Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Bully versus the Genius. Guess Who Won?

Chances are, if you're reading this blog, you are at least a bit of a computer aficionado. Chances also are, you owe a debt of gratitude to Aaron Swartz, whether you know it or not. If you benefit from an RSS feed landing in your in-box instead of having to physically visit your favorite sites to check for the latest updates, Aaron Swartz helped pioneer that technology. If you've ever used Reddit, Aaron was involved in that as well. If you have taken advantage of downloads that would have been forbidden by the Stop On-Line Piracy Act or the Protect IP Act, Swartz' Demand Progress group was instrumental in defeating that legislation.

Simply, Aaron Swartz' motivating mission was his belief that "information wants to be free" and that the more readily it flows, the better off people and societies are.

For instance, there is a government system called PACER which allows the public to access on-line court records...for a fee. None of this is secret....all of the information is in the public domain. Aaron moved approximately 20% of PACER's information to a public site where it was accessible to everyone without cost...spending a great deal of his own dollars to do so. Aaron put his money, and his heart, where his mouth was.

Aaron later became a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT manages a digital library of academic articles, known as JSTOR. Again, there is no suggestion that this is top secret stuff. Anyone connected to the MIT networks, as Aaron was,  was free to download material from the library. So Aaron did. He downloaded over 4,000,000 million articles. As with PACER, his intent was to transfer them to a public site so they'd be freely available to everyone.

JSTOR protested Aaron's plan and he never followed through. No harm, no foul, right? But, nope, enter the federal prosecutors who take this stuff very, very seriously. Yeah, by God, because you know there are millions of us out here in cyberville, dying to download a billion words worth of dry, scholarly articles written by MIT academics. I myself was practically salivating at the prospect...NOT!

Oh, the damage we could have done with that information! Like we could probably almost bring down the country's entire economy with our greed and corruption and lies. Oh, no, wait, that's the bankers. By the way, were charges ever filed against any of them? Did any of them end up in jail? No, I don't recall that happening either.

Does the government have this same messianic zeal toward tracking down and prosecuting criminals who engage in identity theft, who steal 4,000,000 credit cards numbers instead of academic articles, who hack into corporate databases to co-opt corporate secrets - you know, crimes with actual victims? No, because those people make a real effort to not be found, making it just too hard, but Aaron was an easy target. He was "hiding" in plain sight.  

 So, the government filed charges against him, even though JSTOR itself, urged them not to. They threatened him with 35 years in prison and a $1 million dollar fine. 

"Stealing is stealing," said U.S. Attorney, Carmen M Ortiz. Really? Stealing is stealing? No distinction whatsoever, huh? Swiping a loaf of bread from a convenience store or taking over a person's identity to ruin their credit and their life. No difference there that I can see. Ditto, bankrupting hundreds of thousands of your investors or snagging an academic article from a site that gives them away for free to anyone with a computer and a credential. Evidently, the latter is actually worse than the former in the government's eyes. Like a typical bully, the federal justice system chose the most vulnerable for its heavy-handed attack.

Aaron committed suicide by hanging at age 26, sentencing himself to the ultimate penalty for pissing off the government. I guess they showed him! His family called his death "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach." That sounds about right to me but I'd also add that it is a system with a set of totally fucked-up priorities.

And the saddest part is that Aaron will be proven right. Information really does want to be free. The first instinct of power, be it in the form of a repressive government, a corrupt corporation or an arrogant elitism, is to prevent the people from sharing in it. Aaron was a warrior on that battlefield. He gave his life for the cause but his ideas will win the war.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When Did Jesus Get So Mean?

How do Christian conservatives reconcile their harsh attitudes toward the vulnerable with their faith? I just don't get it. So often, they are the holier-than-thou people who claim the right to interpret religion for all of us.  They are the ones who get to decide that abortion and homosexuality are wrong but Jesus would approve of Mitt Romney's tax rate and automatic weapons. Granted, I left the Church long ago. Perhaps, they've amended the Bible since then but the Jesus I recall from catechism classes was all about charity and tolerance, particularly toward children and the poor.

I posted an article on Facebook about how Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's governor, has cut funding that allows many poor Louisianians to access to hospice care in their dying days. The premise of the article was that this policy is not only cruel but inefficient. It will actually cost the state money in the long-run when these people end up in hospital emergency rooms like so much unwanted flotsam. One of Jindal's constituents, who presumably approves of actions like these and would like to see them duplicated across the country, responded to my post with "Jindal for President!"

Another friend, who is quite devout, posted that gay marriage was immoral. The Bible says so, she stated unequivocally, and the Bible is always right. It is? Really? The Bible is always right? Then why do you love your pork tenderloins and your fashion made of mixed materials? And why don't we still stone adulteresses to death? (We both know people who could have gotten nailed by that one).  

"Oh, well," she said, "that was the Old Testament."

Really? Did we decide that the Old Testament isn't so important anymore when I wasn't paying attention? (Aren't the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament?) If this is our new standard, did Jesus ever say anything about homosexuality? Did he ever say anything about abortion? I'm not a Bible specialist, so why don't those of you who are tell me what Jesus' position was on these issues?

What I mostly remember from my childhood was learning about Jesus as a kindly man who exhorted his followers to "give what you have to the poor and follow me" and "suffer the children to come unto me" and "as you treat the least of them, so you treat me". I recall Jesus beseeching us to judge not. He fed the poor and healed the sick and comforted the sinners. After all, it was the moneylenders he drove out of the temple, not the gays or the whores. 

So, where did this new 21st Century Jesus come from? The one who scorns the poor as "takers", the one who dismisses the dying, the one who ignores the children in favor of a 'greed is good" philosophy? How can his followers possibly read their New Testament and get that message from it?

When did Jesus become a right-wing Republican? When did he decide that torture was fine and dandy and hell, you don't have to "render unto Caesar' if Caesar is just going to take your money and waste it feeding some worthless, hungry kid and guns, oh, yes, very definitely Jesus would have been in favor of everyone having lots and lots of guns with no restrictions whatsoever.

It doesn't really matter that much to me. I'm an agnostic so the Bible doesn't affect me except for having to live under the laws passed by its proponents. The Jesus I recall would very clearly have been a bleeding-heart liberal, probably even too liberal for most Democrats today. So, geez, people - if you're going to force all of us to abide by your Bible's precepts, at least get them right.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Worshipping At The Altar Of The Gun

I think Christian gun fanatics should seriously consider their views about guns because it seems to me they are verging perilously close to idolatry in their reverence for their weapons. The second Commandment says that man shall not "make a carved image...to bow down or serve". Some of the attitudes I read about guns on Facebook strike me as near worshipful. No restrictions must be allowed, none, not ever, because guns are sacred. Or at least the Second Amendment is sacred and they interpret that amendment in the most expansive way possible. According to the Second, they must be allowed to have assault weapons and 100-round clips. They simply cannot live without them. The bloody image of 20 little first-graders, ripped apart by 3 and 11 bullets apiece seems not touch to them. They shrug it off that horrific vision. Yes, it's too bad, but....

For years, I've heard gun people say we have enough laws. Let's enforce the ones we already have! What the president did was, essentially, call them on that view. The 23 orders he signed  dealt with proposals like putting stricter penalties in effect for knowingly selling a gun to someone who cannot not pass a background check (such as those with domestic violence convictions), mandating mental health care professionals to inform law enforcement about patients they believe represent a threat to themselves or others, begin doing research on the causes of violence, begin collecting data to discover where the bulk of unregistered weapons originate (oddly, the last two have been vehemently opposed by the NRA), using the COPS program to increase officers on the street and besides all that, calling for Congress to pass funding to allow schools to hire armed guards if they choose which, of course, is the NRA's very own proposal although they can't bring themselves to give Obama credit even for that.

Gun lovers are their own worst enemies. If they had met the Newtown tragedy with the same kind of horror most of us felt, along with a willingness to at least come to the table open to discussing some possible proposals to limit the carnage, we would have given them credit for not being the irrational fanatics they swear they aren't. Instead, you could tell almost from the git-go that their main concern was how it would affect them and their guns. If they had shown some sympathy that didn't sound like the lip service of Wayne LaPierre, "yes, it was a tragedy - okay, now we got that over with, let's talk about how we need more guns", they would have earned some credibility from those of us in the middle.

That's me, essentially. I own guns, I shoot guns. I plan to keep my guns. I support the framework of the Second Amendment. That doesn't mean I think the One True Way is "all guns, all the time". By their recalcitrance, they push me farther to the left than I would normally have gone. I have debated with people on Facebook and in the end, many insist that I don't mean what I say but that I really want to take all their guns. they know, even if I won't admit it, that that's my secret plan. That's their excuse for fighting against every solution the other side proposes, no matter how minor.

Ironically, gun folks tend to be the most publicly patriotic. As a huge NASCAR, I see the flags and the hear the anthems and feel the support for the military. Oh, how we love our country and our soldiers...except when it's being led by this particular president and, I guess, when we don't trust our soldiers not to turn on us at the drop of a hat.

Because that's the underlying theme of the gun nuts. The revolution is coming and we're going to need those guns to fight our own government and presumably, those very soldiers we celebrated just last week at the NASCAR race.

Guns are not holy icons. The 23rd Psalm says, "thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me", it doesn't say "thy rod and thy 30-round magazine, they comfort me."

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Guns and Abortion - Abortion and Guns

There aren't enough adjectives to describe how so many people, men in particular, feel about their guns. They are fervent, militant, adamant, maniacal almost, about their firearms. They post on Facebook and write blogs and comment on articles. They will go to the mat for the Second Amendment, asserting that we'll have to pry their weapons out of their cold dead hands! According to the NRA, there must be absolutely NO restrictions on guns, NONE! You should be able to purchase them from the 7/11 down the street, carry concealed and unconcealed, anywhere and everywhere, across state lines and into churches and bars. It's in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers wanted us to have assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and probably hand-held missile launchers too. I watched a bunch of cops receive a shipment of M-16's once (surplus ones donated by the military). The look on each man's face as he was handed his own personal weapon was lust as pure as ever could be caused by that's era's version of Marilyn Monroe.

And, you know, if a bunch of our children are killed every year by firearms, well, that's just the price we have to pay to be FREE. Our kids are simply regrettable collateral damage, so to speak. Light a candle for Columbine; send a teddy bear to Newtown. That will make you feel better.

Here's the part I don't understand. People, men in particular, can feel so totally passionate and possessive about inanimate objects, objects you use strictly at your own convenience, objects you can leave at home when you go to the office or put away in the gun safe when you're done hunting and yet, they don't grant those same feelings of passion and possession to women regarding their own bodies, objects which are the most elemental things people own. You can't go anywhere without your body. You're at its mercy. If it is sick, you stay home from work. A sick pistol never forces you to miss work. It can dictate your mood. If it feels good, you feel good; if it feels bad, you feel bad. Women have to be careful because men desire their bodies. Dress it too provocatively and it causes some of them to believe that it's your own fault if you get raped. Your body dominates your existence every minute of your life. Compared to that, your gun is an insignificant piece of metal.

And, of course, the rub is that a woman's body can get pregnant which, ironically, is a condition many men believe they understand more than women themselves do. Now, those same men who are willing to shrug off Newtown and 20 dead first-graders become hysterical about aborted fetuses. "Oh, my God, she's destroying a fertilized egg!' This simply can't be allowed! Now when restrictions are all about women's bodies, they love restrictions, adore restrictions, restrictions so onerous as, hopefully, to prevent abortion altogether. We'll put in time mandates so that she has to travel long distances and stay over for 72 hours to try to increase the cost beyond what she can afford. We'll force her to endure expensive transvaginal ultrasounds and make her pay for them herself! We'll devise fiendish new laws that limit abortion clinics from performing their work, such as obtaining hospital privileges, which we'll then ensure they can't get - ha!ha! We'll defund Planned Parenthood and all the health services it provides to poor women because of the relatively small number of abortions it sponsors (with donated money, not government funds).

Conception stemming from rape or incest? Oh, come on, what's a little forcible sex between friends? Aren't you ladies over-reacting? Just suck it up and have the baby we're positive God wants you to have. You say your health, maybe even your life, is endangered? Let us think about that one for a while to decide whether we believe your death in child birth is simply an expression of God's will.

So, there we go. Gun rights, obviously, are sacred. The government should just keep its freakin' hands off limiting the Second Amendment in any way. Women's bodies? Not so much. Your body doesn't even belong to you, really, the government just lets you borrow it but at the point, it believes it has a vested interest in it, they claim their ownership authority. The government being mostly men, of course, and ironically, the ones who are most intense about their absolute right to control their guns are often the very same ones who happily deny women the right to control their own bodies. Ironically, it is often the same men who call the death of 20 previously living, breathing, feeling first-graders "unfortunate" become nearly crazed at the prospect of a lump of unconscious cells being aborted.

If that doesn't seem like the height of self-centered arrogance to you, you're not thinking right.

You know that phrase you use about "prying your guns out of your cold dead hands"? That's pretty much sums up how I feel about you keeping those same hands off my body.