Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

February 20, 2018 

     Once again a mass shooting has occurred, once again at a school, and once again, probably, nothing will be done to prevent another such tragedy.  Thoughts and prayers too often are cover for inaction, and asserting that better mental health screening will suffice is a delusion or an evasion.  The connection between the availability of guns and gun deaths is as clear as the connection between human activity and climate change, and is ignored by so-called conservatives in office for the same pair of reasons: libertarian aversion to regulation, and political pressure and money which demand that it continue to be ignored.

     I’ve begun to wonder whether public opinion counts for anything in today’s politics.  Polls show that people take gun control far more seriously than Congress or the Administration, with no effect.  Earlier mass shootings, including at schools, has not led to control of the availability of guns.  A popular uprising, something akin to MeToo, will be required.  Perhaps the teenagers, in Parkland and elsewhere, can succeed where the chronological adults have failed.

     There are some indications of change; a Florida political donor has vowed not to write another check to Governor Scott and other Republicans "unless they all support a ban on assault weapons.”  The Sheriff of Broward County, where Parkland is located, warned officials that they will not be re-elected unless they support stronger gun laws.  As a forecast, that may be too optimistic, but it’s another good sign. 

     The media usually have not pressed the issue.  One example is the CBS nightly news broadcast on February 14, which devoted a significant part of its time to the Parkland shooting, but did not mention the easy availability of guns as a cause. Change may be coming there as well; newspaper articles and columns have condemned inaction and hypocrisy in a way not seen after earlier shootings.

     Those who tout American exceptionalism probably don’t have in mind our relative standing in various categories relating to health and safety, including the prevalence and impact of guns.   We have more guns in private hands, and have more gun deaths than any other developed country, and more mass shootings.  The ratio of guns to gun deaths holds true among other developed countries.  This is not because we have more crime; per capita, our record is respectable; guns create an aberration. The argument that control doesn’t work is belied by experience: countries which have instituted more control have seen gun deaths drop; here, states with tighter gun-control laws have fewer gun deaths. [20]

     Bret Stephens, in a column in The New York Times, has proposed repealing the Second Amendment.  This, coming from a conservative, is significant. He summarized the argument as follows: "We need to repeal the Second Amendment because most gun-control legislation is ineffective when most Americans have a guaranteed constitutional right to purchase deadly weaponry in nearly unlimited quantities." 

     The Amendment long has been cited, legitimately or not, as the authority for unlimited ownership of firearms.  For example, there has been a gun-rights group known as The Second Amendment Foundation since 1974. The Amendment was used as an argument against the Brady Bill in 1993.  Days after the 1999 Columbine school shooting, Charlton Heston preached Second Amendment rights.  However, it was legitimized as a basis for individual gun possession only with the decision in Heller v. District of Columbia (2008),[21] which overturned United States v. Miller (1939). Miller had limited the Amendment to the support of militias, as the language seems to provide.  The Amendment had not been applied to restrict state laws until the Court extended Heller to the states in McDonald v. Chicago (2010).

     Justice Scalia’s opinion for the 5-4 majority in Heller is misguided, inept and internally inconsistent.  In the course of interpreting the Amendment, he rewrote it by expunging  the limiting clause, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State;" by converting the phrase "keep and bear arms" — a militia reference — into "keep and carry arms;" and by reading into the text "the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation."  The last was based on an English statute of 1689 which provided that "the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law." By some mysterious process that became part of the Second Amendment, a process aided by cancelling the reference to militias.  Along the way, the statute lost its reference to religion, "as allowed by law" vanished, and having arms for defense became a right to carry weapons in case of confrontation. 

     The last is a broad hint to gun advocates that it is good policy to be armed, just in case.  Those taking the hint include airline passengers.  TSA reported finding 104 handguns (87 loaded) in carry-on bags between February 4 and 11.

     In dissent, Justice Breyer argued that "the protection the Amendment provides is not absolute. The Amendment permits government to regulate the interests that it serves."  The majority would have none of that: "The very enumeration of the right takes out of the hands of government — even the Third Branch of Government — the power to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the right is really worth insisting upon."  The right is absolute.

     Despite Heller’s sweeping rhetoric its holding is narrow, and would not justify mass gun possession, concealed carry, opposition to licensing, purchase from unlicensed sources, purchase by minors, possession of military-style rifles, or other examples of our irrational practice.  It merely held that "the District's ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense."  Possession in the home, for self-defense, of a loaded handgun, not burdened with a trigger-lock,  is protected; that’s it.  Little of the subsequent reliance on the Amendment and the decision can be based on the holding.  Instead, gun advocates take the decision as  blanket permission, relying on Scalia’s loose language and his strange interpretation of the Amendment.   

     As the Second Amendment clearly is the problem, what are the possible solutions?  The best would be for the Court to overturn Heller and McDonald and return to the holding in United States v. Miller (1939).  Justice Stevens, dissenting in Heller, described the former interpretation of the Amendment in this way: "The view of the Amendment we took in Miller — that it protects the right to keep and bear arms for certain military purposes, but that it does not curtail the Legislature's power to regulate the nonmilitary use and ownership of weapons — is both the most natural reading of the Amendment's text and the interpretation most faithful to the history of its adoption." 

     Given the makeup of the Court, reversal isn’t likely;  Justices Roberts, Thomas, Kennedy and Alito were in the majority in Heller, and Justice Gorsuch might be expected to join them in rejecting any such retreat.  The present Congress hardly is likely to propose repeal of  the Amendment, but perhaps the combination of a Democratic takeover and that popular push would make it possible.  The latter would be needed at the state level as well, in order to achieve ratification.

     A simpler and more direct approach, but also requiring a new Congress, would be to enact stricter gun laws.  One of the oddities of the Heller opinion is that, for all of its sweeping pro-gun comments, it contemplated some kinds of control.  The right to keep and bear arms, it said, "was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment's right of free speech was not . . . . Thus, we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose. . . ."  More specifically, "nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

     It isn’t clear whether the Court would have allowed prohibition of certain types of weapons, as Scalia’s muddled opinion took opposing positions on whether the Amendment protects only weapons in existence when the Bill of Rights was adopted.  At one point, he seemed to reject that interpretation: "Some have made the argument, bordering on the frivolous, that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment."  No, he said, "the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding."  Later, he reversed course: "We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those ‘in common use at the time.’ . . . We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of  ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’ "  Perhaps prohibition of assault rifles, large magazines  and bump stocks therefore could pass muster; the opinion’s focus on the right to a handgun might help justify that.

     Another possibly unintended opening exists in the opinion’s reference to the people whose rights it sought to protect.  Whatever interpretation one might put on the Amendment, the Court said, "it surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home."  It doesn’t do that, of course, but the reference to responsibility, if taken as a limitation on possession, would open more doors to control, such as meaningful background checks and licensing.

The opinion can mean almost anything, given its illogic and ambiguity, so control advocates should be as aggressive in interpreting it as the gun nuts.

     Congress should enact those laws necessary to bring order out of chaos, and defy the Supreme Court to say nay.  We cannot simply recycle our thoughts and prayers forever.


20. violence-statistics-maps-charts

My review of the opinion is in the posts of July 6, 2008 and December 19, 2015.

1 maps-charts
2  My review of the opinion is in the posts of July 6, 2008 and December 19, 2015.

Monday, February 5, 2018

February 5, 2018
President Trump’s State of the Union address has received a surprisingly bland response. The Democratic rejoinder, by Rep. Kennedy, was eloquent but general; it could have been offered on any occasion. Savannah Guthrie, one of the panel of pundits assembled by NBC, managed to find that Trump’s address "was optimistic, it was bright, it was conciliatory. . . . He set a tone and he was positive and he trumpeted the economy, and I think that's exactly what he wanted to do." Granting that she had reservations on substance, that is a strikingly kind appraisal of a smug, inane performance by a man who has failed every possible test as a leader and as a person. (The GOP web site included her remarks in a list of positive reactions to the speech).[18]
The New York Times’ evaluation, at least in the edition I received, wasn’t even a response, but a recitation of Trump’s agenda. Its headline was "President Issues Appeal for Unity in State of the Union." However the appended article based its conclusion that he called for unity not on the address, but on "excerpts released before his speech." An example, in the speech as given, of his unifying approach is the demand, disguised as the "pillars" of immigration reform, that Democrats accept his program, including the wall, as the price of protecting Dreamers. The Times elsewhere has pointed out many of Trump’s flaws. However, these bland, celebratory reviews lend respectability to a man and an administration that don’t deserve it. Donald Trump has so sullied the office that a willingness to treat his address as presidential is an exercise in delusion, of self and audience. The classiness of his approach to the SOTU, and the sincerity of his "appeal for union," are shown by his accusation that Democrats who failed to applaud are guilty of treason.
Here is a more appropriate evaluation of Presidential performance: "What makes our society tick, aside from good governance and competence, is good character. And good character is not some abstraction. It is one of those tangible, very real human attributes that we know, and appreciate, when we see it." We have had a year to evaluate the President in terms of those qualities, and he has failed.
It’s true that we should not expect perfection; everyone has flaws. However, there are limits. "What we need is a realistic, disinterested view of whether such flaws are, or might be, relevant to the highest public office. Sometimes they are. A president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct, deceit, abuse of power, and contempt for the rule of law cannot be a good president. These aspects of character, in this combination, are surely relevant."
The scandal surrounding the President "now involves very public, very emphatic lies. Breaches of trust. The subversion of truth. The possibility of criminal wrongdoing." The various defenses offered "cannot obscure the more profound underlying issue: violations of law and efforts to undermine constitutional government."
Repeated lying corrupts the political process. "In general, if the president's word cannot be trusted—an issue of character—voters cannot take seriously his election platform or his campaign promises—an issue of public duty. Words are deconstructed, promises emptied of meaning. Politics is reduced to a mere game. It is all very straightforward: if a man's word means nothing, it means nothing. It is folly to believe otherwise." Trump lies reflexively.
However, we aren’t reacting as we should; we’re either numb or disinterested. Why? "What explains this seeming public indifference toward, and even acceptance of, the president's scandals? The explanations most often put forth include very good economic times; scandal fatigue; . . . the president's hyperaggressive, relentless, and effective spin team; the inclination to withhold judgment until more facts are known or give the president the benefit of the doubt; . . . and the fact that Republican leadership . . . has been quiescent and inconsistent in its comments . . . ."
No doubt you have, by now, especially given the ellipses in the last quote, tumbled to the fact that I am playing a political-historical game. The quotes are from The Death of Outrage, by William Bennett, and refer to President Clinton’s behavior regarding the Monica affair.[19]  However, his observations are more apt now; we have reached the point at which each new report simply is added to the pile; there is so much that nothing stands out. Worst, because Trump is such a joke as President, we no longer hold him to a normal standard. Outrage isn’t dead, but it isn’t in perfect health.



19. Bennett, The Death of Outrage (1998), pp. 3, 36, 38, 42, 128.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January 29, 2018
I can’t say that I was greatly impressed by For Whom the Bell Tolls, but there is a line in it which ought to have more resonance than it does, especially now: "For what are we born if not to aid one another?"[6]   Leave aside issues of war and peace — the question was asked during a war — and just look at the domestic scene; aiding one another is not a priority under the present regime.
Why do we tolerate a culture ostensibly based on competition, more accurately on the notion that those who have much not only should keep it, but should have more? Why do we tolerate politics which denigrates programs which help those who need help, which tells them they are on their own? Hobbes described life in the state of nature as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. More than one of those conditions might be found in Twentieth-Century America, but let’s concentrate on the first; it defines life in the absence of a functioning state; it describes the direction the country has pursued for several decades.
A few years ago, I quoted John Donne — no man is an island — to criticize libertarian (anti-state) and I’ve-got-mine conservatives. They are in control, pushing us further toward a soulless, unregulated, untaxed society of the favored versus the rest. However, a similar separatist, isolating tendency is found in contemporary liberalism, emphasizing identity and encouraging tribalism, when we need commonality. Trump and the "nationalist" right, Congress and its wealthy masters, have divided the country; a liberal, Democratic response must not be a different form of division.
The Once and Future Liberal, by Mark Lilla, is a small book, eight by five inches, and one hundred forty-one pages of text. It is even slighter than that would indicate, as extra spaces are inserted every few paragraphs; it offers neither notes nor index. It is a condensed argument that the way to set liberalism on the right path is by turning from a focus on identity to a common focus and effort.
Here is the heart of his argument: The New Deal philosophy "pictured an America where citizens were involved in a collective enterprise to guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of fundamental rights." It eventually faded away, and when there arose "a unified and ambitious right, American liberals faced a serious challenge: to develop a fresh political vision of the country's shared destiny." Liberals failed to do that. "Instead they threw themselves into the movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation. . . ." Instead of a symbol of shared experience, a "recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors, producing a rainbow. This says it all."[7]
We have become a hyper-individualistic society, Lilla charges. "Almost all the ideas or beliefs or feelings that once muted the perennial American demand for individual autonomy have evaporated. Personal choice. Individual rights. Self- definition. . . .. And so it was to be expected that eventually our politics would catch up and be infected with this same self-regard, and that our political vocabulary would be revised to match the new reality."[8]  This perhaps goes too far, but his basic point, a variation on Hemingway’s formula, is valid: "There can be no liberal politics without a sense of we — of what we are as citizens and what we owe to each other."[9]
Lilla’s complaint is not new. The tendency toward identity politics was deplored by Todd Gitlin, with an emphasis on multiculturalism, in 1996; Arthur Schlesinger made somewhat the same point in 1992.[10]  Concern for the drift toward hyper-individualism is not new to Lilla, either. He raised the issue in an article in The New York Review of Books in 1998, and again in the same publication in 2010.[11]  However, The Once and Future Liberal, published last year, comes at an especially significant time. The Republicans have gone so far astray that Democrats have a chance to recover control of Congress, but they must be ready to serve the people, not an accumulation of identities. Lilla’s book is an argument for that reorientation.
Lilla sees contemporary liberalism’s emphasis on divisive individuality as a continuation, with different emphasis, of the individualism of Reagan conservatism. As Lilla puts it, compared to the New Deal, Reaganism "pictured a more individualistic America where families and small communities and businesses would flourish once freed from the shackles of the state. Its watchwords were self-reliance and minimal government."[12]
However, even before Reagan’s election as President, the new left had adopted individualism as its mantra; as Gitlin put it, "Difference was vital, commonality moribund. Demands for race and gender blindness and inclusion tipped toward demands for all-consuming race and gender consciousness. Difference was practiced, commonality barely even thought."[13]
Not everyone agrees with Lilla’s point of view. One response is an article in the London Review of Books.[14]  The author refers, with implied — and fair — criticism, to this statement by Lilla: "Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity." Lilla noted a confrontation between BLM activists and Hillary Clinton which was, as he suggests, a mistake by BLM. However, his quoted appraisal is too sweeping; BLM has done important work in bringing attention to police violence against blacks. There is no reason that cannot be part of a common effort, to point out that police are too prone to violence against others as well, and too militarized. Blacks suffer the most, so their taking the lead is natural.
In an article in The New York Times which was, in effect, a first draft of The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla was more measured: "The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. . . ." Rights for those denied them can and should be a common cause.
The author of the LRB article, James Meek, concedes that "It is right to be wary of those who bring to political activism an egoistical yearning for personal transcendence." However, he worries that, if liberals "were discouraged from ‘identity politics’, they would drop out of politics altogether; that instead of turning a diverse, chaotic, squabbling host of overlapping campaigners into a disciplined army of moderate civic foot soldiers, you would extinguish the very force that keeps the Democrats going." I don’t think that’s Lilla’s argument; he wants a focus on common goals, not necessarily "moderation." Another critique, by Jonathan Rauch in the New York Review of Books, summarizes Lilla’s aim as follows: "He wants them to integrate practical politics into their conception of social justice, rather than treating politics as a distraction or an afterthought." [15]  Creating a unified effort won’t drive everyone away, and there will remain issues on which liberals disagree with one another. As to that, the form of unity required is to abandon litmus tests, and to return to something resembling the big tent.
Meek also acknowledges: "It’s true that the Democrats, to put it mildly, have a grass roots problem. Long before Trump became president and the Republicans cemented control of both Houses of Congress, the GOP was tightening its grip on power at the state level." Rauch agrees. "Lilla’s brisk account leaves out a lot of nuance, but the endpoint is right: liberals lost their common touch." Many voters see liberals as an educated elite mired in "political correctness." If liberals and Democrats continue down that road, they will encounter Steve Bannon’s response: "The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em . . . . If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."[16]
The right also is playing the identity game. It not only is pandering to the resentments of the anti-elites, it is caught up in a movement called identitarianism which is, in this country, white nationalism. Nationalism of various sorts, including tolerance of neo-Nazism, has found its way into the White House.
The Constitution begins "We the People." There is hypocrisy in that phrase, given that "the people" were limited, in terms of freedom, to whites and, for political purposes, to white males. However, it correctly stated the principle behind democratic government, and we have moved a long way toward a true embodiment of that principle. Dividing into self-focused camps will not bring further advance.
Some people have become isolated selves in non-political ways as well. The irony of smart phones is that, although they connect users to the world, many use them so continuously that they are cut off from their near surroundings. An example of compulsive use (I offer this in part, I admit, because it irritates me) is the frequent phenomenon, at the gym where I work out, of someone occupying a machine, doing nothing related to it other than sitting, while playing with his phone, unaware of anything but images on a small screen. Whether that results from selfishness or encasement in a bubble, it is an apt image of the disengaged individual.
Here is Lilla’s conclusion: "for two generations America has been without a political vision of its destiny. There is no conservative one; there is no liberal one. There are just two tired individualistic ideologies intrinsically incapable of discerning the common good and drawing the country together to secure it under present circumstances."[17]
Something needs to be done to bring people back from their isolation and rekindle a commitment to the common welfare; liberals must take the lead. Taking the country back from Trump and the Republican Congress would be a good first step in working together in common cause; that may require, and should include, bringing people to the polls who don’t usually vote, who have abandoned the common effort in that sense.. Then we might make America greater, and cease to be an international embarrassment, by addressing such matters as gun violence, universal health care and child poverty.


6.For Whom the Bell Tolls, p. 139

7. Lilla, at 8-9

8.Id., at 28

10.Gitlin, The Death of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars; Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America

11. See

12. Lilla, at 8

13. Gitlin, at 147

14. . See also: liberal.html;



17. Lilla, at 99

Monday, January 8, 2018

January 7, 2018
The New York Times has received criticism for publishing, on November 25, an article, "A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland," profiling a neo-Nazi named Tony Hovater, showing that he and his wife are, up to a point, typical small-town Americans. As one letter to the paper put the complaint, "The New York Times just normalized Nazi sympathizers." Another added: "Nazi sympathizers are supposed to be reviled and ostracized, not humanized and normalized." There were many other negative reactions. More importantly, two columnists in The Nation, Gary Younge [1] and Eric Alterman,[2] offered extended versions of those complaints.
In Younge’s view, due to the article’s "obsession with the trivial details of the Hovaters’ daily lives, its effect was not to expose the obscenity of their views, but rather to underscore the normality of their existence." However. the latter seemed to be the point, that right-wingers with extreme views are not necessarily raving maniacs, that they live quietly among us. The article emphasized that aspect of the situation but, although it did not closely examine or emphasize Mr. Hovater’s extreme views, it did not ignore them. He is described as an "avowed white nationalist" and a bigot. "Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate." Note the title of the article.
As to normality, the article, according to Younge, "offered this as a revelation, as though Hannah Arendt had never covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial." His reference presumably is to Arendt’s 1963 book on the war-crimes trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil . Readers of The Nation are sophisticated, but I doubt that all of them have read the book or otherwise absorbed her theory of the banality of evil, and have, from it, concluded that, of course, neo-Nazis live among us unnoticed. In any case, it is unlikely that all the readers of The Times have done so; pointing that out was not superfluous.
Alterman took the critique a step further: "the already infamous New York Times profile of one Tony Hovater," which "seeks to illustrate the point that Nazis are people, too," results in " coddling Nazis." He summed up as follows: "Most of the weaknesses of the piece—and there were many—can be subsumed under the heading of ‘category error’. . . . [I]t is clear that what is important about Nazis is not their personalities; it is their ideology and their ability to put it to work killing people."
With due respect to two excellent commentators, all of this seems to me to be an exercise in missing the point: there are extreme right-wingers among us who resemble the rest of us, who are part of the current culture. In response to the claim of category error, one could argue that the evil of neo-Nazism is better known than the ordinariness of people who adhere to it. If so, the Times did a service.
The Times article made another point ignored by Younge and Alterman: "the movement will be looking to make use of people like the Hovaters and their trappings of normie life . . . ."
A recent book[3] describes the Ku Klux Klan of the Nineteen Twenties. In discussing the origins of the Second Klan, the author notes that two of its ideological components were racism and nativism, which included, as with neo-Nazis, white supremacy and hatred of Jews.[4] A review in The Atlantic described the movement as follows: "the Klan of the 1920s encouraged native-born white Americans to believe that bigotry, intimidation, harassment, and extralegal violence were all perfectly compatible with, if not central to, patriotic respectability."[5] The Klan was a more complicated, self-contradictory phenomenon than present-day white nationalism, but its appeal to otherwise ordinary people is instructive. That experience reenforces the message of the Times’ article: we must realize that extreme views are part of American culture, may be held by our seemingly "normal" neighbors, and will erupt at times in movements such as neo-Nazism.
Alterman argues that "the Times — for all its crucial investigative reporting — is simply not up to the job of explaining what the hell is going on in our country." Perhaps, but remember that the elevation of Donald Trump to the Presidency is the result as well as the cause of what is going on. The approach of the article is relevant to the former; we need to realize that otherwise normal people, in this case Trump voters, support or at least tolerate extreme views. Trump’s approval rate among Republicans, after a year in office (82%, according to Gallup), demonstrates that fact; though he is bigoted, laughably incompetent and frighteningly dangerous, they still support him.




Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK

Id., at 25-28