Sunday, January 31, 2016

Those Who Live by the Gun...


LaVoy Finicum addresses the press at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. 
Note the pistol on prominent display.

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." --Matthew 26:52

It's not over. Not nearly. There are still four insurgents occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, begging on YouTube for backup, demanding full pardons before they will lay down their weapons and surrender to the authorities. Meanwhile, a right-wing organization called the Pacific Patriots Network has issued a "call to action" for militants to "peacefully" travel to Burns to protest the shooting of LaVoy Finicum following his attempt to evade a traffic stop.

So even with the occupation's ringleaders in custody, this is not over. There's no way of knowing whether the militant right wing community retains any enthusiasm for Ammon Bundy's nutty cause, and if anyone at all will respond to the PPN's appeal. More significantly, considering the almost instantaneous flood of furious reactions to Finicum's death, Bundy's Quixotic protest could give new life to these libertarian insurrectionists. In 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing, the worst act of domestic terrorism in the history of the United States was perpetrated by individuals with similar beliefs, moved to action by the deaths two years earlier of Branch Davidian members under siege by the FBI.

It's not over, and it's not ever going to be over, as long as America lives under the gun.

This is a nation birthed in black powder. The army of the American Revolution brought their own weapons with them. Recognizing the prominent role of the citizen militia in the nation's origins, the founders enshrined the militia in the Second Amendment. The American frontier grew at gunpoint, as less lethally-armed tribal people were ethnically cleansed to make way for white pioneers. American armament guaranteed that the Civil War would be a bloody conflict. That same armament won two world wars, and while it couldn't guarantee victory in guerilla wars in southeast Asia or the Middle East, it kept the body count ridiculously lopsided in favor of American troops. This country has more firepower than the rest of the world combined, and we use it freely to advance our interests beyond our borders.

We also use it on each other. Our police are better armed than the military of many other nations--but then, so are our criminals. Some American homes are so littered with guns that hundreds of children a year are either the perpetrators or the victims of unintentional play shootings. These same guns are favored tools for suicide, taking 20,000 lives a year for more irreversibly than other methods.

Ammon Bundy and his followers claimed to be peaceful protesters when they occupied the Malheur NWR, but they brought their guns with them, and displayed them prominently. LaVoy Finicum proudly wore a pistol on his hip, and was photographed during the protest sitting guard duty with a rifle in his lap. The official account of his death is that he was shot not for driving through a roadblock or endangering officers with his vehicle, but because he was reaching for that same gun he'd been photographed with so many times, after nearly a month of warning the authorities that he and his compatriots would escalate their protest to violence if those authorities attempted to arrest them.

This is the thing about weapons: they're meant to be used, and if they're used properly, they are lethal. The authorities practiced admirable restraint for weeks, but there was no way these militants could be contained without, at some point, a weapon being drawn, shots fired, and blood in the snow.

There's nothing new about the inevitability of bloodshed in any conflict involving weapons. The gospel of Matthew notes it in the story of Jesus' arrest on the Mount of Olives, a text more than two thousand years old. For most of my life (until today, actually), I had it in my mind that the quote was "Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword," but I was wrong. "Those who live by the sword" could refer simply to soldiers and other individuals who work with armaments on a regular basis. "Those who take up the sword," on the other hand, could include the guy next door who just keeps a handgun in his nightstand in the unlikely event of a home invasion. Just having that weapon in his house greatly increases its owners likelihood of dying by murder, suicide, or a gun-related accident.

And if you wear that weapon prominently, declare publicly your intent to use it if confronted by law enforcement officers, then reach for your weapon as you attempt to escape the vehicle you just crashed after running a blockade, it would be amazing if you didn't die in a hail of gunfire.

The Pacific Patriots Network's appeal to its members to descend upon Burns states repeatedly that this is to be a "PEACEFUL" protest, and to please respect the town's restriction on publicly carrying long guns. It says nothing about handguns, though.

There's a lot to worry about in these events: the growing militance of the gun-toting right wing; their blatant disregard for the laws of this nation; their contempt for the public who either created those laws or elected the officials who did; their confidence that the authorities who enforce them can be bullied into submission; the emergence of an entire class of politicians whose presidential campaigns pander to this same constituency, and who have not said a word about the occupation of a federal facility by members of that constituency; and finally, there's this:


LaVoy Finicum wrote a novel about his belief in the tyranny of a democratically elected government that has tied itself in knots avoiding even the most sensible of gun regulations. On its cover there's a picture of him wearing the same gun he was carrying when he died on Tuesday. The title of that novel implies where he and his movement are headed. I fear that the occupation of the Malheur NWR is just the beginning. I fear there will be more armed occupations, more gunfire, more deaths. And if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President, and loses the general election, the reaction will be swifter, crazier, and far bloodier than the Tea Party movement that has turned Capitol Hill into a place legislation goes to die.

In a country with 310 million privately owned guns, this could get really ugly overnight. This nation that has been living by the gun since its founding may very well perish by the gun.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Holding the Lesson Hostage

I've got students who are like this guy--though he wears a much cooler hat than they do.

All right, Ammon, you had your turn to say whatever the hell it was you wanted to say. I realize it makes sense to you and some tiny fraction of the rest of the country. Now can we please get back to what we were doing before you grabbed the spotlight?

Two or three times a week, I have to tell a student something very much like what you just read. For reasons too complicated for me, their classroom teachers, their parents, the administrators responsible for discipline at our school, or any of their classmates, these individuals feel the need to make music class be all about them. They talk loudly, bang on drums (it's music class), abuse instruments, roam around the gym shouting (yes, due to a stuffed-to-overflowing school building, I teach grades 3-5 in the gym), are utterly unafraid of me calling an administrator to come and get them, care not a bit about the referrals I'm supposed to write whenever this happens, the call home I'll make after school to their parents, the poor grade they'll receive because the only time they spend in their-one half-hour-a-week of music is doing everything they can to force me and the administrators to remove them. When I'm lucky enough to get one of those administrators to come and do just that, the rest of the class breathes easier and we salvage a few minutes of instructional time.

As an attention-getting ploy, this behavior works brilliantly: these kids get their entire class focusing on them for as long as they're doing what they do. Then they get one-on-one attention from the administrator. It's not positive attention--any popularity they may initially gain from clowning around is quickly lost as their classmates come to resent losing so much of their one half hour of music class per week to yet another display of over-the-top rudeness. And when it happens week after week, and their class falls further and further behind the rest of the grade due to the behavior, these children succeed only in isolating themselves from the one community that could help them deal with whatever is causing them to act out.

My district has bought into the restorative justice model of school discipline. It's based on the idea that removing students from class sets them up to be removed from society in general--which, once they're adults, means incarcerating them. Restorative justice seeks to bring these students back into the classroom community where they can make reparations to heal the damage they've done. In a home room, this makes ample sense: having a community circle to talk over what happened, and how to keep it from happening again, builds relational skills for every student in the class. Of course, students spend most of their time throughout the school day in home room, with a considerable portion of that time set aside for silent reading, so a twenty minute talking circle, facilitated by the school's restorative justice administrator, doesn't kill that much instructional time.

Specials, on the other hand--music, PE, library, technology--happen once a week for most classes. They're thirty minutes long. Between the time taken up by the initial disruption and the time it takes to talk it out, that's an entire week's worth of instruction lost to solving one student's issue. And when that issue repeats week after week--because the behavior in question is specific to music, and there's a whole week between classes to forget whatever was learned during that community time--we might as well not be having music at all.

Thankfully, this year's administrators seem to realize that applying the same band-aid again and again to a wound that refuses to heal is a kind of insanity, and are beginning to consider the possibility that some students may need not to participate in music. Yes, this is like a mini-suspension. Perhaps we can set up a separate class for the disrupters, time when I can work with them in isolation, giving them the more individualized attention they seem to crave but in an instructional, rather than a disciplinary, setting.

Which brings me to Ammon Bundy.

This morning, it struck me that Ammon Bundy and his Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupying club are engaged in a large-scale version of what the disrupters do in my music classes: they've taken a public facility hostage, making it impossible for other citizens to use that facility for the educational and enrichment purposes for which it is intended. They've also blocked the professionals who maintain the facility from doing that work. Finally, they're vandalizing the facility, knocking down fences, cutting roads, defacing signs, and apparently taking joy rides on the heavy equipment stored there for maintenance purposes. They're behaving, in other words, like fifth grade high flyers, commandeering the mission of the refuge and making it be all about them. Unlike the fifth graders, these disrupters are heavily armed.

Oh, they've got a list of demands, but they're paradoxical and even less attainable than those made by Hans Gruber in Die Hard. They boil down to the federal government ceding its authority over public lands to private interests so they can exploit them as they see fit--as well as waiving the sentences of two convicted arsonists who burned hundreds of acres of national forest.

So what about the authorities? Why isn't the principal stepping in to remove these tantruming middle-aged toddlers from class, so the lesson can continue?

In this case, the authorities in question are the local police and the FBI, who are taking a wait-and-see approach to the occupation, hoping, perhaps, that as their supplies run low and they get bored, the disrupters will drift away until Ammon Bundy is left by himself, pouting in a corner. It's how disrupters were dealt with--or, rather, ignored--by my school district last year, when we were told to use restorative justice principles, but given no training or personnel to make them work. They're being left to their own devices, getting the attention they want from the media, facing no apparent consequences in the immediate future (though I assume there will be arrests eventually), and being allowed to continue defiling the public land they're occupying.

I'm not saying they should go in with guns blazing, overwhelming these ranchers with the awesome firepower that even local cops now have available to them. Such an action would succeed in taking the refuge back, but would also confirm all Ammon Bundy's ramblings about the tyranny of the federal government, while very likely turning him and his compatriots into martyrs, inspiring others in their silly movement to engage in far more lethal acts of terrorism.

Instead, I'd much rather a stern message was delivered, something along these lines:

We see that you're upset, and that you are passionate about your complaint. However, what you're doing is unfair to the American public, who are the true owners of this facility. We cannot grant your requests, which are in violation of the Constitution and laws of the United States; and your continued presence at this facility is felonious, and will lead to consequences that may include fines, forfeiture of property to pay those fines, and imprisonment. You are directed to surrender immediately.

Accompanying this message, two actions would be taken: blocking all roads leading into the refuge from both supplies and the press; and cutting power to the buildings. It's cold on the high desert in January, and it's not going to warm up for at least two months. Losing comfort and publicity, the occupiers are going to wonder why they're bothering to continuing pressing their unachievable demands.

That's going to lead to attrition. Whether they give up individually or in groups, it's essential they're held accountable once they leave the refuge. However, jail time seems a far less useful reparation than community service--specifically, repairing the damage they've done. Habitat restoration is an essential part of the missions of the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, and the National Park Service. Put these refuge abusers to work maintaining trails, shoring up stream banks damaged by cattle, replanting trees in forests burned down by careless and malicious ranchers, filling in abandoned mine shafts, setting right all the harm done to wild America by greedy Americans like themselves. In the process, perhaps they'll discover within themselves an appreciation for true stewardship of the land--which would be the most restorative justice of all.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Because Killing Is Bad

First things first: it bugs me, too.

The meme comes by way of "Brave New Films," and features this image:
Violating a court order, Mary Ann Grady Flores continued to protest drone warfare at an Air Force Base in upstate New York. She was arrested and jailed, sentenced (over the objections of the prosecutor) to a year in prison, but as far as I can tell from a cursory Google search, is still out on bond while her case is being appealed. While most peaceful protesters are tolerated by authorities, it is not uncommon for them to spend time in jail. Jail time is, in fact, a key part of civil disobedience strategy, as it highlights the irony of a government that has to protect its enormous firepower from sign-waving grandmothers.

And yes, there's no denying that the gun-loving, government-hating right wingers occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge post a far greater threat to government officials, ordinary citizens, and themselves than do any pacifists who have ever tried to stand in the way of a tank, missile, or front entrance to a military base. Nor is it right that so many persons of color are almost routinely shot by trigger-happy police.

But getting upset about the injustice of either of these comparisons is wrong.

It's the game of false equivalency, of faulting an apple for not being more like an orange, a rom-com for not being as exciting as an action movie: the Malheur occupation is just not the same thing.

First, consider the difference between occupying a remote wildlife refuge that isn't being staffed during the winter and blocking an entrance to an air force base through which official vehicles have to pass all day long. And yes, I mean blocking: as peaceful and nonviolent as they may be, these activists are very likely standing in the way of large trucks. Remember this image?
The location of this shot is Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but it perfectly encapsulates the primary strategy of the nonviolent activist: get in the way of the war machine, putting your life on the line, and dare it to keep going. It doesn't always end well: protesters sometimes give their lives to make a point. Much more often, though, protesters are simply dragged away by security forces, locked up for a few days, then released. In the meantime, whatever agency is being protested is inconvenienced, obstructed, delayed from implementing a policy; and sometimes, enough time is purchased by the protest to bring about a change in policy.

Now let's look at the Malheur occupiers: they have done some minor property damage, taking down fences, covering up signs, but for the most part, they're just squatting at an otherwise dormant federal facility. At some point, they'll be in the way of American citizens--mostly birdwatchers--exercising their right to visit a public facility. These are just not the same situations. Whether or not you're in favor of what's going on behind the walls of the Air Force Base, it's clear they need their vehicles to have access to the facility. Meanwhile, the rangers in charge of the refuge weren't even there when the occupiers moved in; and since their role is essentially staying out of the way of the wildlife they oversee, it's just not that urgent that they get back in there, especially in the middle of winter.

Here's the second, much more significant difference: the Malheur occupiers have guns.

I'm aware that the police and the FBI also have guns, and other, more powerful weapons. I'm aware they could descend on the refuge with a massive show of force, hunting down every occupier, probably killing quite a few of them, and taking back the refuge.

And if this was 25 years ago, that's what they would've done.

But here's where we've made some progress: slaughtering protesters is not how our police forces do business anymore. And in an armed standoff, there's no way to guarantee that there won't be blood spilled. So the authorities are biding their time. It's not a "no problem" response: it's a careful response, that seeks a peaceful solution to a situation that is far from critical. The longer the police practice restraint, the less attractive it is to the protesters to camp out in frigid conditions, and the harder it is for them to insist that the US government is a tyrannical police state enforcing its policies at the point of a bayonet.

Meanwhile, peaceful protesters, by definition, don't carry guns. That makes it a lot easier to arrest them without anyone getting shot.

One final point: just because the Malheur occupiers haven't been arrested yet doesn't mean they won't be. They've committed some significant crimes, and once they're in custody, they'll do some hard time.

One thing they have in common with the pacifist grandmothers: their protest is extremely unlikely to result in any change in federal policy. Marches, sit-ins, hunger strikes, occupations--at best, these protests foster awareness. Sometimes, that can lead legislators to alter policies. Mostly, it's a frustration to the citizens who find their commutes disrupted and their birdwatching expeditions delayed.

It would be different if the feds moved in with guns blazing. Then we'd definitely see some change: the militia movement would be energized, enraged, inspired to engage in further occupations, possibly acts of terrorism (remember Oklahoma City?).

So I'm fine with the occupiers getting different treatment from the pacifist grandmas. The occupiers won't get what they want, they'll still go to jail, and nobody dies. That's a win-win-win in my book.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Handguns and Other Household Appliances

The door of this refrigerator is regulated. The handgun is not.

Sometimes, a meme sums things up beautifully. Here's one I saw on Facebook, originating with Occupy Democrats:


Just to be sure I've got the facts right, I Googled "refrigerator safety regulation," and got the text for the Refrigerator Safety Act of 1956. I was unable to find any reporting on how the appliance industry reacted to this legislation, or how long it took to get it through Congress, but I think it's important not to rush to any generalizations about corporations having more common sense than other collectives of people: think for a moment about how many decades it took for the automobile industry to take steps to improve gas mileage, or to install airbags and other safety devices.

With that disclaimer out of the way, though, I am quite ready to jump to an explanation of why the refrigerator lobby made little or no effort to resist the imposition of safety regulations by Congress: there's no Constitutional right to making or owning an unsafe appliance.

And that's where we hit a major road block to sensible gun regulation. The founders of the American republic enshrined an ambiguous right to bearing arms (and by the way, it doesn't say "firearms," let alone guns, so for all we know, they could've been referring to shillelaghs), apparently for the sake of being able to hastily put together a citizens' militia in the event of invasion by Redcoats. The political conditions that made this sound like a good idea ceased to exist the moment the United States decided to maintain a sizable standing army, but the problematic language was left in place.

Times change, and sane citizens and legislators amend the Constitution accordingly. This nation has arrived at a place when millions of Americans own deadly weapons that can kill children far more easily than an abandoned refrigerator, yet even the prospect of the President ordering the most common sense of regulations--regulations that have been proposed by the gun lobby itself--are met with hysterical screams of fascism from the owners of guns.

There are more guns in the USA than there are people. Guns kill 30,000 Americans a year--the same number as motor vehicle accidents. And yet, the Center for Disease Control is forbidden by Congress to research gun-related deaths. The state of Florida recently imposed a gag order on physicians, prohibiting them from discussing gun safety with their patients. Yes, you read that correctly: a Florida doctor can counsel patients to avoid heart disease through exercise and diet, but not to lock up guns to prevent their children from winding up in the emergency room or the morgue.

I blog frequently about guns. I don't like them. They scare me. Mother Jones magazine published an excellent (and well-referenced) primer to the reasons why, countering ten myths the gun lobby has used to convince legislators to keep American gun laws lax. Of the ten, the most striking to me had to do with women who carry guns to defend themselves against attackers: they are five times more likely to die of gun violence then women who carry either non-lethal weapons, or simply do without. Having a gun in the house instantly increases the likelihood that someone in that house will die of gun violence, whether it's an "accident" (I'm of the opinion that an adult leaving a gun where a child can get at it is guilty of negligent homicide), a suicide, or mistaking a family member for a home invader. I don't want them in my house, I don't want them in my neighbors' houses, and I'd be very happy if the state just moved in and, as so many gun enthusiasts fear, took the damn things away.

But that's not going to happen. The freedom to kill is more precious to Congress, the NRA, and the gun nuts screaming "fascism!" than the lives of the thousands of children sacrificed every year to that freedom.

I wrote a piece about a month ago in which I called for repealing the Second Amendment. This led some of my readers to caution me that amending the Constitution is a serious thing, and we ought not be cavalier about surrendering rights. To these Constitutional fundamentalists, I offer this number: 3/5. Or, more specifically, this:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
That's Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution of the United States. Or, rather, it was Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3, until 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, superseding the 3/5 rule to require that every human being would be counted--though still only half of them could vote, as women had to wait until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 finally granted them this right.

One could argue that conditions changed over the decades, rendering slavery-related legislation irrelevant; and further, that the increasing presence of women in the workplace made it far more difficult to argue that they should be treated as less than fully adult, and capable of voting as sensibly as their husbands.

One could also simply assert that the founders were wrong.

In either case, the original wording and/or intent of the Constitution was seen to be problematic, and in need of amendment. And before you suggest that the nation was united on the need for amendment, as it certainly is not with regard to gun rights (though the regulation wishes of the majority of Americans, including gun owners, are being repeatedly trampled by the hysterical minority who think any regulation is fascism), I refer you to the Civil War.

The founders were wrong about slavery. They were wrong about women. And even if they meant what the gun lobby says they meant when they passed the Second Amendment (which is extremely unlikely), they were wrong on that count, too. One thing they were absolutely right about was making sure the Constitution should not be treated as an immutable set of rules. They understood that times change, that hard hearts soften, and that the words they had written would, from time to time, need to be altered to accommodate those changes.

With the largest, best equipped standing security force in the world, we've got our well-armed militia, and then some. 30,000 people a year are being sacrificed to the Second Amendment. I'm not going to suggest that, if the founders knew what an abomination the right to bear arms would become, they'd have left it out--these were, after all, snuff-snorting white men who believed in phrenology, among other things--but considering how pragmatic they were about so many other things, I have to think they'd at least have second thoughts about how it was worded. In our current climate, it boggles my mind that there's still so much opposition to even the tame regulations the President is putting in place. Looking at the numbers, listening to the voices of the victims, and their families, it's painfully, bloodily clear: the right to bear arms is as obsolete as the 3/5 clause. It's past time to cut the damn thing out of the Constitution, the gun lobby the door, and send these lethal toys to the same place as the locking refrigerators of 1956.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Easy Does It

Ground zero.

First things first: I get the outrage.

No, I'm not talking about anything being said by any member of the Bundy family, whether it involves claiming they have a right to graze their damn cattle anywhere they damn well feel like it, for free; or the notion that occupying a publicly-owned wildlife refuge is somehow a patriotic defense of the Constitution. Any outrage expressed by either Cliven Bundy or his son Ammon is hypocritical nonsense that ought not be given even a tiny fraction of the air time it's receiving. How could anyone seriously believe such things? (Though, in light of the rabidness of first the Tea Party movement and, more recently, Donald Trump's followers, it's clear there's a significant minority of Americans who do.)

The outrage I understand is that of the progressive voices I see everywhere I look on the social media I peruse, voices angrily comparing nationwide violence by police against persons of color with the measured approach the FBI is taking to this criminal occupation of a federal facility. Viewed purely in equity terms, the outrage is well-founded.

What's not is the conclusion so many of these progressives are drawing: that Ammon Bundy and his band of gun nuts is receiving special treatment by virtue of their whiteness. I get that, as well as the eagerness so many express to have the government crack down on these right wing insurgents, give them a taste of the medicine so often dealt to persons who are guilty of nothing but having some brown in their complexions.

There are two things missing from these reactions. First is a dose of common sense. If it's wrong when cops beat up and shoot brown people, it's just as wrong for them to do it to white people. Massive violent responses to property crimes typify fascism, not liberal democracy. We want less violence, not more.

The other thing they're missing is jurisdiction. Police violence against persons of color is committed by local cops. It's a horrendous problem, the solution to which is rendered vastly more difficult by its provincial nature. There are no accurate statistics for these incidents because there's no standard way of reporting them to a federal agency--nor a single federal way of addressing them. If American policing was conducted by a national security service, as is the case in many African countries, it would be a simple matter to impose a policy that applied to all police. But that's not the American way: federal policing makes Americans nervous, as well it should. Many of those African countries that don't really distinguish between the police and military are dictatorships.

Of course, we do have a national police force: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Since the crime is taking place on federal property, the FBI has jurisdiction. As frustrated as the local sheriff may be, he's got no authority there. The FBI is dictating strategy, and since two high-profile bloodbaths in the 1990s that inspired the Oklahoma City bombing (a terrorist act by an individual who, if he were still alive, would almost certainly want to be part of the group occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge), the FBI has been far more cautious about dealing with right-wing gun nuts. It really has nothing to do with the skin color of the perpetrators: if they were black or brown, the FBI would be mandated by their own policy to be just as cautious. As a federal agency, they are required to be color-blind in their dealings with criminals. It's one of the good things about federalism: when the US military was required to integrate, it happened immediately. That's how the military became a model for the rest of the country.

And here's a thought for those of you feeling righteous progressive outrage: the FBI, in practicing restraint and preferring deescalation to going in with guns blazing, is showing the rest of the country how it ought to be handling occupations of public spaces by groups like the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter. It does mean that this standoff is likely to go on longer--though with electricity cut off, and with only modest supplies, I doubt it can last anywhere near as long as Ammon Bundy insists it will. You can't eat ammunition.

So everybody take a deep breath, and back away from your keyboards. Most Americans are appalled at what these invaders are doing on public land, don't buy into their nutty ideas, and if anything, are becoming even less inclined to vote Republican as a result. The only people who will benefit from a massive armed response are the other nut jobs in the Christian Identity movement. We don't need another Ruby Ridge or Waco, and we certainly don't want another Oklahoma City. Freezing and starving them out is enough.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Wisdom to Know the Difference

Reinhold Niebuhr

He looks so benign. Who could even guess this avuncular baldy was mid-century America's answer to Machiavelli?

Reinhold Niebuhr's career was the ecclesial and academic equivalent of Barack Obama's rise to the Presidency. Niebuhr was an ordained minister in the Evangelical Church, a mainline Protestant denomination (this was in the days before "Evangelical" became synonymous with "reactionary") of primarily German immigrants. Niebuhr's first and, it turned out, only parish was in Detroit. It was small when he arrived, large by the time he left, but that probably had as much to do with demographic shifts as anything else: Detroit was growing by leaps and bounds as the auto industry matured. If his memoir of those years, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, makes clear, he was frequently neglectful of the more mundane aspects of the pastorate, preferring instead to nurture a developing career as an activist and theologically oriented pundit, which he ultimately spun into a position at Union Theological Seminary. "Professor of Practical Theology" identifies his subsequent work beautifully.

Niebuhr professes in his early writings to be an idealist, a pacifist who modeled his actions on the life of Jesus. As such, he found much to appreciate about the work of Gandhi. As his thirteen year pastorate drew to a close, though, he experienced a shift to a branch of theology called neo-orthodoxy, and from there to the school of thought he created: political realism (sometimes referred to as Christian realism). In his maturing theology, Niebuhr came to believe that ideals were fine as guiding principles, but that no decisions made in the political realm could be purely idealistic. Rather, the challenge was to sift through all the evidence and arrive at the most moral--conversely, the least immoral--plan of action. Many of the positions he endorsed are debatable, but there is no arguing with the central truth of his approach: political decisions must be constantly scrutinized to be sure that the compromises essential to politics do not tip into immorality.

I first encounter Niebuhr in a seminary course on moral theology. Later I came back to take an entire seminar on his writings, not out of choice, but simply because all the courses I was really interested in were full by the time I arrived at registration. As it turned out, that seminar turned my own thought process upside down. I found myself arguing with Niebuhr's conclusions, but unable to fault his methodology. Idealism is a fine thing for an individual to practice, Niebuhr wrote, but once that individual joins with other idealists, conflicts are inevitable. If their community is to survive, there will have to be compromises. If that community is to be part of a larger collective--a city, a state, a kingdom, a country--compromise must be an essential part of the unification, and the only way to avoid tyranny (the imposition of one set of ideals on an entire group of people) is for the collective to be governed democratically. And as much as the concept of democracy may itself by an ideal, its very nature--giving voice to all the disparate views within a collective, but conceding ultimate authority to the will of the majority--is a combination of compromise and tolerance. The hardline idealists must concede points to the greater majority, who must tolerate the ongoing presence of hardliners. Disrupting this balance leads to political gridlock and, ultimately, civil war.

I remember sitting with Niebuhr's 1932 masterpiece, Moral Man and Immoral Society, and wanting to throw it against the wall, because as much as I didn't want it to be true, I knew it was. The book was more an extended essay than a scholarly work--Niebuhr rarely cites references--but his understanding of history is inescapable: whatever heights individuals may aspire to, the tragedy of the commons ultimately brings them down. I was 29 when this finally sank in. Niebuhr later summarized his belief in democracy in this aphorism: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." (The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, 1944).

Which brings me to the present. Politics, I have come to realize, is the realm of necessary compromise. Barack Obama campaigned as an idealist--though many of his avowed ideals were those of a deal-maker, one who hoped to bring the poles of American opinion together in the middle--but had to govern, from his first day as President, as a realist. To save the economy, Obama had to bless deals with banks and corporations that made both socialists and libertarians furious. To bring long-needed reforms to public health, he had to make deals with insurance companies and conservative legislators that preserved America's unenviable status as having the most complicated health industry in the world. The clear practical gains of these moves, along with significant progress on civil rights, appeased many on the left, but infuriated the idealists on the right, resulting in the least-productive Congress in American history. To quote Niebuhr again (though I'm not sure where this reference originates): "The whole art of politics is directing rationally the irrationalities of man."

It's cliched, but true, that Washington is where ideals go to die. Jimmy Carter's failures at governing idealistically resulted in twelve years of Republican ideals running the country, moderated by eight years of Clintonian realism. There was much about the Clinton era that frustrated social liberals like me--the dismantling of welfare, the lack of progress on gay rights, the utter failure of health reform, and don't get me started on the loose zipper morality of Bill Clinton, not to mention the glib lawyerisms he used to evade responsibility--but by the end of that time, the country was heading in a far better direction. A Gore administration could have cemented many of these changes. But the idealists on the left wouldn't have it. Instead, they threw their support behind the third party candidacy of Ralph Nader, drawing just enough votes away from Gore to put another Bush in office.

I voted my head, and not my heart, in that election, and the results confirmed that decision. I'll be voting in the same way this year, putting realism ahead of idealism. I want everything Bernie Sanders promises, but I don't believe he can deliver any of it from the Oval Office. The entirety of the Sanders agenda is dependent on the cooperation of Congress, and one does not simply pass idealist legislation through the Senate, let alone the House. Fence-straddling, eggshell-walking, compromise, diplomacy, deal-making--none of these come easily to an idealist. A Clinton, on the other hand--which is to say, a political realist--can cut half a dozen deals while doing the New York Times crossword (and I'll cut off the joke there).

And that, my friends, is the Niebuhrian reason I'll be voting for Hillary Clinton: I'm compromising my ideals in favor of real progress. That doesn't mean I want those ideals to go away. Niebuhr honored and respected the idealists of his world--Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.--for establishing a moral pole toward which the politicians could move. Washington of 2016 has idealists, too, thinkers whose intellectual purity should guide our pragmatic future President as she works those necessary compromises. Bernie Sanders won't be President, but that doesn't mean he should stop railing against corporate influence on Washington. Elizabeth Warren, too, can help steer voter opinion (and, with it, Congress) toward policies that favor ordinary people over millionaires.

One last bit of Niebuhrian wisdom before I close out this 401st blog post: "The tragedy of man is that he can conceive self perfection but cannot achieve it." Or, to put it more comfortingly in words for which he is best known: "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,  courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Sunday, January 3, 2016

All That You Can't Leave Behind

(with apologies to U2)

Christmas, 1985: the last time all the Anderson boys were simultaneously unmarried.

I was going to start this essay with a picture of An-Di-Fan, the house in McMinnville that has been at the center of my family's identity since 1945, but which will (hopefully) soon be changing hands. We've had two family gatherings there--Thanksgiving and Christmas--since it went on the market, each of which could have been the last time we were all together under that roof. Unfortunately, the market for large craftsman homes in McMinnville is sluggish at this time of year, so there may yet be more potentially final gatherings of the House of An at the eponymous homestead.

I changed my mind about using that picture--one that prominently features the "For Sale" sign that still gives me a jolt every time I drive up, and see it there in front of the house--because the house is not what I'm primarily writing about today, though it will still play a role later on. Today's essay is about moments, not property.

One such moment is captured in the picture I took in December, 1985, in Halsey, Oregon, using the timer on my camera to make sure we were all in the picture. It may be the only picture that includes our entire family--both parents, all five sons, and whichever pet we currently owned (in this case, a collie creatively named "Lassie")--prior to the first marriages to change the family landscape. All of us except Mom are wearing her sewing present for that Christmas, scarves made from the MacDonald tartan. We also all appear to be in good places emotionally, though Mom's father had passed away just two months earlier. I was in my first year of seminary, Ocean was in his first year of graduate school, and Jon was a freshman in college, so my parents' nest was well into its emptying period.

And we were all gathered for Christmas.

Yesterday, thirty years after that picture was taken, there was another Christmas gathering of the Anderson family. Bringing us together was more complicated this time: all of my generation have homes and families of our own. Settling on a day when we could all come together was challenging, and the day we chose still meant a number of grandchildren could not be present. But all five sons and their respective spouses were in attendance.

My father was not. This was not our first family gathering since his passing just over a year ago, but it's the one at which we most felt his absence. Dad loved having us all together for Christmas, and always insisted on singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with cue cards he'd made back in the 1960s for carol sings he led with his accordion. When the whole family is gathered, we've got more than enough people to hold up all twelve of those cards. Singing that song together was certainly a highlight of the family gathering a year ago, just hours before Dad's passing, and he clearly enjoyed the experience. There was some of him in it last night, and I know we sang more lustily to honor him.

Dad is present in a lot of the things I do. Last week, as Amy and I were visiting Joshua Tree National Park, I took time to read the interpretive signs at every scenic wayside, knowing Dad would've insisted on it if he'd been driving. On our last night, we drove to the most desolate part of the Park to gape at the Milky Way, a sight not available to us in overly-lit suburbia--and again, I knew Dad would've eaten that up.

Dad's presence is all over An-Di-Fan, and it always has been. When my grandmother moved into the house seventy years ago, Dad remodeled the living room to make room for the large oriental carpet that still covers the floor. Forty-five years later, my parents moved in and began a much more massive remodel. Dad's handiwork is in every room. It was his magnum opus, the culmination of a lifetime teaching himself to be a jack-of-all-trades. It was his dream to spend the rest of his life in this house, and he accomplished that.

And now it's time for all of us to move on. It's hard to think of the house not being there in McMinnville for us. I first visited it as a small baby--we watched the home movie of it yesterday, with my great-grandmother rocking me on the porch--and we've all been back repeatedly over the decades, many of us living there with our parents for a few weeks, months, or years. There are memories in every room, not to mention throughout the enormous back garden that was our private playland. The house has been a geographic center for a family so itinerant that none of us has a true home town. But it's far too much of a house for our mother to live in by herself, and none of us wants to move to McMinnville, so it's time to let go of it.

Of course, it's not just a house we're letting go of. Releasing this house to new owners is also the most powerful way we can let go of Dad. His presence in this house is far more palpable than in the ashes we scattered in July, or in any memorial plaque that may someday be put up.

I can't speak for my brothers, but I know that, when the house finally sells, I will need to visit it one last time to walk its halls, twist its brass doorknobs, inhale the mustiness of the basement, picture myself and my brothers and our children running up and down the stairs, playing in the bedrooms, sharing meals in the dining room, conversation in the kitchen. I'll look one last time at the house that was our father's, our grandmother's, our family's; I'll shed a few tears; and then 'll get in my car to drive away for the last time.

We'll have other family gatherings, complete with pictures and video. We'll find new tables to gather around, new kitchens to occupy, new living rooms to fill with the lusty harmonies of the Twelve Days of Christmas. And when we do, Dad will still be a part of the celebration, though not as tangibly. I can't ever leave behind the joy he felt in bringing the family together, in sharing a meal and a song, and waving goodbye to each of us as we drove away from An-Di-Fan, the House of Peace.