Tuesday, January 29, 2013

True Bravery

Pixar's 2012 film Brave (the likely winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Film) took a more traditional Disney approach to storytelling with yet another strong (feminist?) heroine at the center.[1] The film depicts the young Scottish princess Merida as adventurous, yet stubborn. She rejects the tradition that attempts to betroth her to her father's allied clans and openly defies it by not only competing against, but besting her suitors in an archery competition. Having previously warned Merida of the potential danger of her rebellious actions (by means of legend about a prince who brought destruction upon his own kingdom), Queen Elinor angrily confronts her daughter. In defiance, Merida wields her sword and tears the family tapestry that her mother had dedicated painstaking time and effort to weave. In retaliation, Elinor tosses Merida's bow in the fire. As one insightful commentator notes, "Both women have now destroyed what is most precious to the other. The bow symbolized youthful strength and independence, while the tapestry embodied the elegant embroideries of family and tradition."

In anguish, Merida flees and comes across the supernatural will-o'-the-wisps. Believing they will lead her to her destiny, Merida follows them and is brought to an old, wood-carving witch. In her confused and selfish state, Merida seeks a spell to change her mother. Stooping to trickery, Merida has Elinor eat the spell-induced cake provided by the witch. To both of their surprise, the cake literally changes her mother into a great black bear. They soon learn that the spell will be permanent upon the second sunrise unless they can "look inside and mend the bond torn by pride." They eventually decide that this refers to the wounded tapestry and, after several close encounters (and more bear transformations on the part of Merida's brothers), the tapestry is sewn. However, it becomes apparent is that it is the mending of their family bond that is required. The two are reconciled, healed (literally in the case of the queen and brothers), and the family is made at-one once more.

What is worth noting about Brave is that the entire story is set in motion by poor decisions largely on the part of Merida. She is certainly not evil. Far from it. Yet, her choices early on are selfish, hurtful, and short-sighted. There is a broader context of family and traditional pressures that seem to fuel her angst, yet ultimately her decisions are her's alone. With the will-o'-the-wisps supposedly leading characters to their fate, it is easy to interpret all actions (good or evil) as part of a predetermined cosmic plan. Yet, it should be remembered that Merida could have ignored the tempting glow of these entities and returned to make peace with her mother. She could have explained why she opposed the traditional mode of betrothal. It is quite possible that the decision to break tradition could have been reached through loving dialogue and discussion. Through this approach they could have achieved results similar to that of the bear fiasco. But we'll never know because this did not happen. Instead, improper choices were made and, consequently, the two struggled through much pain and suffering. What is important, however, is that they emerged triumphant on the other side. Despite evil and chaos, the two were able to make good. Not only make it, but become it.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep (Gen. 1:2).

This is the first inkling of creation: a formless, dark emptiness. The Book of Abraham describes it as "empty and desolate;" a place in which "darkness reigned" (Abr. 4:2). The temple ceremony calls it "matter unorganized": utter chaos. In other creation myths of the ancient Near East, order was brought about by the gods triumphing over the primeval forces of chaos. Similar themes of this older narrative can be found in the Psalms (along with the New Year Enthronement Festival they seem to suggest) and the Exodus. Once the struggle and effort is completed, God sees His creation as "good" (Gen. 1:25). It is easy to let our modern understanding of cosmic origins muddle the actual meaning of the text. Questions over the Big Bang or human evolution focus on material origins, of which the ancients had little interest. It must be understood that "people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system...[N]ot an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture...[I]t exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society."[2] "For example, in Egypt they considered the barren wilderness as nonexistent (though it was physically there)."[3] Out of darkness and chaos, God brought about good and established what one scholar calls a "cosmic covenant...The eternal covenant was the system of bonds which established and maintained the creation, ordering and binding the forces of chaos" (see Job 38:8-10; Jeremiah 5:22; Ps. 104:9).[4] "When the statutes and laws of the eternal covenant were broken," she continues, "the fabric of the creation began to collapse and chaos set in...When the covenant was restored, the creation was renewed and returned to its original condition of salom [peace] and sedaqah/dikaiosune [righteousness]..."[5] This imagery is fitting and the concepts can be seen in Brave: the rebelliousness of Merida not only literally tore the fabric of her family tapestry, but the threads of family bonds. This wound also had the potential to tear her kingdom's alliances apart, as similar events had done to that of Mor'du the demon bear. 

In a finding pertinent to Brave, anthropologist Mary Douglas concludes that "atonement" in Leviticus "means to cover or recover, cover again, to repair a hole, cure a sickness, mend a rift, make good a torn or broken covering. As a noun, [it means] integument made good...Atonement does not mean covering a sin so as to hide it from the sight of God; it means making good an outer layer which has rotted or been pierced."[6] In the midst of the consequences brought on by her selfish acts, Merida discovers a surge of selflessness; a true maturation that takes her from a teenage girl to responsible, loving adult. As she reminds the fighting clans,

The story of this kingdom is a powerful one...It was an alliance forged in bravery and friendship and it lives to this day. But I've been selfish. I tore a great rift in our kingdom...And I know now that I need to mend my mistake and mend our bond...I've decided to do what's right.

But Merida does not stop at mere reconciliation. Under loving guidance, she brings a blessing to others in the form of a new marriage tradition; a tradition earnestly sought and eagerly embraced by her suitors. In essence, Merida becomes the answer to their prayers. She took the darkness that had visited them all and instead brought about something they could all describe as "good." In the end, what makes Merida brave is not her love for adventure. It is her ability to take responsibility for her previous actions, look suffering in the face, and choose to move forward to create something good out of it. Each of these choices are hard and frightening. And each one requires true bravery. As Rev. Dr. Frank Marangos of St. John's University aptly put it

In the end, we must first learn to depend on a Higher Power to help darn the flaws and fractures of our respective inner character. Only then can we aim and successfully release the reconciling arrow of forgiveness. This, indeed, is the archery that defines true bravery.

1. See Colin Stokes' excellent TED talk "How Movies Teach Manhood" on the positive influence Hollywood heroines can have.

2. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), Kindle edition. "Proposition 2: Ancient Cosmology Is Function Oriented." For example, the sun did not exist because of its "material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas" (Ibid.). It was instead understood the provider of light, warmth, and agricultural life.

3. Walton, "Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Ancient Near East: Order Out of Disorder after Chaoskampf," Calvin Theological Journal 43:1 (2008): 57 (footnote #21).

4. Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 45. The chapter "Atonement: The Rite of Healing" can be found at Barker's website.

5. Ibid.

6. Quoted in Ibid., 45-46.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Isn't She (And All She Represents) Lovely?

One of my oldest friends and his wife recently had their first child (a daughter). Some of you may remember my post a couple years ago on the world's increasing population. In celebration of yet another life, let's revisit the Simon-Ehrlich wager:

As economist Mark Perry explains,

Between early 2010 and the summer of 2011, the DJ-AIG index increased by 28.5%, partly because oil prices increased from $80 per barrel to $110, and gasoline prices increased almost 60% from $2.50 per gallon to almost $4.00.  But since the summer of 2011, the commodity index has fallen back to the same level as in early 2010, thanks probably due to falling natural gas prices, and declines in the prices of copper, nickel and aluminum.  As of January 2013, the inflation-adjusted commodity index is at about exactly the same level as January 2003, reflecting a flat price trend over the last decade. The updated chart also shows that the world population in 1934 was about 2 billion people, and we now live in a world with almost 7 billion people. Therefore, over a period that includes several generations or more, we see an overall significant downward trend in real commodity prices, despite an increase of more than 5 billion people in the world.  Overall, I still conclude that Julian Simon was more right than lucky.

With the global rise in population, we have found new ways to innovate. Increased population has been met with increased trade, increased innovation, and thus higher living standards. Science writer Matt Ridley concluded with this thought at his reception of the 2012 Julian L. Simon Memorial Award:

If [Simon] were here today...I would tell him about the new evidence from Paleolithic Tasmania, from Mesolithic Europe from the Neolithic Pacific, and from the internet today, that it’s trade and exchange that breeds innovation, through the meeting and mating of ideas...This means that stupid people are just as important as clever ones; that the collective intelligence that gives us incredible improvements in living standards depends on people’s ideas meeting and mating, more than on how many people there are. That’s why a little country like Athens or Genoa or Holland can suddenly lead the world. That’s why mobile telephony and the internet has no inventor, not even Al Gore...The great human adventure has barely begun. The greenest thing we can do is innovate. The most sustainable thing we can do is change. The only limit is knowledge. Thank you Julian Simon for these insights. And thank you for this award.

So, to my friends: Congratulations (and thanks). Let's wrap it up with the song Stevie Wonder wrote for his own daughter.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Tickets to the Gun Show

As one who does not own a firearm (nor intend to in the near future), gun control laws are something I rarely concern myself with. Yet, ever since the horrific Connecticut massacre, guns have been a hot topic (though I'm not naive enough to think it has rekindled the debate on gun control...it never died). Heated emotionalism takes place on both sides of the debate; a debate that remains largely unsettled in academia.[1] In 2004, for example, "the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 253 journal articles, 99 books and 43 government publications evaluating 80 gun-control measures." Legal scholar Robert Levy explains, "[NAS r]esearchers could not identify a single regulation that reduced violent crime, suicide or accidents. A year earlier, the Center for Disease Control reported on ammunition bans, restrictions on acquisition, waiting periods, registration, licensing, child access prevention and zero tolerance laws. CDC's conclusion: There was no conclusive evidence that the laws reduced gun violence." But as the CDC study noted, "insufficient evidence to determine effectiveness should not be interpreted as evidence of ineffectiveness" (emphasis mine). Is it possible that there may be more to gun violence than simply gun ownership or gun bans? In a recent WSJ op-ed, David Kopel of Denver University draws attention to the amount of media exposure mass killers receive and the potential for the "copycat effect." He especially notes the need to institutionalize the violently mentally ill and the decline in mental-health treatment over the years. He also demonstrates the ignorance that is often prevalent in gun control debates by pointing out that the AR-15 used by the Newtown killer and available to civilians is--despite media claims--not an assault rifle or machine gun (which have been severely restricted since the National Firearm Act of 1934): "What some people call "assault weapons" function like every other normal firearm—they fire only one bullet each time the trigger is pressed. Unlike fully automatics (machine guns), they do not fire continuously as long as the trigger is held. They are "semi-automatic" because they eject the empty shell case and load the next round into the firing chamber...[This includes] the best-selling rifle today, the AR-15, the model used in the Newtown shooting. Some of these guns look like machine guns, but they do not function like machine guns." Finally, quick-fix policies like "pretend gun-free zones" do little in promoting a competent, safe environment. As Kopel puts it, "Real gun-free zones are a wonderful idea, but they are only real if they are created by metal detectors backed up by armed guards. Pretend gun-free zones, where law-abiding adults (who pass a fingerprint-based background check and a safety training class) are still disarmed, are magnets for evildoers who know they will be able to murder at will with little threat of being fired upon."[2]

Tragedies like Newtown can make it seem as if mass shootings are happening more and more. However, the evidence shows that mass shootings are in fact not on the rise. Criminologist James Alan Fox notes that the "the immediacy and pervasiveness of media coverage...creates the impression" that mass shootings are becoming more frequent.[3] His own research has found no real increase in mass shootings since 1980. The U.S. is a rather violent country, but its violence has been in decline the past few decades (along with gun ownership, I might add) and is approaching historic lows. Harvard's Steven Pinker has written at book-length arguing for the historical decline of violence worldwide. Despite some recent claims, public support for gun control is not particularly high, with only modest change in the public's view on gun control following shootings (sometimes none at all).[4] Perhaps surprisingly, gun sales tend to go up after mass shootings, likely due to fear for one's safety or of potential oncoming restrictions. "Today, the number of concealed-carry permits is the highest it’s ever been, at 8 million, and the homicide rate is the lowest it’s been in four decades—less than half what it was 20 years ago," writes Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.[5] He further explains, "There is no proof to support the idea that concealed-carry permit holders create more violence in society than would otherwise occur; they may, in fact, reduce it. According to Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and the author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, permit holders in the U.S. commit crimes at a rate lower than that of the general population."

What about countries like Japan, which has had a rather successful prohibition of guns? Culture especially plays a major role in this situation, with America being "a gun culture since the beginning" according to Kopel.[6] "We have gun rights enshrined in our Constitution. There are now as many guns as people in the United States...Whereas the Japanese, based on experience, trust their own government to protect them from criminals at all times, Americans, also based on their own experience, do not. Self-reliance is a core virtue in America. The Newtown murders were perpetrated in one of the strictest gun control states in America, which has banned so-called “assault weapons” since 1993 and has imposed strict handgun licensing for decades before that." A "near-complete gun prohibition...is a proven success in Japan and a guaranteed failure in the United States." How does the culture (one whose traditions view suicide as noble) that allows for this type of prohibition affect other aspects of life? "The Japanese suicide rate is double that in the U.S. When you combine homicide and suicide rates, Japanese are more likely to meet a premature violent death than are Americans. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Japanese readily acceded to an aggressive and genocidal military dictatorship, partly because the government held a monopoly of force." Gun control is certainly not unknown to America's founding. "The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them," says UCLA's Adam Winkler. "While they did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution." In fact, a 1792 law (not the last "individual mandate" to be passed by the Founders) required "every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters—where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls." Many gun control laws were originated in order to oppress African-Americans, from the post-Civil War South to the Civil Rights movement. It might be worth noting that Martin Luther King, Jr. applied for a permit after the bombing of his house (he was denied and instead had armed supporters guard his home).

Much of the gun violence has other roots, including the abysmal war on drugs. Given its failure as well the failure of early 20th-century Prohibition, I highly doubt a ban on guns will fare any better.[7] However, as my friend Chris Smith recently penned on Facebook,

Addressing gun violence through gun control is like treating bronchitis with throat lozenges. There are deeper sicknesses in our society, of which gun violence is merely a symptom: endemic poverty, a plague of mental illness, a glorification of violence, a collapse of community, a lack of civic responsibility.

The problem is rooted not so much in the availability of guns as it is in the way we view guns and, even more fundamentally, the way we view each other. The Second Amendment connected gun ownership with service in a well-regulated militia. Guns were supposed to be a tool for public service, a part of one's sense of civic responsibility. Instead, they've become a toy to be used for sport or a means of protection against neighbors we've never bothered to get to know and aren't sure we can trust not to kill us.

To really address the problem of gun violence, we're going to need to change the culture of gun ownership, address mental illness before it leads to violence, and restore Americans' sense of community and duty. Some of this can be done by government...
But government can really only point us in the right direction and turn us loose. The real work of restoring America's communities has to be done by regular folks.

We have to recognize that "purely instrumental arguments lack the power to persuade because they ignore what really motivates individuals to favor or oppose gun control--namely, their cultural worldviews...For one segment of American society, guns symbolize honor, human mastery over nature, and individual self-sufficiency. By opposing gun control, individuals affirm the value of these meanings and the vision of the good society that they construct. For another segment of American society, however, guns connote something else: the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the well-being of strangers."[9] While there are certainly gun nuts who seem to embrace a love of death (according to at least one journalist), most are normal, responsible citizens (many of which are my family, friends, and co-workers).[10] Seeking to understand gun culture (as well as the opposition to it) will aid in the restoration of community that Chris rightfully longs for.

1. The following is merely a sample of the contradicting research regarding gun control and crime: John R. Lott, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); John R. Lott, Jr., "The Facts About Assault Weapons and Crime," The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 17, 2013 - update); Richard Florida, "The Geography of Gun Deaths," The Atlantic (Jan. 13, 2011); Ian Ayres, John J. Donohue III, "More Guns, Less Crime Fails Again: The Latest Evidence from 1977-2006," Econ Journal Watch 6:2 (May 2009); Don B. Kates, Gary Mauser, "Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?: A Review of International and Some Domestic Evidence," Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 30:2 (Spring 2007); Ian Ayres, John J. Donohue III, "Shooting Down the "More Guns, Less Crime" Hypothesis," Stanford Law Review 55:4 (2003); Carlisle E. Moody, John R. Lott, Jr., Thomas B. Marvell, Paul R. Zimmerman, "Trust But Verify: Lessons for Empirical Evaluation of Law and Policy," College of William & Mary Working Paper (2012); Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2009), Ch. 5-6; Gary A. Mauser, "The Failed Experiment: Gun Control and Public Safety in Canada, Australia, England and Wales," Public Policy Sources 71 (Fraser Institute, Nov. 2003); Harvard Injury Control Research Center on Homicide. Update: Draft of the new CDC report, which had some interesting finds given it was prompted by the current White House administration. See also Abhay Aneja, John J. Donohue III, Alexandria Zhang, "The Impact of Right to Carry Laws and the NRC Report: The Latest Lessons for the Empirical Evaluation of Law and Policy," Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 461 (Sept. 2014); John R. Lott, Jr., "What a Balancing Test Will Show For Right-to-Carry Laws," Maryland Law Review 71:4 (2012); Carlisle E. Moody, Thomas B. Marvell, Paul R. Zimmerman, Fasil Alemante, "The Impact of Right-to-Carry Laws on Crime: An Exercise in Replication," Review of Economics & Finance 4 (Feb. 2014); Mark Gius, "An Examination of the Effects of Concealed Weapons Laws and Assault Weapons Bans on State-Level Murder Rates," Applied Economics Letters 21:4 (2014); Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy With Evidence and Analysis, ed. Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013).

2. Notice Kopel's use of the word "evildoer." Despite discussions regarding Lanza's mental health, I'm unaware of anything solid that confirms neurological or psychological abnormalities (I do not consider social awkwardness substantial). His behavior showed planning and control and was obviously not out of touch with reality. Some have seen the media response as the "medicalisation of deviant behavior." His mother was a single mom and a doomsday prepper: two facts that could have a major impact on Lanza. Sociologist Randall Collins provides some useful information on mass rampage killers.

3. See also Grant Duwe, "A Circle of Distortion: The Social Construction of Mass Murder in the United States," Western Criminology Review 6:1 (2005); Gary Kleck, "Mass Shootings in Schools: The Worst Possible Case for Gun Control," American Behavioral Scientist 52:10 (June 2009); Nick Gillespie, "4 Awful Reactions to Sandy Hook School Shooting - And Thoughts on a Better Response," Reason.com (Dec. 15, 2012).

4. See also Derek Thompson, "Do Americans Want More or Less Gun Control? Both, Actually," The Atlantic (Dec. 14, 2012).

5. On gun owners and self-defense, see Gary Kleck, Marc Gertz, "Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun," Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 86:1 (1995); Clayton E. Cramer, David Burnett, "Tough Targets: When Criminals Face Armed Resistance From Citizens," Cato Institute White Paper (February 2, 2012). The Cato Institute also has a useful map that tracks various incidents of armed self-defense. Even though The Atlantic's James Fallows pitted the recent school knife attack in China to Newtown's shooting in order to paint a "no comparison" scenario, it may be worth looking at the multiple Chinese school attacks over the years (weapons included a knife, ax, box cutter, and cleaver) when reviewing the merits of armed self-defense. Update: A new, informative, but one-sided Salon article attacks the "Hitler gun control lie" that is often used in gun control debates. For the other side, see Stephen P. Halbrook, "Nazism, the Second Amendment, and the NRA: A Reply to Professor Harcourt," Texas Review of Law and Politics 113 (2006); David B. Kopel, "Armed Resistance to the Holocaust," Journal on Firearms and Public Policy 19 (2007). The 2008 film Defiance was about the Bielski partisans and their resistance.

6. See also David B. Kopel, "How the British Gun Control Program Precipitated the American Revolution," Charleston Law Review 6:2 (2012); Kopel, "The Religious Roots of the American Revolution and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms," Journal on Firearms and Public Policy 17 (2005).

7. See Jeffrey A. Miron, "Violence, Guns, and Drugs: A Cross-Country Analysis," Journal of Law and Economics 44:2 (Oct. 2001); Miron, "Violence and the U.S. Prohibitions of Drugs and Alcohol," American Law and Economics Review 1:1 (1999); Gary S. Becker, Kevin M. Murphy, "Have We Lost the War on Drugs?" The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 4, 2013).

8. I cannot help, but laugh at the irony of Hollywood gun control advocates who seem to miss the "glorification of violence" part. Update: Research shows that exposure to violent content in the media can increase hostile behavior, though one study argues that violent films attract would-be aggressors and thus keep them away from alcohol-fueled, violence-spurring atmospheres. Yet, if groups like the NRA want to blame the media (which, according to the University of Michigan, they have a case) perhaps they shouldn't glorify it either.

9. Donald Braman, Dan M. Kahan, "Overcoming the Fear of Guns, the Fear of Gun Control, and the Fear of Cultural Politics: Constructing a Better Gun Debate," Emory Law Journal 55:4 (2006): 570.

10. For example, see the thoughtful blog posts of neuroscientist Sam Harris and BYU biology professor Steven Peck.