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Category: Culture

Mirror, Mirror
Of all the plot devices in all the Star Trek episodes and movies, none persists in my memory like the Tantalus Field. It appeared in “Mirror, Mirror,” an installment in which Captain Kirk is accidentally switched with his alter ego in another universe.

That episode is perhaps most famous for its depiction of a parallel, goateed Mr. Spock looking like Mandrake the Magician with Vulcan bangs. I think the makeover was meant to make him look badass, because this particular parallel universe is a very badass (albeit more stylish) place. He, like everyone else in his world, is so ambitious that torture and murder are seen as savvy career choices. What better way to get ahead than to kill your rival? No effort is made to assess the effect of such cutthroat competition on Starfleet morale, but hey, this is Star Trek.

It is in this dangerous culture of ruthlessness that our Captain Kirk suddenly finds himself. Fortunately for him, his twin possesses the perfect weapon for these circumstances: the Tantalus Field. Let’s not worry about how it works (Gene Roddenberry didn’t); it looks like a small TV with an array of knobs and buttons. Somehow, the user can summon a live video feed of a potential victim; then, by simply pressing one of the buttons, make that person disappear — forever.

This is what I find provocative. Here is a machine that allows you to get rid of people instantly and without fear of ever being held responsible. No muss, no fuss, no collateral damage, and no one to answer to other than your own conscience. What if such a device really existed? What if I had one? Would I use it?

I can certainly imagine using it. There are some cruel and murderous people in the world whom we would all be better off without. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is on my list, as are Than Shwe of Burma and Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan. Kim Jong Il also comes to mind, but he kakked before I could get my Tantalus up and running.

But could I push the button? And if I did, could I set the Tantalus Field aside and never use it again? If killing evildoers were that easy, wouldn’t I be tempted to keep using it? And why stop with evildoers? What would prevent me from disappearing people just because I didn’t like the cuts of their jibs?

I do not have satisfactory answers for these questions. I’d like to think I would do the right thing if such an absolute power were placed in my hands, but that is by no means certain.

Kirk himself never used it, even though doing so might have made his situation easier. But he didn’t destroy it, either. In the end, he decides to give it to the parallel Spock. He trusts that Spock will find the wisdom to use the Tantalus Field in a way that will serve the greater good.

I wouldn’t be so sure, Jimbo.

The Future Is Bright
And hot, and really crowded, too, thanks to us and our technology. But climate change doesn’t have to be a bummer, even if we do have to give up some of the things we love:

Like meat. Animals are just too inefficient as food sources, requiring way too much water and space per ounce of nourishment provided. Plus all that fat is bad for us, and cow farts contribute mightily to global warming.

No more war, either. It’s always been painfully obvious that, if we really want to save humanity, we should probably stop blowing each other up. Now it’s become a necessity; even if the bombs don’t get us, the massive release of greenhouse gases would eventually finish us off.

No more privacy, of course, but you already know that; I can tell by the look on your face.

All of this is inconvenient, but look at the unexpected benefits. Earth, it appears, will be inhabited by healthy, peaceful vegetarians who have to be open and honest with each other.

And they’ll need to be. All six billion of them will be living together in Antarctica.
Guns
I’m not going to tell you that guns should be outlawed. It will never happen anyway, not in this country. They have been and will be a part of all our lives.

My father owned two guns, both .38s. One, which he had bought from a co-worker, had the regulation long barrel, and the other was a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson “Chief’s Special.” He kept them in the top, right-hand drawer of his dresser, right next to his keys, his wallet, and his badge.

As a cop, he was required to own a gun. The rest of us don’t have to, but under the Second Amendment to the Constitution, we do have the right to “keep and bear arms.” This right was further clarified by the Supreme Court in 2010 in District of Columbia v. Heller, a decision in which the Court shot down the proposition that such a right had to be connected to the owner’s service in a militia. They did so even though militias are specifically mentioned in the single declarative sentence that comprises the amendment. I think that was a bad decision made by one of the most conservative Courts in American history. That said, we can’t ignore the fact that guns are right there in the founding document.

Even if you like Heller, it’s obvious that the framers, given their reference to militias, were probably thinking about keeping guns in citizens’ hands so that they might rise up against another tyrant, some future version of George III. I can imagine that tyrant being a military junta, or a cabal of corporate interests, or simply a duly elected government gone bad. Taken that way, the Second Amendment isn’t so stupid after all.

Still, it’s a can of worms. Once you specifically allow guns as a last line of defense against tyranny, the door is open for them to become much more than that in our culture. Back in the day, the guns were mostly flintlocks. You’d take a shot, then spend a minute reloading before shooting again. Today, a simple handgun is not so different from a bomb. Pull the trigger on a Glock and hold it down, and you can fire 33 rounds in a second or two. Dozens of people could die, virtually in an instant.

The can of worms has been opened, and the worms have evolved into something truly frightening. A congressman recently said that a 100-round ammunition clip is constitutionally protected. I wonder where he would draw the line? Are bazookas okay? Battleships? Tactical nukes?

Maybe the problem isn’t so much the guns as our attitude toward them. My father would occasionally take us to the firing range. The Patrol required that he practice with his weapon once a month, and he saw this as an opportunity to familiarize my brother and me with the basics of firearms. He taught us to be careful with them and offered some tips on proper shooting technique.

I don’t recall that there was much emotional content in any of these lessons. There was no pride, no bravado, no anger, no humor. We tried to hit the target, and I suppose we got some satisfaction in hitting the areas of the dark human silhouette that were marked with a 9, the highest score. I can’t say that my brother and I got very competitive about it, though, or that Dad ever expressed any particular satisfaction about his own scores. It was an interesting experience, but the setting was all very matter-of-fact and serious.

Perhaps that’s why I feel a little embarrassed for people who are full, all-the-lights-on gun enthusiasts. I’m a little taken aback by so much reverence and devotion for an instrument of death. No matter; I’ll grant that it is a perfectly legitimate hobby, like stamp collecting, though the Benjamin Franklin Z Grill will never blow away a family of four.

If reverence and devotion were the only feelings people had toward guns, however, there wouldn’t be a problem. It is when we find a place next to guns for pride, or bravado, or self-righteousness, or revenge, or wanton viciousness that I worry.

We have a problem. The cacophony of dark emotions reflected back at us by our media and culture tells us something troubling and dangerous about ourselves. In the midst of that din, weapons proliferate and become more deadly. And yet, given the honored place of guns in our law and history, we will not banish them. What chance do good people have in such a world?

My only thought is that for all of us, the imperative remains what it has always been: try to exercise some self-control, especially around the kids, and hang on tight to your humanity. It’s our last line of defense against the darkness.

A Better Place
Brightly-colored vegetables tumble across my TV screen, bouncing and twirling for joy — fast food in slow motion. Is it Arby’s? Sizzler? McDonald’s? Some of those vegetables need to be chopped, a task done with flair and gusto, also in slow motion. Sauces and seasonings fly, splashing and smacking the food.

Zydeco, or maybe happy techno, sets the beat. It’s a party back there, back in the kitchen. Such fun, just making our meal! Then it comes time for the main course. It may be a burger, or a chicken filet, or a prawn the size of your fist. The gorgeous offering is placed — so lovingly, so gently! — with tongs atop some fluffy butter lettuce.

Meanwhile, out front in the eating area, we are in a different world. Flickering fluorescence illuminates the grim patrons as they sit masticating and staring at nothing. Lines move, not in graceful slow motion, but as long stretches of waiting punctuated by brief shuffles forward. No Zydeco here, just the muffled din of street noise and the squalls of unruly children.

The food itself is transformed, as well. The entrée has shrunk, its plump vitality drained away. The special sauce has gone gummy. Vegetables, which so recently pirouetted in high spirits, now lie inert. Brilliant hues have faded to drab. Ambrosia has turned to grub.

I do not mind this contrast. Instead, I prefer to think of the public area as a metaphor for this earthly life. It is filled with heartache and disappointment, crippled by chance and human folly, destined to be brief and brutish.

Ah, but the kitchen! Where happy chefs mambo the day away working their culinary magic, where even the dreams of simple vegetables can come true. This is what heaven must be like. Well, maybe not heaven, but a better place, a perfect version of this flawed existence. It gives me comfort, it gives me hope that such a world could be so close — just behind that wall.

It helps, I guess, that I have never worked in a fast food restaurant.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon