Monday, December 28, 2015

Short Memories

Besides being irascible, dogged, and right most of the time, what do these two gentlemen have in common? You may not like the answer.

Yesterday I announced I will pragmatically vote not for Bernie Sanders but, instead, for Hillary Clinton, a politician who, for all her flaws, is, I believe, best suited to move the United States in a positive direction as President. Within hours, I had a half dozen comments to the piece--which is half a dozen more than I usually get for an essay. It seems there are many who read this blog who are proudly, defiantly feeling the Bern, and felt the need to take me to task for my business-as-usual choice. Never mind that the Sanders agenda is packed with items that cannot be legislated without the complete cooperation of a Congress dominated by Republicans who can't even agree on how to advance their own agenda, let alone the proudly socialist programs a President Sanders would put before them. Even in the unlikely event of a complete turnover of both houses of Congress to Democratic, most of these programs would be dead on arrival. They're all worthwhile, we should absolutely be working toward them, but expecting anything but total gridlock between Congress and a President Sanders is about as realistic as a Jedi marrying a galactic senator. (And yes, I know that happened in Episode II, but it didn't exactly end well, did it?)

At the heart of the comments was an insistence that a vote for Sanders is a vote against the status quo, against corporate involvement in national politics, two-faced politicians, and everything that has infuriated the progressive wing of the Democratic party since 1968. These well-intentioned people want to make a statement with their vote, send a message to Washington, turn the tide against the moneyed interests that slow down and defeat progress. I hear what they're saying, I know where they're coming from, and I share their frustration. As I've said more than once, I'm no Friend of Hillary (or of Bill, for that matter). The pacifistic, socialistic idealist in me would much rather have someone of principles leading this country.

Except this country refuses to be led by principled persons. It chews them up, spits them out, sometimes martyrs them. And as for their followers: unfortunately, far too often, their insistence on making statements with their ballots plays right into the hands of the people they least want in office.

For all those who think the country will be better for them casting their vote for Bernie Sanders, I offer up the example of Ralph Nader.

The election of 2000 was an apocalyptic moment for this nation. I remember it painfully well. Many people I love and respect insisted all through the election that there was no real difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore, that the only real alternative to business as usual was Ralph Nader, and that voting for him would send a statement to Washington that could not be ignored. He wasn't going to win--I don't think any of them had illusions about that--and at least in Oregon, even a substantial Nader vote would not hurt Gore's numbers too badly.

In Florida, though, they threw the election into recounts that went on for weeks, until a biased Supreme Court put an abrupt stop to them, handing the Presidency to George W. Bush.

Thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani lives, trillions of military dollars, and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and sixteen years of climate change denial later, is there anyone out there who can honestly say the country wouldn't have been better off with Al Gore in the White House? Or do you still think he would've been the same President as Bush?

In 2000, Nader supporters insisted that a vote for Nader was a vote for Nader. In retrospect, it's painfully obvious how horribly wrong they were.

I'm not immune to the temptation of statement voting. I've voted for candidates who had no chance of winning--John Anderson in 1980, Jesse Jackson in 1984--because I wanted to send messages. Anderson's campaign may have sealed the deal for the Reagan era. Jackson gave fantastic speeches, but never really came close to winning the nomination. In 2000, though, I voted my conscience, rather than my ideals: I was terrified of what would happen if Bush won, rightly so, so as much as I admired Ralph Nader and agreed with his platform, I filled in the bubble by Al Gore.

The stakes in 2016 are, if anything, higher than they were in 2000. For all his blunders, Bush strove consistently to discourage intolerance, to insist that his post-9/11 military campaign was against terrorists, not Muslims. Of the thirteen candidates still contending for the GOP nomination in 2016, not one is making that distinction; if anything, they are one-upping each other in how brutally they intend to bomb the Muslim world into submission. Of the thirteen, there are just three with a realistic shot at winning the nomination: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. Politically, Cruz and Rubio are nearly carbon copies of each other, each vying to outdo the other on reactionary conservative policy. All three are pushing economic agendas that will again demolish the economy, immigration policies that will turn hard-working potential citizens into pariahs, foreign policies that take the mistakes of the Bush administration and dial them up to an 11; and if gifted with two Republican chambers of Congress--as could happen if a large GOP turnout puts them in office--the victor stands an excellent chance of being able to implement his radical agenda.

Running against Hillary Clinton, none of these windbags can win. If the Democratic nominee is Bernie Sanders, though--a self-avowed socialist with an agenda that will turn out conservatives in huge numbers to vote against him and for whomever is on the GOP side of the ballot--and coupled with the long running tendency of this nation to prefer changing parties in the White House every eight years or so, we could very well see a President Cruz, Rubio, or (shudder) Trump.

And before you insist there's no way that could happen, I'll remind you that it did happen, just sixteen years ago.

So please, my fellow Americans, when you cast your ballot in the months ahead, don't use it to make a statement. Use it to vote for a President--one who can win and, upon taking office, has at least a chance at governing.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Not Feeling the Bern

Great wish list. Too bad Santa isn't running for President.

Before I launch the rant, here are my qualifications:
1) I first realized I was a socialist in 1980, when a conservative friend asked me some leading questions to which the answer, for me, was obviously yes (I can't remember what they were, but I expect they had to do with federal regulations, labor unions, and the social safety net). "Congratulations," he said, his voice heavy with irony, "you're a socialist." "Huh," I replied, "if believing that government should protect the interests of ordinary people against corporate interests, then I'm all in!" Or something like that.
2) I'm no Hillary Clinton fan. There are many reasons, but the clincher was her evasiveness around the obviously political evolution of her views on marriage equality in a 2014 interview with Terry Gross. The rhetorical knots she tied herself in were eerily reminiscent of her husband's slipperiness when confronted about his mid-century rake approach to marital fidelity.

With those two qualifications well in place, I am now declaring my intention to vote for Hillary Clinton for President in both the primary and the general election.

But wait, you're asking, especially in light of the "top 10 list" that opened this post: why isn't Bernie Sanders your guy? Isn't every position on that list something you can get behind? And you're right: everything on there--free college tuition, single-payer healthcare, rebuilding America's infrastructure, parental leave, honesty in politics, the whole ball of wax--speaks to me as something to be working toward. I couldn't ask for a better platform.

What I could ask for, unfortunately, is a better candidate.

Bernie Sanders' talking points go everywhere he does. In every interview, he finds ways to steer all his answers to these points--even when the question is about dealing with ISIS. In that sense, he's being like almost any other politician running for President. Listen to Ted Cruz field a question he'd rather not answer: he'll deftly turn it into an attack on President Obama rather than admit his own lack of a good answer. In fact, none of the remaining Republican candidates can give anything approximating a thoughtful answer to the ISIS question. All they've got is "Bomb! Bomb! Bomb!" Bernie Sanders has to admit, in fact, that if he were to become President, his foreign policy would probably be just an extension of what his rival, Hillary Clinton, helped to craft during her term as Secretary of State.

That's not the real problem with Sanders, though. What turns me away from him is the lack of realism in his agenda. Every item on that list is outside the powers of the President to enact. It takes Congress to create funding programs for student aid, to raise the minimum wage, to decriminalize marijuana, to defund the Pentagon and increase funding for infrastructure, to move healthcare further along the path toward full nationalization, to regulate sales and ownership of firearms, to put teeth in parental leave legislation--in fact, to do anything on his agenda. A President can ask for such policies to be enacted, can meet with Congressional leaders to try and further that agenda, can use the bully pulpit to try and get the American people on board, but in the end, it takes majorities in both houses to propose and pass that legislation. As Bernie Sanders is very fond of saying, he's a promoter of democratic socialism. That means it's up to Congress, not the President.

And as the last seven years have demonstrated, Congress has a mind of its own.

Mind you, there's a strong possibility the Senate will turn over again in 2016 and have a Democratic majority--though I doubt it will be the super-majority necessary to avoid Republican filibusters of these items. But even if there's a Democratic Senate, the House is going to remain Republican for a very long time; and with the ironically named "Freedom Caucus" calling the shots, there is simply no way a "democratic socialist" agenda will see the light of day.

So the Sanders agenda--which is almost entirely domestic--is pie in the sky. What about the honesty question? Doesn't that count for anything?

Of course it does. Unfortunately, it's the opposite of what Bernie Sanders wants us to believe. As the two Democratic Presidents who preceded Barack Obama ably demonstrated, a principled President is almost always an ineffective President. The ideals of Jimmy Carter accomplished almost nothing during his term. The moral compromises of Bill Clinton, on the other hand, made him one of the most effective Presidents in recent history.

There's a reason the word "politician" is viewed with distaste by so many Americans: politics is the art, not of principle, but of compromise. Effective politicians are smooth, slippery, clever, cutting deals left and right to make sure legislation gets through. The principles of John F. Kennedy would have been for nothing without the political acumen of Lyndon Johnson to push through a civil rights agenda that transformed America--not to mention expanding the social safety net in ways even Franklin Roosevelt would've thought inadvisable. As a policy leader, President Obama has been far less effective than we who voted for him hoped, in large part because he has been incapable of reaching out to the right wing of the House of Representatives--something Bill Clinton excelled at, even as that same chamber impeached him.

I believe in all the changes Bernie Sanders wants to make in this country. But I don't believe he can accomplish them, even as President. I do believe, on the other hand, that as President, Hillary Clinton can move this nation further along the path to being a nation that cares for all its citizens. It won't be nearly as far as Bernie Sanders (and I) want it to go, but it'll still be farther than a President Sanders would be able to get it. The reason is simple: Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is a skilled politician who knows how to cut deals, knows how to give an inch to get a mile, to shift positions in ways that make change possible. After eight years of a President who, again and again, found himself hitting his head against an intractable wall of reactionary Congresspersons, we need a President who can work both sides of the aisle, negotiate compromises, and move the country incrementally in the right--or should I say, left--direction.

So there's the domestic side of the equation: in sum, I believe Hillary Clinton can move us farther to the left with her smooth politics than Bernie Sanders can with his lectern-thumping. The other side of the equation is an area in which there's simply no comparison--and ironically, it's an area in which the President's powers are concentrated. That's making international policy. There have been many embattled Presidents who felt far more capable at summits with rival nations than they did negotiating with Congress. Again, it takes political acumen to deal with foreign ministers and heads of state, fluency in the language of diplomacy, smoothness at the summit table. It takes the same adeptness with legal prevarication that turned me off in that Fresh Air interview.

I hate admitting this. I'm no diplomat, and when it comes to talking about principles, I wear mine on my sleeve. That's the main reason I'm much better suited to the world of elementary music teaching than I was to the Methodist ministry. (There are others, of course, but you'll have to dig into this blog's deep cuts to find them. Or wait for me to write about them again; like Bernie Sanders, I tend to revisit topics I care deeply about.) I would love to be able to vote for a politician who's as principled as I am, but time and again, such persons have proven themselves ineffective in Washington, DC--or in Salem, Oregon, for that matter.

So that's why I will be, without reservation, voting for Hillary Clinton in both May and November of 2016. Through her years of political service, whether as partner to a politician or in her own right as a Senator and diplomat, she has demonstrated that she possesses the intelligence, cleverness, and skills that make her ideally suited to be Chief Executive. In fact, she's better qualified than anyone else who might appear on either the primary or general election ticket. She's simply the best person for the job.

Now, if I was voting for "best person"--for someone whose principles and positions I could most readily connect with--Bernie Sanders might just have my vote. But that's not what he, Hillary Clinton, and all those other people are running for. They all want to be President. And that's a job for Hillary.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bringing Balance to the Force

Even at 16, I knew this was hokum.

Yesterday morning at 10:15 (give or take a few minutes), I turned back into a 16-year-old.

We arrived at the theater a half hour early, assuming there would be a line (there was not). The night before, we had purchased our tickets online, at an added cost of $1.50/ticket, assuming the show would be sold out (it was not). The theater was nearly full, though, and even arriving early enough to sit through all the sponsored content (ugh), we had to sit uncomfortably close to the screen to have three seats together. The ads ran, followed by a long string of previews, and then it happened: the sparkling Lucasfilm logo appeared. I gasped. Amy giggled at my excitement. A moment later, the brass chord that can mean only one thing rang through the theater, the prologue text began its crawl across the screen, and 38 years disappeared from my age.

For two hours, I had fanboy thrill upon thrill as the sights and sounds I'd been craving since 1983 filled me with delight. J.J. Abrams, himself a fanboy, had accomplished what George Lucas could not in his millennial prequels: recapture the feel of the first Star Wars trilogy. It wasn't perfect--there was much about it that reminded me that, as much as this may be a Christmas present for those who first experienced Star Wars in the 1970s, it is also Star Wars for a new generation, with our old friends making appearances that feel more like cameos (and very much looking and sounding their age), so that the new, young heroes can have adequate screen time to establish their own story. The back story of this film is far more complex than the simple setup for 1977's A New Hope, since it has to explain how the great victory of Episode VI could fall away so completely in the intervening three decades, leaving those old friends almost exactly where they were at the beginning of episode IV; plucky rebels against a fascistic galactic empire about to turn a super-weapon on the republic. But that's nit-picking: I had a wonderful time, and was grinning most of the way through. More impressively, Amy, who has a very low tolerance for tent-pole action movies, had a wonderful time. Nice work, J.J.

Despite the previous paragraph, I didn't set out to write a review. My goal today is to do something different, something inspired by another blog: I'm going to reconsider the heart of the prequel trilogy, three spectacular duds that I mostly wish didn't exist. I'm doing this because David Houghton, who blogs about video games, put up an essay that caused me to see something profound in those poorly written and directed showcases for CGI. All though Houghton never mentions Jung or Taoism by name, he makes an excellent case for these philosophies being the spiritual heart of the trilogy.

In a nutshell (and, again, using language Houghton does not), the two sides of the Force, and the quasi-religious orders affiliated with them, function as both superego/id and yin/yang. The dark side of the Force is served by the Sith who, in Houghton's framework, are Randian libertarians, dedicated to full self-actualization, no matter what the cost. The Jedi, on the other hand, are puritanical warrior priests who impose their ascetic morality on all who follow their belief system. Their monastic lifestyle has no place for romance or sexuality: they replenish their numbers by recruiting small children. The Sith, on the other hand, seem mainly to consist of rogue Jedi who have been wooed to the dark side by Sith Lords. 

In Jungian terms, the Jedi are the superego, the Sith the id. Uncompromising, incapable of seeing any value in each other's philosophies, they fight an endless war of ideas. The vast majority of citizens of the galaxy are caught in the middle, their very existence at the mercy of whichever power is currently dominant. Periods of Jedi dominance may appear more peaceful, but it is the peace of imposed order. Ironically, in order for the Sith to dominate, they, too, must impose order, as much as it flies in the face of their devotion to the far more chaotic dark side of the Force. 

The system is utterly dualistic, with no room for any kind of Third Way--although, it could be argued, that middle path would be where most of the people of the galaxy live out their lives. In fact, in the world Lucas built in his prequel trilogy, there are significant parts of the galaxy--including the underbelly of Coruscant, the capital world--where people do all they can to escape notice by either the Jedi or the Sith, preferring instead to simply live their lives as they see fit. These same people are, sadly, caught in the crossfire as the warriors of the Force duke it out for galactic dominance.

But what if someone could, in fact, bring balance to this see-sawing war of good and evil? What if there could be an individual who could bring the yin and yang of the Force together, could find a way for them to coexist? What if there was room in the galactic ethos for both shadow and light?


That balance is Anakin Skywalker. And what George Lucas did to the prequels, the Jedi did to Anakin, setting him on the path to becoming Darth Vader, the emperor's enforcer. I'm not going to go into any more detail about how this happened, becauseDavid Houghton did a fine job explaining it in his essay. But it is tragic, both fictionally and literally, that the potential for greatness is neither adequately understood by the Jedi, who could save civilization by setting aside their dogmatic ways and permitting Anakin to bring a true yin-yang balance to the Force; nor by George Lucas, who let his baser instincts turn what could have been thought-provoking philosophical science fiction into an empty-headed explosion fest populated with ethnic stereotypes, voiced with wooden dialogue, and jarringly interrupted by slapstick and potty humor.

Lack of balance is what brings down first the Republic, then the Empire, and now, once more, the Republic, then it's also what is placing our own real world at risk. In a series of movies that frequently flaunt the laws of physics, and in which credibility is constantly strained by coincidence, the one element of realism that speaks to the heart of suffering in our own world is this imbalance. 

Spiritually, I've always known this to be a problem. As a teenager, I longed for a theology or philosophy that could make sense of the world as I was experiencing it. Growing up in a parsonage, I hoped to find the answers in Christianity--and yet I find myself tormented by doubt. Star Wars, as much as it appealed to my boyish love of adventure, also prodded me to consider the possibility that there might be a philosophy that was truer, for me, than the mainline Protestantism in which I'd been raised. That's what led me to purchase The Force of Star Wars--only to discover that slim volume was nothing more than an evangelical tract using Star Wars imagery as an allegory for the gospel of Jesus Christ. This left me disappointed, frustrated, knowing there had to be more. Ultimately, I went to seminary in search of the balance I couldn't find in the church I faithfully attended every Sunday. Strangely enough, I found it in a class so poorly taught that it confused and frustrated me every time I attended. It was called "Religion in a Global Perspective," and for all the ineptitude of the lectures, it introduced me to Buddhist philosophy and the concept of balance.

That's where I am now. I am most fully myself, I now know, when I can balance my natures: head and heart, freedom and discipline, selfishness and altruism, artistry and utility. Theologically, politically, philosophically, my preferences are on the extreme left, but I choose not to live as an extremist. Keeping myself in balance, I am content, centered, fulfilled.

It's a lesson I was first exposed to in 1977, but it's taken me a lifetime to internalize it. I don't always live it, either: there have been plenty of times in the last year when outside forces have upset my balance, led me down the path to anxiety, frustration, even panic. At times like these, I am realizing, I need to channel my inner Yoda. Not the Jedi ascetic of the prequels, mind you: the cranky but serene master of Dagobah. I need to appreciate where, and when, I am, letting go of where I want to be, or what will happen next. Only then will I be able to levitate X-Wings, striking the ideal balance between the shadow and light of the Force.

That's where I will leave this discussion, closing with the obvious benediction:

May the Force be with you.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Problem with Blaming Hearts

Scary thing about this graphic: how many variations one finds when Googling "hearts guns."

This is not my first time at the shoot-em-up rodeo.

Many of the first essays I wrote in this space were about gun violence. They triggered fierce reactions from some gun enthusiasts I was acquainted with. For a short time, I humored those people by attempting to engage them in some back-and-forth conversation. A very short time. It quickly became clear that, as with any other matter of religion, politics, or addiction, the people who feel most threatened by those holding different views have got no thinking space left for listening to those views. I was talking and writing past them, rather than to or with them. So I quit answering their comments. Life's too short to spend it carefully crafting arguments the intended recipient will conveniently ignore as he or she throws out a fresh batch of distortions, false equivalences, and appeals to authority. Comment strings also miss the point of this blog: This is my space to write about things I am passionate about. You who read these ideas are absolutely free to celebrate, decry, or shrug your shoulders at what I say. You can even go to great length posting a counter-argument if you see fit. Just don't hold your breath waiting for my to respond to your comment.

Unless, that is, you say something that triggers a fresh essay.

Such is the case with a couple of comments to my last essay, "Ignoring the Obvious," on the occasion of the San Bernardino mass shooting. In this piece, I stated (probably for the first time in this blog) what I really believe about the "right" to bear arms: that it's a misunderstanding of the Bill of Rights, and that if we're going to insist that it means gun ownership without any of the reasonable restrictions we already place on our other rights (we require permits for protest marches, and when's the last time you heard somebody yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater?), then it's time for the majority of Americans who'd rather have nothing to do with the deadly weapons gun nuts hoard to amend that ambiguous line right out of the Constitution. Yes, that's right: I'm saying it's time to pry that gun out of your warm living fingers, melt it down, and make something useful out of it.

A couple of the comments threw back at me statistics about countries where, despite far stricter gun laws on the books, violence still exists. One was Great Britain, the other Mexico. In Britain, it was pointed out, there are still murders. People get stabbed. There's a simple answer to that: yes, but not 30,000 in a year. Not nine all at once at a prayer meeting, or fourteen dead and twenty-two wounded all at once at a holiday party. Guns maim and kill far more people, far more efficiently, than any other weapon legally available. As for Mexico: are we really going to compare the effectiveness of American law enforcement to our neighbor to the south? At least, having the law on the books, Mexico demonstrates that it understands mass gun ownership is a problem. In the USA, on the other hand, we regulate automobile use far more aggressively than assault weapons, perhaps because we're permitted to admit that abusing driving privileges is deadly; and while plenty of people routinely get away with exceeding the speed limit, I don't hear much anymore about eliminating it.

The most pernicious argument I've seen, though, is that the continued existence of violence in countries with strict gun laws demonstrates that the real issue is the human heart. If we could just address whatever is making these people so depressed, so scared, so angry, then we could stop fretting about guns and be happy with having enough in circulation to arm every man, woman, and baby in the USA.

There is definitely some solid reasoning behind that argument: of course the world will be a better place, and some people will be less inclined to beat up, stab, or shoot their neighbors when everyone has adequate food, clothing, shelter, and health care. That's been a part of the Democratic agenda at least as far back as FDR, one that, until Reagan, most Republicans were willing to accept to at least some extent. But while we're waiting to achieve that Star Trek economy, 30,000 Americans a year are dying of gun violence. Two thirds of them are taking their own lives with those guns in suicide attempts that, unlike other methods, are irreversible. Far too many of the other third are dying at the hands of small children who find loaded weapons lying around their homes because the owners of those weapons can't be bothered with unloading them and locking them away.

These people aren't dying because some gun owner has an angry or desperate heart. The suicides are dying because they don't think they can go on, and once they've put a bullet through the back of their heads, there's no possibility of convincing them otherwise. Those killed by babies are dying because of the irresponsibility of the adults in their homes. In my opinion, neither class of individual should be trusted with a gun. But the Second Amendment, as currently interpreted, grants these people the right to purchase as many of these tools of suicide, fratricide, and infanticide as they wish.

I'm a public school music teacher. Every week, 500 children, aged 5-11, pass through my classes. Many of these children are as responsible as it's possible for children to be, enthusiastically following all the rules for safety and politeness that they've learned. From time to time, though, I'll see some of them engaged in dangerous horse play, and have to remind them about being safe. I've had them tell me that there's no rule against what they're doing, or they didn't know their was a rule or, every teacher's favorite, that so-and-so did it first, so why can't I? In all these cases, it's tempting to say "Use your common sense!"--except these are children, and common sense takes maturity. And that's the responsible kids. Every class I see has a small percentage of children who, for one reason or another, just don't get it. These children may have anger issues, triggered by whatever is going on at home, that lead them to lash out at their classmates. Sometimes they do so in violent ways. Sometimes they bully other children. They may use things they find lying around the classroom or in the hall as weapons. This is why teachers are very cautious about staples, push pins, and scissors: not for the 90% of children who know better, but for the 10% who might just use one of those innocuous items to injure another. The problem is not the pokey objects, it's the hearts of the children who might use them in anger. And there's no question but that they're only going to use those objects when an adult is supervising--if at all.

I know there are plenty of responsible gun-owners who lock up their weapons, keep ammunition in a separate place, take safety courses, require their children to take those courses, do everything they can to avoid the unspeakable horror of three-year-old Sally killing a playmate with Uncle Pete's Glock, or sixteen-year-old Spence getting over his breakup by putting that same Glock in his mouth and pulling the trigger--or taking it to school with him and shooting the jocks who've been picking on him. But as I've implied with the use of Uncle Pete's name, there are far too many irresponsible gun-owners who leave those weapons lying around for the minors in the house to use.

And that's not even counting the murderers: the gangsters, burglars, mass shooters who spill innocent blood to teach someone a lesson, make a statement, gain notoriety, or just have some bloody maniacal fun.

Yes, there's a problem with these people's hearts, but it's a problem that would be far easier to manage if we took away their damned guns.

And yes, I know it seems insurmountable: with such an epidemic of gun ownership and gun violence, perhaps we should just throw up our hands and concede that the price of liberty is the blood of 30,000 victims a year, a price that gun libertarians are clearly quite willing to make all of us pay.

In response to the futility argument, I offer two success stories: vaccines and nuclear disarmament.

I have a vaccination scar on my left shoulder, a relic of the delivery system used on my generation. Thanks to that scar, I've never had measles, polio, smallpox, or whooping cough. My children were vaccinated against additional illnesses, and the babies being born now against even more. A hundred years ago, these preventives didn't exist, and as a result, the average lifespan in the United States was far lower than it is today. This was an accepted cost of living in civilization: people couldn't help but be exposed to contagious diseases, many of which were lethal, so many more died younger than they do now. Medical science invented vaccines, and we all benefit from the result: longer, healthier lifespans. Getting there came at the expense of individual liberties, though: only by mandating vaccinations for school children could the herd immunity be built up to where some of these diseases are effectively extinct. (It should be noted here that many of the same people who advocate laissez-faire gun laws also defend the right of anti-vax parents to place their non-immunized children in public schools, leading to fresh outbreaks of diseases that had been controlled for generations prior to this unscientific health fad.)

As for disarmament: I grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation. In middle school, I watched a seemingly endless string of "civil defense" films that taught me how to survive the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Through high school, college, and two rounds of grad school, I continued to hear about how insurmountable was the task of reducing nuclear arsenals--and yet, neither of the enemies in that struggle gave up on that task. Both the US and the Soviet Union stayed in communication throughout the Cold War, came to the summit table again and again, hammering out agreements to keep those weapons in their bunkers and, perhaps even more importantly, out of the hands of rogue nations and terrorists. And they succeeded: there have been no above-ground nuclear explosions since 1963.

If you're still not convinced that the Bill of Rights needs editing, perhaps we can look at this through the disarmament lens: the superpowers made their pacts and treaties because they knew no one could afford even a limited nuclear war. We haven't completely disarmed--this nation still has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world--but we've cut back significantly on the size of that arsenal.

We've reduced our nuclear arsenal, but the home arsenals of far too many Americans are overflowing with lethal weapons. Reducing the number of guns an individual can own, and the size of the magazines used by those guns, could cut back on the lethality of mass shootings, though it still would do nothing to mandate safety in the home, or to keep firearms out of the hands of suicides. But it would be a start.

But seriously, my fellow Americans: if your sick heart means you're going to use that gun to shoot up a classroom, I'd rather you couldn't get your hands on the damned thing in the first place.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Ignoring the Obvious


"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." --Wayne LaPierre, Vice President and CEO of the National Rifle Association, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting.

And what if the bad guy with a gun is wearing body armor?

Mass shootings have become so frequent in the United States that the aftermaths are utterly predictable. Speculative news reporting, Democratic hand-wringing, empty Republican platitudes, and rapid-response gun lobby spin flood the media. By the time accurate reporting is possible, the nation has moved on--all to frequently to the next shooting. Numb, shell-shocked, unable to process the sheer magnitude of the national gun pathology, our minds seize on distractions, flail about for something, anything that will keep us from imagining our friends, our families, our children on the receiving end of the next barrage.

The most recent of these shootings appears to have had a connection to ISIS, the most recent incarnation of a Middle Eastern terror state. It came just days after a Christian radical shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic, and just in time to preempt discussion of whether "terrorism" should be applied to perpetrators with white, as well as brown, complexions. The Planned Parenthood shooter spoke of "baby parts," a reference to an agitprop video that, while wholly discredited, continues to inspire the right wing of the Republican party.

The San Bernardino shooting amped up GOP calls for tightening border restrictions, turning away Syrian refugees, and bombing ISIS strongholds--measures which would have in no way prevented this attack, which was undertaken by an American citizen and his green-card-carrying wife. The weapons they used were legally obtained (though illegally modified) from gun stores in California, a state that has some of the strictest gun sales regulation in the America--although those regulations are far less strict than the most liberal gun laws in Europe.

For all the commonalities of American responses to these shootings, there is extraordinary variability in the identities of the shooters. Shooters have been  Muslims, Christians, white supremacists, soldiers, civilians, goths, nerds, immigrants, citizens. Their motives, when discernible, have also run the gamut, from anti-abortion activism to vengeance to promoting the interests of an overseas terrorist organization. They have been executed with both skill and ineptitude. The perpetrators have sometimes turned the guns on themselves, at other times died in a shootout with police, and occasionally have been taken into custody. Some wish to be martyrs, others want to live long enough to parlay their new found notoriety into a platform for proclaiming their virulent ideology. No, there's really no common thread uniting all these killings--except for this one: they've all involved guns.

That's the elephant in this living room, the part no one really wants to address. Yes, many Democratic politicians readily acknowledge that gun laws are entirely too lax, may even call for tightening them in a few symbolic ways--before conceding defeat in the very next breath. Meanwhile, Republican politicians turn quickly to blaming victims: perhaps if someone in that group had been carrying a gun, or had had the nerve to rush the attacker, lives might have been spared. More insidious is the suggestion that, to some extent, victims may have had it coming. Some even use these massacres as evidence for the need to multiply gun ownership, claiming that a storm of bullets could save lives by taking out the attacker more quickly--and conveniently ignoring the likelihood that more guns in the hands of panicked victims means more of them will die in the crossfire.

All the platitudes, all the accusations, all the spin and counter-spin, all the blizzard of analysis and debate skirts the central issue, the elephant we'd all like to pretend isn't really there: there are simply too many guns in this country. Too many people own them. More than 30,000 Americans a year die from gun shots. Two-thirds of those deaths are suicides, an act rendered irreversible when it is carried out with a gun.

The shooters in San Bernardino were wearing "tactical outfits," not armor; but armor is as available for purchase as the weapons shooters carry. An armored shooter would likely survive attack by a handgun-carrying defender--who would be far less likely to survive the encounter with a well-prepared shooter.

So no, good guys with guns are not the only thing that will stop bad guys with guns; in fact, their presence is far more likely to increase the body count. The only thing that can really stop bad guys with guns is taking away their guns.

This is what the American public--or rather, the gun-toting public--doesn't want to hear. The right to bear arms is costing this country 30,000 lives a year. It's a right I don't care to exercise, and would be quite happy to give up. The problem, of course, is the millions of Americans who jealously guard their right to put the rest of the nation at risk, and who shield their gun lust with the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The ambiguous wording of that amendment--which is, ironically, in the most passive voice of any piece of legislation I've read--seems aimed at promoting the National Guard, rather than putting a vigilante in every home, but that's irrelevant, as the Supreme Court has backed up the NRA's pro-gun interpretation of the text, using it to overturn sensible gun laws.

So if the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to take away everybody's guns, and the only way to do that is to amend the Second Amendment right out of the Constitution, then that's what has to happen. But how can that happen? How can the American people be convinced to do something so radical as to remove a few words that are killing 30,000 of us every year?

I find hope right here:

The Daily News is a conservative tabloid, as likely as any newspaper to jump on the anti-immigrant, pro-gun bandwagon of the GOP. And yet, in two cover pages this week, the Daily News has acknowledged that gun violence in America is a problem that must be addressed. Neither prayers nor immigration restrictions will save lives when the root of the problem is not the identity of the killer, but the lethality of the weapons he or she employs. Depending on how the question is phrased by pollsters, as many as 80% of Americans favor stricter gun laws.

I'm not saying this will be easy. This elephant is huge, and we've gotten quite accustomed to just pretending it's not there, no matter how difficult it is to function with it taking up most of the living room. The headlines in the Daily News--as well as the first front-page editorial in the New York Times since 1920--are, at best, small indicators that the tide is turning.

But considering how quickly the marriage equality tide turned once it reached critical mass, this could very well be the beginning of an avalanche of public opinion. If the American people cry "Enough!" loudly enough, and back up their cries at the ballot box, this could well be the beginning of the end for terrorists like Wayne LaPierre and his gun-obsessed constituents.

A final, personal note: last Thursday, I noticed that the flag outside the school where I teach music was at half-mast. My mind went instantly to the San Bernardino shooting--which was, in fact, the reason for this symbolism--and from there to a time just eighteen months ago when that half-mast flag was there because of a shooting much closer to home, in my district's high school. Two months ago, the flags were at half-mast because of a shooting at Umpqua Community College, a hundred and fifty miles south of here.

Like any school, Margaret Scott has fire drills. We also have lock-down drills (and yes, I've experienced these in other districts, too), when we turn off the lights and have the children hide somewhere away from windows, so they'll know what to do if there's a shooter on campus. A few years ago, in Banks, we had an incident when it wasn't a drill: there was a shooter at large in town.

This hits me where I work. I don't want to find myself in the position of the Sandy Hook music teacher who hid her students from a teenager on a bloody rampage. The right of anyone to bear one of these deadly weapons is, in my mind, worthless next to just one of the five hundred children I teach at Margaret Scott. And if you think any differently--if you can really continue to defend your right to own lethal weapons in the presence of all the innocents sacrificed to that right--then you and I had better part company.

Either that or just go on pretending there's no elephant between us.