Friday, October 2, 2015

Gun, the engine

Cue the teeth gnashing, hand wringing, and the coming meaningless debate over the 2nd Amendment. Yup, its that time again, about every few months or so when some depressed, depraved, suicidal, crazy, mentally unstable person shoots up a school or a mall or a military base or a movie theater or a church.

Predictably the left will rise up in piqued anguish calling for measures to halt the rising tide of gun deaths. Then after a momentary pause the right will criticize the left for its demagoguery and be shocked and appalled by the left's attempts to politicize the tragedy -- our thoughts should be with the families, after all.

Someone will quote statistics that guns lead to more deaths; someone will quote statistics showing the opposite. Someone will finger-point the NRA and the massive amount of money at stake in the arms industry. Someone will invoke abortion as murdering more lives than guns ever do. And what about cars? Cars kill people too. Maybe we should ban cars.

There will be posturing, name calling, and in due course everyone will leave angry and nothing will change and by the following Sunday's round of NFL football, we'll be on to something else.

Don't be surprised by all this. It's the script we've written for ourselves. We are trapped in a bi-polar construct with neither side willing, or able, to extend itself even a wee bit to see the other's point of view. And it's the same script we run over, and over, and over (and over) again for whatever the issue du jour is: Gay marriage, Planned Parenthood, Hillary's email, Benghazi, Obamacare, Climate Change, the Pope's visit and what he should have really said, Trump's hair.

What the f&ck is wrong with us? We've given up probably the one thing that made this nation great. Actually made it at all: The ability to debate rationally and then compromise. The willingness to let go of our emotions, at least just a little bit, in the overall belief that we were, in spite of whatever the current conflict, in this together trying, hard as we could, to make something better.

I look at our current political climate and would like to blame all of this on our inept political leaders, but I look around at my friends social media and see the same thing. We are all guilty.

Often times, in these debates on guns or abortion or what have you, someone will invoke the Founding Fathers. It will go something like this (and I am just as guilty):

Well, clearly, if you had read Federalist 69 you would know that what the Founding Fathers really meant was that you are, actually, full of shit! And it is indisputable that you are full of shit because I HAVE read Federalist 69 and you, sir, no disrespect intended, it's clear from you hyperbolically ill-formed argument, have not read Federalist 69, which, by definition means you are literally full of shit. Troll!

Personally, I have not read Federalist 69, but here is what I think I remember about the Founding Fathers: They were a bunch of white, merchant class, plantation owners, many with slaves, who were somehow able to overcome their personal biases, some pretty big conflicts, and see that their mutual survival in the 1780s required serious compromise. It was not a foregone conclusion this nation would even really be created, let along survive. And it was far from perfect too. Notably, they punted on slavery knowing it was going to be a major, major issue in the future. For you students of history out there, I'd like to suggest the book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph J. Ellis. It focuses on George Washington, George Mason, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay and the wrangling they went through to get a new Constitution to replace the ineffective Articles of Confederation. We've created in our minds eye this mythology of half-god, half-mortal men who through divine inspiration created our country. The Quartet dispenses with that mythology and brings into focus the humans, some very brave humans, who wrestled with their consciences, had to make great compromises on issues of absolute right and wrong, knowing in the end it was not at all perfect yet good enough to press forward.

After reading the book I decided I would never try to guess what the Founders actually meant. What Ellis argues is, though, that our still on-going debate over the "right" balance of power between the states and the federal government is actually the point. What the Constitution sets up is not whether its a federation of individual states or a federal government that includes states, or who has more power than the other, per se. What the Constitution actually does is set up the mechanism for us to debate that balance of power over time. The genius of Madison, in particular, is the insight that he couldn't know what was best for our future and to thus create the structures so we could figure that out.


Okay, so it turns out this isn't an anti-gun missive. It's a book review! And it's just one book. I'm sure you or I could find other books that present a different interpretation of our early history. That's good too. But what I really found compelling in The Quartet is that it highlighted, starkly, the way the Founding Fathers worked together in contrast to how we work together today. They had angry mobs and factions and the like in the 1780s and 1790s just like we do today. They were ornery and called each other names and made up lies about their opponents. Yet, still, there was a strong ethic, perhaps illuminated by the Enlightenment philosophy of the time, for them to overcome their animal emotions and allow rational thought, and the ensuring debate, to eventually win out.

How refreshing would that be?

I remember a few years ago driving home and listening to CSPAN radio (yeah, I know) and they were playing the Nixon-Kennedy debates from the 1960 election. They were debating the status of a two little islands disputed between Taiwan and China and whether we should get involved. I was blown away. This was like no presidential election year debate I had ever heard. Sure, Nixon and Kennedy disagreed, but each presented his argument for his position and I remember thinking at times, "oh, that makes sense, I agree with him." Then I'd hear the rebuttal and think "oh, he also makes sense." Hmm. I actually had to think about what I thought was best.

We aren't those people in the 1960s anymore. We tend to show up with our minds made up and rather than listen we wait to pounce. Maybe it's the rise of the modern media machine and our short attention spans. Maybe it's the post-Watergate desire for the media to find a good scandal rather than the truth. Maybe it's our collective post 9-11 existential fear that has us looking to hunker down rather than being open to new possibilities. Maybe it's something else. Maybe it's some of all of that.

I get depressed by all this. I sometimes feel that our good days, as a nation, as a culture, are behind us, and we are all now just looking for a hand-hold to grip as we slip over the edge. I don't like feeling defeated, but it's there. And here we are again, with innocent people dead who died, I'm afraid, in vain. Another senseless and meaningless mass-murder we will do nothing about.

I'd like to think we could still be brave, like the Founding Fathers. Brave enough to say to ourselves, maybe I don't really know all I think I do about guns. Maybe we could set aside the parsing of the 2nd Amendment and what the militia's roll is. What makes sense for us today? Maybe there is something we can do to unambiguously protect the individual's right to own a gun for sport or protection and maybe there is something we can do to reduce the likelihood that those ill-equipped to handle a deadly weapon get one. Maybe technology can help. Could we somehow incentivize the gun industry here? Could Democrats reach out to the NRA (gasp) and seek a way forward? And what about abortion? What if we somehow thought about abortion differently? How do we unambiguously protect women and their mental and physical health and also reduce the necessity for abortions? What does each side need to let go of to come to a compromise? How do we move from black and white thinking back to shades of gray? How can we re-educate ourselves that compromise is not a sign of weakness or a "slippery slope" but actually an act of great courage?

I wish I had answers. Right now, just questions.

And thanks for reading to the end!