Gun Is God

I saw this on Facebook today. And my immediate reaction was to attack: Well but that isn’t the same thing at all — people have an inherent right to freedom of religion, which is codified in (though not granted by) the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. And religion isn’t used to kill people. And pssh — Iowa. Come on. Like anything intelligent ever came out of Iowa.

Then I immediately thought: but the right to bear arms is also in the Bill of Rights. Even if I think it shouldn’t be. The Second Amendment does represent a natural right, the right of self-defense. Even if I think there are better ways to go about defending one’s self.

And as for religion: seriously, Dusty? It isn’t used to kill people? Even apart from the indisputable facts that have led to the prejudice represented here (more on the prejudice later), namely the sheer number of Islamic terrorists and war-mongers of the last — what, sixty years? — religion is behind most of the wars of human history, or has at least been used as the justification for them, as well as countless atrocities — the Inquisition, the witch-burnings, the Holocaust, the pogroms, chattel slavery, colonialism — Jesus, do I need to go on?

Absurd of me even to take up this argument, if this is all I have.

But that third one — that’s kind of right. Tom Arnold is from Iowa. So is Michele Bachmann. And Steve King, of course  (The moronic Congressman, not the author.). Ashton Kutcher. Charles Osborne, the guy with the world record for the longest lasting case of hiccups. Sure, there are a couple of scientists and mathematicians on the list of Iowans, several astronauts, and a few authors I like — Bill Bryson, especially — but you don’t get away from Michele Bachmann that easily. Not even with the Ringling Brothers.

So what does this mean? I’ve been arguing against guns for years and years now, and here I find myself stymied. Does it mean I should be changing my stance on gun control? Have I been unfairly critical of gun owners? Has this meme changed my argument? DID IOWA JUST WIN THE GUN FIGHT?!?

Well, no. It didn’t. The problem with this argument is that it equates religion and gun ownership, claiming that a prejudice against one is as morally and intellectually bankrupt as a prejudice against the other. This much is true: prejudice is always morally and intellectually bankrupt. It is also always instinctive for humans because we evolved to be hunter-gatherers and our minds are evolved to discover patterns, so we see them everywhere, and frequently use them as a basis for action and reaction; when we eat  the red berries and they are tasty, then the next time we see red berries, we assume they’ll be tasty. And sometimes they are tasty, and the prejudice is therefore efficient; and sometimes they are toxic and we die, and the prejudice is inefficient. Evolution argues that it is more frequently efficient than inefficient when used as a survival strategy — but that has no bearing whatsoever on the value of prejudice in society. There, the value is almost always outweighed by the costs.

But that doesn’t mean either that gun ownership is equivalent to religion, nor that the argument against gun ownership is equivalent to the argument against Muslims.

First: religion and gun ownership. Sure, both are personal rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Both are defended fanatically on the Fox network. Both are, theoretically, under attack by liberals with an agenda — and neither actually are. And yes, both often catch the blame for atrocities carried out by terrorists.

But religion, however it may have been used in the past, whatever people may think of it, is not a weapon intended to do harm. The goal of religion is truth, and subsequent salvation. The question of relative harm as it is created by religious tenets, as in, “If I allow you to die unshriven, you will burn in Hell forever; therefore I should torture you until you confess your heresy and renounce your beliefs– and then you’ll go to Heaven!” is certainly a troubling one, as religion here grants people a moral justification for doing harm; but that is an application of a specific religious principle, carried out by the person — it is not the intention of the religion as an entity.  Christianity was not founded in order to justify torture or slavery or war. I won’t say that those things are a misuse, as that implies that the actual intended purpose is a correct and proper usage of the religion, and as an atheist I don’t accept that; but I think there can be no argument that religion was not and never has been created intentionally to do harm.

Firearms, on the other hand, were invented, produced, and evolved over time intentionally and specifically to harm others. They exist for that reason. The possession of firearms is considered a right, both a natural right and a right in the Constitution, because of that reason; people may own firearms simply for amusement, but that is not why they feel a right to own them — if so, we’d all have the right to a Playstation 4, and I would currently be suing Sony. We have the right to bear arms because arms are the most effective way to harm others so that those others cannot harm us: the ability of firearms to do harm A)rapidly to multiple targets, B) from a distance that keeps the bearer safe from retaliation, and C) without physical strength, dexterity, or training, is unmatched in the world of weapons. This is why people use the Second Amendment to protect guns, rather than, say, swords and spears and personally owned stealth bombers. It is a disingenuous argument to claim that any weapon could be used to kill another person — and therefore the government can’t take away my gun. There is a reason why guns are the focus of the argument: because they are the most effective and efficient killing machine on the planet. The millions — billions? — who have been shot since the invention of firearms show this.

So we should not make analogies between religion and firearms, not even in criticizing anti-religious prejudice with anti-firearm prejudice. And let me just add: why would you want to do that? When I used to debate online against guns, I was frequently dismissed as a hoplophobe, one who suffers from a morbid and irrational fear of guns; the classic, er, “argument” that goes “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is based on the same objective understanding of firearms as inanimate objects, incapable of independent action, and therefore the incorrect focus for the fear felt by those who promote gun control. But this emotionless, objective, apparently logical stance is lost if one makes the comparison between gun owners and devotees of a religion; now those who own firearms are — true believers. Members of the faith. Followers of their prophet/messiahs, Smith and Wesson and Remington and Colt. This is not an opening which gun rights advocates want to give us hoplophobes.

But the real problem with this meme? It’s a meme.  The concept of the meme was created by Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist; Dawkins described the meme as the modern version of genes, now that mankind survives through social adaptation to environmental pressure, rather than biological adaptation. That is, rather than better genes propagating more than worse genes through reproduction and natural selection, we make adjustments for “bad” genes through our society: we take care of people who can’t survive on their own; we use medicine to give those with “bad” genes a full life; we create niches for those with differing strengths, so both the man with the strong back and the man with the strong mind can survive and thrive. The ideas that create those situations, the belief that family members should take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, for instance, are spread through our culture, and help that culture survive, along with the people who spread it. Our modern human culture is our survival strategy: we live and reproduce because our culture protects us far more than our bodies do.  Because of that, although we are continuously evolving as a species, today, our genes do not change very much; rather, our memes do.

The purpose of a meme, like the purpose of a gene, is not to create the perfect being, or the perfect argument: it is to reproduce. That means it has the qualities that will make it most likely to spread and multiply, not necessarily the best qualities. Blonde hair and blue eyes do not make someone a better human being — but if they make that person more likely to reproduce and spread those genes, then those genes will survive and thrive. Watch Idiocracy: there’s a meme, a reproducible bit of culture, that shows why neither genes nor memes need to be the best to be the most successful. It shows, in fact, how memes are become more powerful than genes in human evolution: successful memes actually make people’s genes worse, and the people themselves less biologically adapted to survive.

So this:

is not the best thought, not the best argument, but it is likely to be reproduced and propagated; therefore, it is a successful meme.

What internet memes do — what the meme that started this blog did — is oversimplify, because on the internet, simplicity is king. That’s why so many memes are crude line drawings, or this sort of simple joke. They use the same photos again and again, and the same font, and the same sentence structures and joke patterns because those things have been selected, have proven successful in the past, have been propagated and reproduced.

And all of that’s fine. Memes are jokes, and plenty of them are funny — this one cracks me up:

And this one is not only funny but true:

But none of the things that make these successful memes make them good thoughts or good arguments. Just — good at grabbing people’s attention so they click “Share.”

So for that, this meme

is successful, because it has an interesting enough idea, formulated in an eye-catching way — with a picture that is both relatable and idealized, because that guy looks ordinary and also badass; and using the all-caps font with red for a highlight; short words, simple sentences, rhetorical question — and so it was shared. And it is also successful in that it provokes thought: it took me some time to work my way through the meme’s rhetorical question and come to my answer. Time spent thinking is always good.

The answer is: no. It is not time the 80 million gun owners in America get the same treatment. First because gun ownership is not a religion, and the analogy doesn’t work. Second because although there is a right to self-defense, it should not be realized through firearms, which are unnecessarily deadly even when used to protect one’s self. The Second Amendment is wrong: arms should be regulated, for the safety of all, because private gun ownership creates as much danger as it eliminates, and generally more; the presence of weapons creates a feeling of safety far more often than it creates actual safety, and yet those weapons are most often used to do more harm than could be done without them. We could certainly get into a debate about personal liberty versus safety — so long as nobody quotes the Benjamin Franklin meme. Which oversimplifies and relies entirely on the persuasive power of the author’s name.

Lastly, the answer is No because, simply put, gun owners have never been treated the way that Muslims have. Yes, massacres that have been carried out with firearms have led to calls for gun control — but thanks to the Second Amendment, they have never led to even the beginning of a discussion of banning guns. Armed police and military are expected and appreciated. The only gun law that was passed using a mass shooting as impetus, the Brady Bill’s ban on assault weapons, was allowed to expire, because gun owners and manufacturers made it pointless. We can still buy extended clips like Jared Lee Loughner used in Tucson when he shot Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others — without reloading — and we can still buy weapons online as James Holmes did before he shot 82 people in Aurora. People speak out against guns, as they do against Muslims (And let me note the prejudice inherent within the meme itself, when it claims that every terrorist attack is related to Islam — only days after Dylann Roof killed nine people in a church in South Carolina. With a gun given to him for a birthday present, and therefore requiring no background check. He could also have done what Adam Lanza did, and used his parents’ guns.), but no laws ever pass, no action is ever taken. No innocent gun owners are beaten in the streets as happened after 9/11; no gun owners are unfairly targeted in airport searches; nothing has been done that is analogous to the Bible Belt states’ bans on Sharia law. No Baptist preachers are burning Guns & Ammo.

We have not yet invaded Austria to eliminate the Glock company.

 

In summation, all I have to say to this meme is this:

The Gouging Is Not Enough

Someone needs to explain this country to me. I don’t understand it.

I don’t understand how we can love freedom, and yet work like mules to take it away from others, from the jailed, from the people of other nations, from our own workers, our soldiers, our students. We so love leisure and relaxation that it seems this is the only time we work this hard: when we betray our own professed morals and ideals.

I don’t understand how we can love the beauty of nature, and yet build drilling rigs atop it and rip down the centuries-old trees like grass, strip mountains down to pits of poison. How can we spend weekends watering and mowing and fertilizing our lawns and yet never go for a walk in the woods, a swim in the river? How can we pollute our own countryside?

I don’t understand why we don’t love art. We coo over talent and beauty in our celebrities — even when it isn’t actually present — and we can’t throw our money at them fast enough; but we wouldn’t pay a dime for a painting instead of a poster, nor anything for a song so long as we can download for free; and people with vast talent, who spend years striving to create true, immortal beauty, are only given one commission: get a real job. We love memes and clever witticisms, revere the turn of phrase, the surprising insight, the genuine outpouring of passion in confessions and rants and the cri de coeur — so long as it does not last more than a paragraph. And God forbid the novel.

I don’t understand why we go to war. Why we fight to protect both life, and our right to own guns. Why we eat ourselves to death, drink ourselves to oblivion, and jail those who use marijuana. Why we mock people who shop at Wal-Mart, spit on those who hold a hand out for charity, and then fight tooth and nail to keep wages low, unions useless, and education ineffective. Why we profess to love our children more than anything else — will gather by the thousands to light a candle and pray for the safe return of a single missing child — but allow thousands of children to go hungry on the streets. Why we believe the government is corrupt, even antagonistic in its self-serving greed, but trust the profit motive to build honest and effective businesses; nor why we fear the amoral inhuman corporation, but trust the government to work itself out of its shady dealings with those same corporations and their bottomless pockets without a revolution.

I don’t understand why we have not had a revolution.

But today, I’m not thinking about any of those things. Today, there is only one thing I don’t understand, and it is this: why we pay for health care. Why insurance companies are allowed to exist, and to do business the way they do. Why people work for them, even knowing what that job costs, what it entails, in exchange for a paycheck that I can’t think is more than meager.

I wonder: do the employees of health insurance companies have better coverage? Do their claims get denied? If so, do they fight? Or is the answer to this the answer to my previous question — they work for the insurance company because it is better (in this allegedly Christian nation) to inflict on others exactly what you protect yourself from?

I’m thinking about this today because of my wife. (I confess: I think about most of these things because of my wife, who is an artist, who loves nature and animals, who actually loves freedom and desires it for all as much as for herself, who doesn’t understand the same things I don’t understand, no matter how much we talk about them and try to figure them out.) My wife Toni has glaucoma. Glaucoma is a condition of the eye: the liquid inside the eyeball doesn’t drain properly, but its production continues, and so the pressure inside the eye increases steadily, causing severe headaches and damaging the optic nerve, leading to vision loss and eventual blindness if not treated. It generally occurs in the elderly, but Toni inherited it, so now she gets to be the youngest person in the opthamologist’s waiting room every few months. And though it is appallingly ironic for an artist to face a disease that could blind her, glaucoma is eminently treatable: she puts drops in her eyes every night which reduces the pressure in her eyes, and even should the condition worsen, she would not be without options — there are other medications, there are surgical options, there is marijuana. (Actually, marijuana is not a wonder treatment for glaucoma; while THC does indeed lower intraocular pressure, this effect only lasts for three or four hours per dose, and it may cause other complications that would outweigh even that benefit. But personally, I love the idea that she could be prescribed marijuana, and I could get fired for using it — even if I was prescribed it. Well — “love” as in “don’t understand and actually really hate.”) And along with the glaucoma, Toni inherited thick corneas — about twice as thick as most people’s, and so even though her intraocular pressure is much higher than most people’s, her eyes can withstand it. As her doctor told her (I swear this isn’t my analogy, but oh, how I wish it was), where most people have balloon eyes, she has basketball eyes, and the thicker walls mean they can hold much greater pressure without, y’know, popping.

So while this is bad, it could be much, much worse. She could be dying. Glaucoma threatens her vision, but not her life. Even the worst case is decades off, rather than a few years, or even a few months.

But of course, there is one thing that makes this situation much worse than it has to be, more dangerous, more frustrating, more costly: Toni is an American. We live in this country, rather than in one of the civilized nations on this Earth: the nations that pay for health care. Instead, we have to deal with an insurance company. Which is why I’m thinking about this today, why this is what I don’t understand right now.

The Affordable Care Act is four years old, now, and it has helped: millions of people are insured that weren’t insured before; the costs of health insurance and health care, while still growing, are growing slower than they have in years. And people can no longer be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions or lifetime maximum allowances. But the ACA — Obamacare — didn’t go far enough, and now Toni has to slog through the quagmire that is left, which is deep and dangerous, even if smaller than it has been in the past.

You see, while you can’t be refused coverage because of a pre-existing condition, insurance companies can refuse to cover health costs associated with a pre-existing condition for up to a year after the initial diagnosis. Toni has been aware of her high-pressure basketball eyes for quite some time, but the official diagnosis of glaucoma, and the accompanying need for more frequent tests and for daily eyedrops, only came last May. And then in June, we moved from Oregon to Arizona, and I took a new job.

And got new health insurance.

With that came the letter informing us that the company would not cover any costs associated with Toni’s pre-existing condition until ten months after her coverage began, which deadline will be June 30 of this year. For the intervening year, in which Toni would need to find a new opthamologist and undergo new diagnostic tests to monitor the progress of the disease, and of course take medication every day, the insurance company would not pay for any of it.

So here’s my first question. Why not? Why wouldn’t a company that exists to cover medical costs actually cover those medical costs? Is it because they are protecting themselves from fraud, from the danger that her previous physician, who was outside of this company’s circle of approved doctors, might have lied, so that Toni could bilk the company of the costs of treatment? First, why would that require anything more than a confirming diagnosis from a physician they trust? And second, why would anyone try that scam with glaucoma? The tests cost money, as does the medication, but we’re talking about hundreds of dollars over the course of a year, not hundreds of thousands, as can be true in other cases.

My assumption is that the company is merely taking the opportunity not to pay out money. Simple as that. They don’t even have an excuse that has any humanity or business logic to it: they just refuse to pay money. In the past, insurance companies have refused to pay any money for any pre-existing condition; now they can only do it for a year — so they’re doing it for the year. If the law allowed them to refuse payment for three years, they’d do it for three years.

That is madness. Absolute madness. An insurance company exists to pay money for claims. They profit by collecting more in fees than they pay out in claims, which they do by insuring a greater pool; the more healthy people they insure, and collect monthly fees from, the more they have to pay out in claims, and the more money they have for profits. So the way to increase their profits should be to get more members — preferably healthy members — and to raise fees. And they do both of these things, of course — but they also fail to provide the service they exist to provide to some of their members? While still collecting fees? It’s like a mechanic taking your car into the garage, charging you $300 for a repair, and then saying, “My profits will be lower if I actually spend time and money fixing your car. Instead I’m going to inspect three other cars that are in perfect working order and send your malfunctioning car back out on the street. Will that be cash or charge?” And then you give him the money.

Exactly what business are these companies in? What does their business model look like? And is there any way to see this as anything other than extortion? We need health insurance, thanks to the obscene costs of health care in this country and the fact that our health is the one thing we can’t go without — if the car in my analogy breaks down, you can carpool or walk or take public transportation; but you can’t borrow a new pair of eyeballs, you can’t leave your body in the garage and take the public body instead — and because we have to have the service they offer, they can cheat us, openly and repeatedly, and we just have to accept it.

The most important question of all is: why do we put up with it? Why was Obamacare fought as hard as it was, and why was the single payer option — the path to the only system of health care that actually makes sense, nationalized socialized medicine — removed from the law? Why do Americans choose to live like this? All of our voices, all of our influence, all of our votes and our money: all of it is serving literally no one but insurance companies, who extort and cheat and bilk us, while refusing us medical help. Why? I remember whistle blowers publicizing the fact that insurance companies had policies in place designed to delay the payment of claims until after the person died. They let people die for the sake of profit. And yet these companies still exist? And the Republican congress tries to repeal Obamacare? If the corporations were actually people, we would charge them with murder, and we’d probably execute them; but no, we pay them more, and fight to deregulate them.

Why?

Toni got sick this past spring. Nothing terrible, just a sinus infection, but it was an extremely nasty one: she’s always had allergies, she’s always had sinus trouble, but this time the pressure was so severe that she had constant debilitating headaches, a constantly blocked airway, and a fever; she felt awful. She went to the doctor, who quickly diagnosed her with acute sinusitis and prescribed an antibiotic. Toni took the antibiotic — no treat, that, as it had unfortunate side effects that made her feel even worse than the sinus infection had — and the sinusitis cleared up. Huzzah!

Then we got the bill from the doctor’s office, for the remainder of their fee after the co-payment (That’s another one, by the way. Co-payments? We pay them to provide a service, and then we pay for part of that same service? I’ve heard of passing costs on to the customer, but this is ridiculous.). Why were we charged? Because the insurance company had rejected the claim.

So Toni called them to ask why. She waited through a long time on hold, listening to one jazzy Muzac song on a loop (Toni: “I thought I was going to have to stick a poker in my eye.”), until she got to speak to a claims rep, and she asked her question. “It was automatically rejected,” the rep said, “Because of your pre-existing condition.”

Toni asked her what her glaucoma had to do with the sinus infection. The rep agreed that that didn’t make much sense, and said she would look into it, and call back by the end of the week.

She didn’t call back.

So Toni called again. Same wait time — same damn song, threatening the same eye-poking (which would, I suppose, make the whole thing irrelevant; maybe that’s the insurance company’s ultimate goal) — and the same question. And the same response: “No, you’re right, that doesn’t make any sense. Of course the inability of your eyes to drain properly had nothing to do with the bacterial infection that got into your sinuses, almost certainly because you moved to a radically different climate and Tucson had a comparatively wet winter, which gave bacteria a perfect environment to grow and get into your system. Let me fix that and send you a check.” Well, actually, it was, “I will look into that and get back to you.”

She didn’t call back, either.

In the intervening time (Each of these Calls-and-waits-for-response is about a week’s time), we got another bill from the doctor’s office. Toni will be attending the University of Arizona in the fall, working towards her Master’s in Visual Communication. Before she was allowed to register for classes, she had to present proof that she has been immunized against measles. There’s a whole story here which I’m going to leave out, but suffice to say, she went to the doctor’s office to get her sixth lifetime measles inoculation. And then the insurance company denied the claim.

So Toni called again, this time with two questions about two denied claims. (I should note that Toni can be rather tenacious, when she thinks something is unfair. And she has worked for banks, with all of their labyrinthine procedures, and also in Accounts Receivable, where she would call the company’s clients and try to cajole them into actually paying their bills; she has said that her job was to be on hold. The insurance company holds no fear for her. But frustration — oh yeah.) This time, the rep was neither conciliatory nor helpful; after several cycles of eye-poke-inducing Muzac, the woman said that the claim was automatically rejected because of her pre-existing condition. (On a Kafkaesque note: at no time did any of the insurance company employees state what that pre-existing condition is, nor does any of the billing paperwork or our account information. Toni wondered at one point if the pre-existing condition was in fact “She is human.”) Toni asked how glaucoma could be related to sinusitis. The woman interrupted, raising her voice to talk over Toni, repeating the same statement in effect: the claim was automatically rejected (She emphasized this as though it gave her argument weight: the computer said no. You can’t argue with the computer.) because of her pre-existing condition. Toni then calmly asked why the measles vaccination had been rejected, in what way that was related to her glaucoma. There was some fumbling, but then she received the final explanation of the denial of both claims: “It was rejected because of the way the visit was coded.” In other words, the doctor had made some mistake in recording the two visits, or in their invoice to the insurance company (And just imagine how Byzantine and maddening that process must be), and that’s why the claims were rejected.

So Toni, with a furious gleam in her eye — and yet a perfectly polished and polite phone manner, nonetheless; it was like watching James Bond call Blofeld and make an appointment to strangle him before popping out to the tennis court for a quick match with his beautiful secretary — called the doctor’s office, to confirm that they had not, in fact, coded the two visits as “Glaucoma treatment (sinus infection)” and “Glaucoma treatment (measles inoculation).” They had not. So once more, she called the insurance company. This time, the rep was polite, but was also clear: the claim had been denied. Toni asked about the appeals process, and the woman directed her to the online form and explained that either Toni would have to complete it or her doctor could file it.

Then she said, “But they’ll probably deny it anyway.”

Toni wrote to the NP who had diagnosed her sinusitis to ask, just in case the company has a point, if there could be any connection between her glaucoma and the infection, if the medication lowered her resistance or something similar; he responded that there was absolutely no relevance, as we suspected. We did get a phone call the next morning, from the second woman of the four Toni talked to; she left a message informing us that the matter had gone for medical review and they were working on it constantly, without pause for breath or sleep or food (Words to that effect) to resolve the matter. She said she would call us back.

We are considering the appeal, though we expect the company would deny it, to force us to hire a lawyer and take them to court; it is my assumption that the criteria for denial of this claim was, “Could our highly paid attorneys confuse the matter sufficiently to make a jury think that there could be a connection between glaucoma and the infection?” And the answer, based on proximity of the sinuses to the basketball eyes, and the similarity of symptoms, i.e., headache in both cases, is, I presume, yes. We are also generally against frivolous lawsuits, which this instance definitely would be, considering the amounts in question. So even if we appeal, we won’t take it to court; I think the value of appealing is to reverse what I believe is in fact their policy in these matters: I think they want to make the claims process as difficult, slow, and annoying as possible, in hopes that the customer will throw up her hands and simply pay the doctor, lest she be sent to Collections by her physician’s office, with all that entails regarding credit rating and reputation. The failure to call back, with repeated promises to do so, the long hold time, the need for further review despite the obvious absurdity of their argument — and the long and complex fine print attached to the Appeal form — all fit my theory. But the most interesting thing about the appeals process? The company reserves the right to deny any claim made while your appeal is being considered. What a wonderful and terrible implied threat that is: sure, you can appeal our decision — hope you don’t get sick while that’s going on. Maybe you should reconsider, hmmm?

Why do we put up with this? Who could possibly think that the government, no matter how inefficient they may be in some ways, would provide worse service than this? I know the fear with socialized medicine is that the government functionaries would deny people health care; what would you call this? Toni had a sinus infection. One doctor visit, one simple prescription — payment denied. How would the government handle this more callously, more indefensibly, than the company? And could you imagine that the government program would cost anything even approaching what our insurance company charges us — so that they can provide us with, quite literally, nothing of any value whatsoever? We have, in essence, no insurance; certainly no peace of mind.

Why do we allow this? Why do we accept this? I know the feeling of futility that the process brings to people; I feel the same thing. But it isn’t futile: Obamacare was passed. The situation was changed. We can take this further.

We must.

That’s why I’m writing this. Not for our sake; as I said, Toni’s infection is long gone, and the measles inoculation was successful — she is still measle-free, and now registered for her classes for the fall. Her glaucoma is being treated. All told, after they deny our appeals, we will be out just over $200, which we can afford. Her time with a pre-existing condition is almost up. We can handle our situation as it stands now.

But what if?

What if we decide to appeal, and Toni gets into an accident, and they deny her claim because she is in the middle of appealing a ruling?

What if that was the claim they had denied because of her glaucoma, and we were out thousands?

What if the pre-existing condition was life-threatening and expensive?

All of these things are true, for thousands if not millions of Americans.

Insurance companies are letting us die so that they can make money. They are not making our lives better, they are not improving either our medical care system nor our health outcomes.

It is time to stop allowing our government to help them make money from our suffering. It is time we stopped this nonsense, and did what we all know is the right thing.

Please: support candidates who support single-payer government-sponsored tax-funded health care. Write to your representatives. Join campaigns to push for single-payer health care. If you have your own story, tell your own story, in the comments below or on your own blog and then send me the link; otherwise, share ours, or share another that you know with the people you can reach. Let people know that this has to stop, and we have to stop it.

I want to understand my country again. I want my country to start making sense.

And Toni doesn’t want to listen to that song any more.

Rich Book, Poor World

Down and Out in Paris and London
by George Orwell

I was happy with this find: first because I came across it in a lovely bookstore, the kind of shop I want to own someday, a little storefront with ten-foot-high shelves, with only enough space between for one person to pass, and yet a bright and sunny atmosphere, warm and welcoming — the proprietor had read both books I bought, and praised them both, so I felt both accompanied and intelligent; second because it is an old copy, with genuine cover art (The image above) and a 35-cent price printed at the top (Yeah, that’s right — mine was even cheaper than this image!), and a sweet, soft smell to the pages; third because everything I read by George Orwell makes me admire the man more, and fills me with the desire both to read and to write.

It was an excellent read. Orwell has a journalist’s eye and a journalist’s pen; the prose is clear and straightforward, the detail precise and thorough and fascinating. He creates characters among his acquaintances mostly through simple description of their appearance and actions and words; within the first ten pages you meet one of the more appalling people Orwell knew in Paris, and you know why, based merely on the drunken speech Orwell relates from the man. He makes himself a character, as well, though he creates his own character similarly, through speech and action and description; there is never any explanation given for how he ended up in Paris, so close to destitute, but he quickly joins the ranks of the poorest, being forced to sell his clothing in order to buy food, and spending days at a time starving before he finds employment again.

Orwell also creates a graphic picture of the two great cities at the time, in the 1930’s, between the World Wars when the greatest threat to Western society was socialism; there is a constant theme of intolerance running through his interactions with authorities, and though he is frequently harassed for his poverty and the corresponding assumption of lawlessness, he comments that it would be much worse were he suspected of being a Socialist — which, of course, he was, though not a politically active one at the time. He tells of the slums of Paris and the workhouses of London, and creates an expose of Paris restaurants and hotels worthy of Upton Sinclair.

There are some moments I would change: Orwell reveals his own prejudices, against some races and nationalities and particularly against Jews; there is a presumption that the reader knows French, which I do not; and in this edition, at least, the curse words were blanked out — which wasn’t a problem when Orwell wrote things like “Shut yer ______ mouth and get on with yer bath!” because even if I don’t know what he meant (almost certainly “damn”), I can fill it in with my own imagination and be no worse off for it. But then there was a passage when Orwell was expounding on why curse words become curse words, and how they lose their original meaning as soon as they reach common use; and it read like “But ________ is no worse than _______, which was once used less often than _________.” Which was obnoxious.

It was also quite disgusting at times, and quite sad; but then, so is the subject. It’s a short and largely simple read, and Orwell’s insights, offered at the end, are sharp and precise, and leave one with some very interesting thoughts.

Highly recommended.

Dark Elf Fantasy

(Probably not what you were thinking.)

Homeland (Book One of the Dark Elf Trilogy in the Forgotten Realms world of AD&D)
by R.A. Salvatore

I’ve never read these books before, though every gaming nerd I’ve taught English to in the last fifteen years has read and loved and recommended them. Drizzt Do’Urden is one of the most prominent and well-known characters to rise out of the D&D universe, which has run the gamut from role-playing games to countless novels to bad TV shows and worse movies. Drizzt is a Drow, a dark elf, one of the evil races of the D&D universe, like orcs and goblins and the like, and this book takes on the interesting task of making the Drow seem vile and cruel and merciless, while also making Drizzt himself sympathetic.

It’s a tough challenge, but Salvatore did it fairly well. I have read better books with a similar concept — the Elric of Melnibone series by Michael Moorcock are probably the best at this, along with Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books — but this one was well done. Drizzt is born into a noble House of the underground kingdom of dark elves called Menzobarranzan; as the third son (the kingdom is both matriarchal and theocratic, with the dark elf women serving as priestesses of an evil goddess named Lloth) he would have been sacrificed at birth, except that one of his elder brothers assassinates the other the same night when Drizzt is born, opening a slot for Drizzt to remain alive. He does, and grows into a hero, the greatest swordsman of the realm, and, most unusual for a Drow, a man with a sense of honor and a conscience.

The world is very well built, internally logical and consistent and in keeping with the larger D&D world; the Drow read like what they are, a universally evil race who worship a spider-demon and loathe kindness and mercy and love and anything else virtuous or good. It was interesting to see the ways Salvatore used elements of fascism in the Drow world: the children are very clearly indoctrinated, taught to hate an external enemy and blame that enemy for all of their own suffering, though that suffering is clearly inherent in their way of life; at the same time, they must obey the dictates of their own unquestioned supreme leader, constantly trying to curry her favor and savagely turning on those who displease her, even though they do not know why she is angry or why she is happy with any particular Drow. I imagine this is much what it was like to live in Hitler’s Germany, which I’m sure was Salvatore’s intent, or at least his inspiration.

I was a bit less pleased with Drizzt himself. Partly that is because I hadn’t read his previous adventures; these books are an origin story for a beloved character from another series, and so there were moments that were supposed to be meaningful for me that weren’t — for instance, the Drizzt character is well known for his companion, a magical black panther named Guenhwyvar; when she was introduced, I should have thought, “Hooray!” but it didn’t register at all other than :”Hey look, a magical black panther.” More problematic was the author’s attempt to make Drizzt a better man than his family: because there was no particular reason why he should have been more decent or honorable or merciful than every other Drow — he just was. Some of it came from his (not-quite-as) honorable mentor, who trained him; but why was the mentor more honorable then? Well, he just was, too. And sure, that’s how it works in D&D, but I think characters in a novel should make more sense.

The action was good, the world was great, the characters were fine. I’ll be reading the sequel.

If you liked this book, I would recommend:
Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock (And the rest of the series)
The Fahfrd and Grey Mouser series by Fritz Leiber (Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, etc.)
The Conan books — I’d recommend the two Roberts, E. Howard who created the character and Jordan who wrote it better than anyone else since.

Mama!

(This was a Facebook quiz that caught my attention. It was a little tough explaining all of the questions to our children, but this is what they came up with.)

WITHOUT ANY prompting, ask your child these questions and write down EXACTLY what they say. It is a great way to find out what they really think. When you re-post put your Child’s age.
These are the answers for all of my kids:

Dunkie the Cockatiel (5),Duncan VS Origami Whale

 

Neo the Tortoise (2),

Neo

and Sammy the Dog (1.5)

Sammy 3

(That’s his Wubba there, in his paws.)

 

1. What is something mom always says to you?
Dunkie: Stop that!
Neo: Where are you?
Sammy: I love you.

2. What makes mom happy?
D: Dunkie! And drawing lines on paper. WHICH SHE WON’T LET ME CHEW UP!
N: Peace and harmony.
S: Cuddles and when I kiss her nose.

3. What makes mom sad?
D: Dunkie. And when she can’t draw lines on paper. Or when I chew them up.
N: The suffering in the world.
S: I don’t know, but when she’s sad I bring her my Wubba-toy and we play and she laughs and then she’s not sad any more.

4. How does your mom make you laugh?
D: She snorts when she laughs.
N: She smiles when she sees me, and I smile with her.
S: When she plays with me and Wubba.

5. What was your mom like as a child?
D: Dunkie-less. So, sad.
N: The child is echoed in the adult. She is kind, and she is beautiful. She is present in the moment.
S: Mama was a child?

6. How old is your mom?
D: She has gray headfeathers.
N: Old enough to be wise.
S: Mama-old.

7. How tall is your mom?
D: Tall enough to perch on and be really high!
N: She fills the sky.
S: Mama-tall.

8. What is her favorite thing to do?
D: Whistle with Dunkie!
N: Be at peace with her family.
S: Cuddle. And play Wubba.

9. What does your mom do when you’re not around?
D: Draw lines on paper.
N: If a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
S: Oh, I’m always around.

10. If your mom becomes famous, what will it be for?
D: Dunkie! Or drawing lines on paper.
N: She is loved. It is enough.
S: Best Mama ever.

11. What is your mom really good at?
D: Skritching under my headfeathers like I like.
N: Worrying.
S: Tum rubs. And she makes Daddy laugh a lot.

12. What is your mom not very good at?
D: DOING WHAT I WANT, WHEN I WANT HER TO DO IT! Goddamnit . . .
N: Not worrying.
S: Mama’s good at everything.

13. What does your mom do for a job?
D: Draws lines on paper.
N: Takes care of others.
S: What’s a job?

14.What is your mom’s favorite food?
D: Bread. And green stuff. She doesn’t like my nibbles.
N: What she grows.
S: The stuff she shares with me. Usually cheese.

15.What makes you proud of your mom?
D: WHEN SHE DOES WHAT I WANT, WHEN I WANT IT!
N: That she has a kind soul.
S: She’s Mama.

16. If your mom were a character, who would she be?
D: A beautiful bird. LIKE DUNKIE!
N: If you imagine how another imagines you, who is then created?
S: Ummm . . . Mama.

17. What do you and your mom do together?
D: Whistle!
N: Enjoy the world around us.
S: Wubba.

18. How are you and your mom the same?
D: We both snort when we laugh.
N: We are living souls. We are more alike than we are different.
S: We love to nap and play Wubba. And eat cheese. And go walkies.

19. How are you and your mom different?
D: She doesn’t do what I want, and I don’t do what she — oh wait. That’s the same.
N: I have a shell. She needs a shell.
S: She likes baths.

20. How do you know your mom loves you?
D: WHEN SHE DOES WHAT I WANT! And when she whistles my song. And skritches under my headfeathers like I like.
N: She loves all things. It is her burden and her gift.
S: She brought me home from dog-jail, and she doesn’t make me live on the street like my last person did. She takes care of me.

21. What does your mom like most about your dad?
D: He does what she wants.
N: He is her other half.
S: He’s Daddy! He plays Wubba good. And he likes cheese. And naps. And cuddles.

22. Where is your mom’s favorite place to go?
D: I don’t know. Somewhere I CAN’T SEE HER!
N: Out into the world, and then back into herself.
S: Walkies!

23. How old was your Mom when you were born?
D: I DON’T CARE! GIVE ME SKRITCHY! AND NIBBLES! DO IT NOW!
N: What did your face look like before your grandparents were born?
S: I don’t know. Was Mama around then? I didn’t see her until she came to the dog-jail to get me. OH I KNOW! She was Mama-old minus me. Right, Daddy?

The Right Opinion

There’s something I’m tired of hearing.

I get it all the time. Mostly because my interactions with other human beings take place almost exclusively in the classroom, where I talk to teenagers, or on the internet, where I talk to people on the internet. And as we all know, these are, far and away, the two most annoying groups of people on the planet. (Yes, I’m aware the second group includes me. Seeing as I’ve spent my entire life after the age of two in schools, in one way or another, I think I’m an honorary member of the first group, too. Of course I know I’m annoying. That’s beside the point.) And this is one of the most annoying things that people say. It’s annoying because it is an attempt to end discussion and debate, to validate the worst garbage that comes out of people’s brains: the thoughtlessness, the prejudice, the spite, the hate, the idiocy, the vapidity and superficiality — all of it. And I’m tired of it. So, by the power vested in me by my love of both thought and communication, and the energy and time vested by me in both of these aspects of human existence; by the authority I have gained through fifteen years of teaching, by the resentment and impatience that has built in me all that time and which has granted me the sheer gall to presume to say something like this, I hereby declare and assert:

Nobody has the right to an opinion.

That’s what people say that I’m tired of hearing. They say it in several different ways: Everyone has the right to their own opinion. That’s just what I think. We just have a difference of opinions, and we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m entitled to my opinion.

That last one is the worst. That last one is the one that got me thinking about this subject for this blog. Because it says it all, doesn’t it? Entitled. I’m entitled to my opinion. Apart from the political baggage that has been strapped onto that word through the labeling of certain parts of the social safety net as “entitlements,” which apparently require “entitlement reform,” the word “entitled” contradicts itself. It means that you inherently deserve something, that it is yours by natural right; but when we call someone entitled, what we mean is that they don’t at all deserve the thing they claim, that they have it through underhanded means, or without justification — often because it was given to them without effort. That they didn’t earn what they feel “entitled” to.

And I’m thinking now that people aren’t entitled to have the opinions they claim to have.

I think you have to earn the right to have an opinion.

Not to voice it; once you have it, you have the freedom of speech and of the press, and you can shout your opinions from the rooftops — even if those opinions are offensive or unpatriotic or even inflammatory. You can post it on Facebook and you can whisper it to yourself in a movie theater and you can march around the streets wearing it on a sandwich board and you can even hold a parade declaring that you hold this opinion. Have at it, feel free; I would never stop you. In fact, I will applaud you.

But first you have to earn that opinion.

People need to earn their opinions because, first, people hold a lot of really stupid opinions. They think climate change is not real; they think the universe was created in six days about 6,000 years ago; they think that white people are better than all other people. They think that Will Ferrell is funny, they think that Jon Stewart is not, they think that Taylor Swift shouldn’t be forcibly removed from popular culture and never allowed to return. They think that 9/11 was an inside job and that Barack Obama is coming for their guns and that the worst thing the government has done in the last ten years is Benghazi. All of these opinions (Okay, forget about the middle three, there; those are examples of what we really mean when we say “That’s just my opinion,” which is personal preferences. But seriously: removed entirely from popular culture. I don’t mind her existing, but I don’t ever want to hear from her or see her again.) are not only held contrary to fact, but are held contrary to facts or despite facts that are patently obvious and really beyond contestation. And the excuse we allow people is the belief that everyone has the right to their own opinion. This is the justification for absurdities like insisting that schools teach Creationism alongside Darwinian evolution: because, we say, some people believe one thing and some people believe another thing, and both people have the right to their opinions, and we have to respect both opinions.

I can’t believe that people are too dumb to understand the evidence. I can’t believe that the truth is so hard to understand, or so hard to accept, that people are incapable of understanding and accepting it. Because some people do, and there’s nothing that makes those people inherently better than the people who do not. They are capable of accepting the truth: they just don’t. And the reason, I think, is that people don’t think about their opinions. They don’t look for evidence, and they don’t consider all sides of the issue. Why? Because they don’t have to. Because they already have their opinion, and they have the right to their opinion. And that’s why they believe stupid things. I don’t think that people are actually incapable of thought, even though they — oh, who am I kidding? Not “they.” We. — even though we act like it a lot of the time; but we don’t think when we believe we don’t have to, just as we don’t work when we don’t have to, and we don’t wear pants when we don’t have to. The idea that we have the right to our opinion simply because it is our opinion, the belief that everyone has this inherent, unalienable, natural right, and that it is sacrosanct — this is why these opinions still exist and why they are allowed to plague and annoy, and even to harm us.

No more. From now on, everyone, everywhere, has to earn their opinions.

And here’s how you do that: you have to think about your opinions. You have to consider all of the available evidence you have access to (On a sliding scale: the stronger the opinion, and the more important, the more evidence you must consider. We can hold tentative opinions when we don’t have all the facts yet, or when the subject isn’t all that important. Like whether cheesecake is a pie or a cake. Or if Star Trek was socially progressive for having the first interracial kiss on TV, or regressive for — every other kiss involving Captain Kirk. But those opinions must be tentative: held lightly, offered only with reservations.), and you have to listen to the opinions of those who think differently, and you have to think about whether those people might, in fact, be right. And when they are right, you have to adjust your opinion accordingly. You don’t have to change your opinion entirely; it is your opinion — but you have to include an exception, or a caveat, or an alternative. In other words, your opinion must be rational, and it must be open to change. You have to work on your opinions, and make them the very best opinions you could possibly have. Then — and only then –can you take pride in holding those opinions.

The other reason why people should earn their opinions is because the idea that we don’t, the idea that my opinion is as good as your opinion simply because it is my opinion, is used ever and always to end debate and discussion. I believe that discussion is necessary: discussion, communication, is how we gain — everything good, really. Collaboration and cooperation are necessary for society, and society is necessary to maintain both the species and the culture we have created. Communication creates empathy and understanding, which allows for acceptance and peace and harmony. Speaking your mind allows you to shape and solidify what you think; I often start these essays with little more than a single idea, and the rest only appears as I write it (I know: you can tell. Sorry about that.). Communication makes us better people, and happier people, and safer people — and therefore, I would argue, we should have some right to communicate, both the right to speak and the right to hear others speak to us.

Yes, I would argue. I argue a lot; that’s the way that I am annoying, both in the classroom and on the internet. People often don’t want to argue with me, and I can accept that; not everyone likes to struggle and fight. No problem. But even if we aren’t going to argue, we should at least discuss: we should share our ideas, our evidence, our thought process. This is how we learn and grow, this is how we gain respect for each other, and for our opinions: through communication, through conversation. I don’t have to argue, I don’t need to be right, to win or lose — but I do want to understand, and I do want to be understood. I need that. Yet too many of my discussions end the same way: the other person says, “Well, that’s just my opinion, and I’m entitled to that opinion. You’re entitled to yours.”

This sounds like a validation, but it isn’t. It’s the opposite: it’s a put-down. This is telling me that you don’t want to talk to me, you don’t want to share your thought with me: that I’m not worth the effort. This is blocking communication, and therefore also blocking understanding. This is imposing silence on me, not only depriving me of understanding your position, but also stopping me from making my position understood. You don’t have the right to do that, and if the way you do that is the statement, “That’s just my opinion, and I’m entitled to my opinion,” then you don’t have the right to that opinion. In fact, you’re not entitled to any opinion.

You have to earn your opinions.

That’s my opinion. Anyone care to discuss?