Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Irreverent Humor

I love comedy.  I especially love "irreverent" comedy.  I howled when Richard Pryor made fun of White people, when George Carlin speared countless taboos in our society, and when Andrew Dice Clay personified the misogynistic narcissist.  Objectionable?  Absolutely.  But, in my opinion, hilarious.

I grew up reading National Lampoon, and distinctly remember their humorous takes on the tragic circumstances in Biafra.  They pushed every boundary of humor, a mantle that continues to be pressed by South Park, The Simpsons, and other animation shows.

Satire provides a verbal version of risk that couch potatos like me prefer to downhill skiing on black diamonds, hang gliding from cliffs, and bungee jumping off bridges.  Of course, satire is a katana-sharp blade, cutting both ways.  Slapstick is OK, and insult comics have their place (Vegas and the Poconos), but for my money satire represents the pinnacle of the art form and should only be attempted by the seasoned professional.

As if watching my beloved Steelers bungle through the Super Bowl last Sunday weren't painful enough, America was exposed to a botched National Anthem, a talentless halftime show, and generally uninspiring commercials.  In the latter category, we also witnessed quite probably the most offensive ad campaign ever launched on television.

Groupon's parody of public service announcements were, in my opinion, so offensive and insensitive as to make me visibly wince with anguish.  One example, which tried to parlay the decades-long misery of a people into a cutesy ploy for your disposable dining dollars, left me in shock.  And despite a subsequent torrent of online criticism and derision, the company CEO remains unconvinced of his colossal heartlessness in approving these multi-million dollar spots.

Groupon cashed in on the pillaging and destruction of the rainforests, whales, and Tibet in making their play for your business.  What's next?  Mocking the Holocaust to promote the local deli?  Citing the hilarity of Christina Taylor Green's murder to hawk discounts at the local gun shop?  How about recalling the joy of 9-11 to sell us low-cost flying lessons?

Lest I be labelled politically correct, let me clarify the important distinction to be made between these various forms of comedic "art."  When I bought National Lampoon, I knew exactly what my money secured.  When I watch Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, and Comedy Central roasts, I am making the conscious choice to expose myself to shock humor.  I do this because these people are paid specifically to challenge boundaries and afflict my comfortable sensibilities.  I do this because when they make Big Macs of our sacred cows, it empowers me to do the same against other injustices that I witness.  Their work at the edges of comedy opens the frontier for the likes of Michael Moore and John Stewart to populate our mainstream.  And, on occasion - such as the cases of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin - a comedian can actually promote incredibly worthwhile social commentary and criticism.

But, Groupon's ads were an ambush in the name of nothing but pursuing the almightly buck.  These commercials mugged us not just with failed satire, but cruel profiteering garnered specifically at the expense of others' suffering.  All of which I could forgive if the company either showed some level of compassionate understanding of peoples' negative responses, or if they exhibited a legitimate commitment to helping alleviate the destruction caused by the situations they were exploiting.  But, a weak attempt at matching $100,000 of donations pales in comparison to the expense of producing these marketing ploys and purchasing network time to display them.

So, if you use Groupon and are equally offended, cancel your subscription and tell them why.  And when local businesses use their services, tell them why you will not be availing yourself of their products as well.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

All Handguns Must Go - "Logic and Lawn Darts" (2/6/11 sermon)

Sometimes when I recall with romantic nostalgia my childhood, I wonder how we made it out of our formative years alive. My friends and I routinely played with toys that no company would consider manufacturing today. We romped on steel playgrounds anchored into crushed stone yards. And, we generally roamed the neighborhood unsupervised for hours at a time without fear of predators, abductors, molesters, or stray bullets.

Enough accidents and tragic occurrences raised the safety consciousness of a generation of Americans, so that now we can hardly avoid warnings of the mayhem possible from even the most innocent products. A few years ago, an online publication called Radar Magazine published a list of the most dangerous toys of all time. Obviously one can hardly expect such a list to be terribly scientific, but apparently the choices were made according to the ability of these toys to kill, maim, or generally be hazardous to the well being of children receiving them as gifts. I credit the authors of the list with spanning the last few generations of ingenious toy craft. I have no doubt that each of you will identify with at least one of these deliverers of destruction.

In tenth place was the Fisher-Price Harley Davidson Power Wheels Motorcycle. The throttle of this motorized vehicle apparently got stuck in full acceleration mode on occasion, sending the rider on an uncontrolled journey toward collision. In ninth place landed several 1979 Battlestar Galactica Missile Launchers, which propelled projectiles small enough to fit into unsuspecting throats.

Now, for the older children among us, we have our eighth place finisher, the Johnny Reb Cannon. While people apparently had no problems with its glorification of the Confederacy upon its release in 1961 (the centennial of the start of the Civil War), the Reb fired small, hard, plastic cannonballs up to 35 feet. Apparently, our toy makers don’t learn their lesson about small projectiles from one generation to another. At number seven, we have Creepy Crawlers. Of course, one could take one’s pick here from Easy-Bake Ovens to my personal favorite from my childhood, the Vacuuform. Nothing says safety like an open hot plate and exposed 100-watt light bulbs.

Another toy for the older generation comes in at number six. The Bat Masterson Derringer Belt Gun combined the cap-firing fun of a gun with a belt buckle. Number five brings us Sky Dancers – a toy of which I was blissfully ignorant before writing this sermon. Sold in the late 1990’s, one apparently stuck their little fairie feet into a launcher, pulled a string, and sent the twirling toys into the air.

We probably all remember those hideous (in my personal opinion) Cabbage Patch Dolls and number four brings us the 1996 Snacktime Kids Doll, which apparently had no shut off switch for its ravenous, munching jaws. At number three, Mini-Hammocks from EZ Sales. Unfortunately, children often found themselves emulating a chrysalis with no chance of emerging as a butterfly.

My personal favorite chimes in at number two. Gilbert, the company that gave us the infamous Erector Set, in 1951 produced the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. For a mere $49.50, the kit came complete with four actual samples of Uranium-bearing ores, a Geiger counter, and a Spinthariscope (to see “live” radioactive disintegration). Lucky kids also received a comic book (Dagwood Splits the Atom) and a government manual titled, "Prospecting for Uranium."

And now – drum roll please – the number one most dangerous toy of all time. Lawn Darts! Sort of a javelin-version of horseshoes (my set was known as Jarts), one lobbed the metal tipped arrows underhand toward a plastic hoop lying on the grass. The large spear impaled itself in the dirt, hopefully scoring points for the thrower.

Now, lest you think this particular survey unfairly castigates the dignity of these fine products, let’s review the known findings of reputable analysts. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Fisher-Price recalled more than 200,000 of the Power Wheels Motorcycles in 2000 after receiving nine reports of the foot pedal on these mechanized deathtraps sticking. One 3-year-old boy suffered cuts and bruises when his out-of-control bike ran into a home. Mattel offered a “Missile Mail-in” to replace the small, red plastic bullets launched from the Battlestar Gallactica toys. Even though the product met or exceeded all existing and proposed safety standards at the time, there were instances of accidental swallowing of missiles, including one reported death of a four-year-old child.

One can imagine similar reports from the Johnny Reb Cannon, and the danger from Creepy Crawler burns were probably only exceeded by the nauseating taste of the toxic chemicals comprising them. One product safety organization reportedly claimed that the Bat Masterson belt gun’s caps “can be ignited by friction and cause serious burns.” I won’t speculate what kind of friction they thought a 10-year old boy would experience on his belt.

Injuries from Galoob’s Sky Dancers reportedly included scratched corneas and temporary blindness, mild concussions, broken ribs and teeth, and facial lacerations that required stitches. Nearly nine million Sky Dancers were eventually recalled by 2000 and the company fined $400,000. After 35 fingers and ponytails fell victim to Snacktime Kids’ appetites, Mattel removed them from shelves forever, and offered 500,000 customers a full $40 refund.

Between 1984 and 1995, twelve children between the ages of five and seventeen years old became entangled and died when using the Mini-Hammocks. A seven-year-old girl suffered permanent brain damage from a near-strangulation. A mother found her five-year-old boy entangled, but was able to resuscitate him. As a result, three million of the devices were recalled.

I won’t even hazard to speculate about the impact of the Atomic Energy Lab.

After deciding that voluntary agreements on stricter labeling and marketing were not having the desired effect, in 1987 the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to ban lawn darts. The Commission had records of three deaths associated with lawn darts since 1970. Lawn darts were linked with an estimated 700 emergency room visits each year. Commission Chair Ann Brown went so far as to recommend that "Parents should destroy these banned lawn darts immediately." Commissioner Anne Graham added, "What limited recreational value lawn darts may have is far outweighed by the number of serious injuries and unnecessary deaths…There are numerous alternatives to lawn darts, and I would urge adults who have lawn darts to throw them away now."

Created in 1972 (sadly too late for some of our examples), the Consumer Product Safety Commission is a federal agency charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from thousands of types of consumer products under the agency's jurisdiction. The Commission’s work to ensure the safety of consumer products is believed to have contributed to the 30% decline in the rate of deaths and injuries linked to such products.

The Commission has jurisdiction “over more than 15,000 kinds of consumer products used in and around the home, in sports, recreation and schools.” But, the Commission does not claim jurisdiction over all categories of products. For example, food, drugs, cosmetics, and medical devices fall under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration; automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, and tires are the responsibility of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Pesticides are included as part of the sphere of activity of the Environmental Protection Agency, and boats lie under the authority of the Coast Guard.

But, let’s move away from kid’s stuff (literally) and jump to the big three. Alcohol and tobacco are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, whose primary function is to “ensure that only qualified persons engage in the alcohol beverage industry... [and] enforcing the laws relating to tobacco products advertising.” And firearms fall under the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. BATF’s mission statement describes it as a law enforcement agency “that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.”

You may note a subtle distinction between the roles of these various entities. The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates the distribution and the design and manufacture of consumer products. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and the BATF, on the other hand, only regulate the distribution of the products within their sphere of operation, as well as the improper use of them by consumers. So, while the government empowers the Consumer Product Safety Commission to prevent companies from producing a dangerous product, the other agencies can only penalize those who abuse the laws regarding the sale, distribution, and use of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms once they have already been manufactured. One agency recaptures the cow after leaving the barn. The other keeps the calf from being born at all.

I am sure that critiquing the operations or the relative success of any of these important government bodies provides ample employment to various watchdog groups and analysts. Given their particular notoriety, one could certainly spend significant time examining the merits (or lack thereof) of certain historic BATF actions. Instead, I offer a suggestion that will simplify the work of every BATF agent by removing any ambiguities from their mission to protect this nation’s communities.

I call for a total ban on privately-owned handguns and for the confiscation and destruction of all such weapons in existence. I call for the elimination of all private ownership of handguns in this country and a ban on the production of handguns for the use of anyone but authorized law enforcement agents forever.

I understand that efforts to control handguns in this country have met with one failure after another. Since the shooting of James Brady in 1981 during John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, gun control advocates have run into one roadblock after another, largely due to the furious lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association.

But, I do not call for gun control. I do not advocate for expanded background checks, or increased regulations on vendors. I do not care what the founders wrote 200 years ago or how even the most impartial jurist might interpret their meanings today. The time is long overdue for us as a nation to completely and forever cut our ties with all handguns as being inimical to human life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Now, I suspect even the most peace-loving among you might contemplate certain questions that arise from this call:

  • What’s wrong with owning a handgun for target shooting?
  • What’s wrong with carrying a handgun for my personal protection?
  • How will we get handguns away from criminals?

Legitimate questions – let’s address each one.
Some people own handguns merely for the enjoyment of target shooting. I myself have fired pistols at a shooting range and understand the pleasure of the sport. Let’s recall our list of infamous toys. All 10 combined resulted in fewer than 20 deaths. Obviously, the preventable and unnecessary death of even one child should deeply sadden us. But, lawn dawns caused only three reported deaths over 16 years, and were banned by the federal government.
In contrast, even the most ardent supporter of handgun ownership must agree that many hundreds of thousands of people have died from handgun homicides, accidents, and suicides during my lifetime. If we can ban businesses from even manufacturing a toy with only the potential of personal injury, why can we not ban a product with a long-proven track record of far more death and destruction?
But, criminals still have guns and I need to protect myself. Yes, you do. Let’s examine our actions in response to other similar circumstances. The federal government began establishing standards to phase out the use of lead additives to gasoline when the harmful effects to human health and the environment became apparent. Environmental protection regulations caused the automobile industry to turn itself on its collective ear to alter vehicle design and assembly, and the oil industry was forced to change its gasoline production and distribution processes. And, aside from the reported deaths of original research team members early on of lead poisoning, leaded gas was not likely linked directly to any deaths. From January 1, 1996, the Clean Air Act banned the sale of leaded fuel for use in on-road vehicles. Possession and use of leaded gasoline in a regular on-road vehicle now carries a maximum $10,000 fine.
The point is that we identified an inherent danger. We found a usable alternative – unleaded gas – and we banned the dangerous product. So the obvious question arises. Does an alternative exist to handguns for personal safety purposes? Of course it does. And one alternative – the taser – works just as effectively, is much less prone to accidental misuse, and results in death only in rare cases. Tasers can already be legally carried (concealed or open) without a permit in 43 states.
What about handguns already being used by criminals? As gun ownership advocates fondly say, when we criminalize guns, only criminals will have guns. Baloney. I know that I should be more theological and intellectual about my response to this argument. But, if we banned handgun manufacture and importation, then only time and the enforcement of laws stand between us and a relatively handgun-free America. Handguns are not marijuana – people can’t grow pistols in their backyards.
Will a handgun ban stop violent crime? Of course not. Kids will find ways to injure themselves no matter how many sharp edges and toxic substances you remove from their environment. Likewise, criminals may well use rifles, knives, clubs, hand grenades, or just their fists to commit acts of violence. That argument, however, offers no reason to oppose efforts to attempt to reduce and even eliminate deaths directly associated with private handgun ownership.
What solutions do I offer if we attempt this transition? Given our government’s propensity for throwing money at solutions, I ask for a relatively modest sum to fund the following initiatives:
  • For one year, offer every recreational owner who turns in a handgun $100 in cash, or an appraised trade-in on a bow and arrow, rifle, shotgun, or other legal firearm of their choice – after that, all handguns will be confiscated and destroyed;
  • Provide every collector of historic handguns free conversion of their weapon, making it incapable of firing to avoid confiscation;
  • Offer every registered owner who turns in a protective handgun a free taser;
  • Provide research and development funding to Colt Manufacturing and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who are working to perfect “smart guns,” and then convert every handgun used by law enforcement agents to incorporate biometirc recognition; and
  • Make mandatory sentencing associated with handgun-related crime so onerous, that no sane criminal will consider their use.

What would these initiatives cost? Estimates place the number of handguns in America at 200 to 300 million. We could partially offset the cost of the handgun buy-back program with modest taxes on the huge expected increase in taser sales and permit fees. Given our history of industry bailouts, and our exorbitant military expenditures over the years, the remaining costs far outweigh the direct potential gain in human life and reduction of human misery.
Now, I am no lawyer and have no interest in haggling over budgetary priorities and implications. But, as a clergyman, I must address certain recent decisions in our halls of government. A 5-4 Supreme Court decision in June 2010 on McDonald v. the City of Chicago, cited the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms – and specifically the right to possess a handgun – as "fundamental to the Nation's scheme of ordered liberty" in trumping the ability of local governments to protect their residents by creating common-sense regulations on handguns. Also, in July 2010, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law a bill authorizing persons who qualify to carry concealed weapons, and having passed necessary training and background checks, to bring them to churches, mosques, synagogues, or other houses of worship.
After Columbine, Virginia Tech, and now the senseless murders recently in Tucson, I say, “enough.” I don’t care if you are a bodyguard, a state policeman, or a secret service agent charged with protecting the President, I welcome you into this house of worship. But, I do not welcome your weapons and I specifically do not welcome your handguns. Arrest me, sue me, fine me. But, I will never knowingly allow anyone to bring a handgun into any congregation I serve. If we take a stand against handguns, then let it start here in our houses of worship. Here, where we dedicate ourselves to loving our neighbors and to bringing about a better life on earth – here is where we say “no” now and forever to handguns.
Our government routinely bans products with only the potential to cause harm. Drugs that may well cure diseases face rejection after years of development and study. Foods that may only cause illness are regularly ordered destroyed. And companies that manufacture toys that perhaps may harm a child face fines, lawsuits, and bans. Saving just one nine-year-old like Christina Taylor Green would make a handgun ban worth any price.
So, where is our equivalent collective outrage against this far-greater ill plaguing our populace? I say it should reside here, here in our churches, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship. Here, as children of a higher purpose and universal laws of humanity and love, we should demand the protection from these threats to our well-being and to our lives.