Tag Archives: guns

The Asterisk* in the Bill of Rights

*except when black


The big debate in the Keith Lamont Scott shooting — the one that started the protests that have been going on in Charlotte since Tuesday — is whether or not Scott had a gun, and if so, whether it was in his hand. The police said he did and it was, though for days they refused to release video of the incident. [1]

The Scott shooting came a few days after police in Tulsa shot and killed another black man, Terrence Crutcher. But the Tulsa case was manslaughter, and a police officer has been charged, largely because Crutcher was unarmed. Even there, though, weaponry is an issue. (The officer claims Crutcher was reaching into his vehicle, and she feared he was reaching for a gun. But the video doesn’t corroborate that story.) Apparently she believed that if he might have been armed, shooting him dead would be an appropriate outcome.

Back in July another black man, Philandro Castile, was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop. Castile told the officer there was a gun in the car, which he had a permit to carry. His girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter were also in the car. The girlfriend claims Castile was reaching for his wallet when the officer shot him four times. So far, there have been no charges.

The NRA, an organization that exists to defend the rights of gun-owners, decided not to comment on the Castile shooting “while the investigation is ongoing”. My Google search for “NRA statement on Keith Lamont Scott” turned up nothing relevant, even though for days the only reason police gave for initiating the encounter was their belief that Scott was armed. (More recently, they elaborated that they also observed him rolling a cigarette which they believed to be marijuana.) North Carolina is an open-carry state, so having a firearm is not in itself a violation. [2]

So if you’re an organization working to make sure the government doesn’t hassle gun-owners exercising their Second Amendment rights, the initially available information in the Scott case would seem to be right up your alley.

Except that Scott is black. The NRA doesn’t do black. I mean, they will gladly let you join and accept your membership fees if you’re black, but don’t count on them to defend your Second Amendment rights. Because, well, what Second Amendment rights? There’s an asterisk on the Second Amendment. The Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson reviews the facts of the Scott and Castile cases [3] and draws the obvious conclusion: “laws permitting people to carry handguns apparently do not apply to African Americans.”

If all they saw was a man with a gun who got out of a car and back in, what illegal activity did they observe? Why did they “approach the subject” instead of going about their business? Did they have any reason to suspect it was an illegal gun? Are all men carrying guns believed to be carrying guns illegally, or just black men? [4]

Cenk Uygar of The Young Turks noticed something similar, and brings up two other cases: Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the 12-year-old who was killed within seconds of police arriving despite the fact that his “gun” was a toy, and John Crawford III, who police killed in a Walmart near Dayton, because he also was carrying a toy gun which he apparently planned to buy. Like Rice, Crawford was shot within seconds after police arrived. Apparently, blacks with guns are so dangerous that police can’t be bothered to see whether they will drop them, or even to discover whether the guns are real at all.

That police behavior may be questionable, but it’s not obviously racist; maybe they’d be just as trigger-happy towards whites. But Uygar then shows three videos of cops patiently having conversations with uncooperative armed white men, none of whom wind up dead. In the last one, the man verbally abuses three policemen until they back away and leave him with his weapon. Uygar comments:

Yeah, that happens to black guys all the time in this country. Where they laugh at cops in their face and say, “See ya, tough guy. Walk away.” And the cops go, “OK, yes sir. You’re right, sir. You have constitutional rights, sir. Of course I’ll walk away.” … That happens all the time. No one, no one, I don’t care how right-wing you are, you don’t believe that. You know what they would have done if he was black.

Not that those uncooperative armed white men should be dead, but it shows that when white lives are at stake, police can be patient, carefully establish what is going on, and attempt to deescalate the confrontation. In one of Uygar’s examples, a clearly irrational white man goes to his car, gets his gun, and begins waving it in all directions, including pointing it at police. They attempt to talk to him, and when that doesn’t work, they fire one shot into his leg to drop him, rather than the 16 shots fired into Laquan McDonald in 15 seconds. He lives.

That’s why the movement is called Black Lives Matter. That guy’s life mattered to those cops. They didn’t want to end his life. They were careful with it. So we’re asking you to also be careful with black lives just as much.

The Second Amendment isn’t the only one with an asterisk: The Fourth Amendment has one too. [5] Without the asterisk, it reads like this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

So when they talk about “probable cause” on NCIS, that’s not just some criminal-coddling nonsense made up by an activist liberal judge; it’s right there in the effing Constitution. The Constitution guarantees your right to be secure in your person, unless police have probable cause to believe you are involved in a crime.

Or unless you’re black.

Politico reports:

In a pre-taped interview on Fox News scheduled to air Wednesday night, Trump was asked by an audience member what he would do to address “violence in the black community” and “black-on-black crime.” Trump responded by proposing that “stop-and-frisk” policing, in which an officer is empowered to stop an individual and frisk them for weapons or any other illegal contraband, be adopted nationwide.

If a weapon is found, it is confiscated. The next day Trump clarified, saying that he only meant Chicago.

I think Chicago needs stop-and-frisk,” Trump said. “Now, people can criticize me for that or people can say whatever they want, but they asked me about Chicago, and I think stop-and-frisk, with good, strong, you know, good, strong law and order. But you have to do something. It can’t continue the way it’s going.”

Trump says nothing specific about race, but does anyone really believe that he wants police to stand outside of Water Tower Place and frisk upscale white shoppers for weapons? Will they cruise the Magnificent Mile during lunch hour, stopping white lawyers and bankers at random to see if they have any cocaine? (Sometimes they do.) Of course not. What will substitute for “probable cause” is that you are a young black man [6] wandering around in a poor, majority-black neighborhood.

You still might claim that the bias here is related to class, not race. But seriously, can you picture police cruising the trailer parks of Louisiana, frisking white good old boys and confiscating guns from Duck Dynasty types? Could that ever happen?

Of course not. The NRA would throw a fit.


[1] Saturday they finally did. The New York Times assessment: “It appeared from the two angles that he had nothing in his right hand. It was unclear what, if anything, Mr. Scott, who was right-handed, had in his left hand.” In the video, you can hear police repeatedly telling Scott to drop the gun. But in another video, you can hear Scott’s wife protesting that he didn’t have a weapon.

[2] It turns out that Scott didn’t have a right to carry a firearm, since he had a gun-related prior offense. But it’s almost certain police didn’t know that when they approached him.

[3] As they were known on Thursday, before the marijuana claim about Scott.

[4] Robinson’s conclusion is less compelling if the marijuana claim is true. But even then, we’re left with the question: What public danger required escalating the encounter to the point of death?

[5] If I wanted to expand the scope of this article, we could also talk about the “except when Muslim” asterisk on the First Amendment. Americans have a right to practice their religion, except when they want to build a mosque somewhere and Christians object. And the whole gay-marriage issue revolved around the “except when gay” asterisk on the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

[6] In the New York City example Trump cited, Latinos were also disproportionately targeted.

What’s Up With Congressional Democrats?

Extreme tactics draw attention to the real source of our government’s dysfunction.


Few 70-somethings get to relive their youth with as much fanfare as Congressman John Lewis did this week. Back before he was a Freedom Rider or one of the organizers of Freedom Summer, Lewis got his start as an activist in 1960 by participating in the sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in Nashville. And Wednesday, he was sitting in again, not as a 20-year-old student, but as a 76-year-old congressman. Led by Lewis, Democratic congresspeople occupied the well of the House chamber for about 24 hours, when the House adjourned until July 5. About 170 participated at one time or another, while Democratic senators cheered them on, and Elizabeth Warren stopped by with donuts.

In essence this was a continuation in the House of what Chris Murphy started last week in the Senate, when he held the Senate floor for 15 hours while demanding the Senate vote on two gun-control measures: One would have barred people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, and the other would close the gun-show loophole that allows people to buy guns without the background check they would need to pass if they bought from licensed gun dealers. [1]

Murphy was maneuvering within the complex Senate rules governing filibusters — the only time I can remember a filibuster being used to demand a vote rather than prevent one. But the House is stricter and control of the floor is tightly timed, so the only way to do something similar there was to break the rules. Good thing the Democratic delegation included an experienced rule-breaker. Lewis tweeted:

We got in trouble. We got in the way. Good trouble. Necessary Trouble. By sitting-in, we were really standing up.

So far, the sit-in has not accomplished its goal: Speaker Paul Ryan still has no plans to allow any gun-control votes. But Lewis is not giving up yet. “This is not over,” he says. “We must keep the faith. We must come back here on July 5 more determined than ever before.”

Getting attention. Ryan’s dismissal of the sit-in as a “publicity stunt” demonstrates some basic cluelessness: Sit-ins are always publicity stunts. They are a way for otherwise powerless people to call public attention to the bad behavior of powerful people.

Ryan says: “This is not about a solution to a problem. This is about trying to get attention.” But discussion is stalled and the public is on your side, getting their attention is key to solving the problem.

The famous civil-rights sit-ins, like Greensboro, could not by themselves change any laws or corporate policies. But before the demonstrations began, whites could obliviously use all-white public spaces without thinking about segregation at all, or imagine blacks happily using their own separate-but-equal all-black spaces somewhere else. The civil rights movement’s nonviolent tactics drew publicity to the reality of segregation, and once the nation was paying attention those practices could not stand.

Something similar could happen here: The public staggers from one gun massacre to the next, numbed by the belief that nothing can be done. Politicians call for prayer, and Congress holds moments of silence. Other countries somehow avoid getting 30,000 of their citizens killed by guns each year, and do it without being overrun by criminals or taken over by tyrants. But of course we couldn’t, because … because we just can’t.

The immediate point of Lewis’ sit-in and Murphy’s filibuster is to shake that fatalism and put responsibility where it belongs: There are things to do, but the people in a position to do them refuse to act.

Why this? While generally encouraged by the fact that Democratic congresspeople are finally showing some backbone, lots of liberals are complaining that the headline proposal  — stopping people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns — would be a bad law because of civil-liberty concerns. You can wind up on a terrorist-suspect list for all kinds of reasons, not even realize it until you are told you can’t do something (like get on a plane), and have no good way to face your accusers or clear your name. Worse, the lists are constructed entirely within the executive branch, so the process would be open to abuse by some future tyrannical administration.

That is all true, but it also misses an important point: We’re nowhere near passing a law. I am reminded of something Russian dissident (and former chess champion) Garry Kasparov said about uniting behind a somewhat unsavory challenger to Putin:

You have to work with the people who live here. We’re not trying to win elections yet. It’s all about having elections.

When we’re actually in a position to pass a gun control law, we can worry about whether that law is good policy. Now we’re just trying to vote on gun control. Right now, the no-guns-for-terrorism-suspects proposal polls at ridiculous numbers [2], but not even that proposal can reach the floor of the House. That’s what we have to work with, and the situation we need to expose to public attention.

Right now, we’re trying to turn the perception that nothing can be done into an expectation that Congress will debate and vote on changes to our gun laws. Given where we are, just that much would constitute progress.

The larger implications. If sit-ins are a way for the powerless to call the powerful to public account, the House sit-in contains a powerful meta-message: The class of powerless people now includes members of Congress. 

With bipartisanship dead and the Republican majority living by the Hastert Rule — nothing comes to the floor unless a majority of the Republican caucus supports it — the normal procedures of the House offer Democratic representatives nothing. But that in turn invokes the Bobby McGee principle: There’s no reason to keep living by their rules if they’ve already taken everything away from you.

“This is not a way to bring up legislation,” Ryan scolded. But for House Democrats there is no way to bring up legislation. [3] So why pay any attention to Ryan’s rules, when the only way to win is to circumvent the Republican majority by appealing directly to the public? [4]

When “publicity stunts” work. One progressive complaint about the sit-in is: Why wouldn’t Democrats go to the mat like this for other progressive causes, like single-payer healthcare or free college?

The answer is that appealing to the general public only works if you can be certain of their overwhelming support. That’s just not true for most progressive causes. [5]

Tea Party Republicans ran into the same problem when they threatened to breach the debt ceiling if President Obama wouldn’t agree to massive spending cuts. Since no one really wanted to breach the debt ceiling, the showdown was mainly a publicity stunt, meant to rally public support for lower government spending.

But once the public started paying attention, it was horrified by the risk-to-benefit proposition the Tea Partiers were putting forward. The incident backfired on Republicans because the support for their position was neither as wide nor as deep as they had imagined.

However, there is at least one additional progressive issue where publicity-stunt politics would work: voting rights. Congress refuses to fix the hole that the Supreme Court blasted in the Voting Rights Act. If the public were paying attention to this, it would clearly be on the Democrats’ side.

Who is the obstacle to change? Independent of the issue, the optics of extreme tactics by congressional Democrats draws public attention to a meta-issue: In spite of holding the White House for the last two terms, Democrats are the party of change. The obstacle to change isn’t President Obama, it’s the Republican Congress.

This point is in danger of being lost in the 2016 campaign, as a large segment of the dissatisfied public thinks of change in terms of changing the president. Donald Trump gets credit for being the candidate who would “shake things up”, while Hillary Clinton is said to represent “more of the same” and “Obama’s third term”.

But on issue after issue — climate change, healthcare, voting rights, guns, rebuilding infrastructure, immigration reform, and on and on — Obama has been the one pushing for change and being frustrated by a Congress that does nothing. The way to get change isn’t to replace Obama with somebody very different, it’s to get a president who will keep pushing the way Obama has, and elect a more cooperative Congress. [6]

Republicans have no agenda. If Republicans actually had a change agenda of any sort and Obama were the obstacle to this change, Congress would be passing laws right and left and forcing Obama to veto them.

But that hasn’t happened. Even with Republicans in control of both houses, there has been no attempt to replace ObamaCare with a Republican alternative, no reform of the tax system, no plan for repairing the “bankrupt” systems of Social Security and Medicare, no plan for balancing the budget, or for much of anything else.

President Obama has had to cast only eight vetoes since the current Congress was seated a year and a half ago. None of vetoed bills embodied some grand new conservative solution, and most were attempts to undo some change the Obama administration had implemented: One repealed ObamaCare without replacing it, and most of the rest negated rules issued by the EPA, the NLRB, or the Labor Department. In each case, it was Obama who was trying to change something (like lowering greenhouse gas emissions or preventing financial advisers from cheating their customers), and Republicans who were trying to block change.

The best evidence of Republicans being stuck in the mud is in Speaker Ryan’s series of white papers, the ones that are supposed to promote a Republican agenda for the future. Independent of what they say, their very existence indicts Ryan for a simple reason: Speakers of the House aren’t supposed to write white papers, they’re supposed to write laws.

If Ryan had bills he wanted to pass, his caucus has the power to pass them. And yet, it doesn’t.

The Spirit of 48. Harry Truman faced an even worse version of this situation in 1948. In essence, he was running for FDR’s 5th term. And yet, he did not run as the more-of-the-same candidate. Instead, he ran the give-’em-Hell campaign against the do-nothing Republican Congress. He didn’t just hold on to the presidency, but Democrats regained control of Congress as well.

That should be the blueprint for 2016: Don’t just run against Trump, run against the do-nothing Republican Congress. Make the public realize where the real obstacle to change is. Anybody who wants to shake things up needs to shake up Congress.

It’s tempting to try to tie Republican congressional candidates to Trump, but it’s important to tie him to them as well: Where, specifically, does Trump disagree with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell? Aren’t they all climate change deniers who are in the pocket of the NRA? Aren’t they all trying to cut rich people’s taxes and give corporations more power to do as they please? Don’t they all want to repeal campaign finance laws and the Dodd-Frank restrictions on the big banks?

The more attention Democrats can draw to the logjam in Congress, the better. So give ’em Hell, Hillary. Give ’em Hell, John Lewis. The American people need to understand where the real obstacle is.


[1] He got his votes, but lost. A subsequent bipartisan compromise put together by Republican Susan Collins of Maine looks doomed as well.

[2] According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 85% support barring gun sales to people on the terrorist watch list, while 92% support universal background checks. Anecdotally, the watch-list proposal seems to generate more fervent support than background checks. Picturing someone buying a gun without being checked doesn’t raise as much ire as picturing a terrorist buying a gun.

[3] The clearest example of this is immigration reform. In 2013 a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Numerous sources estimated that the bill would pass the House if it came to a vote, but since it didn’t have majority support within the Republican caucus, no vote has been held. In fact, in three years no House alternative proposal has come up for a vote either.

[4] I have an off-the-wall suggestion to circumvent the Hastert Rule. Democratic congressmen should all declare themselves Republicans and attend the Republican caucus. If that’s where the important votes happen, why not go there?

I’m sure the Republicans would find a way to prevent this, but it would be another way to dramatize the anti-democratic nature of the House.

[5] The polling on single-payer varies wildly depending on how the question is phrased. In one recent AP poll, 63% had positive feelings about “Medicare-for-all”, while only 44% felt positively about a “single-payer health insurance system”, and a mere 38% supported “socialized medicine”.  They didn’t ask about a “government takeover of the healthcare system”, but I doubt it would be popular.

[6] Those who criticize how little got done during Obama’s first two years not only underestimate how much accomplishment there was, they also usually overestimate the amount of time Obama was free from Republican obstruction.

Al Franken’s election in Minnesota was close enough that Republicans managed to drag a series of vote-counting challenges through the courts. Early on, they might really have thought they could get the outcome reversed, but eventually delay became its own goal:  They kept Franken from taking his seat in the Senate until July 7, 2009.

By then, Ted Kennedy was in the final stages of the cancer that killed him on August 25. (Already by July 9, it was headline news when he came to the Senate to cast a vote. No 60-vote plan could rely on pulling him off his deathbed.) Another legal challenge prevented Kennedy’s temporary replacement, Paul Kirk, from taking office until September 24. And then in the special election on January 19, 2010, Republican Scott Brown won a surprise victory, taking his seat February 4.

So effectively, Obama had a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority for slightly more than four months. Since it ended by surprise, no one realized that everything had to be passed at once.

Our gun problem IS a terrorism problem

ISIS has found the biggest hole in America’s defenses: our lax gun laws.


When Democrats in Congress responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting by renewing calls for gun control, Ted Cruz made a sharp distinction:

This is not a gun control issue; it’s a terrorism issue.

In other words, if it’s one it can’t be the other. Gallup implicitly endorsed that framing by making its respondents choose. The result was the usual partisan polarization: 79% of Republicans described the Pulse attack as “Islamic terrorism”, while 60% of Democrats called it “domestic gun violence”. [1]

But following just half a year after the San Bernardino shooting, the Orlando shooting makes the guns-or-terrorism argument obsolete. It’s all one issue now. ISIS is actively encouraging lone-wolf attacks, and the easy availability of AR-15s and other military-style weapons makes the United States uniquely vulnerable to lone-wolf terrorism. Our political inability to control or track even the most destructive guns keeps that hole in our defenses open.

I’m amazed it took Islamic State strategists so long to figure that out. About a year after 9-11, the Washington metro area was terrorized by someone the press called “the D.C. sniper“. Over a three-week period he shot 13 people apparently at random, ten of whom died. Rather than a mass killing, these were individual attacks that seemed completely unpatterned and unpredictable: one victim was sitting at a bus stop reading a book, another was pumping gas at a self-service station, and a third was walking down a street.

That’s what made the attacks so terrifying: Wherever you were in the D.C. area and whatever you happened to be doing, if you were out in public you had to consider the possibility that you might suddenly be killed.

The press speculated about Al Qaeda, but the killers turned out to have no connection to international terrorism. They were just two guys with a rifle who had drilled a barrel-hole into the trunk of a rusty old car. Their plan was breathtakingly simple: They found obscure spots with clear views of public places and parked there, with the middle-aged sniper hidden in the trunk until a target appeared. After the shots were fired, his 17-year-old accomplice drove them away.

By comparison, 9-11 had been such a complex operation: It was planned in Afghanistan, then communicated to conspirators in Germany, America, and who knows how many other places. The attackers had to gain entry the U.S., where they spent months training in skills like flying a plane. On the designated day, they assembled in airports to play their roles in the plan.

Because 9-11 had so many moving parts and involved so many people, it had many possible points of failure: Communications could be intercepted. Conspirators might raise suspicion while entering the country or during training, then crack under interrogation. They might lose their nerve and defect. They might look suspicious at the airport. The other passengers might fight for control of the plane.

Those failure-points allowed the U.S. government to respond quickly, closing down many of the vulnerabilities that let 9-11 happen. Changes were made in cockpits, in airports, in our screening of people entering the country, and in how we track terrorism suspects. Nobody has succeeded in pulling off a 9-11-style attack since.

But effective as they had been in terrorizing a major urban area, the D.C. sniper duo changed nothing. If Osama bin Laden had realized the significance of that, he and his successors could have kept Americans far more frightened than we have been these last 14 years.

Which is not to say we haven’t been frightened, but more by each other than by foreign terrorists. The years since the D. C. sniper have seen a series of ever-more-horrific mass shootings. Each time, Congress took no action to reduce our vulnerability.

Terrorist plotters may be slow, but eventually they catch on. By now, as Pulse and San Bernadino make clear, ISIS understands very well: One disgruntled, alienated, or insane American (or permanent resident [2]) can easily kill dozens, without breaking any laws until the moment he or she opens fire. A tourist could be equally deadly; the only additional point of legal danger in that plan would be a black-market gun purchase [3], which is made simpler by the fact that we have no system for keeping track of guns, even military-style weapons. [4]

Carrying out such an attack requires little planning or training, so such plans have very few points where they are vulnerable to detection or interruption. Omar Mateen, Rizwan Farook, and Tashfeen Malik did not have to spend weeks at some terrorist camp in Syria or Libya. They didn’t need to smuggle anything into the country or coordinate their plans with some handler from ISIS central command. [5] They just had to buy guns, practice shooting them, and then go kill people.

Best of all (from ISIS’ point of view) the Islamic State didn’t even need to think this up for themselves. All they had to do was observe how defenseless we are against mass shootings (as Sandy Hook made obvious) and how dysfunctional our political system has been in responding to that weakness (as Congress’ complete lack of response to Sandy Hook made obvious). Even after two wildly successful attacks, ISIS doesn’t have to worry all that much about the government shutting down points of vulnerability. With the NRA on the case, no pro-terrorism lobby is needed. [6]

So it may have taken them a while, but the terrorists have adapted. The question is whether we will adapt, overcome the NRA’s resistance, and force our representatives to face the new reality. Will we find ways to reduce the number of the most lethal guns and make the existing ones easier to track? Will we limit guns’ mass-killing potential by banning high-capacity magazines? Will we allow authorities to track suspicious guns-and-ammunition purchasing patterns?

That isn’t just a gun-control agenda any more. It’s an anti-terrorism agenda. Given what we’ve seen, any purported anti-terrorism agenda that does not include such gun-control measures is just not serious.


[1] A third option of “both equally” was offered and drew only 6%. But that choice still paints a picture of two distinct factors that just happen to be present in equal quantities. “Both equally” does not express what I’m claiming here: that mass shootings are our primary terrorism vulnerability.

[2] Guns laws are stricter for non-citizens than for citizens, but permanent residents have all the same second-amendment rights citizens do.

[3] A black-market purchase might not even be necessary, because existing gun laws are so poorly enforced at gun shows, and many laws don’t even apply there. Here, for example, a 13-year-old boy buys a rifle.

[4] The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 forbids the federal government to compile a list or database of gun owners and the guns they own. Paperwork related to background checks on gun buyers is supposed to be thrown away within 24 hours. Jacob Paulsen of usaFirearmTraining.com writes: “Generally speaking for the majority of American gun owners there is no system, database, or registry that ties us to any of our firearms.”

By contrast, we have very tight controls on military weapons like machine guns, bazookas, and hand grenades. Those controls work: Such weapons have not been used in our series of mass killings.

[5] By contrast, the Paris attack was a complex plot involving multiple coordinated actions by experienced operatives, some of whom had fought in Syria. It required ISIS to use resources that authorities could then take off the board. Killing large numbers of Americans is much simpler.

[6] The fact that after Orlando and San Bernardino, the Senate is having so much trouble taking the simplest step — preventing already-identified terrorism suspects from buying more guns — does not bode well. Even if the two parties do manage water something down enough to pass it, the House is unlikely to go along.

Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies

The famous sci-fi author William Gibson once tweeted:

People who feel safer with a gun than with guaranteed medical insurance don’t yet have a fully adult concept of scary.

That simple observation actually explains quite a bit about the gun-control debate.

If you’ve ever wandered into an argument over guns and gun control, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the two sides talk past each other. Proponents of gun control quote statistics: how many more shooting deaths we have in America than there are in countries with fewer guns, how many more suicides or police deaths there are in well-armed states, and so on.

Pro-gun advocates are more likely to tell stories, and often those stories are dark what-if fantasies: What if home invaders came to kill you, kidnap your baby, or rape your teen-age daughter? What if you were a hostage in a bank robbery? What if you were at a restaurant or grocery store when terrorists broke in and started killing people? Wouldn’t you wish you had a gun then?

Such stories are easily stretched to indict even the mildest forms of gun control, like limiting magazines to ten shots: Picture your wife hiding in a closet with a handgun. Before she hid, she already gotten off a few shots at the invaders, and now she’s not sure how many shots she has left. Don’t you wish now you’d been able to buy her a gun with a larger magazine?

What we’re seeing here is that there are two very different ways to think about risk and security. In the one Gibson describes as the adult way, you focus on the most likely risks and come up with ways to mitigate them.

Shortly after 9-11, I remember seeing a security expert interviewed on TV. (I wish I could remember enough details to google up a link.) The host asked what Americans could do to be safer, and the expert responded: “Wear seat belts and don’t smoke.” His point was that although spectacular risks like terrorist attacks may plague your imagination and call for spectacular remedies, more mundane risks like car accidents or cancer are far more significant, and there are a number of dull-but-effective things you can do about them. [1] If you’re just trying not to die, that’s the place to focus your efforts.

But you can also think about risk the way that children think about monsters in their closets. In that mode of thought, the problem isn’t the real-life probability of danger, it’s that a dark fantasy has gotten into your head and you can’t get it out. If you’ve ever dealt with a frightened child or remember being one, you know that you can’t solve a closet-monster problem by finding statistics to demonstrate how low being-eaten-by-a-closet-monster ranks among childhood death risks. Instead, you need to come up with some talisman or ritual that creates an aura of safety. The child needs a security blanket or a teddy bear, not more accurate information about relative risks. [2]

That’s the need that guns fulfill for most of their owners. [3] They’re security blankets, not insurance policies. The point isn’t that home invasion is a major risk in your life, that you are well-trained enough to win a middle-of-the-night shoot-out if home invaders show up, or even that you have a practical way to get the gun out of its safe-storage location in time to use it at all; it’s that when the home-invasion fantasy plagues you, you can tell yourself, “It’s OK. I have a gun.”


[1] One of those risks is suicide, and owning a gun increases it. Everyone has suicidal thoughts from time to time, and gun-owners have a very convenient and effective way to take action on such thoughts. Statistically, you are far more likely to kill yourself with a gun than to kill a terrorist or a home invader.

[2] Fear of flying is a second example of this pattern: If you’re afraid to fly, statistics about the safety of commercial air travel miss the point. The problem isn’t that you have incorrectly assessed the relative risks of flying vs. driving; it’s that you can imagine being completely helpless while the plane is crashing. What you need is some talisman or ritual that will keep that thought out of your head for a few hours.

[3] Of course, there are people who have real security problems whose solutions involve guns: presidents, for example. That’s why the complaint that it’s hypocrisy for Obama to advocate gun control while armed men protect him and his family is so off-base. Four of our 44 presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy) have died by assassination, several others have been shot at, and all frequently receive threats. If you’re president, assassination isn’t a monster in your closet, it’s your most significant risk of dying.

Likewise, if you deal drugs, or regularly transport large quantities of cash to the bank, or have some other risk factor that makes death-by-violence more than just a what-if, your gun might be more than a security blanket. But if so, you are in a small minority of gun owners.

Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party

Tea Partiers say you don’t understand them because you don’t understand American history. That’s probably true, but not in the way they want you to think.


Late in 2012, I came out of the Lincoln movie with two historical mysteries to solve:

  • How did the two parties switch places regarding the South, white supremacy, and civil rights? In Lincoln’s day, a radical Republican was an abolitionist, and when blacks did get the vote, they almost unanimously voted Republican. Today, the archetypal Republican is a Southern white, and blacks are almost all Democrats. How did American politics get from there to here?
  • One of the movie’s themes was how heavily the war’s continuing carnage weighed on Lincoln. (It particularly came through during Grant’s guided tour of the Richmond battlefield.) Could any cause, however lofty, justify this incredible slaughter? And yet, I realized, Lincoln was winning. What must the Confederate leaders have been thinking, as an even larger percentage of their citizens died, as their cities burned, and as the accumulated wealth of generations crumbled? Where was their urge to end this on any terms, rather than wait for complete destruction?

The first question took some work, but yielded readily to patient googling. I wrote up the answer in “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“. The second turned out to be much deeper than I expected, and set off a reading project that has eaten an enormous amount of my time over the last two years. (Chunks of that research have shown up in posts like “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“, “Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex“, and my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on reparations.) Along the way, I came to see how I (along with just about everyone I know) have misunderstood large chunks of American history, and how that misunderstanding clouds our perception of what is happening today.

Who really won the Civil War? The first hint at how deep the second mystery ran came from the biography Jefferson Davis: American by William J. Cooper. In 1865, not only was Davis not agonizing over how to end the destruction, he wanted to keep it going longer. He disapproved of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and when U. S. troops finally captured him, he was on his way to Texas, where an intact army might continue the war.

That sounded crazy until I read about Reconstruction. In my high school history class, Reconstruction was a mysterious blank period between Lincoln’s assassination and Edison’s light bulb. Congress impeached Andrew Johnson for some reason, the transcontinental railroad got built, corruption scandals engulfed the Grant administration, and Custer lost at Little Big Horn. But none of it seemed to have much to do with present-day events.

And oh, those blacks Lincoln emancipated? Except for Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, they vanished like the Lost Tribes of Israel. They wouldn’t re-enter history until the 1950s, when for some reason they still weren’t free.

Here’s what my teachers’ should have told me: “Reconstruction was the second phase of the Civil War. It lasted until 1877, when the Confederates won.” I think that would have gotten my attention.

It wasn’t just that Confederates wanted to continue the war. They did continue it, and they ultimately prevailed. They weren’t crazy, they were just stubborn.

The Lost Cause. At about the same time my American history class was leaving a blank spot after 1865, I saw Gone With the Wind, which started filling it in like this: Sadly, the childlike blacks weren’t ready for freedom and full citizenship. Without the discipline of their white masters, many became drunks and criminals, and they raped a lot of white women. Northern carpetbaggers used them (and no-account white scalawags) as puppets to control the South, and to punish the planter aristocrats, who prior to the war had risen to the top of Southern society through their innate superiority and virtue.

But eventually the good men of the South could take it no longer, so they formed the Ku Klux Klan to protect themselves and their communities. They were never able to restore the genteel antebellum society — that Eden was gone with the wind, a noble but ultimately lost cause — but they were eventually able to regain the South’s honor and independence. Along the way, they relieved their beloved black servants of the onerous burden of political equality, until such time as they might become mature enough to bear it responsibly.

A still from The Birth of a Nation

That telling of history is now named for its primary proponent, William Dunning. It is false in almost every detail. If history is written by the winners, Dunning’s history is the clearest evidence that the Confederates won. [see endnote 1]

Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel had actually toned it down a little. To feel the full impact of Dunning-school history, you need to read Thomas Dixon’s 1905 best-seller, The Clansman: a historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Or watch the 1915 silent movie made from it, The Birth of a Nation, which was the most popular film of all time until Gone With the Wind broke its records.

The iconic hooded Klansman on his horse, the Knight of the Invisible Empire, was the Luke Skywalker of his day.

The first modern war. The Civil War was easy to misunderstand at the time, because there had never been anything like it. It was a total mobilization of society, the kind Europe wouldn’t see until World War I. The Civil War was fought not just with cannons and bayonets, but with railroads and factories and an income tax.

If the Napoleonic Wars were your model, then it was obvious that the Confederacy lost in 1865: Its capital fell, its commander surrendered, its president was jailed, and its territories were occupied by the opposing army. If that’s not defeat, what is?

But now we have a better model than Napoleon: Iraq.

After the U.S. forces won on the battlefield in 1865 and shattered the organized Confederate military, the veterans of that shattered army formed a terrorist insurgency that carried on a campaign of fire and assassination throughout the South until President Hayes agreed to withdraw the occupying U. S. troops in 1877. Before and after 1877, the insurgents used lynchings and occasional pitched battles to terrorize those portions of the electorate still loyal to the United States. In this way they took charge of the machinery of state government, and then rewrote the state constitutions to reverse the postwar changes and restore the supremacy of the class that led the Confederate states into war in the first place. [2]

By the time it was all over, the planter aristocrats were back in control, and the three constitutional amendments that supposedly had codified the U.S.A’s victory over the C.S.A.– the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had been effectively nullified in every Confederate state. The Civil Rights Acts had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and were all but forgotten by the time similar proposals resurfaced in the 1960s. Blacks were once again forced into hard labor for subsistence wages, denied the right to vote, and denied the equal protection of the laws. Tens of thousands of them were still physically shackled and subject to being whipped, a story historian Douglas Blackmon told in his Pulitzer-winning Slavery By Another Name.

So Lincoln and Grant may have had their mission-accomplished moment, but ultimately the Confederates won. The real Civil War — the one that stretched from 1861 to 1877 — was the first war the United States lost.

The missed opportunity. Today, historians like Eric Foner and Douglas Egerton portray Reconstruction as a missed opportunity to avoid Jim Crow and start trying to heal the wounds of slavery a century sooner. Following W.E.B. DuBois’ iconoclastic-for-1935 Black Reconstruction, they see the freedmen as actors in their own history, rather than mere pawns or victims of whites. As a majority in Mississippi and South Carolina, and a substantial voting bloc across the South, blacks briefly used the democratic system to try to better their lot. If the federal government had protected the political process from white terrorism, black (and American) history could have taken an entirely different path.

In particular, 1865 was a moment when reparations and land reform were actually feasible. Late in the war, some of Lincoln’s generals — notably Sherman — had mitigated their slave-refugee problem by letting emancipated slaves farm small plots on the plantations that had been abandoned by their Confederate owners. Sick or injured animals unable to advance with the Army were left behind for the slaves to nurse back to health and use. (Hence “forty acres and a mule”.) Sherman’s example might have become a land-reform model for the entire Confederacy, dispossessing the slave-owning aristocrats in favor of the people whose unpaid labor had created their wealth.

Instead, President Johnson (himself a former slave-owner from Tennessee) was quick to pardon the aristocrats and restore their lands. [3] That created a dynamic that has been with us ever since: Early in Reconstruction, white and black working people sometimes made common cause against their common enemies in the aristocracy. But once it became clear that the upper classes were going to keep their ill-gotten holdings, freedmen and working-class whites were left to wrestle over the remaining slivers of the pie. Before long, whites who owned little land and had never owned slaves had become the shock troops of the planters’ bid to restore white supremacy.

Along the way, the planters created rhetoric you still hear today: The blacks were lazy and would rather wait for gifts from the government than work (in conditions very similar to slavery). In this way, the idle planters were able to paint the freedmen as parasites who wanted to live off the hard work of others.

The larger pattern. But the enduring Confederate influence on American politics goes far beyond a few rhetorical tropes. The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries.

That worldview is alive and well. During last fall’s government shutdown and threatened debt-ceiling crisis, historian Garry Wills wrote about our present-day Tea Partiers: “The presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule.”

The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

When in the majority, Confederates protect the established order through democracy. If they are not in the majority, but have power, they protect it through the authority of law. If the law is against them, but they have social standing, they create shams of law, which are kept in place through the power of social disapproval. If disapproval is not enough, they keep the wrong people from claiming their legal rights by the threat of ostracism and economic retribution. If that is not intimidating enough, there are physical threats, then beatings and fires, and, if that fails, murder.

That was the victory plan of Reconstruction. Black equality under the law was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. But in the Confederate mind, no democratic process could legitimate such a change in the social order. It simply could not be allowed to stand, and it did not stand.

In the 20th century, the Confederate pattern of resistance was repeated against the Civil Rights movement. And though we like to claim that Martin Luther King won, in many ways he did not. School desegregation, for example, was never viewed as legitimate, and was resisted at every level. And it has been overcome. By most measures, schools are as segregated as ever, and the opportunities in white schools still far exceed the opportunities in non-white schools.

Today, ObamaCare cannot be accepted. No matter that it was passed by Congress, signed by the President, found constitutional by the Supreme Court, and ratified by the people when they re-elected President Obama. It cannot be allowed to stand, and so the tactics for destroying it get ever more extreme. The point of violence has not yet been reached, but the resistance is still young.

Violence is a key component of the present-day strategy against abortion rights, as Judge Myron Thompson’s recent ruling makes clear. Legal, political, social, economic, and violent methods of resistance mesh seamlessly. The Alabama legislature cannot ban abortion clinics directly, so it creates reasonable-sounding regulations the clinics cannot satisfy, like the requirement that abortionists have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Why can’t they fulfill that requirement? Because hospitals impose the reasonable-sounding rule that their doctors live and practice nearby, while many Alabama abortionists live out of state. The clinics can’t replace them with local doctors, because protesters will harass the those doctors’ non-abortion patients and drive the doctors out of any business but abortion. A doctor who chooses that path will face threats to his/her home and family. And doctors who ignore such threats have been murdered.

Legislators, of course, express horror at the murder of doctors, just as the pillars of 1960s Mississippi society expressed horror at the Mississippi Burning murders, and the planter aristocrats shook their heads sadly at the brutality of the KKK and the White Leagues. But the strategy is all of a piece and always has been. Change cannot stand, no matter what documents it is based on or who votes for them. If violence is necessary, so be it.

Unbalanced. This is not a universal, both-sides-do-it phenomenon. Compare, for example, the responses to the elections of our last two presidents. Like many liberals, I will go to my grave believing that if every person who went to the polls in 2000 had succeeded in casting the vote s/he intended, George W. Bush would never have been president. I supported Gore in taking his case to the courts. And, like Gore, once the Supreme Court ruled in Bush’s favor — incorrectly, in my opinion — I dropped the issue.

For liberals, the Supreme Court was the end of the line. Any further effort to replace Bush would have been even less legitimate than his victory. Subsequently, Democrats rallied around President Bush after 9/11, and I don’t recall anyone suggesting that military officers refuse his orders on the grounds that he was not a legitimate president.

Barack Obama, by contrast, won a huge landslide in 2008, getting more votes than any president in history. And yet, his legitimacy has been questioned ever since. The Birther movement was created out of whole cloth, there never having been any reason to doubt the circumstances of Obama’s birth. Outrageous conspiracy theories of voter fraud — millions and millions of votes worth — have been entertained on no basis whatsoever. Immediately after Obama took office, the Oath Keeper movement prepared itself to refuse his orders.

A black president calling for change, who owes most of his margin to black voters — he himself is a violation of the established order. His legitimacy cannot be conceded.

Confederates need guns. The South is a place, but the Confederacy is a worldview. To this day, that worldview is strongest in the South, but it can be found all over the country (as are other products of Southern culture, like NASCAR and country music). A state as far north as Maine has a Tea Party governor.

Gun ownership is sometimes viewed as a part of Southern culture, but more than that, it plays a irreplaceable role in the Confederate worldview. Tea Partiers will tell you that the Second Amendment is our protection against “tyranny”. But in practice tyranny simply means a change in the established social order, even if that change happens — maybe especially if it happens — through the democratic processes defined in the Constitution. If the established social order cannot be defended by votes and laws, then it will be defended by intimidation and violence. How are We the People going to shoot abortion doctors and civil rights activists if we don’t have guns?

Occasionally this point becomes explicit, as when Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle said this:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

Angle wasn’t talking about anything more “tyrannical” than our elected representatives voting for things she didn’t like (like ObamaCare or stimulus spending). If her side can’t fix that through elections, well then, the people who do win those elections will just have to be intimidated or killed. Angle doesn’t want it to come to that, but if liberals won’t yield peacefully to the conservative minority, what other choice is there?

Gun-rights activist Larry Pratt doesn’t even seem regretful:

“The Second Amendment is not for hunting, it’s not even for self-defense,” Pratt explained in his Leadership Institute talk. Rather, it is “for restraining tyrannical tendencies in government. Especially those in the liberal, tyrannical end of the spectrum. There is some restraint, and even if the voters of Brooklyn don’t hold them back, it may be there are other ways that their impulses are somewhat restrained. That’s the whole idea of the Second Amendment.”

So the Second Amendment is there not to defend democracy, but to fix what the progressive “voters of Brooklyn” get wrong.

It’s not a Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party protest was aimed at a Parliament where the colonists had no representation, and at an appointed governor who did not have to answer to the people he ruled. Today’s Tea Party faces a completely different problem: how a shrinking conservative minority can keep change at bay in spite of the democratic processes defined in the Constitution. That’s why they need guns. That’s why they need to keep the wrong people from voting in their full numbers.

These right-wing extremists have misappropriated the Boston patriots and the Philadelphia founders because their true ancestors — Jefferson Davis and the Confederates — are in poor repute. [4]

But the veneer of Bostonian rebellion easily scrapes off; the tea bags and tricorn hats are just props. The symbol Tea Partiers actually revere is the Confederate battle flag. Let a group of right-wingers ramble for any length of time, and you will soon hear that slavery wasn’t really so bad, that Andrew Johnson was right, that Lincoln shouldn’t have fought the war, that states have the rights of nullification and secession, that the war wasn’t really about slavery anyway, and a lot of other Confederate mythology that (until recently) had left me asking, “Why are we talking about this?”

By contrast, the concerns of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its revolutionary Sons of Liberty are never so close to the surface. So no. It’s not a Tea Party. It’s a Confederate Party.

Our modern Confederates are quick to tell the rest of us that we don’t understand them because we don’t know our American history. And they’re right. If you knew more American history, you would realize just how dangerous these people are.



Endnotes

[1] The other clear evidence stands in front of nearly every courthouse in the South: statues of Confederate heroes. You have to be blind not to recognize them as victory monuments. In the Jim Crow era, these stone sentries guarded the centers of civic power against Negroes foolish enough to try to register to vote or claim their other constitutional rights.

Calhoun way up high

In Away Down South: a history of Southern identity, James C. Cobb elaborates:

African Americans understood full well what monuments to the antebellum white regime were all about. When Charleston officials erected a statue of proslavery champion John C. Calhoun, “blacks took that statue personally,” Mamie Garvin Fields recalled. After all, “here was Calhoun looking you in the face and telling you, ‘Nigger, you may not be a slave but I’m back to see you stay in your places.’ ” In response, Fields explained, “we used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface that statue — scratch up the coat, break up the watch chain, try to knock off the nose. … [C]hildren and adults beat up John C. Calhoun so badly that the whites had to come back and put him way up high, so we couldn’t get to him.”

[2] The vocabulary of this struggle is illuminating. A carpetbagger was a no-account Northerner who arrived in the South with nothing more than the contents of a carpetbag. A scalawag was a lower-class Southern white who tried to rise above his betters in the post-war chaos. The class-based nature of these insults demonstrates who was authorizing this history: the planter aristocrats.

For a defense of the claim that the aristocrats intentionally led the South into war, see Douglas Egerton’s Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War.

[3] Though Congress had to find other “high crimes and misdemeanors” for their bill of impeachment, Johnson’s betrayal of the United States’ battlefield victory was the real basis of the attempt to remove him.

[4] Jefferson Davis and the Confederates also misappropriated the Founders. It started with John Calhoun’s Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, published posthumously in 1851, which completely misrepresented the Founders and their Constitution. Calhoun’s view (that the Union was a consortium of states with no direct relationship to the people) would have made perfect sense if the Constitution had begun “We the States” rather than “We the People”.

Calhoun disagreed with Jefferson on one key point: All men are not created equal.

Modern conservatives who attribute their views to the Founders are usually unknowingly relying on Calhoun’s false image of the Founders, which was passed down through Davis and from there spread widely in Confederate folklore.

Restoring the Constitution Is Now a Liberal Issue

Justice Stevens proposes constitutional amendments to fix right-wing judicial over-reach.


Once upon a time, judicial activism was an issue that belonged to conservatives. Unelected liberal judges, they claimed, had re-interpreted the Constitution to mean things that neither the Founders nor any amending super-majority had ever intended, and so some plain-spoken constitutional amendments were necessary to put our legal house back in order: a Human Life Amendment to undo Roe v Wade, a School Prayer Amendment to undo Engel v Vitale and Abington School District v Schemppa Flag Desecration Amendment to undo Texas v Johnson, and so on. Occasionally conservatives would propose an amendment to fix an oversight of the Founders — why didn’t they insist on term limits or a balanced budget? — but mostly the theme was: The Founders had it right, we just need to restore the Constitution to what it originally meant before liberal activist judges twisted it out of shape.

Levin’s Eleven versus Stevens’ Six. Given that history, it’s interesting to look at the 11 amendments talk-radio host Mark Levin proposed in his recent popular-on-the-Right book The Liberty Amendments. His rhetoric is still about restoration. (The book’s subtitle is “Restoring the American Republic”, and the National Review review  — from which I get the list of amendments; I haven’t read the book — styles it as “how to restore the Founders’ original vision of government”.) But only one of the 11 proposed amendments (a much-restricted Commerce Clause) is even arguably fixing a judicial misinterpretation.

Two of the 11 alter the clear intent of previous constitutional amendments: One repeals the 17th Amendment; it takes election of senators away from the people and returns the choice to the state legislatures. The other limits the income tax to 15%. That changes the 16th Amendment, which left the specifics of the income tax up to Congress, and corresponds in general with the Founders’ belief that regular elections are sufficient to restrain excessive taxation*.

But the other eight “liberty amendments” fix what Levin seems to regard as the Founders’ mistakes: They didn’t foresee what future generations would do within their Constitution, and so they should have locked things down better. Levin’s Founder-correcting amendments include: term limits on Congress and the Supreme Court, allowing 3/5ths of Congress to overturn a Supreme Court decision**, allowing 3/5ths of the states to reverse an act of Congress, requiring an across-the-board 5% budget cut if Congress fails to enact a balanced budget (not exceeding 17.5% of GDP) by a deadline, requiring government compensation for regulations that affect property values, requiring photo ID and proof of citizenship to vote, requiring Congress to reauthorize each federal agency every three years, and allowing 2/3rds of the states to approve a constitutional amendment without Congress’ involvement.

Other than photo ID, these are all things the Founders could have written into the Constitution, but they didn’t. And that should tell you something: Levin’s book isn’t about restoring anybody’s “original vision”; it’s about radically reshaping the American government into something it never was and was never intended to be.

Contrast this with the proposals in retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ new book Six Amendments. Only one of Stevens’ amendments — adding a phrase to the Eighth Amendment to define the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment — would change what Stevens’ argues was the Founders’ original intent. (Hanging and the firing squad were common in the founding era.) He composed the other five to reverse the drift of wrong-headed judicial interpretation.

Anti-Commandeering and Sovereign Immunity. Two of Justice Stevens’ amendments address somewhat technical issues that are not widely debated by the general public. (So skip this section if you’re not interested.) In the Supremacy Clause (Article VI) the Constitution specifically says that federal laws outrank state laws and “the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” In the 1997 case Printz v United States, the Court interpreted this to mean that only judges are so bound, and that Congress is prohibited from (in Stevens’ words) “requiring state officials to perform federal duties”. Stevens points to the role state officials were assigned in the World War I draft as an example of “historical events in which the federal government relied on state officials to carry out federal programs” without lawsuits or other protests from the states.

The fact that throughout our history the federal government has required the states to play a critical role in providing the manpower to fight our wars demonstrates that the anti-commandeering rule was invented by the Printz majority.

Stevens’ amendment would change the Supremacy Clause’s “Judges” to “Judges and other public officials”.

Sovereign immunity is a principle we inherit from English common law, which said that the king could not be sued without his consent. After the Supreme Court ruled in Chisolm v Georgia in 1793 that the states did not have sovereign immunity, the Eleventh Amendment was passed:

The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

Through Reconstruction, this amendment was interpreted to prevent federal courts from ordering states to pay their debts to citizens of other states. It did not begin to become a blanket sovereign immunity until the 1890 decision Hans v. Louisiana. Stevens thinks that (and subsequent decisions relying on it) was a mistake, and would fix it by this amendment:

Neither the Tenth Amendment , the Eleventh Amendment, nor any other provision of this Constitution, shall be construed to provide any state, state agency, or state officer with an immunity from liability for violating any act of Congress, or any provision of this Constitution.

Gerrymandering. Gerrymandering means drawing the boundaries of districts of representation in an attempt to pre-determine the results of elections. (The current Republican majority in the House is largely the result of gerrymandering in states like Pennsylvania, where Republicans control 13 of the 18 congressional seats despite getting fewer total votes than Democrats.) Wisconsin Republican Congressman Reid Ribble described the situation like this:

I think the American people have a misperception of elections. We’re at a place now in this country where voters are not picking their representatives anymore. Representatives, through the gerrymandering process and redistricting, are picking their voters.

Current Supreme Court interpretation says that gerrymandering is illegal if its purpose is to disenfranchise a minority group — by, say, dividing up the black neighborhoods so that no city council district has a black majority — but that the courts can’t touch a gerrymander whose purpose is to gain advantage for one political party over another. In an era in which Republicans are increasingly becoming the “white man’s party“, it can be hard to tell the difference: Does Texas’ map under-represent Hispanic Democrats because they’re Hispanic, or because they’re Democrats?

That conundrum is an artifact of judicial interpretation rather than anything in the Constitution. Whether your right to choose your representatives is being undermined because of your ethnicity or your party, you’re still not getting the “equal protection of the laws” citizens are promised by the 14th Amendment, or the “Republican Form of Government” promised in Article IV, Section 4. In order to get back to the Founders’ one-man-one-vote vision, Stevens proposes:

Districts represented by members of Congress, or by members of any state legislative body, shall be compact and composed of contiguous territory. The state shall have the burden of justifying any departures from this requirement by reference to neutral criteria such as natural, political, or historic boundaries or demographic changes. The interest in enhancing or preserving the political power of the party in control of the state government is not such a neutral criterion.

Campaign Finance. You can’t blame the Founders for not addressing campaign finance or corporate rights, because neither was a major part of their world***. But Congress passed and Teddy Roosevelt signed a ban on corporate campaign contributions back in 1907, and it wasn’t particularly controversial.

For decades thereafter, Congress, most state legislators, and members of the Supreme Court apparently assumed that it was both wise and constitutional to impose greater restrictions on corporate participation in elections than on individuals.

That position was supported by a unanimous Supreme Court decision in Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee as recently as 1982. But then conservative justices started inventing the corporate right to free speech and discounting the corrupting effect of large contributions.

Such was the consensus that the first opinions written by any member of the Court arguing that corporate expenditures in election campaigns are entitled to the same constitutional protection as the activity of individual voters were not announced until 1990.

But that recent legal development is now the majority opinion on the Court. A similar evolution has happened with regard to large contributions from rich individuals. The Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions have moved towards a money-is-speech doctrine that has a perverse effect on democracy.

Unlimited expenditures by nonvoters in election campaigns —whether made by nonresidents in state elections or by Canadian citizens, by corporations, by unions, or by trade associations in federal elections —impairs the process of democratic self-government by making successful candidates more beholden to the nonvoters who supported them than to the voters who elected them.

Stevens focuses his free-speech concern on making sure that voters have access to all relevant information, not on the right of the rich to shout louder than everyone else. So while he worries that limits on campaign contributions might be set too low, he sees no problems with limits in general. He points to the limits the Court itself sets on the arguments it hears:

There are, however, situations in which rules limiting the quantity of speech are justified by the interest in giving adversaries an equal opportunity to persuade a decision maker to reach one conclusion rather than another. The most obvious example is an argument before the Supreme Court. Firm rules limit the quantity of both oral and written speech that the parties may present to the decision maker. Those rules assume that the total quantity permitted is sufficient to enable the Court to reach the right conclusion; they are adequately justified by interests in fairness and efficiency.

And so he proposes this amendment:

Neither the First Amendment nor any other provision of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.

Gun control. The Second Amendment is often abbreviated as “the right to bear arms”. But that right is set in a context:

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.

In the era of the Founders, this had nothing to do with sovereign citizens arming themselves in case they need to overthrow the government, as gun-rights enthusiasts sometimes claim today, twisting Founder quotes about arms and tyranny out of their original context.

You need to remember the security situation at the time: The federal standing army was miniscule, while state and local governments faced numerous local threats — armed gangs and Indian raids on the frontier, pirates on the coast, and slave rebellions in the South. Those threats were handled by citizen militias who were authorized and organized by the state and local governments. They were not self-appointed gangs of armed vigilantes or revolutionaries, like those currently at the Bundy Ranch.

The Founders worried about the possibility that the federal government might disarm the militias and create a need for an internal standing army, which then might either become the enforcers of a federal tyranny or arbiters of local laws. (For example, an abolitionist president might drag his feet about putting down a slave revolt.) The purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state and local governments would maintain the right to their own law enforcement, rather than depending on a federal army.

The Second Amendment was understood that way for two centuries.

For over two hundred years following the adoption of that amendment federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: first, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. … During the years when Warren Burger was chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.

But then the NRA perpetrated what Chief Justice Burger called “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” In the Heller decision of 2008, the Roberts Court signed on to that fraud. Out of thin air, it decided that the Second Amendment protects weapons “typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes” from regulation by state and local governments. (Heller is an example of a Roberts-Court phenomenon I noted last month: the covert reversal. In practice, Heller reverses the Miller decision of 1939, but the Court never admits that it is doing so.)

As a result of the rulings in Heller and McDonald, the Second Amendment, which was adopted to protect the states from federal interference with their power to ensure that their militias were “well regulated,” has given federal judges the ultimate power to determine the validity of state regulations of both civilian and militia-related uses of arms.

He fixes it by changing the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear Arms” to “right to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia”.

Summary. The role of Constitution-amender is so powerful that it’s easy to be corrupted by it. At least in fantasy, you are re-writing the supreme law of the land, so it’s tempting to get all your digs in. Bad amendments are targeted at specific current outcomes that get over-specified, like Levin’s 15% income tax or limiting government spending to 17.5% of GDP. (Who knows what “income” or “GDP” will even mean 100 years from now?)

With that in mind, I find Justice Stevens amendments not just well intentioned and well thought out, but elegantly written. They are not wordy, they don’t create arbitrary limits and rules, they don’t invent procedures that have no precedent in American history, and they leave future Congresses and judges the room to do their jobs. I think I could support all of them.


* The taxing clause in Article I Section 8 (“The Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes”) is one of the most open-ended grants of power in the Constitution. Interestingly, the 16th Amendment was itself intended to overrule the Supreme Court’s limitation on that power. The first income tax was passed to finance the Civil War in 1861, but the Court found such a tax unconstitutional in the 1895 case Pollock v Farmers’ Loan and Trust, leading to the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1909 and its ratification in 1913.

** It’s widely believed on the Right that the Supreme Court’s power to declare a law unconstitutional was created out of thin air by Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v Madison in 1803, and so represents a judicial usurpation that the Founders never foresaw. Consequently, allowing Congress to reverse a Supreme Court decision might be seen as restoring the Founders’ vision. This is all completely false. Federalist #78, written by Alexander Hamilton in 1788 while the Constitution was being ratified, says:

The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. … [W]henever a particular statute contravenes the Constitution, it will be the duty of the judicial tribunals to adhere to the latter and disregard the former.

Hamilton went on to explain why the Founders had rejected one of Levin’s other proposals, term limits for the Supreme Court:

If, then, the courts of justice are to be considered as the bulwarks of a limited Constitution against legislative encroachments, this consideration will afford a strong argument for the permanent tenure of judicial offices, since nothing will contribute so much as this to that independent spirit in the judges which must be essential to the faithful performance of so arduous a duty.

*** But you should read Thom Hartman’s account of the Boston Tea Party as an anti-corporate (rather than anti-government) protest.

Being Them

It’s easy sometimes for the [immigration] discussion to take on a feeling of us versus them. And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them.

— President Barack Obama (Tuesday)

This week everybody was talking about immigration

The early part of a new presidential term is a magic moment for discussing the country’s real problems and what might be done about them. At the beginning of Obama’s first term we talked about how to stimulate the economy and expand access to healthcare. This time we’re talking about guns, immigration, and (maybe soon) climate change.

There’s no guarantee anything will get done, but isn’t it wonderful to be talking about something real? “Why can’t we do this all the time?” you wonder, and I have no answers.

So this week a bipartisan group of senators presented their immigration framework and President Obama responded by presenting his. (A bipartisan group in the House is still working on its plan.) Each has four parts, and the parts are remarkably similar: border security, a path to citizenship for people currently in the country illegally, and stopping undocumented workers from getting jobs are mentioned in both. Obama talks about “streamlining our legal immigration system” while the senators’ proposal seems a little more specifically business-focused: “admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs” — but those goals seem compatible.

At this point, both proposals are just lists of principles; there is no actual immigration bill yet. So a lot can still go wrong. Maybe the details will be hard to hash out, or maybe the two sides aren’t as serious as they look. We’ll see.

Republicans and the Hispanic vote. The one lesson Republicans seem to have learned from November is that they need more Hispanic votes. But opinions on how to get them vary.

Some think it will be enough to showcase more Hispanic names and faces. Put Marco Rubio or maybe Ted Cruz on the 2016 ticket, they think, and the Hispanic problem goes away. (The same people thought Sarah Palin would bring Hillary Clinton’s female supporters to John McCain. It didn’t work out.)

Another school believes Republicans just have to change their rhetoric. Stop talking about “sending them all back” or “anchor babies”, stop taking public stands against immigration reform, and presto!

Another faction thinks it’s pointless even to try. National Review promotes the same you-aren’t-good-enough-to-vote-for-us message that worked so well for Mitt Romney:

While many [Hispanics] are in business for themselves, they express hostile attitudes toward free enterprise in polls. They are disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support. More than half of Hispanic births are out of wedlock. Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies. Low-income households headed by single mothers and dependent upon some form of welfare are not looking for an excuse to join forces with Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey. Given the growing size of the Hispanic vote, it would help Republicans significantly to lose it by smaller margins than they have recently. But the idea that an amnesty is going to put Latinos squarely in the GOP tent is a fantasy.

Finally, somewhere inside the GOP may lie a faction that genuinely wants to represent Hispanic Americans and solve the nation’s immigration problem. Maybe they will succeed, or maybe the party will be happy just to have a plausible way to blame the Democrats when immigration reform fails yet again. We’ll see.

Guest workers. Most pundits are focusing on border security, but I think the detail most likely to sink the whole plan is how to handle “guest workers” — people we allow to enter the country to do a job, and then send back home without any chance for permanent residency or citizenship.

Guest workers make sense in two circumstances: if our need for workers is genuinely temporary (as it was when so many of our citizens were overseas fighting World War II), or if the workers themselves have no interest in staying. (A young Mexican might want to come north for the tomato harvest or to work in a kitchen for a year or so, and then go home with a little spending money.) But if we’re bringing in workers to fill a long-term need, then it should be up to them whether they want to stay and pursue citizenship. Otherwise we’re just giving the business community an exploitable working class that can’t vote.

The labor market. I am sick of hearing about “jobs Americans won’t do”. This is the only kind of market failure conservatives believe in. I believe that there are many jobs Americans won’t do for a Mexican wage, but there is a market-clearing wage that will get those jobs done in America by Americans.

People who believe in jobs-Americans-won’t-do point to the experience of Georgia and Alabama, where anti-immigrant laws resulted in crops rotting in the fields. To me, this is what would happen in any import-dominated market if imports (in this case, imported workers) were suddenly cut off. If we banned imports of, say, laptop computers, there would be a shortage in the stores until the domestic manufacturers tooled up. But that wouldn’t imply that “there are products American companies won’t make”.

What we found out in Georgia and Alabama is that low-skill work like harvesting vegetables isn’t no-skill work. You can’t take random people out of the unemployment line and expect them to have the required skill and stamina. Again, if you are paying an illegal-immigrant wage and people aren’t sure whether the immigrants will come back or not, native Alabamans and Georgians are not going to invest a lot of effort in improving their harvesting.

If growers had to pay an American wage to get their vegetables harvested, a lot of current arrangements wouldn’t make sense, and it would take a while for the market to adjust. (Maybe there are some crops that it doesn’t make sense to grow in America, or maybe consumers will have to get used to paying higher prices.) But many industries suffer cost shocks of one sort or another, and the market works it out eventually.

That’s exactly what markets are good at, as conservatives ought to know.

If we discover that we are generally short of workers after the market settles on an American wage for jobs currently being done by undocumented immigrants, then we need more documented immigrants who have the option of seeking citizenship, not guest workers.

… and we’re still talking about guns

which is kind of amazing when you think about it. Six weeks after Sandy Hook, the NRA still hasn’t managed to shut this down.

Different this time?

Increasingly, the NRA is having trouble defending itself and its minions, much less achieving its goals. Groups like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Mayor Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns (whose SuperPAC also has Mayor Bloomberg’s financial backing) are making politicians pay a price for their NRA A-rating. Here, CSGV goes after Georgia Democratic Congressman John Barrow, using footage from his own pro-gun campaign ad.

IndependenceUSA ran this ad against Debbie Halvorson, a candidate running in a special election congressional primary in Chicago:

In a debate, one of Halvorson’s rivals said, “I got an F (grade) from the NRA, something I’m proud of.”

This doesn’t work all over the country yet, but it doesn’t have to. In recent years, the NRA’s agenda has gotten support from representatives whose constituents lean the other way, just because there has been no perceived price to giving in to the powerful gun lobby. Now there is.

The NRA itself is facing an increasing level of criticism. Long-term, the most damaging charge is probably this one, taken from an article by Tim Dickinson in the current Rolling Stone:

Billing itself as the nation’s “oldest civil rights organization,” the NRA still claims to represent the interests of marksmen, hunters and responsible gun owners. But over the past decade and a half, the NRA has morphed into a front group for the firearms industry, whose profits are increasingly dependent on the sale of military-bred weapons like the assault rifles used in the massacres at Newtown and Aurora, Colorado.

On paper the NRA is governed by its members, but member-power is hard to exercise. NRA members did not, for example, elect their most visible spokesman, CEO Wayne LaPierre, who has served since 1991. He was chosen by a 76-member board. One-third of that board comes up for election each year, when members who have been paying dues for at least five years are presented with a slate of candidates chosen by a 10-member nominating committee (which I think is also chosen by the board). Theoretically it would be possible for the members to change leadership by electing write-in candidates, but in practice it’s hard to imagine. One charismatic reformer in one election couldn’t do it. A reform movement would have to field a slate of candidates over several years, and by the second year gun-industry money would pour into the incumbent campaigns.

Dickinson lays out the money trail, estimating that corporate donors like Ruger, Beretta, Browning, and Remington have given the NRA $52 million in recent years.

Much like elite funders of a major political party, these Golden Ringers enjoy top access to decision-makers at the NRA. Their interests, not the interest of the $35-a-year member, rule the roost. “They’ve got this base of true believers that they mail their magazines out to,” says policy analyst Diaz. “But the NRA is really about serving this elite.”

It’s one thing for a politician to point to an A-grade from the NRA as support from America’s sportsmen. It’ll be a different matter entirely if the public comes to see it as evidence that s/he has been bought by the firearms industry.

This kind of thing — turning an organization’s support into a negative — has happened before: Conservatives did it to the ACLU, most notably in the Dukakis/Bush race of 1988. ACORN was driven out of existence entirely. They’re trying — unsuccessfully, so far — to do the same to Planned Parenthood.

I can’t remember liberals ever pulling this trick off against a conservative organization. But it deserves to happen to anybody, it deserves to happen to the NRA.


Stephen King has written a very interesting piece called “Guns”. It’s available as a Kindle single for 99 cents, or Amazon Prime members can borrow it for free.

The most interesting section is when King discusses his own role in school shootings and what he did about it. As a teen-ager, he wrote a school-shooting novel called Rage. More than one school shooter, King discovered years later, had been reading Rage.

He does not apologize for writing it, because he believes it expresses a certain truth about the teen-boy experience. And he doesn’t believe that his novel “broke” the shooters; rather “they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken.”

Nonetheless he did take Rage off the market, because it’s an “accelerant”, as he puts it.

I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it was hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do.

Ultimately, King’s proposals are similar to President Obama’s: background checks, assault weapon ban, ban on large magazine clips, and so on. But what’s most interesting is how he imagines these changes coming about: Gun owners (like him) need to demand them — in spite of the NRA — because it’s the responsible thing to do.


The Atlantic takes on the argument that the Second Amendment is a defense against tyranny. When people make that claim, they’re usually picturing the Minutemen, who really were a “well-organized militia” accountable to the community. (They also didn’t have much to do with winning the Revolutionary War.) But self-selected gangs of armed civilians are only effective defenders of democracy in fantasies like Red Dawn.

The right parallel in American history isn’t Lexington and Concord in 1776, it’s Bleeding Kansas in 1856-58, when pro- and anti-slavery gunmen traded atrocities.

a citizen uprising at any point in the foreseeable future would probably not involve like-minded constitutionalists taking up arms to defend democracy and liberty. It would more likely be a matter of one aggrieved social group attacking another. And for the most criminal and vicious members of society, the rationale of “protecting” their own rights would be a convenient justification for straight-up looting, robbery, and bloodshed.


The week’s stupidest controversy happened after the New Republic asked President Obama “Have you ever fired a gun?” and Obama replied “Up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.”

Since this off-hand remark was apparently the most important thing happening in America, conservatives from Fox News to Congress to CNN’s Erin Burnett demanded proof. Even the WaPo’s fact-check column weighed in, as if this were a claim about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction or something.

“If he is a skeet shooter, why have we not heard of this?” asked Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn. “Why have we not seen photos?” — a question that Jon Stewart rephrased as: “Why won’t the black man half the country lives in fear of release a picture of himself with a gun?”

Maybe they were hoping for another Dukakis-in-a-tank photo. But Obama doesn’t look too bad. BagNews (a blog focused on analyzing political imagery) comments:

the critics and conservatives have short-sightedly forced Obama into releasing one of the most advantageous photos of his presidency.

Are they happy now? Or can we expect Donald Trump and Sheriff Arpaio to declare the picture a fake? StoptheACLU.com notes that the photo was posted “after all the uproar” and says that in spite of the White House’s claims  “When this photo was taken is anybody’s guess.” Why didn’t I think of that? Obama must have flown someplace where the leaves are still green so that he could fake a photo to end this damaging “uproar”.

… and you also might be interested in …

Wednesday, the Sift’s most popular post of all time (“The Distress of the Privileged“) got its 200,000th page view.


As the fiscal debate shifts to the defense cuts in the looming sequester, it’s worth taking a look at how our defense spending compares with the rest of the world.

You’ll sometimes see a smaller number — something in the $525 billion range — but that’s just “core” defense spending. It leaves out the cost of the wars we’re fighting, plus defense-oriented spending that appears in the intelligence or energy budgets. Columbia Journalism Review lays out the range of numbers that have some claim to measure “defense spending”. Even the $711 billion pictured above leaves out stuff like military pensions.


If you watched the Super Bowl, maybe you saw an ad for SodaStream, the company that wants you to save money and the environment by carbonating your own water, adding flavorings yourself, and reusing the same bottles many times.

But you didn’t see this cute ad, because CBS censored it, apparently because it directly makes fun of Coke and Pepsi, who are much bigger CBS advertisers.

It was OK for Pepsi to make fun of Coke in past Super Bowl ads, but that’s Goliath-on-Goliath action. In the “free” market (where CBS is “free” to censor ads it doesn’t want to show), Davids have to play by different rules. If you want a marketplace where everybody plays by the same rules … that requires government regulation. And (as we all know) regulation kills “freedom”.


Be careful what “news” articles you share on Facebook; the satire at The Daily Currant is getting harder and harder to separate from real life. I was almost fooled by Lehman Brothers CEO Arrested For Accounting Fraud, and the headlines Ann Coulter Refuses to Board Airplane With Black Pilot and Rush Limbaugh Denied Service at Mexican Restaurant are kinda-sorta plausible (especially if you never liked those two anyway). As you get deeper into the stories, though, you ought to catch on — like when Tim Pawlenty is quoted saying this about the Lehman arrest:

“I don’t mind being tough on crime. But I would prefer if the government stuck to prosecuting black and Latino people for drug offenses.”


But the pastor who stiffed the waitress at Applebee’s — that really happened. And the story just keeps getting worse.

It wasn’t enough for Pastor Alois Bell to cross out the 18% automatic tip that Applebee’s computer generates for large parties. (The $34.93 is Bell’s part of a split check, not the total.) It wasn’t even enough to add “I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?” and append “Pastor” to her signature.

When a photo of the ticket went viral on Reddit and the story was picked up by news sites all over the country, Bell had a chance to turn the other cheek, or maybe even treat the waitress to a Triple Chocolate Meltdown and see if they can’t laugh about this together now that it’s in the past. I mean, WWJD?

[OK, Jesus probably wouldn’t stiff a waitress and then brag about tithing in the first place, but WWJD is supposed to apply to all kinds of situations Jesus would never get into.]

We all picture Jesus in our own ways, but I doubt he would call Applebee’s and demand that everyone responsible for the embarrassment be fired, as Bell did. So the $3.50-an-hour waitress who photographed and posted the check (not the stiffed waitress, at least) is out on the street. I’m sure that will solve Bell’s public relations problem.

Fortunately for Pastor Bell, her God is more merciful than she is. A less forgiving deity might demand that everyone responsible for His embarrassment be “fired”.


I don’t watch HBO’s Girls. I tried in Season 1, but I’m not young enough, female enough, or New Yorky enough to get into it.

But Season 2 has sparked some fascinating discussion of Lena Dunham’s nude scenes. Now, naked women on HBO is old news. (Game of Thrones rarely makes it through half an episode without somebody’s breasts getting into the picture somehow.) But unlike the babes of Westeros, Dunham doesn’t have the kind of body you see in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She looks … the way the rest of American 20-somethings look without their clothes.

Apparently that’s a problem for some people. And their problem is an interesting topic for the rest of us. The Independent’s Nat Guest (a woman) writes:

there’s something progressive – almost revolutionary, in fact – about the approach to nudity in Girls. Rather than being sexualised flesh, designed to titillate, this is matter-of-fact flesh; uninhibited flesh that owns its own sexuality, and reminds us that there can be other reasons for nudity other than satisfying the male gaze.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nahisi Coates (a man) described Girls as

one of the most democratic – and everyhuman – depictions of sex to ever exist in pop culture. The more I thought about this, the more important it became to me.


This head-slapping video demonstrates that we’ve all been using Chinese take-out containers wrong.


What does “white privilege” mean? It means being able to carry a nice TV a few blocks to your friend’s house after dark — without worrying how you’ll look to the police. What does “Christian privilege” mean? Crystal St. Marie Lewis explains:

For Christians in America, religious privilege means boarding an airplane while holding their Bibles in plain view without incurring suspicion. The same isn’t true for people who “look like” Muslims in our country.

Privilege is seldom the kind of thing that makes you strut around thinking, “Damn, I’m privileged.” Usually it’s the stuff that you can do without thinking about it at all — and other people have to be very careful about.


Since I’m unlikely to make it to Kamchatka myself, AirPano watches the erupting volcanoes for me.

Spiegel explains how remarkable this is:

Given that volcano experts don’t believe that the four volcanoes are being fed from the same magma source, the parallel eruptions would seem to be the geological equivalent of winning the lottery.


And finally, can you watch an Oscar-nominated romantic comedy in six and a half minutes? Yes, you can.

One Nation, Under Guard: fantasy, reality, and Sandy Hook

A special kind of panic results when fear mixes with helplessness.

Big plane crashes are like that. You hear about one and you can’t help thinking about the last time you flew or the reservations you already have. You wonder what you would do if your airliner started going down.

In my imagination, I do nothing of any practical use: Scream. Pray. Tell myself it’s not happening. Maybe hold hands with my wife (if we happen to be traveling together) and wait to die.

Panic like that isn’t put aside by statistics. Either it fades with time, or you raise enough courage to overcome it and get on with life. Or you do something that lets you tell yourself (maybe falsely) that the world is different now, so the possibility that panicked you can’t happen any more.

Very often, the something is stupid, like canceling a plane trip and driving instead. Never mind that driving is more dangerous than flying. You’ll die with a steering wheel in your hands rather than falling helplessly out of the sky. The horrible fantasy is calmed.

Because that’s what the something is really about. If you can also make the world safer for yourself or your loved ones, great. But if you can’t, you still need to quiet the horror in your mind.

School shootings are like that. Every day, you drop your kids off at school — knowing, at some level, that you’re surrendering your ability to protect them. But you put that aside: It’s OK. They’re safe. Nothing will happen.

Until something happens. Probably it happens to somebody else and you see it on TV, but it happens. And you can’t get the horrible image out of your head: your precious little son or daughter crouched behind a desk, hearing the gunfire, waiting to die.

To a lesser extent, any public shooting is like that. It could be you, huddling behind a table at Food Court at the Mall, while a gunman walks your way, shooting one person after another. Or maybe you’re huddling behind your seat at the theater or behind your shopping cart at the supermarket. Then, there will be nothing you can do.

And that’s why it feels so important to do something now. Something. Anything. Even if it’s stupid.

Any rational discussion of the Sandy Hook shooting needs to start by acknowledging that psychological reality: We are, at every moment of our lives, helpless against the full range of bad things that could happen. The next person you see could pull out a gun and start blasting, or set off a suicide-bomber vest, or breathe some killer microbe into your airspace. The food you buy could be poison. A chemical spill could send a toxic cloud blowing your way. Nuclear war could start. A meteor could fall out of the blue sky. Even if the environment around you is perfectly safe, your heart (at any moment) could find reasons of its own to stop beating.

To a certain extent, you are never safe and you are always helpless. That’s the human condition.

Other than saints, bodhisattvas, and stoic philosophers, we spend about 99% of our lives in denial of that basic fact. Big public disasters — Sandy Hook, Aurora, 9-11 — break through our denial and cause panic. Panic makes us want to do something. Anything.

Sometimes there’s something sensible to do. Our air safety regulations, for example, have done a lot of good. You know how many people in the United States died in commercial air crashes in 2012? Two. Air bags, antilock brakes, and other car safety changes (plus better emergency response) have dropped the number of automobile-accident deaths in the U.S. from 54,000 in 1972 to 32,000 in 2011, despite having more people, cars, and passenger miles.

But sometimes we’re just making ourselves feel better without improving our safety at all. That’s the question to keep in mind as you think about responses to Sandy Hook: Are we actually improving safety, or are we just banishing a horrible fantasy?

The “solutions” put forward by the NRA and other gun advocates are almost entirely about banishing horrible fantasy. NRA President Wayne LaPierre:

when you hear the glass breaking in your living room at 3 a.m. and call 911, you won’t be able to pray hard enough for a gun in the hands of a good guy to get there fast enough to protect you.

Yep. You’ll be helpless, waiting to die. Then you’ll wish you had a gun. Just like when your airliner is crashing, you’ll wish you had driven instead. You’ll wish you had a steering wheel to twist and a brake pedal to stomp on.

Owning a gun is exactly the same kind of “solution” as driving instead of flying. Statistically, a household with a gun is far more likely to experience a violent death than a household without a gun. Maybe you’ll worry less about the sound of breaking glass at night — or maybe you’ll lose just as much sleep worrying about how fast you can get to your gun and whether you’ll win the shootout with the intruder —  but a gun won’t make your family safer.

Thinking of you, sis.

I don’t know of any statistical study, but I’ll place my bet that arming teachers or deploying armed guards in schools won’t make kids safer either. Picture the elementary school teachers you know personally. I’m picturing my sister. She’s going to shoot it out with a guy in body armor wielding a Bushmaster? Seriously?

Once you put a gun in a classroom — or a home or a supermarket — all kinds of things can go wrong. This is a big country with a lot of classrooms. Some of those things will go wrong somewhere.

Open carry is now legal in Oklahoma. Feel safer?

And what have we solved? We have banished the particular fantasy of a gunman shooting up a school (unless an armed guard or teacher goes nuts). But have we made it significantly harder to kill large numbers of children, if somebody is determined to do that? Or are we going to have to put armed guards everywhere that children gather? Or are we all going to carry guns to protect ourselves against all the other gunmen?

Is that the society you want your child to grow up in?


There’s been a lot of bad writing on both sides of this issue, but a few pieces here and there have been worth recommending. The best stuff gets past the horrible-fantasy stage and gives you something serious to think about.

Firmin DeBrabander goes directly at the what-kind-of-society question, and argues that guns do exactly the opposite of what the NRA contends: They decrease freedom, diminish democracy, and make dictatorship that much easier. Our front line of defense against violence is that we live in a civil society. If arming everyone undoes civility, then we are much less safe, no matter how well armed we are.

Private gun ownership … nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military … Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power — and one another — and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite.


Bad anti-gun writing usually comes from people who have never touched a gun in their lives. (Personally, I’ve shot a variety of guns, but not often, and I’m no kind of expert.) Dan Baum is not that guy. His 2010 article Happiness is a Worn Gun describes his experience training for a concealed-carry permit and then carrying his gun for several months.

The big thing that comes through is that concealed-carry isn’t just a plan, it’s a worldview. His training classes “were less about self-defense than about recruiting us into a culture animated by fear of violent crime.” Baum eventually stops carrying his gun, because he doesn’t like the way it changes his experience from Condition White (everyday awareness) to Condition Yellow (constant threat-monitoring).

Condition White may make us sheep, but it’s also where art happens. It’s where we daydream, reminisce, and hear music in our heads. Hard-core gun carriers want no part of that, and the zeal for getting everybody to carry a gun may be as much an anti-Condition White movement as anything else — resentment toward the airy-fairy elites who can enjoy the luxury of musing, sipping tea, and nibbling biscuits while the good people of the world have to work for a living and keep their guard up.


The best thing I read was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ On Living Armed. As a person who grew up in a violent neighborhood, Coates directly confronts the what-if-you-faced-a-shooter fantasy and expands it.

one does not simply do violence – or live prepared for violence – and remain the same. I carry all of West Baltimore with me, and I am in constant conversation over the fact that that part of me is wholly inappropriate for this world. That part – the part that is analyzing every person who walks up on me, who is trying to figure out every angle, who sees a crowd and walks the other way – is fit for a world of violence. That pose is totally draining. (It has no time to go off and learn French.)

So if you ask me if I wished to have a gun when an active shooter is present, then I will tell you that guns don’t magically appear in the holster, that the capacity to do lethal violence requires an expense of time, energy, and responsibility, which I would rather not make. I would tell you that I have, already, spent too much of my life preparing for violence. I would say that the person who should wish to have a gun in that situation, should be a person capable of shooting a gun, and a person comfortable with the responsibility of carrying a gun during the 99.9 percent of the time when violence – much less lethal violence – is wholly inappropriate.

A gun is power. And power demands responsibility. I don’t want to spend my time that way.