We Are Who We Are

I’m proud of my president tonight. I can’t always say that, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, but I’m proud of him tonight. He (finally) said some challenging things in a challenging time. In fact, I would say that tonight he was not just a president, but a prophet, calling the country to account. And, sadly, he was also a prophet in that he made a prediction about the future which is pretty much guaranteed to come true: that this won’t be the last time he has to make a statement after a massacre.

I’m also proud of President Obama for calling for common-sense gun laws. I agree, particularly in the realm of gun-safety education. The trouble is, I’m fearful. I’m fearful that no such law will ever pass this particular Congress—or any Congress, really, because I fear there will always be at least forty senators who owe more to the National Rifle Association than they owe to their consciences, and four or five Supreme Court justices who often distrust or outright despise government interference in general, and these days that’s enough to halt any law in this country.

But I also have a more direct fear: I’m worried for the president’s life. He’s already said enough that will make certain people want to kill him. If, by some miracle, he managed to get a gun-control law passed before he left office, I’m convinced that he would be attacked, possibly repeatedly, quite possibly by very well-trained men. Many would be killed. The president himself might be killed.

And we already know what the attackers would say to explain themselves, don’t we?

“He was reaching for my gun.”

After all, we know what happens to black men in this country who even appear to be trying to take a gun away from someone, even when said gun is pointed straight at their heads.

Friends, here’s the heart of my fear and the heart of the problem: this is America. We live and die by the gun. The Second Amendment exists because many of the founders of this nation were afraid—afraid that the people they had enslaved would rise up in revolt, afraid that the people they had taken the land from would come to take it back, afraid that the new government they were actually forming at the moment would turn tyrannical. After all, they’d just fought a war against a government that had done just that. Thus our country came into existence by violence, and by violence alone, in at least three different ways. And it was maintained by violence: for all the rhetoric and eloquence of our governmental system, the enslaved Africans and the disinherited First Nations were not persuaded by it. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to suggest that political violence was necessary. And so the Second Amendment legalized the tools to make all that violence possible.

This nation was then shaped by violence; for all that I admire President Lincoln, he was willing to kill to keep the country intact. Then, after a gun took him from us, guns rewrote his legacy, too, disenfranchising the newly-emancipated black people of this land. A reign of violence kept people of color powerless—be it the KKK attacking black families, the Texas Rangers attacking Hispanics in the southwest, or the US Army itself bludgeoning the First Nations to death. Guns and violence took US power around the world and built us an empire—an empire we still maintain, in altered form, with our global military presence. President Obama himself has used violence against his enemies extensively, even when the drone-strike program has left so many innocent dead (along with some judged guilty, but not judged so by means of a trial). And, of course, the United States was the inventor of the biggest weapons possible, the atomic and hydrogen bombs.

We are who we are.

Why will now be any different?

Dr. King—almost exactly a year before he, too, was shot and killed—explained it best. Speaking in 1967, he described going around the country to speak with black rioters in Watts, in Detroit, and in scores of other places. He told them they shouldn’t be using violence to get what they wanted. “But Dr. King,” (he recounted them saying) “what about Vietnam?” And he understood at last that we use violence to get what we want, or to feel just a little bit safer, all the time. Every damn day we use violence, be it yet another case of domestic assault or yet another cop killing yet another black kid or yet another US military op dropping bombs somewhere else in the world. Every damn day.

I’m proud of my president. I’ll stand with him, if he pushes to get a law passed. But the trouble is, he’s treating gun violence as if it were a cancer. As if with the right bone-marrow transplant we could cure ourselves of this. But every era in our history makes it plain that this is not a fluke. It is what it is, and we are who we are. Until we come to grips with the complicated history of violence that has brought us to this state, blood will still be shed.

Guns aren’t a cancer in our bones. They are our bones.

Can a country cut out its own bones?

Occasionally we’ve started to—the end of slavery, the end of Jim Crow—but we wouldn’t finish the job, and we wouldn’t even start until we saw Emmett Till lying in his coffin and Medgar Evers lying in his driveway. And even then we still looked away, from the crimes and from their causes. We refuse to look, and refuse to admit what we’ve done. How could we let someone kill a man like Dr. King? Well, because we’ve already let thousands of people like him die, before and since, because we looked away, and lied the American lie that “It can’t happen here.” We are well-trained in separating causes from their effects.

The first step of the cure is not to look away. God knows it will hurt, and fixing the problem will hurt even more, because the second step is actually admitting what we’ve done, which will burn our lips to ash. And then it’s on to the pain of Step Three… cutting out one’s own bones is not an easy process. But if this is who we are, and we want to be somebody else, then that’s what we’ll have to do.

I was always taught that we Americans could grow up to be anything. Can we grow up to be people who do not look away?

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Ferguson Queries

As I was coming home from work the other night, a song came up on my headphones: “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. I have always thought of that particular piece as a “prophecy song,” in large part because of the music video, which can be found here. It’s about six minutes long, and I encourage all to watch it.

For those who are unable to watch, the video centers on five friends, in their early teens, enjoying their life among wealthy suburbs, riding bikes, playing with BB guns, roughhousing, and in general becoming fast companions. But they live in a slightly different America, a dystopia, set against the background of, as the song lyrics say, “a suburban war—your part of town against mine.” Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Occasionally people are dragged from their homes in the depths of night. Military helicopters fly overhead, trucks and tanks are common sights. And gradually this background seeps into the foreground, as the twisted world the kids live in begins to destroy their friendship, culminating in an act of brutal violence.

As I listened to the song on my headphones, I thought of the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed, unarmed, prompting protests and riots. I thought of the militarized police that has been so aggressive and so criticized in Ferguson. And it finally hit me, years too late: Continue reading

Authors and Finishers

My country is increasingly fractured and divided these days, with this oncoming election widening the rifts deeper every day. The election has, to an extent, become a clash of ideologies. And though there are still more things that unite us than divide us—all the candidates love their country, all the candidates are trying to protect it—the rifts are so deep that compromise is becoming not just a dirty word but an equivalent to “surrender.” Too many have come to the conclusion that even agreeing with their political opponents is tantamount to treason. I will not pretend that all parties are equal in this respect; one political party, after all, has seemed to drift rightward in the wake of the other’s extremism. Now, it’s possible that the election will end some of this; if Governor Romney wins, he might attribute his success to his late-race moderation, and if he loses, the Republican Party may recognize that it is because of their ideological extremism, and adjust accordingly. But there is no guarantee of that. And with the politics of rage reaping a rich harvest of hate for both parties (though to an unequal degree), I do not see politics in this nation becoming more civil any time soon. The electorate is remarkably divided this year, with few swing votes up for grabs. This means that first, most voters were set along party lines long before Election Day, with few people deciding not on party name but on the merits of arguments, and second, the way to win the election is a matter of firing up the party base and bolstering loyalist turnout. Which means more vitriol and more hatred, because the easiest way to motivate people is through fear. It is almost becoming a situation where we no longer have the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but the Anti-Democrat and the Anti-Republican Parties. Or at least that is how they bring out the vote.

This makes me deeply uneasy. Continue reading

Want to Bet?

Today, campers, we’re going to talk about global warming. If you already believe in that, you can go play outside―or stay and watch the show, if you like, but this is specifically aimed at those who don’t think the planet is changing temperature. In fact I’m going to break my normal practice and refer directly to my skeptical audience as “you.”

Before we get started, a few definitions. What I mean by global warming―more properly termed climate change or climate chaos―is the average temperature of our planet climbing, generally because of an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The “greenhouse effect” has been pretty well proved by the example of Venus, which is in fact warmer than Mercury due to carbon dioxide.

Note that I say nothing of what’s causing this increase in CO2. That’s because the effects of the increase are much the same regardless of whether it’s a natural process or man-made. Many people have pointed out that the recent increases in CO2 levels and average temperature are well within the extremes that Earth has experienced, according to the geologic record. This is true… but irrelevant, here. Continue reading

No Second Coming

A whisper came into my soul and said, “Write!” And I asked, “What shall I write?” And the whisper said, “Write the words that are given to you, write the law that I wrote in your heart.” The whisper said, “Write of the world you live in, not of the next.” The whisper said, “Write of love and justice.”

For a thousand wrongs, and for ten thousand, the One will not withhold the punishment; because for the wealth of one we have beggared a thousand, and for the feast of ten we have let a million starve. The wealth of the great was a gift given that it might be given again, a blessing to be handed on for the blessing of all, but out of greed and pride and luxury it has been held back. Therefore all luxury shall pass away, and its passage will not be peaceful.

For a thousand wrongs, and for ten thousand, the One will not withhold the punishment; for what the One gave open-handed has been taken and consumed, and the fingers and the hand as well, and now we gnaw the wrist! The streams and the trees of the mountains are stripped and fouled, and the mountains themselves are thrown down, and not by faith but greed. The sea has been poisoned, and the air itself, and all the bounty that was once called limitless draws near to its end. Continue reading

Self-Defense

There’s been talk about self-defense in American political/social discourse all my life. It has been a limited talk, however, dominated by limited ideas.

Usually when we talk about self-defense, we are referring to defense of one’s person, family, or property against theft or assault. There is a second and broader strand of “self-defense” talk, concerning the defense of a country, usually either the United States or Israel. Finally people speak of defending rights.

What all these usually imply or assume is that there are evil people who would harm us in a variety of ways, and that the natural recourse of good and decent people is to defend themselves violently. Almost all references to “self-defense” that I can think of regard a violent response to a violent affront. Usually there is some connection to the Second Amendment or to the military. Handguns come up frequently. The speakers usually identify as conservative.

Yet there is a far broader definition of self-defense that is equally valid, and far broader means of self-defense that just the violent resort. (I will not say “last resort,” for when the violent resort is available, it is almost never used last.) Continue reading

Enough

For a long time now we have faced our problems from a certain standpoint. Confronted by grave difficulties, we redouble our efforts. Our resilience of mind is remarkable: we seem to persist in our course no matter what occurs. Our answer is almost always the same: if we are not succeeding, it is because we are not doing enough.

I’m told that one in six (or even one in four) women is sexually abused sometime in her life, as one in ten men is abused in his. Most of these assaults happen early in life. To counteract them we put more efforts into teaching children to beware strangers, to stay in at night, to not drink so much or to not wear “provocative” clothing. If our children are just careful enough and safe enough, we reason, rape will end and we will be safe.

It helps to catch rapists, of course, as with all other criminals, and crime is certainly a major issue in this country. Drug crimes in particular, but violent offenses as well. We have traditionally dealt with crime through adding more police, handing down harsher sentences, imprisoning more people and for longer, in bigger jails. We give our police and law enforcement agents more power, more resources, more weapons, more latitude. If we just lock away enough criminals, we reason, crime will end and we will be safe. Continue reading