Bertrand Russell's "Ten Commandments"

Bertrand_Russell_photoI just discovered this, and I love it. This is Bertrand Russell's "Ten Commandments." 1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Sum of Our Gods eBook cover edit 1I wonder what Russell would think of The Sum of Our Gods. On the one hand, it revels in uncertainty and shows very little respect for authority. On the other hand, while it strives to tell the truth, it's the truth of fictional characters. Would Russell consider fiction to be "scrupulously truthful" or merely convenient?

To All My New Conservative Friends on Facebook

government-out-of-medicare-signDearest New Friends, When I was invited to join your protest against the Affordable Care Act, I clicked on the “Decline” button. Facebook, mistaking your brave online protest for a party, asked me to fill in a textbox explaining why I wouldn’t be attending. Due to a lack of willpower, I filled in that box. As soon as I hit “Post,” I instantly regretted the decision, but now I see that it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. By engaging with all of you, my new friends, I have realized the error of my ways and have completely come over to your side. I think everyone should have a chance to learn all about your brilliant rhetorical techniques so that they can also see how well you defend your (well, I guess now it’s our) position on US domestic policy.

Kathryn Mullins, I apologize for not being convinced by your initial foray. Unfortunately, unlike those who would come to your aid later in the thread, you tried to use numbers and facts. In between, you threw in lots of multiple exclamation points. These really should have convinced me that I was wrong all by themselves. I’m embarrassed to say that your use of caps-lock didn’t convince me, either. Luckily, you ended by shouting, “YOU CAN'T FIX STUPID!!” and that really got me thinking about how correct you must be, despite the historical and factual inaccuracies in your post.

John Graham, it’s a good thing you hopped in to help Kathryn out. By letting me know that my opinion is a “b.o. talking point,” you showed me that there was no need for you to even address the facts of the case, and that really made me reconsider. You only used caps-lock a little bit, though. Maybe that’s why I still needed some persuading.

Jason Freeman Jones, you really upped everyone’s game by jumping in to repeat the same sentence four times. Sure, the sentence was factually wrong, but because you wrote it four times and then followed it up with, “Get it?” that basically obviated the need for truth of any kind. You could learn a thing or two about the use of exclamation points from Kathryn, though.

James LeBeau, thanks for pointing out that there’s really no point in anyone having any kind of insurance of any kind since it might end up being money wasted on a need that never materializes. I can’t believe I was one of those dupes who thought risk could be managed by insurance. What a fool I’ve been! I also appreciate your point about how we made it 137 years without any taxes in this country. Sure, that’s not even remotely true, but who cares! Truth is as dumb as insurance! Calling me a moron helped me understand that. Thanks, James!

Link*, you really need some help from these folks. You tried to post articles, establish facts, and demand specificity. You didn’t even bother to call me a “lib-tard” or tell me I was “drunk on FOOL-AID!!” Good thing Kathryn was there to help you out.

Luckily, a bunch of you showed up to make the discussion far more persuasive. John Graham, thanks for bringing up the New World Order conspiracy theory. Christina McDermott, thanks for criticizing liberals by sharing the lyrics from a song from 1993 that made fun of George H. W. Bush. I’m still not sure how that related, but you shared it as though it did, so it must have. Hai Vuong, thank you for kicking things up a notch with your creative idea to file a lawsuit on about the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. (I don’t think that’s quite how the court system works, but…)

Mark W. Mumma, I’m sorry I pushed back on your statement that you “prefer the government stay the hell out of our lives.” You were right to be offended when I pointed out that the government is made up of public servants like firefighters and police officers. Of course one can hate the government but like public servants. There is no disconnect there at all. I see that now. I suppose you’re correct that I was using liberal “all-or-nothing reasoning.” Now I see that “We prefer the government stay the hell out of our lives,” is a nuanced view, as is your claim that “There's two kinds of people in this country.” Now that you all have brought me over to your way of thinking, I will strive for this kind of complexity.

Things seemed to be cooling off, and there was a real danger that I wouldn’t be persuaded when Christina was just calling me an idiot. Luckily, Derek Lozoski showed up and posted, “Benjamin G = Fucktard!” I think the power of the statement comes from its brevity. Suddenly, I was really wavering again. Thanks, Derek! And then when Mark quipped that Derek had just insulted fucktards everywhere, I realized that they must be right!

But now that I’d seen the light, what kind of conservative or libertarian should I become? Surely all these people couldn’t be completely in lock-step with only a few of us libtards on the outside, right?

Just then Joe Fisher showed up to inform us all that “i want my plan, not a niger scam artist plan.”

Rick Morgan called Joe on both his racism and spelling ability, but I’m guessing that Rick isn’t the kind of conservative/libertarian the others want me to be, because he wasn’t participating in convincing me that I was a fucktard, and none of the conservatives liked his comment while they were falling all over each other to like the unified theory of liberalism. Heck, even Joe Fischer got a “Like.” And Christina McDermott came to Joe’s defense, explaining that Joe wasn’t a racist because black people use the n-word.

At this point, I made what I now see was clearly a big mistake. I pointed out that I’d gone all that time without personally insulting any of you. Thank you all for really piling on at that point to teach me that name-calling is the best way to persuade people. Sure, “Dumb-ass” wasn’t that strong. “Silly Boy,” and “Drama queen,” didn’t really push me over the edge. The way many of you used words like “liberal” and “socialist” as insults was actually a bit more persuasive, and made me rethink my political leanings. Insults like “doggie” and “sheep” were a bit weird but appreciated. However, it was when you told me that I was both impotent and receiving oral sex from the President that I really was forced to conclude that you folks are on to something.  Suddenly the fact that you mix up communism and fascism, or confuse the progressive Republicans of Lincoln with the modern Republican Party, seems perfectly acceptable! Who needs facts when we have multiple exclamation points AND CAPS LOCK?!!!

And why should America need civil public discourse when we have such brave and persuasive defenders of liberty?

Again, thank you all for telling me who I suck and who sucks me. This has logically convinced me that the Affordable Care Act is a bad idea.

Because merica thats whyNow you have someone you all consider to be an illiterate communist fucktard firmly on your side.

We’re all winners!!!





*Upon request, I removed Link's last name. I'd only included him to give him credit for being civil, but I understand why he doesn't want to be associated with the conversation. If the other people who said horrible, obscene things would like to have their last names removed, they can send a request to notachance@snowballschancein.hell

Are Universities Too Liberal to Provide a Real Education? Sounds Like Conservative Sour Grapes to Me

Over at Narratively, Natalie Axton reports on a theory promoted by many conservative thinkers, both inside and outside of academia, that says that liberalism dominates academia to such an extent that these schools can no longer provide a real education, since they can't provide the kind of balance necessary to produce real debate. The the article makes the straightforward and convincing case that the best critics of specific policies of academic institutions will come out of the Right (self-proclaimed outsiders generally do), but the more sweeping argument falters, and the broader it gets, the more utterly it fails. She even cites unschool advocates who promote traveling and a lot of self-selected reading as worthy replacements for a college education. I could rant for hours about the flaws in the philosophical underpinnings of unschooling (it's not scalable, people who truly want to learn should read things they didn't pick out themselves, classroom discussion can't be replicated in any other setting, etc.), but I'm most irritated by a particularly tired argument repeated in the piece.

The conservatives Axton quotes lost me when they trotted out one of their more tired criticisms, the old trope that liberals are hypocrites for advocating tolerance and then being intolerant of conservative ideas. I've heard this line of argument many times before, and I always find it unpersuasive; it denotes an understanding of tolerance that is so limited it's downright deceptive. Tolerance doesn't mean an idea will be adopted. It just means it will be studied and weighed. Liberals in academia, in my experience, are more than willing to tolerate conservative ideas. They just don't buy into them. Liberals can tolerate the study of monarchy, too. You don't hear a lot of people going around claiming liberals are intolerant of monarchic ideas. In my experience, the only reason conservatives complain that liberals are intolerant of conservatism is that they feel conservatism is fundamentally correct, and that anyone giving it a fair hearing would ultimately conclude the same. It's a kind of rhetorical trap; either you will prove you are tolerant by agreeing with me, or I will call you a hypocrite for being intolerant. The third option, that conservative ideas, especially on social policies like gay marriage and women's reproductive rights, have been weighed carefully and found to be objectionable or outdated by the majority of the general public, is not considered. Certainly liberals share the same notion that their ideas are so correct that anyone who hears them should share them. When liberals even hint at this, they're derided for being snooty and condescending. But the conservative version is equally condescending and more than a little juvenile due to its "gotcha'" quality. While the assumption that one's own ideas are correct is completely understandable (as Wittgenstien pointed out when he wrote, “If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely,' it would not have any significant first person, present indicative.”) but liberal tolerance does not dictate a conservative education. It just demands that ideas get a fair hearing. It doesn't even mean that the ideas which rise to the surface will be True with a capital T. The implicit assumption is that liberal tolerance will produce ideas which are popular. Combined with the notion that people are essentialy decent, this should produce a positive outcome. If, on the other hand, one holds that people are "fallen" or essentially rotten in some way, then it should also come as no surprise to conservatives that liberal ideas are more popular at universities; from a conservative perspective,  the fallen people have made the evil, liberal ideas into the popular ideas. 

Not that liberalism holds the universal sway over academia that the article seems to imply. In fact, libertarianism is alive and well on college campuses. I'll bet Ron Paul would have defeated Mitt Romney at a lot of schools, and I'd also guess that libertarian ideas about legalizing marijuana would defeat liberal compromise positions or a more progressive limited-legalization-with-taxation scheme at most ostensibly "liberal" universities. I was particularly struck by this quote: "Part of the argument at Minding the Campus is that political ideology in the form of race, sex, and gender studies has captured the humanities and social sciences and that as a consequence, American students spend their time practicing identity politics instead of learning history, philosophy and literature." I would argue that the best defense of the study of Western culture, and of Western culture itself, involves learning the role identity politics has always played in history, philosophy, and literature. It wasn't called "identity politics" two hundred or two thousand years ago. If some student escapes from a university without knowing the roles race, sex, gender (and, I'd add, class and sexual identity) played in history, philosophy, and literature, he cannot count himself an educated person, and stands as a testament to the persistence of white, male, straight, upper-class privilege. I understand and share the opinion that there's a lot about Western culture that deserves to be protected (though I may disagree with conservatives, and even with libertarians, about what deserves that protection). Any attempt to excise the study of race, sex, and gender from the studies of history, philosophy, and literature will not defend Western culture any more than building a base consisting solely of white, Christian males will defend the Republican Party. Complaining about the intolerance of a changing world is just petulance. A higher education has to tolerate a recognition of a changing reality.

The NRA Is the Biggest Threat to 2nd Amendment Rights

Your friendly neighborhood liberal gun-owner previously posted about the pro-gun lobby's self-defeating tactics and my skepticism that the NRA has anything but their own short-term financial interest in mind when they take such a hard-line, absolutist view of the 2nd Amendment (Read here: Stupid Faulty Reasoning on Gun Registration Infects my Facebook Page). Here's even more blatant evidence that the NRA is too strategically inept to defend the 2nd Amendment:

"Gun Lobby Bombards Newtown Families With Robocalls Against Gun Regulations"

That's right, they're sending robotic messages to the families, possibly the young siblings, of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, trying to garner their sympathy for the gun industry ("gun manufacturers will leave the state and take away 'thousands of jobs'"). Are you kidding me? That's sick. 

Universal background checks (you know, that "well-regulated" part of the 2nd Amendment?), cross referenced against a beefed-up list of those who are diagnosed as mentally ill with the potential for violence, and increased funding for mental health treatment: These things will not prevent every shooting, but they'll save some lives at the cost of a minor inconvenience for responsible gun owners and a loss of some profits for gun manufacturers who are doing quite well, thank you very much. Profits that come from crazy people who shouldn't have guns in the first place! This is an opportunity for responsible gun owners to stand up and distance themselves from the kind of 2nd amendment absolutists who would rather put AR-15s in the hands of child-murderers than risk any reasonable regulation (the kind described in the 2nd Amendment they claim to love). 

Look, gun guys, I know you're scared. I know fear can make people do stupid things, even heartless things (like calling the families of a horrible tragedy and asking them to make another one possible in order to protect business profits). Please, please at least consider the possibility that the number one threat to your right to own a gun comes not from an urban liberal, and not even from the next crazy killer (there will always be the next crazy killer), but from your own intransigence on the issue. Gun laws will change. The majority of voters are not with you, and some politicians care more about voters than special interest money (if money can't be turned into electoral victory, it's only good to the most dirty politicians) so think clearly about what you want and what you'd be willing to give up to get it. A few extra minutes in a gun shop waiting on that background check in exchange for a safer country and a preserved right to keep and bear arms?  Jump at that deal!

A Liberal Argument FOR Drone Attacks

During the second presidential debate, the one focusing on foreign policy (remember that snoozer?), the big take-away was the fact that President Obama and perennial presidential hopeful Mitt Romney were in such lock-step on foreign policy that they hardly had anything to argue about. It seems the center-right and center-left essentially agree when it comes to how to prosecute the War on Terror, or at least they’ve both learned a lesson from one of Bush II’s mistakes; Don’t stand in front of a Mission Accomplished banner and pretend that an unconventional war will lead to a conventional parades-in-the-streets victory celebration. This one is going to be ugly, and it’s best if we have tamped-down, realistic expectations about that ugliness.

This has not stopped the far-right and far-left from criticizing the use of unmanned drones to prosecute this war. Some of these concerns are more legitimate than others. Among the least legitimate are concerns that unmanned drones are a step across some great divide toward artificially intelligent robots bringing war against humanity (sorry, but they are no more or less human than the cruise missiles we sent after Saddam Hussein back in Gulf War 1), that drones were fine when a real American was ordering their use but not when our current president is doing it (quit choking on your sour grapes, guys), or that drones are somehow undignified or cowardly (as though we are obligated to show up and slap people with white gloves when they would gladly blow up civilian targets with truck bombs). These arguments are patently ridiculous.

Unfortunately, most of the other arguments against the use of drones fall into a category in between the absurd and the worthy-of-debate. Some argue that the President does not have the right to use drones in countries where Congress has not made an official declaration of war.  They use this as an example of President Obama’s executive overreach. This is blatantly hypocritical coming from people who turned a blind eye to previous presidents who authorized military actions in countries where we were not officially at war. Here are some countries where we’ve had military actions without actual congressional declarations of war. In chronological order, we’ve had military incursions in the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, French Polynesia, the West Indies, Argentina, Peru, Indonesia, Fiji, Samoa, Mexico, China, The Ivory Coast, Turkey, Nicaragua, Japan, Uruguay, Panama, Angola, Colombia, Taiwan, Colombia, Egypt, Korea, Haiti, Samoa, Chile, Brazil, The Philippines, Honduras, Syria, Morocco, Cuba, Guatemala, Newfoundland, Bermuda, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua, Trinidad, British Guiana, Greenland, Iceland, Greece, Vietnam, Lebanon, Thailand, Laos, Congo (Zaire), Iran, El Salvador, Libya, Chad, Italy, Bolivia, Liberia, Sierra Leon, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Macedonia, the Central African Republic, Albania, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Tanzania, Afghanistan, Sudan, East Timor, Serbia, Nigeria, and Yemen. Oh, and there are some that don’t even exist anymore, like the Kingdom of Tripoli, Spanish Florida, French Louisiana, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Soviet Union, and Dalmatia. These are all pre-9/11, by the way. So if the argument is that President Obama has overstretched executive authority by taking military action without the formal authorization of Congress, that doesn’t make him exceptionally tyrannical; it just makes him a normal president. 

Another argument is that these are targeted killings of accused criminals who deserve the right to a fair trial. This would be an entirely legitimate argument if it came from people who had consistently held that the declaration of war on Al Qaeda was illegitimate because the group isn’t a country, so all actions against Al Qaeda should have been undertaken by law enforcement. Conservatives who gave George W. Bush a blank check to fight Al Qaeda all over the world can make this argument, but first they have to admit they were wrong and slap “We Should Have elected John Kerry in ’04” stickers on their cars. Liberals who want to make this argument would have to own it completely, and would have to forgo the electoral benefits that came from the killing of Osama Bin Laden, meaning they very well might have to accept that this position is important enough for them that it would justify a Mitt Romney presidency. I don’t hear that from either camp. 

Slightly more legitimate is the concern that Americans have been targeted. I recoil at this because it smacks of a kind of American exceptionalism I find repugnant, the same kind that says foreigners can be imprisoned without trial but Americans cannot, but I admit that our laws do make different allowances for the treatment of American citizens than for the citizens of other countries. However, if the President has the authority to send troops to attack American nationals fighting against us in foreign lands, then that authority necessarily extends to all the means at the military’s disposal, and the military should be able to choose the means that is most effective, threatens the safety of the fewest civilians, and puts the fewest American soldiers at risk. Hence, drones.

Among the most legitimate concerns are those regarding the transparency of the means by which the targets are chosen. “[The] review process occurs entirely within the executive branch, violating the principle of the separation of powers. The executive is the judge, jury and executioner,” Juan Cole argues. “The drone program in the United States is hugely anti-democratic because the whole thing is classified. Therefore, it cannot be publicly discussed or debated with the officials behind it, who can neither confirm nor deny its very existence.” This concern is real, but the same could be said about any military planning. Decisions regarding household raids in Iraq and Afghanistan were made under the same conditions, with the targets receiving no trials unless they were captured. The drone strike program is striking because it is employed when the President invokes his right to kill or capture suspected Al Qaeda operatives, despite the fact that the drones have no means to capture anyone. That shocks the conscience, but only because we were willing to take it on faith that ground forces always make every effort to capture enemies. Not only is this assumption naïve, but it must be counterbalanced by the recognition that our forces put themselves in incredible danger when seeking to capture suspected terrorists. As much as it seems monstrous that President Obama personally authorizes the killing of suspected terrorists, we should remember that the alternative is to personally authorize missions to capture them and to take responsibility for the inevitable loss of American lives that would accompany those decisions. I completely understand that some are concerned that this President or the next might abuse his/her authority to send in the drones, but without some evidence that the 227 strikes he’s authorized as of January 23rd of this year have been so capricious that the loss of American soldiers lives would be preferable because it would focus American attention on the abuse, this argument is simply premature.

There’s also the legitimate concern about civilian casualties. Any moral person should share this concern. Also, in a conflict with an asymmetrical group like Al Qaeda, where winning the hearts and minds of the locals is paramount to “victory” (whatever that means in this kind of war), we have to acknowledge that every civilian casualty is not only a moral tragedy but also a strategic failure. But in this context, criticizing drone strikes is also a philosophical failure. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been between 472 and 885 civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes as of October of 2012. That’s in 350 strikes going back as far as 2009. That’s certainly a lot of civilian deaths, but, for the sake of an honest comparison, consider five years of boots-on-the-ground combat in Iraq: According to our own government’s judgment (leaked through Wikileaks’ Iraq War Logs) 66,081 Iraqi civilians died in the period between January 2004 and December 2009. No one can make a claim that President Bush or President Obama lacked the legal authority to put our soldiers in harms’ way in Iraq during the period between 2004 and 2009. But putting soldiers on the ground produced 140 times as many civilian casualties as drone strikes in a similar amount of time. So if civilian casualties are the concern, criticizing drone strikes simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

Ultimately, the most philosophically consistent criticism of our drone strike policy comes from complete pacifists; if you don’t like that people are killed in wars, drone strikes are certainly a part of that equation. Wars between nations do not produce winners; they produce countries that lose more and countries that lose less. Even in a post 9/11 world, we should acknowledge that the people who actually attacked us are all dead, and that we exchanged the threat of potentially devastating future attacks for the very real and quantifiable loses we’ve suffered as a consequence of our reaction to the attacks on 9/11. The War on Terror may have prevented X, but X is unknowable, and the more than 4,000 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, the more than 3,000 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan, the more than 3,000 U.S. contractor deaths in both, the $4 trillion dollars worth of projected costs (about $13,000 per American), and the estimated tens of thousands of Afghanistani civilian deaths and the estimated 120 thousand Iraqi civilian deaths are knowable, and should weigh heavily against any abstract threat. I used to be an absolute pacifist on religious grounds, and though I’ve always thought of the men and women who commit themselves to our Armed Forces as exemplars of duty and self-sacrifice, I’m still highly skeptical of the efficacy of any war to produce anything but human misery and opportunities for profiteering for corporations. With that being said, I would encourage my fellow liberals to lay off the drone strike arguments. Questioning the need for war of any kind should be a part of our political debate, but holding hands with hawks to criticize drone strikes threatens to sound like an argument that we should exchange the lives of more soldiers and more civilians because we’re uncomfortable with a new technology or with opaque military strategizing that isn’t actually new at all.

Righties, you hate Obama. You can’t articulate a good reason why you hate him so much (despite my requests, hell, my begging for a good explanation), so you’re grasping at straws.

My fellow Lefties, you don’t like war. Good. Stick with that. Unlike the Righties, you have literally trillions of good reasons.

But both sides, lay off the drones.

Stupid, Faulty Reasoning on Gun Registration Infects my Facebook Page

I'm back, your friendly neighborhood liberal gun owner.

Over the last few days, my Facebook page has been overrun by comments and memes devoted to protecting my second amendment rights. As a gun owner and someone who's generally a fan of rights, that's fine, but I'm really struggling not to post rude comments on the pages of my friends. Note: My friends are not stupid people. In general, they post silly, light-hearted pictures or clever memes that make me laugh. But in the last few days I've seen multiple variations on this theme:

"Criminals don't register their guns." Ergo, we should not strengthen our registration system.

In some versions of this, President Obama is pictured and called various names. In one he is writing the phrase on a chalkboard while wearing a dunce cap.

My friends, before you put the dunce cap on someone else's head, please pull the pointy end out of your own eye. Because this is simply the dumbest argument I can think of against any kind of regulation. You are hurting your own cause. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Please.

Murderers do not obey the laws that criminalize killing people. Should we, therefore, make murder legal? Rapist do not follow the law. Should we take that crime off the books? Most people (myself included) drive over the speed limit from time to time. Do you think we should take down all the speed limit signs and let people zip through school zones at a hundred miles per hour?

Laws do not prevent all crime. Laws reduce crime and allow the justice system to punish violators of those laws. Reducing gun crimes and punishing people who use guns in crimes should both be positions responsible gun owners should support, both as a matter of morality and as good strategy to maintain their own right to bear arms. 

Look, there are legitimate arguments that could be made regarding registration schemes. You could argue that regulations are only as strong as their enforcement, and you don't think they'll be enforced. You could argue that registration won't completely end gun crime (except that no reasonable person is claiming that it will).  You could argue that the right to bear arms is so universal and unassailable that it should not be limited even if a prospective owner is a felon or has been diagnosed as dangerously, violently mentally ill. That's a loser of an argument, I think, but at least it's philosophically defensible. You could even argue that you're afraid of a giant conspiracy to confiscate all guns which hasn't materialized or even been proposed, but which makes you reluctant to give an inch. I understand that's where some gun owners are coming from, though it does beg the question: Why are the most heavily armed people the most frightened? Whatever your argument, and no matter how loosely it connects to reality, it should at least follow logically from your premises. So don't argue that we shouldn't have rules because some people will break them. That's... well, not to be indelicate, but that's just dumb.

Guess what, fellow gun owners and second amendment supporters? We can't afford to be dumb. Maybe the NRA can afford it. Sure, there are lots of true believers in the NRA, but the decisions of the NRA leadership lately show that the organization is more concerned about selling memberships, getting press, and frothing up their base than they are in protecting gun rights in the long term. The NRA could have been reaching out to urban, liberal America, trying to show that they are reasonable. They were wise to push back by pointing to mental health rather than letting the debate be about types of guns, but between their vitriol about the U.N. Small Arms Ban, their commercial calling the President names and bring up his kids, and their absolutist position against expanded registration, it seems like they are making the same mistake the Republican Party has been making over the last few decades; they're doubling down on the far-right wing, rural, white men. This is about as smart a strategy as trying to conquer Russia in the winter or marching your empire's army in Afghanistan. If gun rights groups can only hold on to conservative, rural whites, they will simply be outvoted. Responsible gun owners who want to stay responsible gun owners need to go out of their way to show urban-dwelling liberals that they are, in fact, responsible. People who live in cities think of guns predominantly as the weapons of criminals and not the tools of hunters or people who want to defend themselves because they live more than five minutes from a police station. I know this from personal experience. When I lived in San Diego, my only experience related to guns was seeing a body surrounded by police tape in front of my junior high. Is it any wonder I grew up thinking guns were evil? It wasn't until I moved to a small town and got to know a lot of responsible gun owners that my feelings about guns changed.

Now, gun rights advocates will say I am advocating caving in to the anti-gun folks. Yep. Pick your battles, guys. Second amendment absolutism isn't even supported by the second amendment itself. We've had decades of fights about whether the amendment extended to individuals, we finally get a president who is a democrat and says he believes it does extend to individuals, and instead of calling that a victory, some people want to paint him as the Confiscator-in-Chief. You got a win, but even if Obama is willing to be generous (liberal, some might say) with his interpretation of some confusing language in a way that we gun owners appreciate, we can't deny the fact that the amendment explicitly says "well regulated." You can't expect him (or any sensible person) to interpret "well regulated" to mean "completely unregulated." (And I know about the argument that the militia is supposed to be well regulated but the individual right that's never mentioned is somehow exempt. That's a bridge too far, guys.) Look, if you're worried Obama might sign an assault weapons ban (you know, the kind Mitt Romney signed when he was the governor of Massachusetts), then make that your fight, but when the majority of NRA members agree that the gun show and private party sales loophole should be closed, take advantage of that and show people who are leery about guns that gun owners are reasonable. Fight to make it possible and even easy to transfer the ownership of a gun to someone else who can pass a background check. Fight to make sure guns don't have to be turned over to the government when the original owner dies, but can be willed to the next of kin who can pass the background check. Fight to make sure the definition of mental illness isn't so broad that people with no propensity for violence or self-harm are prevented from getting guns. But don't fight to put guns in the hands of criminals or the violent mentally ill based on obviously, painfully inept lack of reasoning. You will just push the growing urban, liberal majority to think you're dangerous kooks until they have the numbers to repeal the second amendment.

And you know whose fault that will be, responsible gun owners? Ours. If our arguments are dumb.

Return of the Liberal Gun Owner

In a previous post (“A Liberal’s Defense of Gun Ownership”), I tried to explain why an avowed lefty would own a gun (or a bunch of them). That was prompted by a direct challenge from my mother in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting. After the shooting in Newtown, I have been hesitant to weigh in, not because I don’t have strong feelings about the political issues that have arisen as a consequence, and not because it’s somehow impolite to talk about an incredibly important news story while it’s still news, but because I needed to spend some time reading the responses to this tragedy in order to formulate my thoughts. As a liberal, I am on a bunch of e-mail lists wherein pundits and politicians keep me up-to-date on the mainstream liberal party line and the radical left-wing version. Because I’m a gun owner and read up on gun-related subjects, I’ve also found my way onto the e-mail lists of the NRA and their ilk. As a public school teacher, I have been reading about how schools are supposed to respond. I’ve also been talking with real teachers who know a lot more about real schools than so-called “school reformers,” and I have a pretty good idea about the broad spectrum of responses teachers are voicing. Oh, and I’m also a human being, so thinking about those children and parents in Newtown is still emotionally overwhelming. I don’t have any insight into that grief, but I hope the confluence of a liberal, gun-owning, public school teacher might offer something useful to others.

First off, to my liberal sistren and brethren, please, please stop using the phrase “assault weapons.” I understand that you are referring to the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, and I know that is commonly referred to as the “Assault Weapons Ban,” but you must understand that this doesn’t just close the ears of responsible gun owners because they have some knee-jerk antipathy towards a specific piece of legislation. It closes their ears because you sound ignorant. There is no such thing as an “assault weapon.” Don’t believe me? Go into your local gun store (I recommend that you don’t wear your Obama T-shirt for this outing) and see if they have a section marked “assault weapons.” Ask to see if there are any boxes for any guns marked “assault weapon.” When you find that there aren’t, ask the proprietor which of the guns in the store are, technically speaking, “assault weapons.” She may laugh at you. She may calmly explain that the term has no specific meaning. Either way, the answer will teach you a lot. You will come to understand why the 1994 “Assault Weapons Ban” was such a loophole riddled piece of legislation that it only successfully banned some dozen individual models of guns. You will also quickly deduce why gun owners are so resistant to talk of limited gun bans from people who clearly know so little about guns. After all, for all the talk about protecting the rights of hunters and other responsible gun owners, if the anti-gun advocates know so little about guns, isn’t it entirely plausible that any legislation they propose might be another toothless collection of loopholes? And isn’t it equally possible that legislation written by people who believe in mythical “assault weapons” might ban far more than they intended? As I tell my students, if you want to be taken seriously, you have to do your homework first.

For the sake of being “Fair and Balanced,” to my fellow citizens who find themselves on the other side of the political aisle, especially those who allow themselves to be swayed by the Fox News talking points, please, please try and be a tiny bit realistic when you blame violent movies and video games. First of all, this line of reasoning inevitably makes you sound a good forty years older than your real age. What’s next? Criticisms of the length of boys’ hair? The volume of rock and roll music? Pass me that crystal dish with the hard candy please, grandpa. Much like the mythical “assault weapons,” your definition of violent video games is so amorphous that even us casual gamers worry you’ll be banning just about everything. You do understand that Pac Man was about a yellow blob who was running for his life because he was being chased by murderous ghosts, only when he would devour a magical pill he gained the ability to incapacitate those ghosts temporarily by consuming them whole? Super Mario Brothers starred some plumbers who jumped on their enemies’ heads, stomping them to death, in an effort to rescue a kidnapping victim. The aforementioned Mario also starred in the game Donkey Kong, where he charged directly at an oversized primate who was trying to kill him by throwing barrels at him. What games would be left if violent video games were removed? Tetris and Pong would still be fine. And sports games like Madden Football… oh, wait.

And what about these violent movies that are corrupting our youth? The Godfather is probably the greatest movie ever made. In it, about twenty people are killed, more than half with guns, some with semi-automatic pistols, others with machine guns (those are assault rifles, which are real things, and not “assault weapons,” which don’t exist). Oh, and a really violent thing happens to a horse. Should we prevent people from seeing The Godfather because it is violent? What about Saving Private Ryan? Or Schindler’s List? Ah, you say, but those have historical, artistic, and socially redeeming value. Agreed. But did Steven Spielberg’s first short film, the one that led to Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, have that same value? I don’t know, because I haven’t seen it. You probably haven’t either. But if we banned violent movies, I’m guessing it wouldn’t have seen the light of day based on nothing more than the fact that it was a Western titled The Last Gun. I’ll bet there’s some gun violence in it.

And if we’re going to even consider banning the viewing of violence because it could lead to real world violence, we should certainly start with 24 hours news networks that make their money by keeping their viewers continually angry and afraid.  Pundits spewing toxic amounts of vitriol and doom are far more dangerous than episodes of Tom and Jerry.

Now, to my teacher friends, here in Oregon, we have our resident rhetorical-bomb-throwing-boob in our state legislature who has suggested that teachers should arm themselves. I’m sure there are some teachers who would feel more comfortable if they were armed, but I have two reasons why I, as a responsible gun owner, would not. First, a big part of my job is making students feel comfortable in my classroom. Contrary to those who look back fondly on nuns hitting kids on the knuckles with rulers, I firmly believe that children learn better when they are not scared. People should have a healthy fear of guns. So when kids have that fear, and some have it exaggerated by the fact that they are kids, and other have it exaggerated by the fact that their home lives have given them even more reason to fear guns than should be warranted, their ability to learn will be diminished if they know I’m packing heat in class. Second, I would be afraid some kid would grab my gun and use it. Kids are impulsive, some dangerously so. The proximity of other teenagers makes kids more likely to do stupid things. I wouldn’t want one of those stupid things ending with some kid pulling my gun out of my holster while I’m trying to help another student correctly place a comma in a sentence.  So if Newtown inclines any teacher to consider carrying a gun into a classroom, especially one of my son’s classrooms, I hope that teacher will also remember Columbine or Kip Kinkle here in Oregon and imagine his or her own gun falling into the hands of someone like that.

As to the NRA’s idea of a police officer in every school, I think it’s a great idea, but not for the same reasons the NRA likes it. They like it because it gets the conversation away from gun bans. I like it because it’s government stimulus spending on unionized workers in every community in the country. I know that it might not prevent something like what happened in Newtown. As many critics have pointed out, Columbine had an armed guard. But as long as it means more cops in more schools showing kids that police officers are not scary, distant enemies but friendly, relatable public servants who keep them safe, that’s all to the good. My only caveats would be that the officers’ salaries and all their expenses must be fully funded by the feds so the money doesn’t come out of the local or state education budgets, the legislation has to be written so the police will be there for the long haul and not just until the next round of budget cuts, and the police officers must live in the communities where the school is located. If the deficit hawks in Congress will go for that, Obama should sign it immediately. Take the money out of the Homeland Security budget and call it an anti-terrorism measure. Because what we saw in Newtown is indisputably domestic terrorism.

Police in schools cannot be the end of the discussion, though (sorry, NRA). We need to massively beef up our mental health services in this country. My wife is a mental health counselor who works at a live-in facility for severely mentally ill children. The stuff she sees would break most people’s hearts. But you know what breaks hers? You know what broke the camel’s back the one and only time I saw her job bring her to tears? It was when a kid who needed care had to be sent away because his parents private insurance wouldn’t cover his care any longer. Yes, high quality mental healthcare is expensive. The facility where my wife works has a two-kids-to-one-adult ratio, and that’s spendy. But parents, good parents who love their children and are trying to do what is best for them, should not have to give up custody of their children and turn them over to the state just so the kids will qualify for state-sponsored insurance. These parents shouldn’t have to quit their good paying jobs where they contribute to their communities and pay the taxes that fund those services just so they can move to other states with better care and go on the public dole in order to get their kids the care they need. That’s stupid. That’s backwards. And that’s the system we have. Ramping up our mental healthcare infrastructure isn’t sexy and it won’t show an instant payoff in lowering mass shootings because the future killer you’re treating is still a little kid getting the help he needs today to avoid that fate years down the road. But when it comes to preventing mass shootings, even with its high price tag, robust mental health infrastructure is still going to be the biggest payoff. We just need politicians willing to do things that won’t show results until after their term has ended, and we need a public willing to admit that taxes are investments in our society’s future.

While we’re being realistic, we can do some serious things about guns without making up fictional categories of firearms. There is no good reason that the same background check that I have to go through when I buy a gun at a store shouldn’t be mandatory when I buy one from a friend or from a “friend” who sits behind a card table at a gun show. I understand that the most extreme conspiracists worry that a more robust national background check system is just a means for the evil government to find out where to come take guns from. Furthermore, they worry that limiting the ability of the mentally ill to acquire guns would be a means for a nefarious government to keep guns out of the hands of law abiding citizens. To both critiques, I say, cut your losses, guys. Just as teachers’ unions need to do a better job of making it clear that we don’t protect bad teachers (We don’t. It’s a lie that’s been repeated so much people think it’s true. We protect the contract and the process to keep it fair, but bad teachers CAN be fired if administrators do their jobs.), gun owners need to make it clear that they do not support putting guns in the hands of those who would hurt others or themselves. As we beef up mental health services, counselors should have to report those who are potentially dangerous or suicidal, and those people should not be able to buy guns. From anybody (see the gun show/ private party loophole above). People who sell guns to criminals or the mentally ill should be criminally liable as accomplices if those people commit gun crimes or shoot themselves. Keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people will do more to protect innocent people than trying to ban this gun or that gun.

To my fellow liberals and conservatives who’ve found common cause (or at least a common talking point) in protecting the rights of hunters and sportsmen, you are missing the purpose of the Second Amendment, and I think you’re doing so willfully. The Second Amendment is not about hunting. It’s about protecting yourself, your loved ones, and your property from your own government. Liberals don’t tend to like this amendment, but I think they should reconsider. I’ve made my share of jokes about the practicality of standing up to the U.S. military, with its complete arsenal of nuclear weapons, using common, handheld firearms (“assault weapons” or otherwise), but there’s something very real going on there. I’m not a hunter yet. The only thing I’ve ever killed with a gun was the gopher in my mother-in-law’s garden that she’d winged but was unwilling to shoot point-blank with a .22 to put it out of its misery. I plan on learning to hunt goose and duck during this next year, though. But even as I’m serving some succulent duck to my family (let’s be honest: I’ll probably overcook it the first few times, so I’ll be serving dry duck to my family), I’ll be fully aware that the founding fathers did not write the Second Amendment to make sure my family had duck to eat. They wrote it because governments can do horrible things to their own citizens. Just ask Japanese-Americans. And who, in our modern America, is most likely to be labeled as a potential traitor who should be rounded up and shipped off to a camp? Though I’m proud and grateful that I’ve never been involved with any group that has even hinted at armed insurrection (peaceful protest is not only more moral, but more effective), those of us who have marched in pro-union rallies and Occupy protests shouldn’t be too quick to believe we wouldn’t be on the short list if a very small, tyrannical minority ever managed to take power. As I’ve said many times, I hope to live my whole life without ever pointing a gun at another human being, but if that 1% of tyrants had a hard time rounding up jack-booted thugs to drag Americans out of their beds because they had very complete data telling them that a lot of those Americans were armed, if that knowledge made them think twice about kicking down the doors of “traitors” and “subversives” and liberal public school teachers, then the Second Amendment is doing its job, and in that unlikely (but not impossible or even historically unprecedented) dystopia, we’ll be glad it was there in the Bill of Rights. 

Lastly, let’s acknowledge that we could do everything in our power, beef up mental health care, close every gun purchasing loophole, ban this gun and that gun, hell, ban the sale of every gun and start kicking down doors to get the old ones melted down, and we still might not be able to prevent the next Newtown. We also wouldn’t be any closer to understanding this terrible, tragic, and ultimately incomprehensible act. If the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has compelled us to reevaluate some public policies, let’s harness that energy to make good ones, but let’s acknowledge that we will be more successful at preventing some of the thousands of other deaths in this country than at preventing the kinds of mass killings we simply cannot comprehend. If we maintain a focus on doing what we can do, and on doing it well, we might manage wrest a little bit of something meaningful from this mindless horror. I worry that, if we only focus on this one tragedy and the specific models of guns chosen by a madman, we’ll fall back into pointless bickering, do nothing, and insult the memories of those we’ve lost.

A Liberal’s Defense of Gun Ownership

In the wake of the shooting in Colorado, my mom voiced a question I expect many people are asking right now.

 "Can someone please tell me why the NRA would defend anyone's ‘Constitutional Right’ to own two 40-caliber Glock handguns, a Remington 870 single-barrel pump shotgun, and a Smith and Wesson AR-15 assault-style rifle? Benjamin Gorman, I just don't get it!"

I owe my mother an explanation, partly because I'm her son and she asked, partly because I'm a gun owner who was raised to fear and detest guns (especially handguns), but mostly because, when I got my concealed-and-carry permit and they asked me for the name of reference, I wrote down my mom's name. I think she deserves a reply.

Mom's question is actually three questions. Why should anyone have these guns? Should this be a right? And, if it is a right, why should the NRA defend that right?

First off, let's address those guns specifically. I don't own a Glock because there are specific things I don't like about them, but I have a Ruger 9mm semi-automatic handgun. I don't have an AR-15, but I have a carbine which some people would call an "assault-style" gun. I own a .22 and a youth 410 (that will be my son's when he's old enough). I don't own a pump action shotgun, but that's the next thing on my gun buying list. There are myriad reason for owning firearms, and I can't speak for all of them. Personally, I had multiple reasons. First and foremost, I started researching guns because I write novels (nothing published) and I wanted to be able to write as knowledgeably as the story demanded. The more I learned, the more I realized there's a whole world of knowledge I was unaware of. Could I have done all my learning simply by reading about guns? Certainly. A decent writer could also write believably about bicycles without ever riding one, and a moral writer should be able to write about murder without committing one, so if I felt that gun ownership was wrong, then my writing would be no excuse. But I'd also come to believe that gun ownership is not immoral. Few question a hunter's right to own a gun. Even fewer question a police officer's right to carry one, even in an urban setting. We allow these people to carry guns because we believe that most of them will be responsible. They will use these firearms to feed their families and to protect themselves, and us, from those who would do us harm. Implicit in this permission is an acknowledgement that there are those who would use guns to dangerous ends. Not only are there hunters who misuse guns (and police officers, too) but there are those who would use guns to do us all harm. Consequently, as I see it, we have three choices: We could try to create a society without any firearms. We could allow people to have guns and hope they will be responsible citizens. Or we could have some mixture in which guns are regulated but those who prove themselves responsible (mind you, prove themselves to some government official) are permitted to have guns.

I used to argue for a society without guns. When my in-laws first heard I'd never fired a handgun, their jaws dropped to the floor like something out of a cartoon. But even after firing some of my brother-in-law's guns, I would argue for strict handgun bans by saying I would give up that enjoyable experience to bring back just one innocent child killed by a handgun someone irresponsibly left sitting on their coffee table. That was a pretty effective (emotionally manipulative) argument, but it rang more and more hollow in my own ears as I grew older. Taking guns away from people responsible enough to follow the law doesn’t bring back the dead, and it might not prevent future tragedies. Certainly every accidental death caused by firearms is a tragedy, but would I give up my right to own a gun if it meant I couldn't protect my own son's life? And do I have the right to make that choice for anyone else? Even a world with no guns at all wouldn't entirely alleviate this concern. Sure, I'm no ninja super-hero myself, but do I get to tell a five-foot tall, 100 lb. mom that she has to defend her children from a much larger armed assailant without a gun? (My wife is one of these five-foot tall, 100 lb. moms. I wouldn't dare tell her what she couldn't do in defense of our son.) Plus, can we please admit that the notion of an America without guns is painfully naive? As a liberal, I'm horrified by the notion some hold that we should round up 15 million illegal immigrants and deport them on cattle cars. To me, the idea of police breaking into and searching every house in America in search of guns that haven't been voluntarily turned over is equally repellent, and even more impractical. There will be guns. And let’s remember that a word without guns wouldn't necessarily be a safer one. This guy in Colorado may have killed a dozen innocent people with his guns, but Timothy McVeigh did a lot worse with a van and garbage cans full of fertilizer. The terrorists who killed all those people in the Tokyo subway system lived in a country that's a model for handgun control. And the 9/11 terrorists used box cutters.

(Now, if I’m being totally honest about my motivations, I should also confess that, despite my ridicule of the paranoia of the right, I also harbor concerns some would dismiss as paranoia. Though I maintain my commitment to a kind of open-minded skepticism, I find supernatural apocalyptic scenarios exceedingly unlikely. I’m not concerned with the Rapture, the return of Quetzalcoatl, or the misreading of a Mayan calendar, but I do worry that our civilization is more tenuous than we like to admit. Possible man-made causes, like Peak Oil, a series of severe natural disasters precipitated by global warming, or even massive currency devaluation caused by a shaky international monetary system could potentially lead to circumstances that would make government overreach look like the better alternative. In that chaos, I’d like to know how to use a gun safely and effectively to protect my family. To me, this seems just as sensible as having a fire extinguisher or a first aid kit, but I know that even speculating about the fall of our civilization would cause some people to dismiss me as a kook. Oh, and then there’s always the potential Zombie Apocalypse…)

So, if we acknowledge the reality that we can't get rid of all the guns we already have, we could adopt a complete laissez faire attitude toward guns. I think that might be the position of the NRA, or at least of many of its members, but it's not mine. If the rationale for gun ownership is based on this free-for-all attitude, and is inspired by the Founders' idea that people need guns to defend themselves from their own government, then people should be able to have any weapon accessible to the military. That's madness. I may be comfortable with my neighbors owning guns, but I don't trust any of them with nuclear weapons, least of all the kind of neighbor paranoid enough to get into an arms race with his own government.

Since we can't get rid of guns and shouldn't take away a person's ability to defend him or herself in a world with guns, but also can't allow anyone to have any weapon they want, we need to find a balanced approach that preserves ownership rights for those we find to be most likely to handle the responsibility, while keeping guns out of the hands of people likely to misuse them. We also need to be reasonable about what guns we allow people to purchase legally. This tragedy in Colorado doesn't shed much light in the latter question. The guns he had were not only legal, but should be legal within such a balanced framework. Glocks are self-defense weapons, the most popular choice of police departments. The AR-15 is certainly a military grade weapon, but semi-automatics are practical for home defense, too; you wouldn't want to have to rack a round between each shot if you were being attacked. Lastly, the pump action shotgun, in my opinion, is the best weapon for home defense because it has the added feature of producing a universally recognizable sound that can ward off an intruder before a single shot is fired. As someone who hopes to never fire a gun in the direction of another human being, I find that very attractive, and I would expect that those favoring gun regulation would, too. Unfortunately, this particular act could have been carried out if the man had carried in a coat and belt full of loaded six-shot revolvers from the late 1800s. Though this instance doesn't tell us much about what guns to outlaw, it certainly tells us that we need to beef up our mental health services. I don't know anything about this assailant yet, but I can perform a layman's diagnosis and assert that he was ill. Now, I have heard concerns from more ardent gun-rights supporters who are even leery of limiting the rights of the mentally ill. Their rationale is that a corrupt government could use the pretext of mental illness to systematically take away gun owner's rights. I find this unpersuasive. Any government that had the ability to systematically separate massive numbers of people from their guns without the consent of the majority wouldn't need any pretext at all. Conversely, a government still beholden to its people couldn't successfully convince them that all gun owners were diagnosably mentally ill without broadening the definition of severe mental illness so much that it would be meaningless. Consequently, I have no problem limiting the right to bear arms to prevent the severely mentally ill from purchasing guns, much as we prevent felons from doing so. I know our purchasing systems are porous, and unlike some on the more extreme fringe, I don't have a problem with background checks, waiting periods, and other measures that keep guns out of the hands of criminals or (potentially) the ill.

But even that relies on a certain trust in the government's commitment to the right to own guns. I think gun-rights advocates undermine their own case when they go too far, always presupposing the worst form of tyranny. If the right to bear arms is to be protected, it's most easily done by working within the system, with the government, to show the people that gun rights are designed to help law abiding citizens. All the "from my cold, dead hands" rhetoric presumes a government that wouldn't be cowed by a constitution anyway. As long as gun owners want to maintain a legally protected right, rather than having it obviated by an anti-gun majority, we should seek to promote, enforce, and maintain the kinds of regulations that keep guns out of the hands of the kinds of people who would turn the majority against gun ownership.

But that's political tactics and policy, not the underlying principle. Most fundamentally, we do have the right to bear arms (just ask President Obama, the first democratic president and former constitutional law scholar to assert that he interprets the second amendment to guarantee an individual's right) and furthermore, we should have that right. Beyond hunting and self-defense, a well-armed populace is a check on the government. Our government has been beholden enough to its white, male, land owning citizens, that it's easy enough for some of us to forget some of its excesses and injustices. But think of all the Americans who haven't been afforded the most basic rights. We have to acknowledge that those rights could be removed again. After all, Japanese Americans had their rights suspended during the internment. So, since we know it's possible, we should also acknowledge that the government is far less likely to do something like that again knowing so many of its citizens are armed. It's a raw check on government overreach, I'll admit. It has none of the beauty of crisp, fresh, free newsprint , none of the biting wit of satire, none of the nobility of an independent judiciary, none of the simplicity of the ballot box. It's not my favorite check on government power. It's not even the most efficient. But it is the last check.

If it's a right worth having, it's a right that needs defending. In just the last few years, we've seen what happens when people won't stand up for the right to habeas corpus; extraordinary renditions, parallel courts, torture. You might not like gun owners any more than you like people accused of being in Al Qaeda, but just as those people deserve to have their rights protected, gun owners deserve to have theirs protected, too. And for the same reason: Just as you could someday be falsely accused of a crime and be protected by those brave enough to stand up even for accused terrorists, you could someday find yourself in a position that causes you to second-guess your decision not to own a gun, and those supposed villains who defended the rights of this crazy guy in Colorado would instantly become the heroes who defended your rights, too.
Now, as for the NRA, I can't speak for them specifically. As much as I respect those who stand up for all our rights, I can't stomach the NRA’s complete submission to the Republican Party. I also don't understand their irrational antipathy towards President Obama. He's actually been very good to gun owners, not only asserting the individual right to bear arms, but opening up federal lands to hunters under their individual state laws. I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure he opened up more previously restricted land to guns than any president ever. So why are they so devoted to getting rid of him? Partly it's the paranoid style of the American right which always assumes that, despite any evidence, the other shoe is about to drop and the communist plot will be revealed. Also, they hate this new UN restriction on the illegal international firearms trade, despite the fact that it explicitly allows for the import of any guns that meet the laws of the receiving country. Personally, I think that’s pretty weak, since some of the receiving countries would turn those guns over to terrorists immediately, but then we don’t look to the U.N. because of its track record of strong enforcement. There’s some concern among gun owners that the ban will create bottlenecks in the legal supply chain, but this presupposes that some of that chain depends on the illegal import and export of firearms, something that should be curtailed anyway. Beyond these fears, the ban plays into paranoia about some evil UN led “One World Government,” the kind of conspiracy theory I find ridiculous because politicians and bureaucrats, in my experience, just aren't smart enough or well organized enough to pull something like that off.

Despite my disdain for the NRA, I am a card carrying member of the Liberal Gun Club, and I'm glad there are people on both sides of the aisle protecting our right to bear arms. Tragedies like the one in Colorado, much like the events of 9/11, incline us to make reactionary decisions based on our horror and our fear of our own inability to explain the circumstances. Those who want to prevent violence would do well to take a deep breath and remember that such snap judgments all too often lead to even greater horrors. After all, we responded to thousands of deaths on 9/11 by killing or displacing a million people in Iraq. Since murder rates in this country have been consistently declining for decades, we can’t allow our outrage at this anomalous event in Colorado to motivate us to do anything, especially curtailing our most fundamental rights, without carefully weighing all the potential consequences. 

Addendum: Apparently my fellow liberals aren't the only ones who are inclined to be reactionary when it comes to guns. Here's a great take-down of one of Bill O'Reilly's uninformed rants: "Bill, You Ignorant Slut" by Robert Farago. 

Addendum II: And I'm not completely opposed to this proposal, either, though I don't think it would have had any bearing on the events in Colorado. "Regulate Guns Like Cars"


Student Wish List, Teacher Heartbreak

I'm in the midst of a marathon essay-grading day, but I have to stop and write about this immediately, because it has to be one of the saddest things I've ever come across.

This year, one of the classes I'm teaching is Language Arts in Spanish. It's not a Spanish class, but a class on reading and writing skills taught in Spanish for students who are learning English in other classes but also need language arts credit. For the semester final, I gave the students a collection of prompts taken directly from the state's example state test writing prompts, just translated. One prompt asked students to imagine they could switch places with anyone in the world and tell the story of what would happen. This student lost track of the prompt during the outlining process and ended up turning in a list of things she wished she could change about herself. It's absolutely heartbreaking.

She starts by saying she'd like to be taller, because she's sick of being called a midget. Then she says she'd like to be prettier, because she's sick of being called ugly. She capitalized Ugly, as though people use this in place of her name. Then she wished she had blue eyes, that her hair weren't so black, and that it weren't so straight. She also wished she could be a bit fatter so people would stop calling her Skinny. She wished she could do well in school so that someday she could become a lawyer. Then she wished she were more intelligent. She wished she could speak English better so she could speak to more people at school. Finally, she wished she could get a job so she could help out her family and contribute more to her household.

I certainly can't reveal this student's identity, but I think I can share this essay because there are a half a dozen girls in that class who could have written this list, and dozens of boys and girls in my other classes who could have written a variation on it in English. Here's what I can't figure out how to say to her, and to all those students, male and female, carrying around all this self-loathing: "These values you aspire to are cultural constructions. You want to be fatter because you get called Skinny, and some of the other girls are risking their health and maybe their lives because they are so afraid of being called Fattie. You want blue eyes because that's the color of the contact lenses the models plop in before the photo shoot. You want curly hair while the girls (and boys) with curly hair want straight hair. And those desires to reach an unattainable standard of beauty (a standard that has been intentionally designed to be unattainable so you will buy lots of expensive and unnecessary beauty products to look any way but the way you were born to look) will eat away at you on the inside until you are filled up with anger and pain. And then you will lose the best thing you had going for you, your kindness. That warm smile you wear when you come into my classroom will fade and be replaced by a sneer. That great, quiet, nervous laugh you have will become a derisive snort. And someday you will see someone who looks just like you, or just the opposite, or anywhere in between, and you will call her Ugly. Please, oh please don't let that happen. Do not accept the behavior of the kind of asshole who would even consider calling you Midget or Skinny or Ugly or anything other than your given name, and don't replicate that behavior yourself. And don't internalize that kind of person's judgement, or you will find yourself in relationships with people who hold just as low an opinion of you as you do. Don't let that happen. Please. I'm begging."

But I can't say that (and only partly because I shouldn't be using the word "asshole" when talking to my students, even when I'm referring to someone that fills me with rage). I'm going to try to get her an appointment with one of our school's counselors, and I'm going to have a talk with one of her other teachers, a smart, successful Spanish speaking female teacher I think this student will more readily accept as a mentor. But I also can't have the conversation because there are two competing voices in my head, and they both make me so angry that I'm in no position to calmly share my fears with this student. I hear these voice coming out of my TV, I read them in the comments sections online, and now I can't get their echoes to stop. Here's what I'd like to say to those two voices.

"Hey, doofy, naive, post-millennial 'liberal' voice, shut up. No, I'm not going to tell her that she'll be a super model one day. No, I'm not even going to tell her that she can be anything she wants to be, and that, if she tries really hard, she can become a lawyer. She can hardly speak any English, and unless she stumbles on a pot of leprechaun's gold, she's going to go to work to help out her family rather than continue her education long enough to make up for the deficiencies in her English skills. Your ridiculous notion that everyone can be exactly what they want to be is well-intentioned, but also hurtful and stupid. I'm not going to tell my kids to settle, but I'm also not going to tell them that they will have it all. Self-esteem like hers is a real problem, but a self-concept that is out of touch with reality is just a gateway to narcissism, or to a crushing disappointment when she finds out that the people who told her she was perfect were liars. She is good and kind. Why isn't that enough? And why do you want me to lie to a good person?"

"And you, callous, privileged "conservative" voice, you can just shove it. I hear what you're muttering under your breath. One minute you're saying poor people need to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The next you're whispering about illegal immigration and English-only education. I know nothing about her legal status, and neither do you. The difference is that I don't want to know, because I know that we're all better off if everyone in our country is educated, while you want to pass moral judgements based on an over-simplified view of a deeply flawed system you don't understand. I do know a bit more than you do about teaching people English, and I know that if I'd dropped you into a Chinese or Iranian school when you were a kid you would not have been a big fan of Chinese-only or Persian-only education. Guess what? You probably wouldn't have learned Chinese or Persian as quickly in an immersion model, either, but you would have been so focused on learning Chinese or Persian that you would have fallen years behind in science and math and never caught up to your Chinese or Iranian classmates. So don't tell me my business. Now, as for your pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps BS, here's a perfect example of why that's garbage, and only somebody who starts out with some advantages (white, male, intelligent, or wealthy) can possibly let those words come out of his mouth without sarcasm. She's right in front of you. She's a human being. She has all kinds of disadvantages, and she won't just catch up no matter how hard she yanks on her bootstraps. Don't you look away from her! She's hurting right now, and your entitled disregard for her pain is disgusting."

So you can see why I'm the last person in the world who should try to console this poor kid. There's too much shouting going on in my own head. But she handed this wish list to me. What does that say about the rest of her world?

Why Does the Right Hate Obama So Much? Part 2: Ultra-Nationalism vs. American Exceptionalism

I asked for Conservatives to explain the seeming-hatred directed at President Obama from the Right in this country, and I got some great, detailed, thought-provoking responses. I could quibble about little things (Is it Obama’s fault that Congress choose to pass a law that essentially gives law-making power to the Executive branch? That seems more like a good reason to detest a Congress that has been consistently eroding its own constitutional authority for over a hundred years.) but I think it’s safe to say that the most fundamental objection to Obama stems from the belief that he does not ascribe ardently enough to the notion of American exceptionalism. (Correct me if that’s not the fundamental concern.)

I’m still not aware of any particular policy decisions which definitively prove this theory. Sure, Democrats are always for being multilateralists when they make use of organizations like NATO or the U.N. There’s a pretty distinct double-standard on these groups when it comes to the way they are employed by Presidents of different parties. Beyond those, I’m not sure what Obama has officially done. But I am aware of the things he’s said and written, and I think words matter and should fall into the “actions” category I asked for. These words also relate directly to the question of Obama’s interactions with our allies. One of the charges is that Obama has lowered our standing with them. I tried to find some data to back up this claim. It turns out that our standing, at least as measured by polling, has dramatically improved under Obama, at least in the numbers I could find. In the year he took office, we made dramatic gains. Check out page 5 of this report. A more recent article details the improvement based on polling data throughout the world. Part of this might simply be a reaction to the global antipathy toward Bush, a world-wide sigh of relief. But we should also be willing to consider the possibility that Obama’s speeches made in other countries, and his comments regarding our own which have been broadcast around the world, have increased our soft power, something Conservatives like Donald Rumsfeld reluctantly acknowledged is absolutely essential to defeating terrorism and undermining tyrants around the globe.

Take, for example, the situation between the U.S., Britain, and Argentina regarding the Falklands, pointed out by one of the commenters. Despite the anti-Obama slant to the article, it can’t identify any actual harm done by the Obama administration’s advocacy of diplomatic talks between the British and Argentine government over the islands. Perhaps it will tick off the British, but they remain among our strongest allies in the world and like Obama a lot more than American Conservatives do. But look at the flip side. Chavez is a nutjob. He’s on TV in his country for four hours or more a day, ranting about how the evil imperialists in America only want to destroy Argentina. He gets up at the U.N. and calls Bush names to increase his popularity back home. Now he’s been undermined in the eyes of his people. We’re not crazy. We’re also not capitulating or “tossing our allies under the bus as appeasement.” Chavez didn’t get the Falklands. He didn’t even get a sit-down with the British. He was just made to look foolish.

Or consider the case with our relationship with Israel. Obama has taken a beating for saying that negotiations related to the two-state solution should start with the pre-1967 borders and then be worked out in a series of land swaps. This is exactly what the Bush roadmap said, too. The problem is that the Israelis, though desiring the pre-1967 borders as a starting point and demanding land swaps in order to maintain control over Jerusalem, didn’t want their ultimate bargaining position stated aloud. They wanted to demand more, then work to the place that Obama announced. As someone who’s been involved in formal negotiations (of the contract variety, not the peace-in-the-middle-east kind) I understand not wanting to have your final position made public. I also understand that the President is rightly frustrated with the Israeli government’s continued construction of new settlements which the Israelis know they will just demolish later, and which rile up the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab word. Putting pressure on the Israelis might piss them off, but it won’t really diminish the ultimate settlement because the tough negotiating will be about the land swaps themselves, and they already knew we expected those as part of the Bush roadmap. Obama might have hurt himself with Conservatives, both in Israel and in the U.S., but he didn’t really give anything to the Palestinians and he undermined the Jihadist Imams who want to paint Israel and the U.S. with the same brush when Israel is doing things that the U.S. has long opposed. Creating a little political distance between ourselves and Israel is in our national interest, especially if it can be done so inexpensively; Israel didn’t really lose anything, Palestine didn’t really gain anything. The only losers were terrorists and Obama’s ratings in Florida. I’d call that a gutsy move. The Israeli ambassador might say that our nations’ relationship is in the worst shape it’s been in in 35 years, but at the end of the day Israel is still completely dependent on us for their security (their soldiers might be bad-asses, but they are bad-asses holding American guns) and we will continue to provide them with all the necessary security guarantees. Again, a net increase in America’s soft power.

But did these increases in our soft power need to come at the expense of our projected notion of American exceptionalism? Perhaps. It depends on what we mean by that. I think that might be the crux of the conservative antipathy towards Obama. If I am understanding the conservative definition of American exceptionalism correctly, conservatives would prefer a weaker America as long as it fits into a very specific definition of “American,” to a stronger America which fits the definition of “American” actually held by the majority of its people.

My friend who comments as Green Globule writes that conservatives are “not looking across the ocean for a better model.” This is ironic, since the term “exceptional” was first applied to America by Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman. If he’s not a guy from across the ocean who is responsible for this particular model, then perhaps credit should go to the first people to use the phrase “American exceptionalism.” That would be The American Communist Party of the 1920s, who used it to describe why they thought the Great Leap Forward would take a long time to occur here. Only, their definition isn’t really the modern Conservative variant, because they believed it was our “natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions” that would postpone the working class from rising up and offing the rich. When modern Conservatives talk about American exceptionalism, I don’t think they’re talking about our coal deposits or the fact that we don’t self-identify as working-class and aristocrats. Green Globule points to our freedom of speech and our right to bear arms. On these grounds, I think Obama fares very well. Though he talked about closing background check loopholes to prevent the mentally ill from getting guns in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting (any talk about guns from a Democrat raises red flags with some), he is also the first modern Democratic President, to my knowledge, to acknowledge the second amendment is an individual rather than a corporate right. That is huge, coming from a legal scholar who could tell you every argument from those who say it’s a corporate right based on the placement of a comma, and who often avoids politically impossible questions by laying out both sides, slowly, methodically, until the questioner gives up. Obama went out on a limb to say that, angering some gun control folks on his left, and has expanded the right to carry guns into national parks (a particularly big deal in Alaska, where much of the state is National Parks and where you really want to be armed). So if American exceptionalism is the right to bear arms, Obama should be in pretty good standing with Conservatives.

And what about free speech (my personal favorite of our rights)? I think this, along with the other rights guaranteed in the first amendment, is actually the most important element of what makes America great. I think the FCC should be allowed to regulate frequencies so my remote control car doesn’t show up on my radio and so my radio doesn’t control my remote control car. Beyond that, I’d get rid of it altogether. Want to burn a flag? Fine. It’s a stupid protest. It doesn’t tell me what you’re opposed to, specifically. Do you hate CIA intervention in Pakistan, or hate cotton? Mostly it just tells me you don’t like my country, which makes me less inclined to listen to what you have to say. But I love that we have the right to do it. Want to call the most conservative news network “fair and balanced”? Go right ahead, and if people believe that then maybe they’ll also believe I can bench 500 lbs., I’ve climbed Mt. Everest twice, and I have a credit score that makes me worthy of a loan of ten billion dollars. I love, love, love free speech. As an English teacher, it’s my livelihood. Without it, I’d be a propaganda teacher, and that doesn’t sound nearly as fun as my job. As a novelist, it’s my hobby. As a video game playing, novel reading, internet addicted movie buff, my life is pretty much free speech and sleep. So what has Obama done to diminish free speech? What has he done to diminish the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, or the freedom of religion? Tonight, at the first Republican debate, the candidates fell all over each other discussing Islam, with one candidate saying no Muslim would serve in his cabinet (at least not the kind of Muslim who would want to kill us) and another comparing Muslims to communists and Nazis. And which party has been at the forefront of the movement to censor the arts? Or to pass laws preventing flag burning (which later had to be overturned by the Supreme Court)? In fact, aside from protecting the rights of corporations to donate anonymously to campaigns (Scalia says Democracy is a full contact sport when it comes to signing petitions, and I agree, but apparently the anonymity of a political donation is part of its “speech”) how have Conservatives protected the freedom of speech better than Liberals? This might be part of a libertarian’s definition of American exceptionalism (and is the place where I’m most on board with libertarianism) but it cannot be the bedrock of modern Conservatives’ definition.

Is a Conservative’s definition of American exceptionalism based on our freedom from government intrusion into our lives? That depends on what you want to be free to do. If Brian wants to marry Larry, even if most Americans want these guys to have this right, even if the state can show no definitive reason why their marriage should be prevented which is not based in a particular religious ideology, even if Brian and Larry live in a different state that wants to give them permission to do so, it’s Conservatives who want the government to step in and tell them they can’t. And if a woman and her doctor decide she needs an abortion, Conservatives want the government to step in and stop that. In fact, when the Supreme Court says the government can’t stop that, Conservatives busy themselves passing state laws that tell the doctor he has to wait a period of time, show her an ultra-sound of the fetus, give her a lecture filled with demonstrably false information about the dangers of the procedure, and then complete the procedure before the delay they caused! Want to buy some marijuana for the pain from your chemotherapy? How about an OD on opiates because you’re in misery from an untreatable illness? No, the Conservative’s definition of American exceptionalism can’t be based strictly on freedom. Just some freedoms. The ones they like.

Maybe it’s based on our wealth. We are the richest nation in the world, in total terms. That means that we’re the richest people, on average. Of course, that is of great consolation to people who don’t know the difference between a median and a mode. But if you try to do anything to help more Americans enjoy that wealth, you are a socialist or a communist, a redistributor of wealth, an oppressor who makes slaves of the poor through the soft bigotry of low expectations. (Modern Conservatives do not like this kind of slavery. They did protect the other kind, though, because, as Green Globule points out, Conservatives “first concern is against new mistakes, especially those at the national level which are hardest to undo.” You know, like the 13 Amendment barring slavery. Somebody had to make sure we didn’t jump to that decision too hastily, right?) But some Conservatives are threatening to refuse to up the debt ceiling (in exchange for concessions to limit a woman’s liberty to get a Pap Smear at a Planned Parenthood, no less) and that is the single quickest way to make sure the U.S. is no longer the wealthiest nation in the world, so this can’t be the foundation for Conservatives’ definition of American exceptionalism, either. Oh, and if our wealth were the measure of American exceptionalism, Conservatives would feel lukewarm about Reagan, the first Bush, and Obama, hate George W. Bush, and their favorite President of the last thirty years would be Bill Clinton.

Or maybe it’s our military might. This strikes me as unlikely, since there’s a great deal of dispute within the Conservative movement about whether we should be isolationists, shoring up our military defenses, or neo-conservatives, flexing our military muscles abroad to protect our global interests. Regardless, Obama seems to have split the difference. He hasn’t over-extended the military the way the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict have, but did double-down on Afghanistan and has shown he’s perfectly willing to use the military in Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan. You can take issue with some of those choices (I certainly do), but I don’t see how he could generate such hatred by splitting the difference in the other side’s internal debate.

So, if it’s not our 1st or 2nd amendment rights, it’s not our freedom from government intrusion into our lives, it’s not our wealth, and it’s not our military might, what is the definition of American exceptionalism which Obama lacks? I have a theory.

I think the Conservative definition of American exceptionalism is tautological. In essence, they believe America is better because it’s America, and Americans are better because they’re American. Only, their definition of American is only the Conservative they see in the mirror. This can be pretty easily demonstrated. Conservatives do not like it when you point out that America has made mistakes. Liberals get pilloried for this. But ask a Conservative if the majority of Americans were right to cast a ballot for Barack Obama, and they’ll tell you it was a mistake, that we are “on the wrong track.” If you talk about how we were wrong when the CIA assassinated Allende, the democratically elected leader of Chile, they’ll call you unpatriotic. But the Bay of Pigs Fiasco? A Democrat’s mistake. The whole Constitution should be read from the floor of Congress because it’s perfect, right? Now, who wants to read that 3/5ths part?

My friend Derek wrote, “Conservatives hold America as a country and an ideal in the absolute highest regard. We do believe America is exceptional. We do believe in a Divine blessing on this nation. Therefore we reject anyone who would do any thing to diminish that exceptionalism as Obama has by apologizing for America…” First of all, even when I was a Christian, I found that notion of a Divine blessing abhorrent. The idea that God prefers Americans not only shows a lazy or willful misreading of scripture, but it’s offensive not just to people outside our borders, but to Christians here, too. It reminds me of those post-game interviews when the reporter stick the microphone in the face of the star of the winning team and he thanks God for the victory. Yeah, because God preferred your team. And you’ll lose next week because God is wishy-washy. If this is the bedrock of the Conservative definition of American exceptionalism, then that God prefers the country where one of the founding principles is that the government of that country shall establish no religion which might acknowledge His preference. That God is either very humble or quite stupid.

As for apologizing for America, Green Globule echoed this sentiment somewhat when he wrote, “When I read Dreams from my Father, the one thing I was looking for above all else was that he loved and respected this country and that he believed in it. I found nothing of the sort, and generally only the opposite.” Here’s the lynchpin of the difference between the Conservative definition of America and the Progressive’s: Obama is considered un-American because he points out that America isn’t perfect. That’s considered “apologizing for America.” I shouldn’t have to write this, but for an African American growing up in the 60s in America, the country wasn’t perfect. Men were being lynched for having skin the same color as his just when he was trying to figure out his racial identity. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean a person hates America, or is apologizing for it. Recognizing that fact, and many other negative facts about American history, is part and parcel of the Progressive’s definition of American exceptionalism: America keeps getting better! We started out with slavery written into our Constitution, but we got better. Women couldn’t vote, but we got better! Children had to work twelve hour shifts, seven days a week, in dangerous conditions, but (thanks to Big Government nanny-state regulations) we got better! Somebody else invented the automobile, but we built it cheaper, faster, and better! Somebody else made it into space first, but we got to the moon! We mistreated lots of different groups of our fellow Americans for a host of deplorable reasons, and we still do, but to diminishing degrees because we keep getting better! Hell, Democracy was invented by other people, and, Green Globule, they lived “across the ocean,” but they are dead and gone and we are still here making it better. And someday we will take gay marriage and some variation on national healthcare and we’ll just keep on getting better.


But it’s not a fait accompli that we’ll just go on making it better. The single biggest threat to what really makes America great is the idea that our greatness is finished, that we don’t need to look across the ocean for new ideas to take and improve because we can just sit on our hands as Americans and God’s divine blessing will keep us on top. This, I think, is really at the heart of the hatred of Obama, and it’s also the origin, at its extreme, of the whole “Birthir” movement. It’s not that Obama was born in Hawaii and spent time overseas. McCain was born in Panama and nobody found that disqualifying. It’s that Obama is willing to look at other models and listen to other ideas. He’s not blinded by the kind of ultra-nationalism that says that everything foreign is inferior and suspect and probably evil. I may disagree with him on the conclusions he comes to about half of those ideas. I may even find some of his policies infuriating. But when I have to choose between Obama and someone who is trying to placate a constituency that sees any recognition of our country’s mistakes as a sign of a lack of patriotism and any idea from any other country as dismissible, I will choose him. Odds are, most Americans will make the same choice.

And maybe that’s a mistake. We do make those.

But I vote that we keep getting better.