Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Taking Back Our Lives

How do you like being told what to do? Not so much, I'm guessing. We put up with it when we have to. Most of the time we know its for our own good. Traffic laws, criminal laws, environmental laws. Sometimes, though, it seems like it's for someone else's good, not our own, and then being made to live in a way we don't want to is galling. This is what has the Tea Party so upset. They don't want the federal government, or any government, telling them what to do.

I see their point. And lately, I'm as mad about what someone is making me do as they are about paying taxes. Like some Texans, I'm ready to secede. The bully that's got my back up is the gun lobby. We need to get organized and throw off their tyranny. We need a revolution. We're being taxed by them, in lives, without representation. They have bullied our legislators and have accumulated Justices on the highest court who are willing to endorse their anachronistic view of our Constitution. Their answer when we complain: "Let them eat bullets."

As a nation, we've always been ambivalent about guns. We don't much like taking them away from folks. Given our heritage, that's understandable. But the bloodletting in our cities got so bad that a few, notably Washington D.C. and Chicago, passed laws designed to get guns off the streets. Not so fast, said the Supreme Court in 2008 and 2010. The Second Amendment guarantees the right of an individual to own a gun.

Many scholars think the Second Amendment does no such thing. Michael Waldman, a law professor, has written a whole book about what the framers meant, reviewed in today's NYT by Joe Nocera. A year and a half ago, after the Connecticut school shootings, I joined the chorus complaining that the Supreme Court got it wrong. But that's what they said; and now that's the law of the land. We can wait for them to change their minds, or we can do something about it, the only thing we can do: Repeal the Second Amendment.

Wait, do you mean take away guns? Not at all. If there were no Second Amendment, guns would be like everything else in a free society: you could own them unless someone passed a law saying you couldn't. In some places, say Wyoming, that's unlikely. In Chicago, I'm sure they'd be delighted to try again to stop the bleeding caused by guns. 

The point is this: Guns don't deserve special protection. Except to the hard-core, the right to own a gun does not have the same sanctity as the right to be protected against racial discrimination or unwarranted search and seizure. A gun is nice to hunt with. If you're really paranoid, you might like to keep one in your bedside drawer (although the statistics indicate it's more likely that a family member rather than a criminal will be killed by it). You should be able to decide how many guns you want in your community, you and your fellow citizens. You shouldn't be forced to live in a town where your personal safety is threatened by the ubiquity of guns, not if you and a majority in your community don't want that.

But that's the situation we find ourselves in now. The gun lobby is fanatical. Some might even say fascist. They have in effect take over the country and are forcing their ideology and unsafe living environment on the rest of us. They are a minority, I believe. Let's find out. Let's put it to a vote. In your town and mine.

But before we can do that, we have to clear away the special protection they have won for themselves through the Supreme Court's wrongheaded view of the law. We have to repeal the Second Amendment.

Ha, you say. True, it's a tall order. But so was emancipation. So was women's suffrage. We've done it before. We can do it again. We just have to believe we can. And we have to care enough to try. I don't know about you, but I can't stand to see another young person murdered. I'm ready to vote against any politician who won't support repeal of the Second Amendment. I'm ready to be like the NRA and make mine a single-issue vote.

Are you with me?

"Will you join in our crusade, who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Writing Myself

In his column a few days ago, Timothy Egan reminded us of Teddy Roosevelt's view of the wisdom of industrial titans: "You expect a man of millions, the head of a great industry, to be a man worth hearing,” T.R. once said. “But as a rule they don’t know anything outside their own business."


I've long been good at getting good at something. You focus and you work hard and you persist and sometimes "Bingo." Man, that feels good. It goes to your head, though, to mine anyway. Especially if it makes money. There's nothing like being able to buy a woman flowers and champagne every day to make you think you've got it all figured out. All the important stuff, anyway.

But I'm a different person now. I blame it on writing. I'm not making enough money writing to keep my girl in champagne and flowers--she loves me anyway; who knows why--but that's not the worst of it. The big casualty of my writing has been my blissful, self-absorbed ignorance. That and my self image. Not the image I have of myself now, but the image I had of myself then. I thought I was hot stuff. Turns out, T.R. pretty much had me pegged.

I cared about others in those days. I had empathy. What I didn't have was time. I worked hard to be successful, and when I wasn't doing that, I was looking after my family. If something didn't have anything to do with either of those pursuits, I just didn't pay that much attention to it. To give you an idea of how bad it was, I thought Ronald Reagan was an okay president.

When you're in that mode--making something new, inventing yourself--big philosophical issues feel like something you left behind in the college library. They are the mountains that run down to the valley that cradles the stream that carries you along. You are too busy swimming to give them much thought. Too busy to ask yourself where you would be if they weren't there at all. Way too busy to wonder whether without mountains there could even be streams.

I have more time now, and I think about these things. Not just because I have time to. Suddenly, urgently, I want to understand. I want to explore the mountains. I wouldn't even mind a peek over to the other side. Like Timothy Egan, I see the global religious, political and social struggles of the day and I think: It can't be as hopeless as it seems. Surely we aren't doomed endlessly to repeat the same mistakes, fight the same fights, as if no one has made them or fought them before, as if no one has learned anything.

Well, maybe we are. 

But even that is interesting to think about. Why that might be. What it means about who we really are. Why can we see the mountains if we are doomed to forget them? What would be the evolutionary point of that? We'd be better off never looking up from the stream. But we do look up. Some of us. Sometimes. The things we learn about ourselves when we do that must be good for something. Why else would we have that capacity?

Perhaps we cannot do and think at the same time. Perhaps we are in a non-multitasking stage of our cognitive development. Do or think. Think or do. Not both at once. Sorry. Come back when Humanbrain 2.0 has been installed.

We are great builders. We are great thinkers. But I fear our two great selves don't spend enough time together. Achievement, meet conscience. You two should talk. I think you'd enjoy one another.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Wars of the World

Every time I go to a war museum it's like the first time. I see the stories of killing and anguish, the photos, the weapons, and I think, How can we do that to one another? Each time I'm as shocked and horrified as if I'd been out for a walk on a pleasant afternoon and stumbled unexpectedly upon a fresh mass grave.

Meg and I went to the WWI and WWII exhibits at Les Invalides in Paris recently, and I left thinking: I must write about this. I turned it over in my mind for a few days and, as I seem always to do, I came back to: What is there to say? This is just how we are. How we've always been.

We are, at base, a primitive species. It takes precious little to strip away our veneer of civility and turn us into animals. And yet, there is that civility. We are not, most of the time, savages. And it seems that as civilization progresses our large-scale outbursts of primitive behavior--murdering each other for money, mates and territory--may be lessening somewhat.

Which makes me wonder about the catalysts for our regressions into the heart of darkness. On an individual level, there is jealousy and road rage. For nations, there is nationalistic fervor. The biggest difference between the two is that a jealous lover may do some damage, but he won't destroy a whole city. Not so for a Hitler.

Can we blame wars, then, on crazy nationalistic ideologues? Maybe. Perhaps there would have been no WWII without Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. But they needed followers. And from the looks of photos and film clips of the fervent crowds of German, Italian and Japanese civilians in the run-up to that war, they certainly had them. 

Were those people tricked into war? Or did they want it? Were they led astray, or merely taken where they wanted to go? Can we learn to resist demagoguery, or is our blood lust a dormant seed hibernating within us, like a locust in chilled earth, until awakened by the heat of hatred?