Let Us Ban Guns in the United States

The character-driven 2016 presidential campaign has given short shrift to vitally important issues, chief among them, climate change.  But threats to the peaceful transition of power has also pushed gun control toward the top of my list.  Civilians in the United States own more than 300 million guns—over 1,000,000 purchased since President Obama took office—and the most per capital in the world.  Under “normal” circumstances, 33,000 people kill others or themselves each year. With Trump and his Alt Right compatriots threatening to reject election results and, in some cases, to storm the barricades, the threat level may have risen exponentially.

In the short run, guns will remain on the street, in individual hands, and in the hands of self-appointed militias, who believe themselves to be fighting for their liberty in the tradition of Revolutionary War heroes.  Should a succession crisis arise, the United States government would have to deal with treasonous threats—and, of course, treasonous actions—by meeting power with far greater power.  In the long run, we need to deal with the economic and social discontent that fuels the threats.  In the intermediate run, we need to get the guns off the street and out of the mountains.

You would think that the case for gun control is both known and broadly shared..  Some is but some isn’t.  Advocates of gun control cite the violence in the streets, the danger of accidental shooting, and suicides in our homes.  They point out  that criminals and mentally ill people should not be allowed to own guns. Duh. They frequently make allowances for hunters.  And they accept what they have come to see as the Constitutional right to gun ownership guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

During the second debate, Hillary Clinton assured us that she believes in the Second Amendment and that she only seeks sensible safeguards to gun ownership.  This fearful, compromised bowing down to a false interpretation of the Amendment has become second nature for virtually all American politicians.  In spite of the fact that both Clinton and the majority of Americans want gun control, the prevailing belief among politicians is that you can’t propose banning buns or even severely limit their purchase.  It would be fatal to their careers.  In effect, they have acquiesced to a powerful political minority, led by the National Rifle Association’s Congressional lobbying and public intimidation campaign—allied to a general right wing agenda, and supported by millions inflamed, largely male voters who believed they are being sacrificed to the interests of corporations, minorities, and immigrants.

The gun lobby is hardly satisfied with the acquiescence in this line of thinking.  They maintain that Clinton and all those like her are pretenders.  Once in power, the Clintons of the world would seize the guns of patriotic Americans.  Two-faced politicians would deprive true Americans of their ability to protect their liberty.  This, the protection of individual liberty, has become the true north star of the Alt Right.  The gun lobby and its protectors bellow that regulation is simply the start of a slippery slope toward the banning of all guns.  Banning guns robs loyal citizens of their fundamental, Constitutionally sanctioned rights and leads ineluctably towards an oppressive federal government.  It’s a simple, cause and effect formula.

On this one point, I hope that the Alt Right is correct.  I hope that we can ban guns from civilian use, with the possible exception of hunting.  The case for banning guns doesn’t seem hard to make.  There isn’t enough time and space to document the argument in this essay, but I can summarize it.

To state the obvious,, guns enable violence.  Second, do not help us defend ourselves.  There is almost no evidence—amid much research—that guns deter violence.  .  Third, the apparent truism that the Second Amendment was written to protect the individual’s right to bear arms, is false, or at best a tenuous, modern reinterpretation of the Amendment.

Until the 1970’s, the NRA had been an association of hunters, dedicated mostly to gun safety.  As Jeffrey Toobin has written, during that decade,  “The NRA and conservative lawmakers engineered a coup d’état at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power—as part of the leading edge of the new, more rightward-leaning Republican Party…The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms…At first, their views were widely scorned. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger,” a Republican, “who was no liberal, mocked the individual-rights theory of the amendment as ‘a fraud.’”

That coup d’etat, with sturdy support from an obedient Congress, established the norms that persist today and overwhelm majority opposition.  The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Until the 1970s, the interpretive emphasis was on militias, not individuals.  The United States had been a loose confederation of states, each jealously guarding its own interests.  Having come together to fight the British monarchy, they were wary of federal power—the establishment of a new monarchy.  To guard against the powers of a central government, they argued for states’ rights.  And to protect the integrity of states, the Bill of Rights, written by the nation’s founders, empowered state militias.  Individuals could own guns in the service of these militias, which could be mobilized when states rights were encroached upon.  This is the key:  Individuals could own guns in the service of militias.  And, of course, to hunt.  This was the 18th century, after all, and people hunted for their food.

We are now a nation — no longer a loose confederation of states.  There would be no contest between the federal armed forces and local militias, no matter how many assault rifles they could mobilize.  What’s more, the thousand or so militias currently active no longer correspond to state boundaries.  With the obvious exception of the Civil War, the democratic process established in the 18th century has allowed us to resolve our differences through debate and voting.  Throughout this period, political majorities win and minorities fume but, eventually the minorities become the majorities.  The cycles of liberal and conservative victories represent our triumph, not our failure.

According to the standards proposed by both the Constitutional Originalists, like Antonin Scalia, and those who see the Constitution as a living document that must adapt with the times, there is no logical, legal argument that favors individual gun ownership, and certainly none that favors assault rifles and other military weapons.  The Founders wanted to arm militias.

We, the people of the United States, have a right and, I believe, a duty to ban the civilian use of weapons.  It will save lives and it will thwart violent revolution. With the possible exception of our own American Revolution, revolutions have not solved anyone’s problems.  In the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, to name a few, violence begat violence; and violence, in turn begat tyranny.

It will be difficult, but not impossible, to ban guns.  It will require a sustained grass roots effort throughout the country.  It will require our belief that it is the right thing to do.  It will require stamina and courage for a long struggle. I invite all of you to think with me about how to build much greater momentum so. In the fight against guns.

 

 

 

 

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The Coward that is Donald Trump

Guys,

I’m writing to you as a fellow White guy.  I’m getting older but I can still remember lacing up my cleats in football and trying hard—and unsuccessfully—to dunk in front of the home crowd in basketball.  I had to try.  I still have my hiking boots, though they are more like a memento than something I wear.  I’m writing because I’m confused and need you to help me understand this Trump love of yours.

When I played sports, we were taught not to find excuses when we lost or when we didn’t play our best.  The idea was simple: I’ll do better next time.  We were taught to respect our opponent, especially if they had played a good game.  The way Red Sox and Celtic fans cheered for Jeter and Magic when they retired and how Yankee fans will cheer Big Papi next week.

We respect quality and effort.  We hate people who don’t give it their best.  We love that Brady works his rear end off.  We love the hustle guys, like Dustin Pedroia.  We hate the guys who trot to first base or who give up on plays.  We hate guys who focus on their individual statistics at the expense of winning for their team.  We love team-first players because… because they represent us.  At least, they represent the best in us, the people we want to be.

We aren’t the naturals who make it to the big leagues.  We have to hustle.  We have to depend on our teammates.  And we love our teammates.  When we are playing, there is no closer bond.  The closeness is visceral.  Truth be told, that’s one of the only place we can express that closeness without being considered a little less than the men we want to be.  At least that was true when many of us were growing up.

We like guys who keep their own counsel and don’t have to be told all the time how great they are.  What a drag those guys are, with their faces always in the TV camera, their insincere smiles begging for praise.  And when the praise isn’t forthcoming, they do the work themselves.  They boast and preen.  They are braggarts because they are needy.  They lack inner strength and faith in themselves.

Most of all, I think we respect courage.  The ability to take on something that’s hard, where we might fail, where we have to rise to the big moment. Watching guys like David Ortiz, bases loaded in the ninth inning in the World Series, we kind of know we wouldn’t rise the way he did.  But we dream of it and we admire it.  Guts.  That’s what he has.  That’s what the cops that we love following on TV have.  Guys like Frank Reagan in Blue Bloods.

We respect Frank Reagan not because he would take a bullet for a friend, though he would, but because he’ll wrestle with morally complicated issues.  Should he do the ‘right’ thing or should he favor his son.  Should he take the easy way out to please the public or risk public opprobrium to do what he most believes is right.  He struggles, he stays awake at night, he consults.  He does everything in his power to follow his ethical compass.  He’s not a poll watcher.  That takes courage and we admire him for it.

We would like to knock bullies on their rear ends.  We’ve all known them on the playground and at work.  Too many colleagues and especially too many bosses are bullies.  They pay us and they think it gives them the right to push us around, yell at us, belittle us.  We know that, in different circumstances, we could show them a thing or two.  We have heard like everyone else the line “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”  We’d like to help with the fall.  We know that bullies are cowards.  But when do we get to be in places where we can force them to show their true colors.

We despise cheats.  Look at those guys who hit hundreds of home runs with the help of performance enhancing drugs.  Keep those guys out of the Hall of Fame.  Right?  Look at Spy Gate.  When Belichick and the Patriots stole signals from other teams, it turned the whole country against them.  Think about the basketball players who flop when you brush them with your pinkie.  They get fouls and points that way.  They are despicable.  Right?  They’re not our kind of guy.

These are all forms of lying.  Lying is not what men do.  We face the music.  We’d rather not cheat—that’s not what men do, either—but when we do and when we’re caught, we face up to it.  We like guys who, when they are wrong or when they let us down, they say something simple like “my bad.”  Then we’re done with it.  Guys who can’t admit they’ve failed are cowards.  They are weak.

Weak is not losing.  It’s losing without trying—for fear of losing.  Weak is when we can’t admit our own limitations.  Weak is when we can’t depend on others, just like point guards depend on big guys for rebounds and big guys need the guards to get them the ball in good position.  I just read that Derrick Rose, once one of the premier talents in the National Basketball Association, said that his job was now to support Carmello Anthony.  Rose had carried teams by himself until he began injuring his knees.  He’s still good but not great anymore.  He could demand to be treated as the top guy, he could let his ego rule, but he wants his team to win.  If that means recognizing his limitations and changing his role, he’ll do it.

I can’t speak for combat experience, but I can well imagine that guys who have been to war wouldn’t have much time for a person who only values himself and his own success, who lies and cheats and bullies, a buy who has no guts.  This is what puzzles me the most.  How could guys with these values connect with such a blowhard and a coward as Donald Trump.

Imagine how people would react to Donald Trump if he were to say that he doesn’t know that much about public policy but he’ll try to learn and he’ll surely depend on others to help him.

Imagine if Trump, upon being thumped by Clinton in the Debate, were to say that he lost fair and square and admires her abilities.  He could even say that debating isn’t leadership but still admit she’s a better debater than he is.

Imagine if Trump said that he exaggerates a great deal, probably because he’s afraid that the bare facts won’t pump him up enough.

Imagine if he said he is, in fact, thin skinned, gets hurt pretty easily, and then gets angry when he feels attacked.  He’s sensitive guy but he’s trying to stop that from ruling him.

Imagine if Trump were to admit that he’s like lots of other people: biased against people of color because he doesn’t trust them.  It’s hard, after all, to trust people he doesn’t know—really doesn’t know—and who look angry when he’s in the room.

He’d be a different guy and some people might give him a second look.

But there’s no chance that Donald Trump will fess up to the truth—because he is a coward.  That’s what’s underneath.  He lies, cheats, bullies, brags, and preens like an insecure little boy in search of a big blond mother to make him whole again.  That won’t happen either.  He won’t feel whole because he is looking outside, not inside, for the sources of his anxiety and fear and neediness.  That makes him both pathetic and dangerous.  Dangerous because he will do almost anything to try to reclaim his absent manhood.

 

Acting Well in an Absurd World

I write this essay on the morning of the Clinton-Trump debates.  As the possibility of a Trump presidency grows in strength, sounds of confusion and the stink of fear have begun to fill the air.  How could a man who lies like a psychopath, who bullies and mocks and finds common cause with White Supremacists be our president. It makes no sense.  We must be living in an altered state of consciousness.

We have been lied to before.  Think back to our entry into the Iraq war, the Iran contra affair, Watergate, and the torture chambers that we transferred to foreign soil, lest they infect our own.  We have had presidents who have torn down what we thought was almost sacred—the New Deal safety net—Reagan, Bush, and Clinton readily come to mind—and helped to build a world in which the 1% own 50% of our wealth and god knows what percentage of the decision-making power.

What I want to talk about today, though, is the impact of the presidential campaign on us, moderate, liberal, and Progressive Americans who wonder how this could be happening to them, feeling like bystanders to a process that is out of our control.

I have studied the European climate during the rise of fascism and Nazism.  It was fed by extreme poverty and loss of life during World War 1, which, in turn, fueled the rise of Nazism and the concomitant anti-Semitism that almost wiped out the entire Jewish people.  For me, just behind the actual death and destruction, the worst part was that so many people just stood by and let it happen.  I don’t mean the time-worn and erroneous way that later anti-Semites described Jews as passively accepting their fate like lambs to slaughter.  I mean the millions of people who did not believe in fascism or didn’t wholly  believe in it, who were offended, but who did nothing to resist.

Now I am afraid that we are standing by.  Almost 70% of Americans dislike Trump and much of what he stands for but—and this is the point—I don’t believe that we are taking the threat seriously enough.  If we don’t, it may not be the “basket of deplorables” who are most to blame, it will be us.  As Albert Einstein famously warned, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

In the face of our own fear and confusion, it is hard to know what to do.  Many in the middle and on the left seem dispirited, depressed, just short of giving in to despair.  Genuine hope seems an illusion.  Others are in a state of denial.  Hillary Clinton will surely win in the end, they say, however timidly.  We are Americans.  We will come to our senses.  We can’t be this lax, can we?  This is just how political contests go.  They tighten up at the end.  The forces of good will come through in the end.

Alternatively, we whisper that Trump may not turn out as badly as he seems.  He’s just saying all those terrible things to win the votes of the Republican base.  Look at the influence of beautiful Ivanka and her new childcare proposals.  Maybe these “denials” will prove out and Clinton will win or Trump will turn out to be better than he seems.  Maybe, but are we willing to take that chance?

I know that this article will seem alarmist to many, extreme to some.  But shouldn’t we raise the cry, just in case?  We do need to organize.  We do need to fight our own despair and impotence.  We need to fight our way out of this nightmare.  The question, then, is how do we do that.  I know that the Democratic Party will organize.  I get several fundraising emails every day.  The “ground” troops are hard at work.  The ads are ubiquitous.  But that hasn’t worked so far.  The harder the Clinton troops work, the more they seem to be losing.  Trump continues to gain; and he is now tied.  When you continue to try one strategy—characterize Trump as an immoral lunatic who can’t be entrusted with the keys to the kingdom—and that strategy does not work, you can’t keep repeating yourself.  You will lose.

We need to be heartier and more creative in the coming weeks.  We need to shake our confusion and despair.  Before we strengthen ourselves on the big stage, we have to raise our spirit, one person at a time.  Here are some thoughts about breaking loose.

When I start down that road to despair, I generally try to make sense of what’s going on.  I’ve been trying to do that for months and months now, and I can’t.  It makes no sense that Trump’s popularity grows.  I have written more than ten essays about the subject, trying to understand and not just condemn White working class voters, but I have failed to clarify things even to myself.  The political situation just seems absurd.

So I have begun to turn to the master absurdity, Albert Camus.  Camus, who wrote in the face of fascist and communist totalitarianism, simply began with the premise that the world is, in fact, absurd.  The absurdity that we face in the present day is not an aberration, it is our shared reality.  We cannot grasp it logically.  Theological explanations are not helpful: no amount of sin or the need for cleansing, for example, could explain the rise of Hitler.  Our moral compass just seems to spin.  As Camus would say, we live in a godless universe and Trump exemplifies that universe.  Sociology and psychology also bring us to a kind of dead end because explaining the horror doesn’t stop it.  What to do, then, in the face of this absurdity.

Camus’ philosophy is complex but here’s the simple version from his The Myth of Sisyphus that has sometimes kept me going.  Sisyphus is a character in Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again.  This sometimes characterizes the experience for those of us who have tried year after year to build upon progressive values.  We push the rock up the hill for a generation, then it comes tumbling down. Why, we ask, should we keep trying.

Camus tells us that Sisyphus is only freed from his despair when he recognizes the absurdity of his situation.  I suppose that goes for progressives like me, who might call ourselves realistic but who have in mind an idealized future just beneath the surface of our policy proposals.  What I feel when I fully acknowledge that the Trump surge may well win out, when I give up hope, even for a moment, is first terror that is soon, paradoxically, followed by relief.  I can stop trying to push the rock to the top.

By pushing and pushing, I had become robotic.  I had lost all creativity and, maybe even compassion for the people I want to help.  It was as though I had been closing my eyes and holding my breath, hoping that the nightmare would go away.  When I give up, when I stop pretending that the world is other than it is, and that includes a world with Donald Trump in it, I can breathe again.  With breath, there comes relief.  For a moment, I relax, as though the worst is past.   Relief is then followed by a sense of freedom.  There is no rock.  I can do as I please.  I can choose my future.

What do I choose?  I still choose to push the rock of progress up the hill.  But now, no gods are making me do so.  And maybe, free from the constant struggle, I can find more creative ways to get that rock up the hill.  A lever?  Jet propulsion?  I sustain my effort because there is nothing else that I can do that fits my values, that gives me a sense of meaning, that sustains my integrity. My struggle for social justice is selfish in this way.

Giving up the robotic struggle leads to freedom and freedom leads to possibilities for a better future because—and this I believe even if logic won’t verify it—the world demands that we strive towards freedom and decency, respect and equality for all.  It urges us forward like a mighty river.  It is the only path that is worthwhile. So we take it.

A Call for a More Dignified and Restrained Presidential Politics

I imagine that most of you are as offended by the Trump campaign as I am.  It is hyped and garish, nasty and brutish, and it is embarrassing to anyone who yearns for a measure of dignity in presidential politics.  The demands of the 24 hour news cycle have created a structured narcissism.  Even if Trump wasn’t so narcissistic to begin with, the demands of the news cycle might impose it upon him. The need to talk constantly about yourself, to keep your face in front of a camera, the virtual requests to attack your opponent—what we have brought upon ourselves is a Hollywood parody of democratic politics.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Barack Obama—and his family—have set a high standard for dignified behavior in the presidency.  They have exercised an ironic restraint, while the President shies away from attacking others and even seems to resist the temptation to return insults in kind.  I yearn for more restrained, reasonable, and respectful presidential politics.  Whether you agree with President Obama’s policy or not is not relevant to the point I’m making.  I simply want to shine a focus on the dignified way he conducts the business of his office.

I know that because President Obama is a sitting president, enacting policies that some dispute, it might be hard to separate the substance of his governing from his conduct.  So let me present a model that even the most patriotic of Americans will have trouble dismissing.  What follows is a brief sketch of our first President, George Washington.  True, he didn’t live in the world of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, but he did live in a very small political community, where rumors spread easily and where even our great founding fathers, Jefferson in particular, spread false and damning rumors.  Believe me, it wasn’t as easy as it looked for Washington to take the high ground.

Washington’s character. Over the years, I have read many books about Washington and his times.  Among them are David McCullough’s 1776, Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington, and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.  But for now I’m going to lean most heavily on the brilliant portraits of Gordon Wood.  As you read this portrait, keep in mind for comparison the Republican candidate.

Woods tells us that Washington didn’t seem to have much to say.  He was a quiet man.  Unlike Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, he was not an intellectual.  There was nothing abstract about him.  Instead, he was “a man of affairs,” a successful businessman.

Most of all, Washington was a man of great moral character, who put great stock in controlling his passions and conducted himself calmly during the most turbulent of times, as both a wartime general and as our founding President.  Here’s how Woods summarizes it:  Washington, “(a)n enlightened, civilized man, was disinterested and impartial, not swayed by self-interest and self-profit. He was cosmopolitan; he stood above all local and parochial considerations and was willing to sacrifice his personal desires for the greater good of his community or his country. He was a man of reason who resisted the passions most likely to afflict great men, that is, ambition and avarice. Such a liberal, enlightened gentleman avoided enthusiasms and fanaticisms of all sorts…Tolerance and liberality were his watchwords. Politeness and compassion toward his fellow man were his manners.”  In summary, Washington “was obsessed that he not seem base, mean, avaricious, or unduly ambitious.”

Actions that exemplify character. There’s an irony in Washington’s life: His two great acts were resignations, each representing a pillar of our democratic government.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, he resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the American forces.  This was unprecedented.  Throughout human history, the commanders of victorious armies all sought political and material rewards for their achievements.  In resigning, Washington made a symbolic statement about the nature of democracy – how it is different than autocracy.  Leadership must pass from one person to another; and leaders must not cling to power.  Power must reside in the citizenry. 

If Washington was highly respected beforehand, he was revered after his resignation.  The new democratic citizens appreciated how he stood by his word.  He meant to leave his career in order to cement the democratic ideal of peaceful leadership succession.  He was later persuaded that his prestige was essential to the construction of the new republic, and he returned to public life for the Constitutional Convention, where he was immediately elected President.  He accepted the reality that the ratification of the Constitution depended, in good measure, on his support.  As James Monroe wrote to Jefferson, “Be assured, his influence carried this government.”  But Washington lent more than his prestige; he worked extremely hard for ratification.  In other words, he was all in.

Many contemporaries believed that “Washington was the only part of the new government that captured the minds of the people.”  He believed that, too.  He knew that during that tumultuous time, when his country was still fragile, a steady and trusted hand at the helm was of critical importance.  He was self-consciously setting an example for future generations or what he called “the millions of unborn.”  By using his immense cache, he built a strong and somewhat independent executive branch, an idea at odds with the French-leaning Jeffersonians, but one that would forever shape the American Presidency.

Then he did it again.  After two terms, Washington left office.  More than any other presidential act, this resignation established the precedent for a peaceful transition of power, possibly the single most important quality of democratic governments.  Symbolically, it ushered in the rule of ordinary people and ushered out the rule of kings and queens, held in place by divine right.  Washington’s restraint – his refusal to profit by his leadership and popularity, his insistence that he was a man like other men—this was his greatest legacy.  In addition, “he established the standard by which all subsequent Presidents might be ultimately measured—not by the size of their electoral victories, not by their legislative programs, and not by the number of their vetoes, but by their moral character.”

Hillary Clinton has not always maintained Washington’s moral standards in her public life, though it appears that at least she aspires to those standards.  But her conduct during the 2016 campaign, in the face of many disgusting, provocative, misogynistic, and even dangerous attacks, Clinton has remained calm.  She has been strategic in her responses but never has she stooped to a the kind of childish tit for tat exchange that her rival has tried to generate.  Indeed, amidst all the patriotic slogans and iconography surrounding the Trump campaign, Donald Trump is an almost perfect anti-(George) Washington: immodest, greedy, ambitious, untruthful, and mean-spirited.  We, the citizenry, need to hew more closely to Washington’s model in selecting our candidates.