29 October 2015

The debate debate

Republicans are right and wrong to bitch about the debates for presidential candidates. If their complaint is that they aren't real, substantive debates, I'll gladly agree. It's hard to have one of those with ten people on the podium in a two-hour time slot, the length being shortened from the previous gathering at the insistence of Donald Trump and Dr. Carson. Carson continues to complain about "gotcha" questions, and while it's tempting to criticize him for ducking what others might consider tough or at least appropriate questions, let's concede, from the reports I've read, that some of the questions were trivial, and remember that substantive debates need not include questions at all, at least from moderators. Lincoln and Douglas took questions only from each other --  and from each man's perspective the other's probably were all gotcha questions -- and had no moderator during their 1858 tour of Illinois. Since a real debate has only two sides, it would be up to the Republican National Committee to arrange a round-robin format so each of the top-tier contenders, however identified, could go one-on-one before the first primary or caucus. Let each round of debates address a specific field of policy: economics, foreign policy, criminal justice, etc., and let the candidates present themselves unmoderated and unmediated. One virtue of this proposal would be to stop the Republicans in particular from whining, as several did last night, about mainstream media bias. By now I've decided that for all their bitching about the major networks acting as lobbyists for liberalism, what Republicans really want is exactly what they claim to denounce: a media like they allegedly have in Russia or like China definitely has that obediently echoes the correct ideological line. Republicans claim to want balance rather than bias, but whenever anyone challenges them they claim bias, so they must want media that will never challenge them. But since the media in this country consists of private corporations, they owe the government nothing but obedience to law, and they owe less still to the party in power. Republicans ought to appreciate that, but their characteristic desire not to be contradicted, their assumption of bias in disagreement, overrides their supposed civil-society principles in times of tension. But no worries! Do away with the moderators, stage real debates and they can't complain about bias. The only thing I would ask of Republicans is that they honor the practice of their virtual founding father and do these debates in true Lincoln-Douglas style, which would mean two men sharing the stage for three hours, one speaking for an hour at the start and a half-hour at the end, the other getting 90 minutes in the middle. Trump and Carson might protest, but the protests would only expose their increasingly obvious shortcomings. Admittedly the format would most likely expose the shortcomings of the audience as well, but self-styled conservatives should not be surprised if the present generation fails to live up to the glorious past.

28 October 2015

David Brooks, Socialist?

"Basically, we've got to get socialist," David Brooks writes in the New York Times this week. That's interesting coming from one of the house Republicans of the paper's op-ed page, but Brooks is quick to say that he doesn't mean what you think he means. "I don’t mean the way Bernie Sanders is a socialist," he clarifies, "He’s a statist, not a socialist." About Sanders, at least, I suspect Brooks is correct, if by "democratic socialism" Sanders means that elected politicians will run the economy rather than the working class. Brooks, however, probably thinks all socialists, except himself, are statists, since the pejorative American understanding of socialism is that the state runs the economy. I don't know what's more audacious about Brooks: that as a Republican he just wrote that "we've got to get socialist," or that he feels free to redefine "socialist" to serve his own purposes. For what it's worth, for Brooks, or anyone who takes his advice, to be a socialist means having to "put the quality of the social fabric at the center of our politics." That translates not into greater democratic regulation of the economy but more of the moralism Brooks has been offering recently. Once upon a time socialism was identified, fairly or not, with the dread doctrines of "free love" and a desire to abolish the family as a bourgeois institution. Now, Brooksian socialism preaches "no single parents!" while advocating more charter schools. To be fair, he also advocates expanding public-sector early education programs; that's one of the "things Democrats like" he includes in his hopeful program for bipartisan "socialism." But rather than probe deeper into the idiosyncratic socialism he'd like to hear advocated by "a sensible version of Donald Trump" -- why don't you speak for yourself, David? -- I want to figure out what "socialism" really means.

Somebody had to coin the word sometime, right? And they presumably knew what they were talking or writing about, right? Well, researchers tell me that the word "socialism" is around 200 years old, and that while it first appeared in Italian, it didn't start to catch on until it appeared in French in the 1830s. A paper called the Globe started using it in a roundabout way, one writer asserting that he no more wanted to sacrifice "socialisme" to "personnalite" than to sacrifice vice for versa. I don't know enough intellectual French to know for sure, but I'd guess that personnalite translates to "individuality," if not something more like "individualism." The writer, presumably, is looking for that balance of individuality and fellowship utopians have striven for ever since. "Socialist" was being used occasionally in English by 1833; the term was identified initially with the "utopian socialist" Robert Owen, and was quickly identified pejoratively with "community of goods, abolition of crime, of punishment, of magistrates and of marriage." Community of goods, as practiced in voluntary communities like Owen's, seems to be essential to the definition. As far as I know, no such thing is advocated by Sanders, much less Brooks. For the latter, socialism may as well be the science of socializing people to be good bourgeois citizens. Looking back again, however, the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the 1888 volume from which I take many of the quotes above, consistently identifies socialism with ownership of the means of production, etc., by "the community as a whole," not by "the state." Inevitably, socialism came to be identified with "statism," as Brooks puts it, if only because state power seemed inescapably necessary, once socialists gave up on voluntary utopian collectives, to the achievement of socialist goals. Bolshevism made matters worse by empowering a political class -- the vanguard party -- to run things for the workers' benefit, whether the workers liked it or not. Democratic socialists like Sanders are by definition more accountable to workers in their capacity as voters, but it can still be asked whether genuine socialism need be statist in the ways implied by Brooks, whether is must be hierarchically professional or totalitarian in its designs on individuals. Whatever socialism Brooks himself espouses probably isn't even half-assed, but such is our political environment today that some readers probably will conclude that Brooks, a critic of Trump and the Tea Pary, has only now confessed what they suspected of him all along.

27 October 2015

Obama: Cops are scapegoats

Whenever there's an amoklauf in America, and whenever the President of the United States expresses his frustration with resistance to gun control measures he believes would prevent many such incidents, the example of his old home town of Chicago is thrown at him in an attempt to prove him wrong. It is said that Illinois already has fairly strict gun regulations, and yet Chicago is perceived by many as the murder capital of the U.S. To gun-rights absolutists, Chicago proves that criminals will always find ways to get guns regardless of regulations, while law-abiding people end up helpless against them. All this really shows is that the gun people are more afraid of the generic criminal than the amoklaufer or school-shooter, while the reverse is true for the anti-gun people. In any event, the President went to Chicago today to talk about guns and police. He told the police -- specifically the International Association of Police Chiefs -- that they should be on his side on gun control, since "fewer gun safety laws ... mean more fallen officers." Police are probably more afraid of the generic criminal, too, though whether they are as pessimistically confident as the gun lobbyists about the criminal's ability to find a gun if he wants one is unclear. The trouble with police in many eyes, of course, is that they profile the generic criminal with too broad strokes. The police gathered in Chicago found the President in conciliatory mode, though it appeared that Obama was losing track of the narrative. He told the police chiefs that "Too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and criminal justice system." That sounds like he's overanalyzing the issue. Does he really think that people in poor communities hate cops simply because they're poor or unemployed? That wasn't my impression. My impression was that people hate cops, however unfairly in general, because too many individual cops abuse their power. Obama can't deny these abuses -- he's denounced several cases in the past -- but today he shrugged them off as "bad apple" exceptions, offering an analogy, unlikely to persuade many, between police and politicians. Individual bad cops don't discredit the police as a whole, he argued, any more than individual bad politicians discredit the entire political class. But in both cases, the power that exists to be abused is at least as problematic as the potential for unworthy individuals to abuse the power. To analyze the situation in this way, however, would be "scapegoating" as far as the President is concerned. Yet he was probably going out of his way to attempt damage control after his FBI director attributed an increase in violent crime in some places to police reluctance to be caught on camera doing what they gotta do to keep the hoodies in line. This is the so-called "Ferguson effect" for which many blame Obama for having "politicized" killings there and elsewhere. His sincerity in supporting police will be doubted by some who see it, dare I say, as less than skin deep. Whether he's calling for gun control or better police-community relations, his words will be wasted on those people in both the police and private sectors who think the real solution to "failures of our society and criminal justice system" is to exterminate all the brutes or let them exterminate each other. Obama's own attitude, to the extent that it can be inferred from his remarks in Chicago, may be that the police with all their problems are still preferable to the complete privatization of law-enforcement, re-branded as "self-defense," of which many Americans dream.

26 October 2015

Patrick Lynch, Propaganda Minister of the Police State

Patrick Lynch is the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association of New York City. He was re-elected earlier this year after gaining national attention for blaming the assassination of two cops last December on the Mayor Bill DeBlasio's stand against police brutality. He's back in the news today for giving Quentin Tarantino some free publicity for his new movie. Looking to build up more street cred, the director of The Hateful Eight participated in an anti-brutality march last weekend and gave a speech in which he declared himself on the side of "the murdered," i.e. the victims of excessive police force. For this, Lynch has denounced Tarantino as a "purveyor of degeneracy," though to be fair, he may have formed an opinion of the man's movies before last weekend. Going further, Lynch has called for a boycott of The Hateful Eight -- a western about a bounty hunter and his female prisoner surrounded by suspicious characters -- to show disapproval of the filmmaker's "Cop Fiction" about excessive force. In America the boycott is the weapon of the weak, and I suppose Lynch has just as much right to boycott something because he doesn't like what it stands for as anybody else. But I can't help feeling that it's just a little different when you call for someone to be punished, economically or otherwise, for criticizing the police, even if you sincerely believe the person is misrepresenting you or, worse, lying. It's also just a bit hypocritical to demand that Tarantino be held to account for his words when you, speaking for police, refuse to be held accountable to public opinion for anything. Earlier this year, when cops were criticized for roughing up a black man, who proved to be a former tennis star, in a case of mistaken identity, Lynch -- and what a name that is for a cop! -- sneered at "arm-chair judges," telling them (and us), "If you have never struggled with someone who is resisting arrest or who pulled a gun or knife on you when you approached them for breaking a law, then you are not qualified to judge the actions of police officers putting themselves in harm's way for the public good." By this standard, civilian lawyers and judges were unfit to try the Nazis at Nuremberg if they'd never fired a shot in wartime. But lest someone think I've broken a rule of internet discourse, let's make this as simple as possible. Policemen are public servants. American policemen are public servants in a democratic republic. That means everyone is qualified to judge them. It is our prerogative to say how they should react when guns or knives or toys or wallets are pulled on them, or when young black men, or just plain black men, or young men, or poor men, appear on scary streets. Criticizing the police is one case when liberal society is right to insist that people be able to speak without fear of any form of reprisal. If we accept Lynch's logic and his premise that only cops are fit to judge their own actions and the circumstances in which they occur, then we concede that the police don't just enforce the law but make it. The police are supposed to enforce the will of the people as enacted in law, but too often it looks as if they prefer to enforce their will on the people, those who dare to criticize as well as those who fail to comply. Lynch's is the logic of a police state in which exclusive expertise puts police beyond public scrutiny. That such a person is the chosen representative of New York City police is telling if not damning -- but then again, maybe he's so good at collective bargaining that the rank and file will forgive his asshollering. That doesn't mean we should.

23 October 2015

The Presidential Party

Aren't Democrats supposed to believe that the future is theirs? Matthew Yglesias doesn't. In fact, he worries about an opposite destiny. On the Vox website he warns of the party's fundamental weakness at the local level, as well as a baffling complacency that leaves Democrats seemingly indifferent to the fact that they have no realistic chance of reclaiming the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future. He blames the problem on increased ideological rigidity among progressive Democrats, an absence of any impulse to compromise with constituencies who could help them win congressional seats. He seems basically to be saying that progressives need to compromise on social/cultural issues like gun control and gay rights. The way Yglesias explains it, there's a pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulation constituency in every state that's guaranteed to vote Republican. Relying on this base, Republicans are actually more flexible than Democrats, Yglesias claims, when it comes to nominating candidates who are relatively moderate on social issues. In the northeast, for instance, the GOP will choose candidates "who either lack hard-edged socially conservative views or else successfully downplay them as irrelevant in the context of blue-state governance." Since every state has that pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulation constituency Democrats can't hope to reach, they have to be more accommodating on cultural issues if they hope to win over people -- let's call them populists -- who resent the rich and identify with the working class but don't identify with "progressive" values. Democrats have trouble following this strategy, Yglesias suggests, because they depend increasingly on "non-labor national progressive donor networks [that] are inherently populated by relatively affluent people who tend to be emotionally driven by progressive commitments on social or environmental issues." Worse, many progressives seem to have a constitutionally illiterate belief that only the Presidency matters. They'll learn differently, Yglesias warns, when they eventually lose the Presidency, but they ought to start rebuilding before then.

This isn't the only note of alarm I've heard among Democrats lately. Some are troubled by the fact that the front-runner for their presidential nomination is nearly seventy, while her strongest rival is older still, while most of the Republican contenders are considerably younger than current front-runner Donald Trump, suggesting that the GOP is getting fresh blood from Congress (Cruz, Rubio, etc.) and elsewhere that Democrats are not. It would be more surprising in our time, however, if one of the major parties wasn't predicting its own imminent doom. Republican control of the House probably looked as unassailable in 2000 or 2004 as it does now, and as Yglesias himself notes, all it took was an unpopular Republican President to tip the balance the other way. The problem is, Yglesias doesn't want to wait until the Democrats "bottom out" because he fears the consequences of undivided Republican government for both progressives and economic populists.

Nor will Yglesias's alarm sound new to many Democrats. The debate over whether they must choose between economic populism and a more expansive progressive agenda is old news that many don't want to hear anymore because it always sounds like you have to pander to the angry white male and for his sake ignore the demands of other demographic groups. To hear it all again must be all the more irksome after many Democrats assured themselves after 2012 that demographics were on their side, but what goes unspoken in Yglesias's article, yet is probably implicit, is that the permanent pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulation constituency in every state, if not in every district, is going to include more people whom Democrats expect to take their side automatically as a matter of identity. After all, if economic populists aren't automatically progressive, why should progressives who define themselves in sociocultural terms automatically be economic populists? Meanwhile, Yglesias implies more clearly that there will always be a cohort of poor voters who still "cling" to their conservative culture -- the people accused of false consciousness since before the turn of the century, who explain "what's the matter with Kansas" because culture seems to count for more than economics with them. We can expect many more familiar arguments and laments if it looks like Clinton (being realistic) will get clobbered next year, and they'll continue until the wheel of fortune to which both major parties are bound lifts Democrats up again and pulls Republicans down, unless the populists and progressives in the Democratic party break from each other and break the wheel once and for all.

22 October 2015

By the sword

While the observation has never justified their resistance to gun control, gun-rights absolutists are correct to note that there are violent impulses in human societies and cultures, if not in human nature itself, that won't be suppressed entirely by the elimination of firearms. This was proven again today in Sweden, where a sword fetishist attacked a school and wounded several people, two fatally so far, before he was shot to death. In this case the answer to a bad guy with a sword was good guys with guns who happened to be lawfully delegated police officers. Inevitably some will say that the two fatalities would not have died had someone at the school had a gun. The logic of this, it seems, is that the more people have weapons, the less likely anyone is to use them. The logic seems faulty given the "suicide-by-cop" mentality of many mass-shooters. Such people are hardly more likely to be deterred by the prospect of "suicide-by-civilian," unless your assumption is that they'd be deterred by the thought of not getting an adequate body count before they go down. That assumption in turn depends on whether body count is essential to the blaze of glory with which so many madmen want to leave this world. Just as inevitably, people will argue sarcastically for a ban on swords, just as they've argued for bans on knives, automobiles and any object that can be held responsible for multitudes of deaths each year. Their sarcasm can be taken more seriously once a sword lobby emerges to assert their constituents' right to kill with their weapon of choice, or when car owners organize to assert their right to run people over. The debate over gun rights has gone beyond the question of whether guns or people kill people. It should be recognized as a political struggle pitting one side that above all else asserts a right to kill against another that denies that claim even under the circumstances the first side considers most advantageous to itself, i.e. self-defense against crime. The essence of that debate is unanalogizable, just as the abortion debate is, rendering the gun-keepers' reductio ad absurdam arguments fallacious. But the truth with which this article started remains: gun culture may feed the lethal impulse in our culture, but it's not the sole source. Around the world, we've seen the damage people can do without guns -- a guy in Japan went on a sword rampage a few years ago, and more recently China has seen waves of mass knife attacks -- and we should concede that there's no longer something uniquely American about the impulse to kill people en masse for purely personal reasons. That doesn't excuse the gun fetishists and vigilantes who exacerbate the problem by advocating for lethal self-defense, but it does mean our work won't be done should they be silenced. What more will it take to eliminate those fatal mixtures of fear, alienation and entitlement that make people killers? We may not have the answer now but we need to keep asking the question.

21 October 2015

Diversity of opinion in authoritarian and capitalist media

Reading Leslie Savan's cry of alarm in The Nation over reports that MSNBC will get rid of a lot of its progressive TV hosts in an effort to steer itself back toward objective news reporting, I was reminded a little of Russia. Part of the case against Vladimir Putin as an "authoritarian" leader is that he has gradually driven dissenting opinion off television, whether by intimidation, selective prosecutions, denial of licenses, buyouts by friendly oligarchs, etc. Reportedly Putin isn't as concerned about other media, but wants to make sure the most popular medium avoids an adversarial stance toward him. You hear the same stories about alleged authoritarians everywhere. Apparently it's crucial to their consolidation of power to control television. Conversely, the existence of adversarial or plainly partisan TV channels or networks is considered minimal proof that a nation has a free civil society. People who may have no use for Fox News at home more or less argue that no nation is free unless it has an equivalent of Fox -- or of MSNBC if the regime is at all "conservative." Implicit in all this is a belief that the state has an obligation to guarantee opposition parties, if not all political points of view, access to mass media. But there seems to be no real guarantee of MSNBC's status as a "progressive" channel. Decisions to change its content, while retaining its most popular prime-time progressive personalities, are motivated by displeasure with low ratings and a desire on the part of new management to make MSNBC look more like NBC, at least for part of the day. No act of authoritarian repression has taken place, yet should a Republican win the Presidency next year there's no guarantee that cable subscribers will find a rallying point against the new regime. As Savan points out, there are alternative progressive cable news outlets, but they're all small compared to MSNBC and far fewer people have access to them. Ironically, Russia's English-language news channel RTN was probably the furthest left of all news channels, at least in its coverage of the U.S., on my cable system until the system dropped it in favor of Al Jazeera America, most likely having decided that the former was more "anti-American" than the latter. It would seem, then, that capitalist countries can no more guarantee significant TV exposure to truly dissident opinion than authoritarian countries. If Russia is an authoritarian country because you can't find anyone on TV saying Putin is a bum, what is the U.S.? You can point to Fox News now that a Democrat is President, but if there's no voice of opposition equal to Fox both in vehemence and availability when we have a Republican president, what will that say about us? Why wait to judge? What does it say about us if a channel that advocates somewhat strongly for not-even radical change, the nearest thing we have (and probably not so near) to an anti-establishment news network, and hence presumably an essential element of civil society, is subject to the whims and winds of market forces? If the standard for a free society is that dissent is guaranteed a place in the mass media, and MSNBC, or more accurately its progressive opinionators, are not guaranteed a place -- for such a guarantee would grant them immunity from the market forces currently threatening them -- then by that standard we aren't as free a society as we think.

20 October 2015

Sanctuary, Sanctuary!!

How much are Democrats depending on the Hispanic vote next year? To restate the question, how much do Democrats believe that their success depends on Hispanic votes? The answer may explain today's procedural vote in the U.S. Senate, through which the Democratic minority blocked Republican legislation that would reduce the federal money going to self-described "sanctuary cities," those municipalities large and small that withhold cooperation from federal efforts to arrest and deport illegal immigrants. I don't mean to suggest that only Hispanics, or only ethnic groups with large first-generation cohorts, could support such a measure. Many self-styled liberals and progressives of all races support the sanctuary-city concept. Some take the dogmatic position that "no one is illegal" or deem it hypocritical that the heirs of the uninvited immigrants of 1492 and beyond want to dictate who can come here next. Some see the defense of the undocumented as morally equivalent to resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. As far as I can tell, the consensus now is that 19th century cities and citizens who denied aid to federal proceedings against alleged fugitive slaves, and who sometimes fought slave-hunters and assisted fugitives in escaping local jails, were moral heroes despite defying federal law and exacerbating sectional tensions. When Republicans (and many populists irrespective of party) protest that sanctuary cities are lawless, it sounds to many progressive ears like the protests of slaveholders. Just as the slave was credited with a human right, prior to law, to escape slavery, so the immigrant, especially when portrayed as a refugee, is credited with a human right to seek a better life wherever he can find it that overrides even the will of the sovereign people and their representatives. It sounds fine and noble in progressive circles but it's a tougher sell elsewhere, if only because the undocumented immigrant doesn't enjoy the presumption of innocence, much less moral superiority, granted by many to the fugitive slave.

Despite the multitudes of runaways who came north via the Underground Railroad and other means, the archetypal fugitive slave was a heroic individual, a full American in fact if not in law, while the immigrant, especially when he's Hispanic or one of the now-dreaded Syrian refugees, is perceived as part of a faceless, foreign-sounding horde whose arrival threatens to destabilize communities. Ultimately, while people can imagine a human right to escape from slavery, and a corollary moral imperative to shelter such escapees, it doesn't follow analogically that there's an equal human right to flee a destabilized, impoverished country, much less a local prerogative to shelter such refugees if a paramount representative government denies them shelter. It's arguable that the prospective refugee has some obligation, as a citizen of his homeland, to stay on and set things right, rather than assume helplessness and flee, while the slave, by comparison, need not be obliged to kill his owner and take over the plantation if he wants to be free. So long as slavery is deemed unjust the slave is entitled to the route of least resistance; whether the citizen of an impoverished or oppressed nation is similarly entitled is less certain. This is certainly too abstract for the most visceral opponents of sanctuary cities, but how do you answer them when they accuse those cities of lawlessness, especially after some of the same people who applaud sanctuary cities were quick to condemn the lawlessness of Kim Davis, the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky who refused marriage licenses to homosexual couples on alleged divine authority, and still more of them routinely affirm the primacy of central government over localities on questions of marriage rights, voting rights, etc? If one person's "conscience" can't trump law, why should someone else's? I don't raise these questions to justify a crackdown on sanctuary cities, but to warn people that such questions will be raised, so that defenders of sanctuary cities had better have better answers ready than their knee-jerk appeals to pity or swipes at bigotry. Maybe Democrats feel so certain of the sufficiency of Hispanic and progressive support that they feel no need to answer rather than insult those who question their position. That could be a mistake, and it might be a fatal one in 2016.

19 October 2015

Trump and Bush argue over a safe call

In baseball terms, Donald Trump has been kicking dirt on Jeb Bush's shoes ever since the former Florida governor credited his brother, the former President, for keeping the country safe. As their debate has droned on, it becomes clear that theirs is a disagreement over chronology. Trump has made the commonsensical observation that since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks took place while George W. Bush was President, it's wrong to say that Dubya kept the country safe. Jeb seems to be saying that his brother should be credited with keeping us safe since 9/11, but he also seems to be saying that Dubya should not be blamed for failing to prevent the attacks. Trump actually has tried to be slightly diplomatic here, telling interviewers that he isn't blaming Dubya for the attacks personally but insisting that the attacks were preventable. You can see, I suppose, why Jeb thinks Trump is blaming his brother personally, but that doesn't justify Bush's hysterical response to Trump's comments. The way Jeb has reacted, you'd think Trump was a "truther," but nothing Trump has said, at least as far as I've seen, indicates a belief that Dubya "let" the attacks happen. His seems to be the standard indictment of bureaucratic incompetence and lack of cooperation, while Jeb's insistence that only what happened after the attacks counts seems almost obscenely obtuse. Worse, Trump's remarks provoked Jeb into another round of crybaby comments. Those remarks, Bush whined, again proved Trump unfit for the office he seeks. Jeb hasn't yet caught on to the fact that rhetoric of that sort is obsolete, that Trump (for good or ill) is so far waging a winning campaign against the politics of the gaffe. While opinionators and rival candidates have focused on Trump's (and to a lesser extent Ben Carson's) defiance of "political correctness," the larger lesson that might be learned is that many voters are increasingly determined that one sentence, be it politically insensitive or factually wrong, shouldn't sink someone's campaign. Trump and Carson are popular as outsiders because their supporters are convinced of their essential competence as professionals or character as individuals in a way that has little to do with how they respond to pop quizzes or whether they hurt people's feelings. For such people Jeb must look like a quibbling crybaby throwing a tantrum because he can't handle the truth. Bush may be trying to kick the dirt back onto Trump's shoes, but he may end up only burying himself even deeper.

16 October 2015

Conservatism's self-betrayal

The follies of the House Republican Caucus have driven David Brooks, one of the New York Times's house Republicans, to despair. In one of his columns this week, Brooks condemned the GOP representatives as incompetent to govern even themselves and blamed their incompetence to "a thousand small betrayals of conservatism" dating back approximately to when "Rush Limbaugh came on the scene." Republicans, Brooks laments, have come to believe their own apocalyptic rhetoric, yet contradict their avowed contempt for politics by promising radical solutions to the nation's ills through political action. Their radical ambitions and rhetoric practically disqualify them from the "conservative" label in Brooks's analysis. We've seen the neocons excommunicated from "conservatism" because of their radical nation-building and (more important) nation-smashing foreign policy, but now Brooks proposes to excommunicate the Tea Party. At this rate no one in the Republican party will be "conservative." If that doesn't seem to make sense, that's probably because those doing the excommunicating -- Brooks vs. the TPs, the American Conservative magazine anti-interventionist crowd vs. the neocons -- depend on an idealized Burkean definition of conservatism as the opposite of "radicalism." Brooks attempts such a definition here:

By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible. Conservatives of this disposition can be dull, but they know how to nurture and run institutions. They also see the nation as one organic whole. Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.

Let me modestly suggest that this definition of conservatism has been outmoded for at least 200 years. It may still suffice to define a certain temperament that Brooks admires and still may exist today, but in historical and political terms this definition's orientation around a prudent resistance to radical change is anachronistic. Criticizing the French Revolution after merely regretting that the American Revolution had to happen, Edmund Burke still saw radical change as an imminent threat rather than an accomplished fact. Today's self-styled conservatives still perceive constant threats of limitless radical change, but many also perceive themselves living in a society or polity in which radical change has already taken place, for the worse. This changed situation requires different strategies and tactics. While intellectually humble conservatives like Brooks may still envision conservatism as a holding action,  "radical" conservatives want to roll back history and reverse changes from which, to them, nothing good has come. They are counter-revolutionaries and thus inherently radical. Theirs is a mission of necessary destruction that long predates Rush Limbaugh. Brooks believes that such people have succumbed to hyperbole. "Civilization was always on the brink of collapse," he writes of their perceptions, "Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, became the ruination of the republic."They lack a certain detachment that Brooks credits to himself, and they might concur snarkily that Brooks is too detached for his own good. Before he judges them, Brooks might ask himself whether he, the presumably authentic conservative, doesn't actually believe that the nation needs to reverse course on any domestic front. To demand a reversal of course may not be textbook conservatism, but that's what conservatism has come to mean in the United States, whether Brooks likes it or not. I suppose it might be more etymologically correct to call our conservatives "reactionaries," "counter-revolutionaries" or "traditionalists," but it's too late for that. "Conservatism" expresses their reverence for something about the way they live, or want to live, that they want to preserve, restore or recapture. However we define the impulse, it requires them to take the offensive and refuse retreat, and the impulse only grows stronger once they feel there's less left to lose. If Brooks doesn't feel that way it's actually to his credit, but it may also mean that he's not a real conservative today.

14 October 2015

Who are the real Christians?

More fascinating to me than the sordid story of the New Hartford NY "Word of Life" church where two parents in the congregation joined in beating one of their sons to death and beat another nearly to death, reportedly in order to make them confess sins, are the comments the news have attracted. Two themes predominate: masters of the obvious reassert the stupidity of religion, while apologists for Christianity attempt to demonstrate that the Word of Life congregation aren't "real" Christians. We see this any time professed Christians do something abhorrent, and while it's obvious that many Christians can't imagine perpetrating an atrocity like this one, it's also unclear how their admirable scruples entitle them to excommunicate the perpetrators. Post-Reformation Christendom, outside the Catholic Church, is a "priesthood of all believers" in which no one Christian can authoritatively deny another's prerogative to interpret the Bible according to their own lights. Scripture was rendered into the vernacular tongues of Europe, and then those of the whole world, just so no literate person had to take a priest's word for what the Bible said. A proliferation of denominations, sects and cults was inevitable as interpretations diverged. Often, at the end of the trail, believers choose submission to some compelling interpretation and enable "cult" leaders to dominate their lives in totalitarian fashion. Appalled observers can offer any number of reasons why such submission and such lethal obedience are wrong, but what authority have they? What makes their interpretation of scripture superior or more compelling than whatever prevailed at the Word of Life church? Doesn't the Old Testament authorize parents to kill disobedient children? What verse of the New Testament actually abrogates that mandate, as many presume the Gospels must? All these apologists can really say is that they're not violent or barbarically patriarchal, but nothing else follows from that. In the absence of universal submission to one religious authority or universal consensus on the exact meaning of all scripture, Christians, however well-meaning and properly indignant about this horror, have no more right to say that the perpetrators are not "real Christians" than Muslims have to say that takfiri terrorists and honor killers are not "real Muslims." But if Christians want to make such distinctions, they should be willing to recognize the distinctions made by others and give some benefit of the doubt to those Muslims who insist that terrorists and everyday barbarians aren't real Muslims, rather than assuming, on far less knowledge than they can claim about Christianity, that they know better than Muslims what Islam is all about. As somebody said, sort of: if you don't want to be judged, judge not.

13 October 2015

A reasonable murder

In case my last post appeared dismissive of black concerns, it's about time I said something about the outrageous outcome of the investigation into the killing by Cleveland police of Tamir Rice a 12 year old boy who'd been playing in a park with a toy gun. It was, in fact, outrageously predictable. As in most such cases, the only thing that really mattered was whether the policeman acted in a "reasonable" way, whether it was "reasonable" for him to believe he may have been threatened by a pre-teen, or "reasonable" to believe the gun was real. Consequences, shmonsequences. That the boy died doesn't matter -- and such are the ways of the police that his life most likely would have mattered no more or no less had his skin color been different. Debate away whether he would have felt less threatened had the boy been white, but don't let that debate distract you from the abominable nature of this case and the cop's likely exoneration. We've heard the cop logic before, and all too often: we can't punish them for making mistakes on hair-trigger judgment calls like this one because that might make other cops hesitate when they really need to shoot. In other words, cops are undeterrable because we can't allow them to be deterred. Society needs them to be hair-trigger death machines, it seems, and the rest of us had best not set them off by doing anything that smacks of non-compliance, much less threat, or else we, as any number of online or phone-in boors will tell you, will only have ourselves to blame. Cases like these could be one of the best arguments for reverting to the individual prerogative of self-defense, but somehow I don't envision the NRA making the argument. But if we must have police and they must be hair-trigger death machines, and they can't be held accountable for mistakes, then it should be up to each killer cop's employer, his municipality, to pay up big time when objective inquiries reasonably determine that innocent people were killed. Maybe the thing to do is get a federal law passed (good luck with this Congress) creating a federal board of inquiry for all killings by cops and mandatory punitive damages charged against the municipality when cops are found at fault. When the taxpayers suffer for the mistakes of their police, we may finally get a consensus for radical police reform. Rather than dream, however, let's reject the cop logic that raises the specters of dead police to scare us into forgiving lethal mistakes. Let the ultimate employers of the police, the people, state with sovereign authority that atrocities like the killing of Rice are unreasonable, and that we will get rid of unreasonable police who can't defend us without wantonly killing people, until we find people who can do the job right. That might lead us to question what doing the job right means, but that can only be a good thing.

The perils of Democratic party crashing

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders are urging people to register as Democrats, and to switch party affiliation if necessary, so they can be eligible to vote for their candidate in their state's primaries next year. This appeal for support from outside the party makes clear why it'll be more difficult for the Sandersites to pull off an insurgent campaign than it was for the Republican tea partiers, most of whom presumably came from the GOP's grass roots. It also begs the question of whether taking over the Democratic party is worth trying, though the question begs its own answer: the way the American political system works, seizing control of one of the two major parties is the only realistic path to power for any self-styled political insurgency. Sanders and his supporters are not so radical as to build a lasting third-party movement. He wants control of the Democratic brand and now must reckon with his lack of brand-name recognition, even after a summer of mostly-friendly publicity before his first true confrontation with Hillary Clinton and the other Democratic contenders tonight. As the Washington Post reminds us, Sanders remains an unproven quantity among black Democrats, who arguably form the core of the party's base, while Clinton can rely on her brand name and enduring good will earned by her husband. Sanders gets told repeatedly what he has to do and say to have any chance at mass black support, while any suggestion that black voters have any obligation to listen to him and consider more than their legitimate-but-still-parochial community concerns is snarled at and condemned as patronizing. You take a big chance, it seems, by suggesting that black voters, activists, party bosses, etc. may suffer from a failure of political imagination, even if you acknowledge how conditions set their priorities. I may take a bigger chance by wondering online whether complaints about Sanders's perceived aloofness or insensitivity actually cover a certain conservatism among the demographic long seen hopefully as the vanguard for radical politics, a reluctance to rock the boat too much. Clinton comes with the implicit promise that old-school machine politics can make the system benefit loyal constituents, while the Black Lives Matter gadflies often look like classic populists -- hence of little use to radicals -- in their implicit insistence that everyone has to change except them. Along with a less conspicuous but likely as formidable cadre of feminist deadenders who want a woman President at all costs, the inertia of black voters explains much of why Sanders supporters are calling as much for an invasion of the Democratic party as for an insurgency. Whether he runs as a Democrat or an independent, Sanders still has to reach out to black voters, and as far as I can tell that's what he's doing. But it shouldn't be up to black voters alone or any pet demographic of the Democrats to determine whether Sanders should appear on a presidential ballot in November. While he's certainly benefited by defining himself as the main challenger to Clinton, he might have been better off for the long run had he dedicated this year to building his own party and inviting blacks and everyone else, instead of loudly crashing a party that most likely will throw him out eventually.

09 October 2015

Dr. Carson: the final solution?

While chasing Donald Trump in the polls this year, Dr. Ben Carson has learned something from the erstwhile front-runner: never apologize. Continuing to riff on gun rights following the Oregon amoklauf, Dr. Carson has incurred the wrath of the Anti-Defamation League. He didn't exactly defame them or their Jewish constituents, though again many feel that history's victims are defamed whenever anyone says they might have put up more of a fight. This is Dr. Carson's position on the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jewish people. He has said that Hitler would have had a hard time  carrying out his agenda had Jews been armed, and he apparently believes that German gun control policies were a necessary step toward the Final Solution. Despite counterexamples from the Arab world, Carson argues, as do many American gun advocates, that gun control is something tyrants do to consolidate their tyranny. He dismisses the ADL objection that gun control made little difference in the course of Nazi history as "foolishness." But just as history was on his side when he recommended collective self-defense against amoklaufers, it appears to refute him this time. It will be recalled that Jewish people got their hands on quite a few guns, admittedly at a late point in the process, and launched an armed uprising against the occupiers of Warsaw -- in vain. At most, many had the satisfaction of dying with their boots on. Like many people today, Dr. Cason has something of a Vietnam mentality that leads him to overrate the effectiveness of guerrilla resistance. If the Viet Cong could hold off and drive out the U.S., and the Afghan mujaheddin could hold off and drive out the U.S.S.R., anything might seem possible for plucky underdogs with firearms. Whether a domestic insurgency in a superpower could fare as well is a separate question that would seem to lead those whose first motive for gun-nuttery is fear of tyranny to claim boundless rights to resistance and the tools of resistance: bombs, missiles, etc. Assault weapons will not cut it. Looking back to the Shoah, Carson may as well have argued that European Jews ought to have bought themselves an air force or made chemical weapons, yet he talks as if rifles and machine guns might have changed history. It's possible that they might have, but would the good doctor, vigilant against tyranny as he is, endorse the tactic of assassination to safeguard liberty? It's not exactly a big leap from reserving the right to armed resistance, but would Carson dare go there? A Jewish terror campaign against the German government might have made a difference, even if history shows that one actual effort along that line, the killing of a German diplomat in France, resulted in the Kristallnacht. So let's give Dr. Carson fresh questions to answer. If an American leader violates the Constitution and appears to menace perceived fundamental liberties, would Dr. Carson recommend that that leader be assassinated? Would he recommend that the people who support that leader be targeted for terrorist attack? If guns are essential to our liberty, let him tell us how to use them, and let us decide whether his ideas would even work.

08 October 2015

The rise and fall of Kevin McCarthy, without the rise

History will still remember Kevin McCarthy as the actor from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie, the guy on the highway shouting, "You're next!" Kevin McCarthy the politician, a Representative from California, will be no more than an anecdote in the chaotic history of the 21st century Republican party. For a moment it looked like he'd be the next Speaker of the House, but then liberals gleefully publicized an illiterate speech on foreign policy McCarthy delivered last month, and more gleefully pounced on a perceived confession that the Benghazi hearings were politically motivated. He may have been treated unfairly that time, but given his proven incoherence it's hard to tell what he means by what he says. McCarthy said, "Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee, what are her numbers today?Her numbers are dropping, why? Because she's untrustable." Clintonites inferred, and others assumed that McCarthy had implied, a causal sequence: he put together the special committee because Clinton was thought unbeatable, in order to prove her "untrustable." He just as easily could have meant that while Clinton had been thought unbeatable, once Republicans responded to her perceived mishandling of the Benghazi incident by holding an investigation, she was inevitably proved "untrustable." By this week McCarthy had revealed himself to be inarticulate and possibly indiscreet, but this probably had little to do with his withdrawal today from consideration for the Speakership. It's more likely that McCarthy backed out, while retaining his position as Majority Leader in the House, for the same reason the departing Speaker, Rep. Boehner, is departing: a determined right-wing faction found him neither conservative nor confrontational enough for their tastes. We may actually owe the Tea Party thanks for sparing us so blatant a moron as the leader of the House, but in the current climate we're unlikely to get much better. We're more likely to see this McCarthy emulate his more famous namesake by telling the next front-runner, "You're next!"

07 October 2015

In defense of Dr. Carson

Dr. Ben Carson is wrong on guns like almost all Republicans, but the front-runner (depending on what poll you read) for his party's presidential nomination is getting a bum rap this week for offering advice on what to do during mass shootings like last week's amoklauf in Oregon. A lot of outrage has been worked up over his suggestion that the people under attack gang up, armed or not, and attack the attacker. Carson's comments are being condemned as insensitive to the people in Oregon who did not defend themselves, and as preposterous in a practical sense. On the last point, at least, readers of this blog know better. On numerous occasions, most notably during the amoklauf/attempted assassination in Tucson, shooters have been stopped by people without firearms counterattacking individually or in groups. The bad guys have to reload, after all. Such cases are cited regularly to refute the NRA argument that the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. As for the objection to Dr. Carson's alleged insensitivity, it doesn't follow that he was criticizing, much less insulting the Oregon victims and survivors for not defending themselves. To assume that he was is as petty as the argument that Carson has no right to counsel courage until he's been under fire himself. That argument seems to be offered by people who assume that the doctor would freeze and cower under fire like most people, presumably including the people making this speculative ad hominem argument. It may be true that most of us would freeze and cower, but shouldn't we want to do otherwise, especially when we know it can be done? If no one can say we should be brave because he may be a coward, does that mean we should all be cowards? Trick question! If Dr. Carson is to be faulted this week, it should be for the complacency with which he recommends death-defying heroism as an inevitable necessity. He's almost certainly right to say of the Oregon amoklauf that "this is probably not going to be the last time that happens," especially since his party and his fans would rather such things happen than give up their private arsenals, but the sort of heroes we need now will stop such things from happening, even if that also means confronting violent people, rather than simply tell us what to do when it happens again. But until those heroes appear, we could probably use the sort of heroes Carson is looking for, even if he's no hero himself.

06 October 2015

The Syrian Experiment

You'd think that people who hate and fear Vladimir Putin so much would welcome his entry into the quagmire of Syria. You'd think more people would see it as Thomas L. Friedman does, with Putin's intervention in defense of the Assad regime making Russia more of a target for the self-styled Islamic State and its various sympathizers and increasing hostility toward Russia's geopolitical ambitions among the region's Sunni majority. The U.S. and the west should be eager to tell Putin, "You can have it," especially since Russia has a bigger stake in the outcome, because of its naval base in Syria, than the west does. Yet the vibe I get from what I see and hear is that the usual suspects here see this as all win for Putin and further humiliation for the U.S. and President Obama. I can understand this from the neocons for whom Syria (rather than the IS) actually matters, and who're whining about the Russians attacking our good insurgents, but others who probably couldn't care less about the Syrian people or their form of government are angry about the Russian intervention because they see it as fresh proof of Obama's weakness or indifference to American power. Despite what some snarky liberals want to insinuate, these people probably aren't closet-authoritarian fans of Putin, but they're worked up over Syria right now because, unlike many liberals, they think that Putin can win there, and that by extension the U.S. could have won.

While liberals like Friedman -- call him a neo-liberal if you like -- assume that Putin will provoke a terrorist backlash against Russia, remember that many Americans have never accepted the argument that the terrorists attacked us because we'd messed with their countries and governments or threatened their faith. The alternate view of terrorism is that terrorists are sufficiently motivated by their own evil but, being evil, they are also cowards. This view rejects the premise that an aggressive response to terrorism will only provoke more terrorism. Instead, it is assumed that a sufficient show of force and resolve, as Russia might be expected to show, will cow terrorists into quiescence if not submission. In short, there's a popular if poorly articulated belief that the proper answer to terrorism is ruthlessness, "shock and awe" on a more massive, visceral level than even George W. Bush carried out, that even Bush lacked the will to carry out. Proponents of this view can actually look to Putin's past for an example of this policy if they actually know recent history. Some observers are comparing Putin's intervention in Syria, hopefully, with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which proved a demoralizing disaster for the communist regime. But more recently Putin inherited a quagmire-like conflict in Chechnya from Boris Yeltsin and withstood a terror campaign against Russia (and the inevitable accusations of "false flag" dirty tricks on his own part) while effectively pacifying the region. It wasn't pretty, and reports of air raids on the already-damaged archaeological treasure-city of Palmyra, where the IS iconoclastically maintains a base, suggest that it won't be pretty in Syria, either. But the Americans who look upon Putin with envy rather than admiration probably care little about the further ruination of ruins, or any collateral damage Russia may inflict, much less the collateral damage we continue to inflict in Muslim countries. They're angry at Obama now because they think that Putin can win for Russia (and Iran, and of course Assad) by playing the way they've always felt we should play. So let's see, once and for all, how such a game plays out. Humanitarian hearts will bleed, as I suppose they should, but the political consequences shouldn't matter to us one way or the other. Here's a chance for a risk-free education, with history deciding whether Putin gets a diploma or a dunce cap. It'll be interesting to watch.

05 October 2015

What is populism?

Michael Gerson is the latest opinionator to ask whether ours is a populist moment. He's smart enough to realize that the question begs another, so he attempts a definition of populism. His mistake is to attempt to idealize populism as he defines it, in order to exclude both Donald Trump, on the right, and Bernie Sanders, on the left. Trump is out because he espouses a "conspiratorial nativism" more akin to the Know-Nothing party. Sanders is out because, insofar as he is a social democrat, if not a democratic socialist, he is a technocrat and has a "faith in experts" that Gerson recognizes as alien to populism. For Gerson, the ideal populist would be someone like Pope Francis, who like American history's definitive populist (according to Gerson), William Jennings Bryan, combines compassion for the poor with religious traditionalism. Like most who attempt to define populism, Gerson finds "anti-elitism" at its heart. Unlike some, he tries to exclude xenophobia from populism, at least in its ideal form. Unfortunately, populism is rarely anti-elite without also being anti-other. It seems to come with the conviction that a certain group of us are the authentic People for whom populism is named, while others, both above and below, are not. Gerson notes that the original capital-P Populists of the late 19th century, who briefly turned the People's Party into a major force in politics, had a democratizing agenda, being early advocates of the direct election of U.S. senators, stock market regulation, etc. Some of the early Populists hoped to topple the elites by crossing racial barriers, but their efforts failed and some Populist leaders proved rabid racists. If "populism" is to have a specific meaning, if it isn't just a synonym for "democratic" or "progressive," its exclusionary impulse has to be recognized. Something reactionary about it should be acknowledged as well, because it effectively distinguishes a populist attitude from a progressive one. While some observers have dubbed Sanders or his supporters populists, Gerson senses that it isn't so, and the Vermont Senator's technocratic leanings, such as they are, are only part of the difference. To the extent that Sanders is a socialist or a progressive, he presumably recognizes the need for comprehensive social (if not cultural) change. Populists, too, can call for change if change is necessary to bring the elites or the outsiders under control. Where they draw the line, I've long suspected, is when anyone says that they have to change. That's probably why populism tends to be a dead-end as a political movement, and why it remains a constant if nebulous presence in modern politics.

02 October 2015

Is it a war on Christians yet?

Some people desperately want there to be a war on Christians in this country -- and those people are Christians. We Americans seem to compete with one another to prove who's more persecuted. The presumption of enmity is almost universal. It's reported that the perpetrator of yesterday's Oregon amoklauf asked his captives whether they were Christian. This is described as the shooter "singling out" or "targeting" Christians. From what we've been told so far, the shooter told at least one person who responded affirmatively that it was a good thing, since the victim would be meeting God shortly. It's unclear whether he denounced God or Christianity at that time, and it's possible that the little scene may have been his terrible idea of dark humor. We still don't know much about the man. Supposedly he described himself as "not religious, but spiritual," or words to that effect, and he is said to have had "problems with organized religion." At the same time, he seems to have been a fan of the Catholic nationalists of the Irish Republican Army. Piecing the details together won't be as simple as some would like, and I question whether the Oregon amoklauf will prove any more of an act of "war on Christianity" than the Charleston Massacre from earlier this year. Yet some Christians do love to feel embattled. Why, though, do they presume a war is in the works? It could be as simple as "they hate us because we're good and they resent it," whoever they are, -- but could there be some sort of guilty conscience encouraging these fears? Who will be waging this war? Some anticipate a multi-front attack. Islamists are already waging literal war on Christians in some parts of the world, while the enmity of "militant atheists" is well-established if not proven lethal. But if we look for some large-scale formal assault we may be missing a war already raging. If there's a war on Christianity it's not a political struggle, a Muslim jihad or an atheist conspiracy. It's more likely a battle repeating itself in thousands of American homes. Ask the question again: why wage a war on Christianity? Yes, the American Christian Right may be obnoxious and in some ways a genuine menace to human progress, but compared to their Islamist counterparts our Christianists have been models of civility. Could their positions on abortion or gay marriage, the hot-button issues of our time, really provoke their opponents to kill them? I suspect not, but that doesn't mean that nothing could so provoke people. I suspect instead that hatred of religion in general is born not in the public or political sphere, but in the home. If there's really a war against Christianity, you'll probably see that it's been waged house-to-house for generations. Real hatred of Christianity is often if not most likely personal rather than political, born from a belief that Christianity (or any organized religion) has made a young person's life intolerably miserable rather than from Marxist analysis or enlightened philosophizing. At the least, if there's ever a real war it'll be waged by people with grievances born at home, or maybe in private schools, not by readers of Richard Dawkins. These will be people who won't see themselves as the aggressors; they'll see a "war on Christianity" as a defensive war and they'll fight it as a guerilla war. That's not how they'll be perceived, but that might only mean that people aren't paying attention.

01 October 2015

Just another amoklauf

At least thirteen people are dead in an Oregon community college, and the number may grow depending on the condition of the wounded. In a generic amoklauf scenario, the shooter apparently did his business in a classroom -- exactly where, some will say, someone should have been armed to anticipate that very scenario. People who think that way just don't get it. Every gun in private hands increases the chances of an amoklauf. Every time this happens we're told there are people we can trust with guns. Some might say that we have to trust each other with guns to have a civil society, that if we don't only criminals and government will have guns, the difference between the two meaning little to some observers. In some people's utopian imagination there are people who can always be trusted with guns, just as there are some who may always be unfit for psychological (or, some might add, demographic) reasons. Even were they to concede the point that any good guy with a gun could turn into a bad guy with a gun, their answer would be to turn to the next good guy to stop the new bad guy. During that magic moment when the madman's on the loose and the cops aren't there yet, there has to be a gun to save us. A gun may be the only reason we're in danger, but once the genie's out of the bottle, the only answer to a gun is a gun.

The gun-nuts catch you both ways, of course: we have to have guns because you can't get rid of guns, but then it wouldn't make any difference if there weren't any guns, because then they'd come with knives or swords or build bombs. I'll concede every such argument as further proof that people like that shouldn't be trusted with guns, and proof that guns don't really solve the problem of bad people. In fact, guns seem more futile than ever now, and let's not hear now about our eternal proclivity toward violence, much less our "fallen" state, because the impulse to mass murder is still something new in the world. Where is the history of rampage killings by individuals before the wide dissemination of firearms? What history is there before 1950? Something is wrong with the culture now, but that doesn't excuse guns or make them more necessary. Quite the opposite; what's gone wrong with the culture is more reason not to trust firearms in anyone's hands, and reason not to trust anyone with firearms unless they are police or military -- and then there's probably still some ground for suspicion, but how far can you go?

Perhaps someone would like to argue that there's no sound reason to trust the police or military with firearms if you don't trust private citizens. After all, people are people, right? Human nature doesn't change when you put on a uniform. But if we can't assume some meaningful difference between someone dedicating himself or herself to protecting the public, under public discipline, at the risk of health or life, and someone reserving to himself or herself the right to kill as a matter of personal sovereignty (or "natural right") alone, we may as well give up on the state, i.e. civilization, and give in to anarchy. How messed up are we when so many people feel helpless and vulnerable without guns, because they know other people (including the state) have guns, and so demand more guns? The deeper problem, I suspect, is that they fear something other than violence or death -- not just having to submit to a criminal or bully but perhaps the submission implicit in universal disarmament, if not the submission (which they won't acknowledge) implicit in citizenship itself. One kind of submission may be humiliating but the other shouldn't be. A truly democratic politics should actually transform submission into empowerment -- even such a nondemocratic thing as Islam pulls off that trick -- but the extreme submissiveness demanded by the 20th century's totalitarian regimes and their personality cults, especially as magnified by American anti-totalitarian propaganda that eventually was applied to politics in general, seems to have broken that spell, so that few trust politics to save us. Reversing that trend seems impossible, especially when the distrustful, the paranoid, those hypersensitive to any perceived humiliation, are the ones with guns. Those who want an end to violence must wonder whether it can be ended non-violently, whether the satyagraha of beautiful souls is up to the task. If not, then what? Every amoklauf like today's -- not to mention every incident of terrorism and every hate crime -- should remind us of the hard thinking we all have to do if we still want a civilized world.