increases in Somalia, but access to drinkable water and primary education don’t, have we really achieved anything?

After doing this for eight years I’m convinced that happiness is too murky and conditional a concept to be measured. It’s like quantifying ‘grooviness’, or Gross National Awesome. Happiness is meaningless outside of a specific context—short-term, long-term, past, future, work, family. It’s liquid, it takes the shape of whatever container you put it in.

Imagine trying to measure its antithesis, something like frustration. We all want less frustration in our lives. But the things that cause frustration are so infinite, and so specific, that we can’t say anything about the feeling without them. Trying to measure or reduce frustration for a million people—or, hell, even two—at once is like trying to build a house with no nails. The means are so important, the end won’t exist without them.

All we really know about happiness is that everyone definitely wants it, and everyone probably deserves it. I’ll stay interested in the measurable stuff—corruption, public services, livelihoods—and leave happiness to the economists and self-helpers. Either that, or I could just work on cutting everybody’s commute times.

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