Monday, December 31, 2012

Goodbye To All That

What if you were afraid and angry all the time? You might have anxiety disorder. Or rage disorder. Or you might just be getting older.

Anxiety in young people tends to be transient. Nervousness about a test, a job interview, a date. There are clinical disorders that make even the young anxious all the time, but they are not the norm.

The same is true of anger. Young people get mad, but they don’t usually stay mad. They are wired to look forward. They are wired to be optimistic. Optimism and anger are not good roommates.

But when we get older, our future shrinks before our eyes. There are no longer endless possibilities. In fact, sometimes it can seem that there are no possibilities at all. Of course we get anxious as we watch our prospects dwindle. Of course we get angry.

The problem is, we also have a culture that reveres the wisdom of elders. Particularly elder men. Just look at the makeup of Congress. These are the old men with low testosterone blues. These are the men of diminished prospects. These are the men desperate to hang onto a world that is slipping away from them.

These are not the people who should be making our laws. We don’t need to ditch our seminal law, the Constitution, as a Georgetown law professor argued in an op-ed piece today, we need to ditch our lawmakers. We need to dump the grumpy old men in Congress who can’t seem to get anything done and replace them with young and hopeful men and women. The young are the ones who believe in the future. They are the ones who will live in it. They are the ones to whom we should entrust it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Supreme Stupidity

In the summers of 2008 and 2010, our national bloodletting got endorsements from the Supreme Court. That’s when Justices Scalia and Alito and their conservative brethren struck down bans on handguns in D.C. and Chicago. The right to own a gun for self defense is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution, the Court said in Heller vs. D.C and McDonald vs. Chicago.

The rulings make serious gun control impossible. Justice Scalia did say recently that the right to “bear arms” means you have to be able to bear them, so laws limiting ownership of canons would be okay. He also said some future Court would have to decide about hand-held rocket launchers capable of bringing down passenger planes.

Today twenty Connecticut school children were shot with handguns in their classroom. I guess you don’t need a canon or a rocket-propelled grenade to do a lot of damage. See also, Aurora, Columbine, etc., etc.

Self-defense. That’s what we need them for. Let’s take a look at that. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that guns on the street and in the home are more likely to be used to intimidate innocents than for self-defense. Few criminals are actually shot by law-abiding citizens.

If you read the Heller and McDonald opinions, one of the things you’ll notice is how much time is spent on what people thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Did they like guns? Did they think it was important to own them? Well, sure. They had just used them to overthrow the English. And it was a wild country for a long time after that. With the nearest sheriff a day away, it made sense to be able to protect yourself.

In his reasoning in McDonald, Justice Alito makes a point of how much the American colonists admired the English laws that guaranteed the right to keep arms. Today, of course, England has the some of the toughest gun control laws (and lowest gun crime rates) in the world. I share the admiration of our forebears for the English approach. Too bad our laws didn’t adapt to changing times as intelligently as theirs did.

When I was a boy, people who didn’t like the views of liberal judges or ivory-tower academics called them “pointy-heads,” meaning they might have a high IQ but they were hopelessly out of touch with the real world. Well, the Alito gang at the Supreme Court certainly fits that bill. We’re no longer a nation of farmers. We’re not civilian revolutionaries. The nearest sheriff is just around the corner.

While our eighteenth-century rights, which we don’t even use much for their intended purpose, are being protected, who is looking out for the children who are being murdered? It’s as if the grizzled old sheriff in a Hollywood Western met the wild, gun-toting cowboys as they rode into town and said: Have a drink on me, boys. Plenty of ammunition behind the bar. Last one alive, turn out the lights.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Girl in the Woods

The President and the Speaker have been locked in the windowless room for forty-eight hours. There are no beds, no chairs, only a small toilet in the corner. Neither man liked dropping his pants in front of the other. The room is close, and a little smelly. They take turns sitting against the wall and pacing. There’s not enough room for both to pace at once. They’ve been told they will be released only when they are honest with each other.

They began by restating their core governing principles. They thought that would be enough, but the door did not open. Within the last hour Speaker Boehner has hinted that he does not want to loose his leadership position. President Obama has conceded that he does not want to be remembered as the one who couldn't get anything done. They glance at the two-way mirror: We’ve admitted our fears, let us out of here. But the door does not open.

Another day and night pass. They have had no food or water. It is hot in the room, and both men have stripped off their shirts. John admits that he did not like the smell of old men and whiskey and urine when he unloaded kegs and swept out his father’s bar. He helped care for his ten younger siblings, but he would have liked not to have been responsible for anyone but himself. Barack says that all the time he was growing up he never felt he fit in. Not white, not black, part of each, not wholly either.

At dawn of the fourth day, the door opens. They put on their shirts and pull themselves together as best they can, expecting photographers. But when they step out of the room, they are not in Washington but in a forest. The forest floor is shadowed. A sun-dappled mist shrouds the high canopy. The birds are just waking.

They walk for a while, hoping to see houses or a road, but there is nothing. They stop and rest and walk again. They lick the moisture off leaves and eat grasses and wild berries. In late afternoon, with the forest already growing dim, they stop to make shelter. They break pine branches for a lean-to. Exhausted, they sleep through the night.

In the morning they find pine needles and twigs and flint and they strike a rock against the flint and make a fire. They take turns tending the fire so it does not go out. They find more berries to eat and John walks in widening circles until he finds water. They move their camp to the bank of the stream and drink the water. They catch crawfish under rocks in the stream and lay them on the coals of the fire and eat them. In a deep pool downstream, Barack scoops out a trout with his hands. They gut it and strip a sapling and skewer the fish and cook it over the fire.

They have stopped talking about themselves. They don’t speak much at all, in fact. There is no need to. Both know what must be done.

After days of following the stream, camping beside it, eating its fish and drinking its water, they come upon a cabin in a clearing. They feel they should be overjoyed to have found other human beings, but they are cautious as they approach. John knocks on the door while Barack hangs back. He says he doesn’t want to frighten whoever is inside.

A middle-aged woman with a blue head scarf answers the door. She beckons them inside and gives them hot soup while her children watch from near the fire, an older girl and two young boys. They study the strangers with a combination of curiosity and feral wariness.

The woman says she and the children have been alone for years. Her husband went into the forest one day and did not return. They have a garden behind the cabin and they fish in the stream. The children know how to forage for berries and mushrooms. She cannot leave them to look for a way out of the forest, and she is afraid to take them on a long journey that might kill them.

Her daughter is bright, the woman says. She could learn and do something better with her life if she could find the way out. She asks John and Barack to take the girl with them when they leave. The girl does not want to leave her family. Perhaps she is afraid. Perhaps she is just loyal. But her mother tells her she must go, not just for herself, but for her brothers too.

The woman wraps some berries and vegetables in a bandana and gives it to Barack and John and the girl. It is all she can spare, she says. She stands in the doorway of her cabin and watches her daughter walk off between these men who have come into her life so unexpectedly and to whom she has entrusted the most precious things her in life: her child and her hope for the future.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Tea Party Within Me

When my mother was seventy-eight, she asked if she could give someone twenty-five-thousand dollars. She said this person really needed it and she wanted to help her. She asked me because I was handling her finances for her. She had enough to live on. If she didn’t get some dreadful disease, she would have enough to live out her life comfortably. But if the costs of her care went up in her later years, her financial security was not so certain. I told her she shouldn’t give away that much. She might need it herself.

Over the years she asked me again and again whether she could make that gift. I kept saying no. Sometimes our discussions got a little heated. She wanted to do what she wanted to do and resented being told she could not. I was just being responsible, I thought. I had actuarial tables and the escalating cost of nursing care to back me up. She had only her desire to be kind to someone in greater need than she.

I share this story not to expose my heartlessness--although I regret to this day not letting her make that gift, all the more so since she died with plenty of money in the bank--but to explore why I resisted her request and why, if she were still alive, I probably would still be resisting.

I have a feeling that many in the Tea Party are more like me than I like to think. Whether you are thinking about your aging parent or your country, planning not to run out of money is tricky. The Tea Party doesn’t want the government to spend more than it can afford for the same reason I didn’t want Mom to: they don’t want the burden of the loss to fall on them.

I used to believe it was just plain selfishness that caused some people not to want to help others. Maybe so in some cases, but I think most of the time people are just worried that somehow the whole thing is going to blow up on them and whatever it was they were expecting out of their country and their life is going to be unattainable.

We have this fantasy in America that with hard work and perseverance anyone can do anything. Perhaps I shouldn’t call it a fantasy. It can happen. It does happen. But it certainly doesn’t happen to everyone, not even most. The thing is, we believe it can, and we don’t want to let go of that belief, that hope. It’s our national religion.

Even the heartiest individualist understands that the essential services government provides are the underpinnings of freedom and economic opportunity. But what, exactly, is essential? Police and fire protection? Roads? Electricity? Clean water and air? Most would agree on those. How about day care for single mothers? If you’re not a single mother, and don’t much think anyone should be, that may not be high on your list. Food stamps? If it came to it, you think you could find a way to put food on the table, so why can’t they? If you’re working hard and getting by, it can be difficult to put yourself in the place of someone who has lost his job and health benefits and wakes up one morning to find a lump under his arm that he’d never noticed before.

It’s not naked selfishness that’s behind what we take for a lack of compassion, a flinty ungenerousness, it is fear. Fear that what has made this country great, what has created the opportunity for all who came before, will bleed out of the national body through a million tiny puncture wounds inflicted by sloth, waste and fraud.

December is the giving season, the time we all gather round and watch “A Christmas Carol,” tut-tutting at what a mean and selfish man Ebenezer Scrooge is and smiling approvingly at his post-haunting epiphany. It’s his change of heart we applaud, his moral awakening. It would be a far less resonant story if the Ghosts of Christmas simply shook down old Scrooge for the price of the Cratchit family Christmas goose. Scrooge was a skinflint, alright, but it wouldn’t be right to force him to give to others. For it to be the right thing, for it to be something real and lasting, he had to want to do it himself.

That’s what a lot of people feel: that it’s not right to force them to give to others. Especially people they don’t know, people they suspect could do more for themselves if they just tried harder. They’re glad to give to the charity of their choice, but they don’t like paying taxes for social safety nets.

For many government is like a parent, and those people lined up to collect welfare are its children run wild. But what if one of them was your son? Would you turn your back on him? Probably not. Perhaps, though, neither would you rush in with an open checkbook every time he slipped. You’d want him to work it out himself if at all possible.

We’d all have a lot more confidence in government if we were sure it was operating this way. We’d be happier to trust it with our money. Let’s face it, we just don’t think government, particularly the federal government, is a very good parent. It’s too inattentive, too indulgent. We all know how kids of parents like that turn out.

Government has to regain our confidence. It’s not enough to say you want to help people in need, you have to show you know how to do it. You have to show you can tell someone who truly needs help from a charlatan gaming the system. Government hasn’t done enough to gain our confidence that it can do that. It has been aloof. It has been imperious. It has been wasteful. For proof, one need look no farther than the current Congress. Few among us any longer trust those gridlocked, preening pontificators to look after our common welfare.

Government needs to learn to be a better parent.  It needs to explain its decisions. It needs to make us feel they are fair and evenhanded. It needs to be a parent we can respect. Otherwise, the children are going to keep running away from home.