Friday, April 19, 2013

Grabbing The Weed By The Root

With this week’s failure by the United States Senate to pass a weak, limp-wristed gun regulation bill, advocates of common sense gun reform must, perforce, regroup.  Facing stiff, entrenched opposition by senators reflecting the will of moneyed corporate interests in the form of the NRA (and other gun lobbying groups), a measure supported by as high 90% of Americans in one poll, to strengthen criminal background checks for firearm transactions went down in flames in the upper chamber of the legislative branch of government.

Of course, perhaps this defeat was merely heading off the inevitable at the pass; the Republican controlled House had been noncommittal on even bringing the hypothetical measure to the floor, let alone passing it.  Yes, it seems the agreed upon strategy of gun reform proponents in the wake of The Worst Thing Imaginable, plus other recent mass shootings, of taking small policy bites, focusing on common sense legislation that most people could agree upon, has no direct path to the law books themselves.  Various explanations abound, but primarily the specter of Wayne LaPierre and the other members of the NRA leadership, and their threat to launch an electoral jihad on any Republican legislators who voted for the measure, are to blame. 

At this juncture, many people willing and eager to confront the national gun violence epidemic must be left wondering what in the holy hell to do, and understandably so.  After all, if these non-controversial reforms that enjoyed broad public support couldn’t even clear the procedural filibuster in the Senate, then there doesn’t seem to be much hope of achieving meaningful steps towards reducing the carnage.   

But there is a way; that is to start talking about the 2nd Amendment itself.  

If there is a more misunderstood and misinterpreted piece of language in the United States Constitution, good luck finding it.  Here it is, quoted directly:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The part that often gets ignored in most 2nd Amendment shorthand is the ‘well-regulated militia’ bit.  However, this portion is key to understanding the actual rights being granted.  Based on the actual text of the document, not its intent, but the words themselves, the amendment actually says that the ‘Arms’ borne by the citizens are for the purpose of the militia itself. 

Even this is to quibble semantically, and many gun-rights advocates will continue to argue that they, and many other gun owners, make up a kind of ad hoc militia that will, apparently, mobilize into action to stop the threat of supposed tyranny whenever it should rear its monstrous head.  If they think so, sure.

But, I’ll let you in on a little secret.  The 2nd Amendment is as meaningless in today’s modern society, and has been for some time, as the 3rd Amendment, which reads:

“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

Both of these amendments, featured prominently in the Bill of Rights, are products of the time in which they were written.  The drafters of the Constitution, having just fought a war against the British, wrote the 3rd Amendment in direct response to the previous English government quartering troops in the homes of colonists.  It was a spiteful, reactionary rule that, realistically, was not going to be a problem in the new nation.  It remains in the Bill of Rights, but it hasn’t been worth the ink it’s written with for over 200 years. 

Just like the 3rd Amendment, the 2nd is, on its face, a product of late 18th Century society.  Beyond the obvious food gathering utility of owning a firearm in these early years of the Republic, which has long since evaporated as the means of obtaining the next meal, the new United States was a nation beset by dangers.  The Americans living at the dawn of this grand experiment in democracy had serious concerns about attacks on their farms and homes by Native Americans, contentious neighbors, and even wild animals.  But that’s the 18th Century, when using a musket to ward off wolves and settle disputes was an acceptable form of conflict resolution.  In the long march of progress from 1789 to 2013, it’d be nice to think that we’ve moved beyond sending bullets flying in the direction of people with whom we disagree, but that’s probably not realistic.

Now, anyone who attempts to discern the intent of the Founding Fathers of the country is invariably projecting his/her own ideology onto the words of their texts.  However, it is important to remember that this document, the Constitution of the United States of America, was written by men.  Fallible, imperfect men, who were capable of making mistakes.  They’d already made a big one: The Articles of Confederation.  In all of the deification of the founders (ironic, since many of them were Deists who believed in a hands-free creator that did not meddle in the affairs of men), it’s easy to forget that the Constitution, this document that certain elements herald as divinely inspired, was Draft Two.  They got it wrong once before.  It stands to reason that their second go-round, while an enormous improvement, wasn’t exactly perfect.   

While such a dialogue about the merit of an entrenched part of the Bill of Rights will be met with crowing and consternation, it is necessary if we, as a country, actually care to address the violence that plagues us year after year.  In a society that is changing so rapidly due to technology, the environment, and the increased participation and interconnectedness of the rest of the world, it would be foolish not to see that most other developed countries do not have this problem.  A strict Constitutionalist view is no longer possible on these grounds, because that perspective ignores 200-plus years of human progress. 

Perhaps, in time, people will remember that the 1st Amendment is the one that really matters, because it allows us to argue that the 2nd Amendment is an anachronism that, for whatever reason, has hung on.  If gun reform advocates want to go after the big fish, then the conversation about the validity of the amendment itself needs to begin.  

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Humanities: America’s Endangered Species

In the opening sequence of Act One of Spike Lee’s four-part Hurricane Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke, a piece of footage collected during the storm shows a road sign for New Orleans’ Humanity Street.  Included as a means of emphasizing the scale of the flooding, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico reach nearly to the sign’s green marker, at once evoking the breaking of the levees themselves and, because of the aptly named thoroughfare, the dire circumstances of the stranded residents of the deluged city.

This particularly striking image in a film full of them might provide another useful meaning, albeit unintended by the filmmakers; the humanities (by which I mean the liberal arts, like English, History, Sociology, Art, etc.) themselves are nearly ready to drown.  Conduct a survey of college freshmen (I dare someone), asking them their intended majors, and inevitably, the answers will read: Business, Business Administration, Marketing, Advertising, Business again, Economics, Business a third time.  The folks looking to study the less quantifiable are fewer and farther between as the marketplace, in its infinite wisdom, increasingly decides that it has no use for Literary Modernism, or an understanding of the Progressive Era, or (gasp!) Descartes, and equally little use for those people who spent time thinking about any of that “Commy stuff.”

To be fair, post-college opportunities don’t look rosy for graduates in any discipline, but certainly the students who majored in those business-oriented areas listed above have a better chance than those of us who spent our time trying to figure out what it all means instead of how much it all adds up to. For example, this 2009 study by the American Labor Department reported that “The majors with the worst placement records were area studies (44.7 percent in degree-requiring jobs) and humanities (45.4 percent).”1 My sympathies go out to those poor bastards in area studies; there is some small comfort in knowing that it could always be worse, I suppose. 

This isn’t to say that young people shouldn’t major in these subjects; it sure looks like the smart move in hindsight, anyway.  Maybe they understand something about the new world that us humanities rubes just don’t, and maybe they’re right to start speaking the native language. Take a look around and try to understand just how much time the citizens of the world spend negotiating the minefield established by the ubiquity of business. It has become as commonplace and almost as necessary as breathing.  From the advertisements playing on the radio in the car on the way to work, to the Starbucks drive-thru halfway to the office, to the job itself, and everything in between, business is Everywhere.  And that’s just before 9 AM.  Business is the way we move through life, like we are all tiny blood cells, just traveling the veins of the body and hoping we are lucky enough not to get thrown overboard by a massive rectal hemorrhage. 

And because we’re so busy keeping the body alive, there’s no time to remember that we’re alive, too.  So, if there’s no time to live, then there must be no point in studying disciplines that can’t be deciphered by an adding machine, no matter how much it costs.  It must be a waste of time to bother understanding humanity’s flaws through the shared experience of Macbeth because humans are just productivity numbers, anyway.  Let’s not distract ourselves by thinking about historical parallels between the 1920s, which precipitated the Great Depression, and the run-up to our own contemporary financial meltdown of 2008, because we’re not going to change anything, anyhow.  Leave off looking at the Mona Lisa, because we’re never going to figure out if she’s smiling or not, nor what she’s smiling about if she in fact is, and get back to work, anywho. 

‘But this must be what the market wants,’ my friends and I routinely say, in mock genuflection at America’s true sacred altar, no matter how much lip service that God fella gets.  If the market says that it doesn’t have a place for people who know anything about Rousseau, then we must obey.  Philosophy has to put up a sign that says, ‘Going out of Business.’  And herein lies the ironic trap of the market philosophy that’s brought us to this unenviable place; the concept of the market is amorphous enough that its proponents have been able to insist that everything falls into it, and is therefore subject to the same rules.  So, in the great market competition between money and life, money builds a big-box store in town, and life becomes another empty storefront on a depressed, small town Main Street.             

I should do my humanities brethren a solid and close with an appropriately opaque literary metaphor (maybe it’ll be one of the last ever written and they’ll print it on a commemorative plate and sell it on QVC).  But so few people will understand or identify with it that I won’t even bother.  The water seems to get higher all the time.