As we look back on recent events and recent developments, on the shooting death of an unarmed black teen walking home from the store by an armed vigilante out looking for “bad guys;” of the response by so many dismissing it as the price we pay for the “liberty” to ”protect ourselves,” often informed by our bigotries, in violent and deadly ways; of the combination of a right-wing drive to reinstate voter suppression laws and a Supreme Court holding making it easier to do so; of the rise of an angry, violent, divisive, and frequently racist political movement in America that loves guns and, by its ideological choices, hates humanity; it’s time for us to once again ask ourselves what kind of a people we want to be.
It’s time to dream again, America, and to shout that dream from the mountain tops. It’s time to dream of a nation in which we are more committed to lifting one another up than to knocking one another down. It’s time to dream of a future, of a present, in which we care that so many are so impoverished, that so many have so little access to basic health care, that so many suffer so much unnecessary violence. It’s time to dream again of being a people whose disputes are defined more by the limits of our reason and decency than by the extent of our bigotries. It’s time to dream again of striving to become a nation, and, eventually, a world, committed more to our shared humanity than to our explicit and implicit hatreds or, just as destructively, our mutual indifference.
It’s time to dream again, to care, to think, to strive, to work diligently on behalf of that which is most rational and humane, that which is most decent and good, that which is most caring and conscious. It’s time to dream again, and, in never-flagging opposition to those base and horrifying human tendencies that ever-seek to turn our dream into a nightmare, tendencies that are so in ascendance once again in this too-often troubled and misguided nation of ours, work diligently, work with all other rational people of goodwill, work in service to our shared humanity, to make that dream come ever-more true.
(Dr. King’s prepared remarks end at about the 11 minute mark of this video, and his “I have a dream” speech, extemporaneously building on a theme he had used a few times in smaller venues, begins just after the 12 minute mark.)
Part I: The Economy.
1) Every modern, prosperous, developed nation on Earth, without one single exception, has a large administrative infrastructure and has had a large administrative infrastructure in place since prior to participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in the production of prosperity. Every single nation on Earth that lacks a large administrative infrastructure is an impoverished nation. No nation without a large administrative infrastructure has ever achieved post-WWII levels of prosperity and economic development. The claim, then, that such a large administrative infrastructure, which the far-right refers to as “socialism,” is incompatible with prosperity, is the precise opposite of what the empirical evidence suggests: It appears to be not only compatible with prosperity, but absolutely indispensable to prosperity.
2) Economic theory and empirical observation make clear why this is so: Due to the consequences of “transaction costs” (the costs of market transactions, such as gathering information or organizing interested parties to act as single market actors in public goods scenarios), government involvement in the modern market economy is a vital component of a robust and well functioning economy, and its absence ensures that centrally located market actors (who benefit from “information asymmetries”) will game markets to their own benefit and to the public’s often catastrophic detriment. The government helps to reduce transaction costs by investing in infrastructure and human capital development that involve a combination of high immediate costs and very long-term though extremely high benefits that is not conducive to reliance on private investment.
3) In the immediate wake of the implementation of New Deal policies, we had four years of historically unprecedented GDP growth, that only declined again immediately after budget hawks similar to the American far-right today pushed through a more conservative fiscal policy.
4) What finally ended the Great Depression and set the country and world on the most dramatic expansion of prosperity in the history of the world was the most massive public spending project in world history : WWII, in which the United States ramped up its industrial engine by producing enormous quantities of sophisticated heavy military equipment that was conveniently destroyed as fast it could be manufactured, demonstrating that even unproductive production can stimulate an economy, suggesting how much more economically beneficial investment in infrastructure can be.
5) Our period of greatest economic growth (the 1950s and 1960s) was also the period of our highest marginal tax rates, when we did, in fact, make massive investments in infrastructure (such as our interstate highways system) and scientific and technological research and development (such as the space program and the government sponsored advances in computer technology, both of which generated a plethora of economically enormously beneficial developments).
6) In the immediate wake of the stimulus spending by the Bush and Obama administrations, declining GDP turned to growing GDP and an accelerating rise in job losses turned into a decelerating rise in Job losses, literally turning the corner from the deepening collapse authored by eight years of Republican economic policies to gradual recovery within months of the resumption of a Democratic administration and sane economic policies.
7) Virtually no economists, liberal or conservative, recommend fiscal austerity during an economic contraction, and yet Tea Party lunatics, drenched in the false belief that a long-term deficit and debt problem is an immediate crisis, insist on policies that virtually every economic model shows actually INCREASES our debt while crippling our economy.
8) The overwhelming majority of professional economists do not agree with the Tea Party economic paradigm, and The Economist magazine called it “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical.” 80% of American economists in a 2008 survey favored Democratic Party over Republican Party economic policies (and that was BEFORE the rise of the Tea Party!).
9) The Tea Party Congressional faction famously blackmailed the country with fiscally and economically nationally self-destructive default on our financial obligations (by threatening to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, which has never before been contentious and in most developed countries is automatic), in order to secure continuing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans which even conservative economists called “indefensible.” Even though this catalyzed a damaging downgrading of our national credit rating, they seem poised, in 2013, to repeat the same self-destructive and irresponsible behavior.
10) The two greatest economic collapses of the last 100 years in America were both immediately preceded by the two highest peaks in the concentration of wealth in America in the last 100 years (in 1929 and 2008, respectively), both of which followed a decade or more of the kinds of “small government” policies favored by the right today. Following the 1929 collapse, we learned from our mistakes and used government to create a more sustainable economy. Following the 2008 collapse, the far-right has continued to try to inflict continuing economic harm on the nation, insisting on continuing the same policies which caused the economic collapse in the first place.
11) Yet despite these many compelling facts, those on the far-right not only continue to believe what is contradicted by reality, but are 100 percent certain that their ideological dogma is the indisputable truth, and are smugly dismissive of those who disagree with them.
Part II: The Constitution and the Foundational Values of the Nation.
1) The Constitution was drafted and ratified to strengthen, not weaken, the federal government, after ten years of living under the toothless Articles of Confederation. “The Federalist Papers,” a series of op-ed arguments for ratification of the Constitution written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, largely made the case that an adequately empowered and centralized federal government was essential to the viability of the new republic. (“Federalism” was originally used to designate the political doctrine favoring a strong federal government, but has been converted by the modern right-wing to refer to the political doctrine favoring a weak federal government.)
2) Despite the frequent refrain that government taxing-and-spending is an act of federal tyranny and “unconstitutional,” the fact is that Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution grants Congress the unqualified power to tax and spend in the general welfare, the Constitutional provisions limiting that power being the ones that define our electoral process, by which we the people get to decide, through that process, whether our representatives’ interpretation of “the general welfare” is one we the people agree with. So, if “socialists” vote in a “socialist” president who taxes and spends to provide universal healthcare, or to address issues of poverty or disability or other acts of humanity as a people, that is not unconstitutional, it is not an infringement on anyone’s liberty, it is not an abuse of federal power, but is, rather, Congress doing exactly what it was empowered to do.
3) While claiming to be the great defenders of the Constitution, right-wingers are in fact the great antagonists against the Constitution, because they reject the process by which we have resolved disputes over constitutional interpretation for over two centuries (Judicial Review) and fight to reduce the Constitution to a meaningless Rorschach Test which each ideological faction claims to support whatever that ideological faction favors, thus destroying the Constitution as a functioning document.
4) While pretending to be the great bulwark against tyranny, they in fact pose the greatest threat of tyranny and against our rule of law, by insisting that they are prepared to overthrow the government if they disagree with it, and by insisting that their “liberty” requires that we siphon political economic power away from our constitutionally and democratically constrained government organized to serve the public interest and into large private corporations that are not constitutionally and democratically constrained and are organized to serve the interests of the few who own the most shares rather than of the public in general (a transferal of power to corporate interests which is essentially the definition of “fascism”).
5) The claim to be the true representatives of the will and spirit of the Founding Fathers is almost the diametrical opposite of the truth, for several reasons. For one thing, the “Founding Fathers” did not have one simplistic ideological “will” that could be so easily represented. Ben Franklin, for instance, believed that all private wealth beyond that necessary to maintain oneself and one’s family in modest fashion should revert to the public “by whose laws it was created,” by means of very high luxury and inheritance taxes. Thomas Paine believed in redistribution of wealth, through the agency of government, from the more wealthy to the less wealthy. Alexander Hamilton believed in a very strongly centralized federal government. The two things that bound our Founding Fathers together and that, in the final analysis, they universally agreed on is that people can and should govern themselves through the use of their own reason and in service to their shared humanity, and that compromise was an essential tool in doing so, two things that the modern far right most vigorously rejects. In other words, the far right, by idolizing caricatures of the Founding Fathers, does the opposite of emulating them as rational and humane people striving to create an ever-more rational and humane society.
6) While power has indeed shifted from the states to the federal government over the course of our history, at the same time (and in part by that very mechanism), real protections against the potential tyranny of government have grown far stronger than they were even at the time of the founding of the nation, when states’ rights were paramount. As stated above, the first major step in that direction was the Constitution itself, replacing the toothless Articles of Confederation with a federal framework with a strong federal government.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, at the beginning of the 19th century, made another step in that direction, instituting the doctrine of “judicial review,” which gives the Court the last word in legal and constitutional interpretation, thus ensuring that our short and ambiguous founding document has, for functional purposes, a single unambiguous interpretation that we accept as a matter of law.
The next major step was the Civil War, which increased federal power to protect the rights of individuals (in this case, slaves) from the oppression of more local (state) governments and private property owners. The New Deal nationalized our sense of economic purpose and shared fate, and our participation in WWII took that spirit abroad and ramped up our economy even further. The Eisenhower administration taxed and spent with impunity, and put in place an enormously beneficial infrastructure which led to decades of historically unprecedented growth. The Civil Rights movement, Court holdings, and Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts all continued the use of the federal government to protect individual rights against state and private violation. Kennedy used the federal government to land a man on the moon, increasing our technological prowess in ways that have also been highly beneficial. And, finally, the federal government was instrumental in the development of information technologies which have created enormous prosperity.
In the meantime, the Civil Rights amendments to the Constitution and the Court’s interpretation of the Bill of Rights have led to an extraordinary extension of our liberties and of the vigor of their protection. The Bill of Rights came to be applied as a bulwark against state and local as well as federal intrusions of individual rights and liberties. The provisions came to be read with increasing rigor, requiring ever greater due process protections (which the faux-liberty-loving right have generally opposed with equal vigor), discovering a penumbra “right to privacy” that isn’t actually explicitly stated in the Constitution, and, in general, providing ever increasing protections for individuals against governmental exercises of power.
But rather than rejoice in this advance of liberty and prosperity, the right imagines that any intrusion on private property interests and their hoarding of private wealth is the real affront to individual liberty and human rights, just as their slave-owing ideological forebears did.
Part III. Morality, Humanity and Self-Congratulatory Historical Revisionism.
1) Right-wingers dismiss the plight of the poor, most of whom work long hours in low-paying jobs, as a function of their own defects and laziness, and insist that it is morally unacceptable for us as a society to assume any shared responsibility to address social issues such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, the special needs of the disabled, and unnecessary and unjust human suffering in general.
2) They do so despite the fact that every other developed nation on Earth has done a far better job than us of reducing poverty, reducing economic inequality, and reducing the myriad social problems associated with poverty and economic inequality.
3) They revise history so as to define every historical movement that is now broadly condemned to have been “left-wing movements,” such as their conversion of Nazism –a political ideology and regime which hated communists, labor unions, intellectuals, journalists, the poor, and “foreigners” living within the country, favored policies which concentrated wealth and power into constitutionally and democratically unconstrained corporate hands, and relied on an ultra-nationalism stoked up with lots of jingoism and “patriotic” rhetoric and imagery– into a left-wing movement, and their main argument why this is so is because “National Socialism” has the word “Socialism” in its name (much as the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, a Soviet client state, must have been a Democratic Republic, since it’s right there in the name, right?).
4) They revel in the (accurate) facts that the Republican Party freed the slaves while the Democratic Party was closely associated with the KKK, always implying that that alignment continues today. They neglect to mention (or recognize) that, in the wake of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which LBJ (a Democrat) was as closely associated with as Obama is with The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), southern whites (and northern white racists) abandoned the Democratic Party en masse and migrated to the Republican Party, which is why implicit and explicit racism now resides almost exclusively in the Republican Party, with the map of Tea Party strongholds closely corresponding to the map of the Confederacy, and with so many Tea Party policy positions containing so much implicit racism (e.g., voter suppression laws, opposition to any form of affirmative action, hyperbolic disdain for the first African American president, contempt for Latin American migrants, etc.).
Part IV: Guns, Violence, and a Reactive rather than Proactive Society.
1) The United States has the second highest homicide rate among 36 OECD nations (beaten only by Mexico, which “benefits” from a constant flood of our firearms crossing the border to fuel their problem), from 2 to 25 times the homicide rate of 33 of the 35 other OECD other nations.
2) In both domestic comparisons of homicide rates across all jurisdictions and cross-national comparisons of homicide rates in developed countries, there is a positive correlation between per capita legal gun ownership and homicide rates.
3) The overwhelming majority of firearms used in the commission of crimes in The United States are put into circulation by initially being legally purchased in those states with the laxest regulations, and entering the black market from there, through which they are distributed to all locales in the country due to the complete absence of any obstructions to the transportation of good across state and municipal borders.
4) As a statistical fact, a legally, privately owned firearm is many times more likely to be involved in EACH of the following than to be successfully used in self-defense: suicide, accidental shooting death, mistaken shooting death (not an accidental discharge or hunting accident, but an intentional shooting at an innocent person mistaken for an intruder or a threat), crime of passion and use as part of a cycle of domestic violence.
5) As a statistical fact, a firearm in the home has a greater likelihood of being the instrument of death of a member of the household or of an innocent visitor than to be used in self-defense, and the owner of a firearm is more likely to be the victim of gun violence than a non-owner of a firearm.
6) We, as a nation, have the highest absolute number and highest percentage of our population incarcerated of ANY nation on Earth, making us in a very literal sense the least free nation on Earth.
7) This high incarceration rate is in part a function of a right-wing retributive orientation, which believes that the world is neatly divided between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” and that if the good guys are just better armed against the bad guys, and lock the bad guys up or execute the bad guys, we’ll be a more peaceful and law-abiding society as a result.
8) The right, in other words, believes that the more we threaten one another –with decentralized deadly violence, with incarceration, with capital punishment– the more we will reduce violence against innocent victims, despite the empirical evidence that the opposite is true.
9) When an unarmed black teen walking home from the store (Trayvon Martin) was shot to death by an armed vigilante out looking for people to “defend” himself against (George Zimmerman), the right tried to dismiss this as irrelevant to the question of whether being an armed society of fearful and angry people out looking for people to “defend” themselves against is really such a good idea. They insisted that if it was legally self-defense in the moment of the use of deadly force (as it may or may not have been), then there can be no basis for criticizing the policies and ideology that encouraged the creation of the need to use deadly force, neglecting to recognize the fact that the entire encounter was a function of Zimmerman choosing to go out with a gun and look for people to “defend” himself against, and neglecting to notice the implications of his choosing to “defend” himself against an unarmed black teen walking home from the store. Following this incident, numerous right-wing posts on Facebook showed “scary” black criminals as some kind of a justification for whites going out with guns, pursuing unarmed black teens, and shooting them to death.
10) Those societies that have a more proactive and less reactive orientation –that recognize that we affect the propensity and ability to commit violent acts by the cultural milieu that we create together, that recognize that taking better care of one another and providing more social justice and less destitution, and making access to instruments of deadly violence less rather than more easy , by reducing the flood of instruments of deadly violence and the idolization of instruments of deadly violence which in part define our society— have far lower rates of deadly violence than we do, far lower rates of incarceration, far lower rates of poverty and other social ills, healthier and (according to self-report survey studies) happier populations.
11) Unfortunately, the far-right in America insists that to recognize our interdependence, to be an aspirational and hopeful rather than fearful and angry society, to be proactive and caring rather than reactive and retributive, would be an affront to their “liberty,” and thus opposes such progress in an obviously preferable direction, a direction which is more humane and productive and life-affirming.
Part V: Their Ideology’s Historical Predecessors.
1) The abuse of the concept of “liberty” to mean the liberty to benefit disproportionately from an unjust system which results in a grossly unjust distribution of wealth and opportunity, the identification of the federal government as a threat to that “liberty” and a tyrant because of it, is an ideology that has existed as long as our country has existed.
2) This conflation of the concepts of “liberty” and “property,” and the related reduction of “liberty” to a socially irresponsible license to exploit and oppress others for one’s own benefit, was originally the ideology of Southern Slave owners, who insisted that their liberty to own slave was being threatened by the tyrannical federal government, an ideology explicated in John C. Calhoun’s “Union and Liberty,” in which he argued that the “minority” (southern slave owners) had to be protected from the majority who were trying to infringe on their “liberty” to own slaves.
3) It continued to be used by Southern Segregationists, who argued that any attempt to end Jim Crow and ensure the civil rights of discriminated against groups would be an infringement on their freedom.
4) In fact, when LBJ was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the result was the movement of racists from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, where they now reside.
5) Rand Paul said that he would not have been able to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The abolition of slavery (even to the point of having to use years of military force) and the passage of laws protecting African Americans and others from discrimination in the public sphere were both federal governmental exercises of power.
6) The Right currently favors Jim Crow-like voter suppression laws based on a discredited pretext, dismisses as irrelevant the shooting death of an unarmed black teen walking home from the store by an armed vigilante out looking for people to defend himself against, opposes laws which address a historical legacy of an inequality of opportunity in America which disproportionately effects those categories of people who have been most historically discriminated against, speak in words and tones highly reminiscent of our nationally embarrassing McCarthyist witch trial era, and, in general, demonstrate that they are simply the current incarnation of an old historical perennial.
7) When confronted by those who disagree with them, people they constantly vilify and refuse to engage in any constructive national discourse with, they react with great hostility, their primary argument generally being that the act of presenting the factual and logical and moral errors in their ideology to them is an insult that cannot be tolerated.
Part VI: Their Short-Sighted, Socially Disintegrative and Globally Destructive Ideology.
1) Those on the far-right dismiss as a bastion of liberal bias precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze and contemplate information, thus insulating their dogma from any intrusion of fact and reason. (It’s no wonder, then, that only 6% of American scientists self-identify as Republican, and only 9% as conservative, compared to 55% as Democrat and 52% as liberal. 14% identify themselves as “very liberal,” over 50% more than those who identify themselves as merely “conservative.)
2) By doing so, they are able to dismiss scientific insights into the potentially catastrophic impact we are having on global natural systems through our unchecked accelerating exploitation of Nature in service to our immediate appetites and avarice, an exploitation which is converting us from fellow symbiotes in a sustainable biosphere into deadly parasites killing the host on which we are feeding.
3) Consistent with the general tone and tenor of their entire ideological package, this rejection of methodological thought and short-sighted commitment to immediate self-gratification, at the expense of others, at the expense of our planet, at the expense of our future, is an expression of a primal unmindfulness rather than the more mindful engagement with the world that we are capable of. It is a vestige of primitive inclinations rather than a progress into a more fully conscious existence on this planet. It is the rejection of the shared human endeavor that had begun to define us, a shared reaching for what we are capable of creating together, a shared commitment to reason and humanity.
This is, of course, a very partial list of the logical, factual, and moral fallacies that define the modern Far-Right. It is a single folly comprised of innumerable dimensions, including the failure to invest in children and families and communities, to value the health and welfare of our population, to have compassion and respect for those who migrate towards opportunity and do our hardest and least pleasant jobs for us for the lowest wages. It includes the disdain for gays and lesbians and transgender people, for Muslims and atheists and all those who differ in any way which triggers any number of deep and hateful bigotries. It includes the movement for an American Theocracy similar to those in the Middle East, in which Fundamentalist Christians strive to turn the state into a vehicle for their tyrannical religious fanaticism.
All of these multiple dimensions of far-right-wing folly and barbarism are part of a single, coherent package, an ideology of fear and hatred, of a variety of in-group/out-group biases and bigotries, an ideology which insists that we must not govern ourselves in ways which promote human welfare but only in ways which react brutally to the failure to do so, an ideology which eschews more effective and less costly preventions in favor of less effective and more costly reactions to problems left to fester and grow. It is an ideology which refuses to allow us, as a society, to invest in our future, to recognize our interdependence and our responsibilities to one another as human beings, and to work together intelligently and humanely in service to our collective welfare.
They’re on the wrong side of fact, the wrong side of reason, the wrong side of morality, and the wrong side of history. And they’re smug about it. We, as a nation and a world, do need a moderately conservative voice to be a vital participant in our national dialogue, but we all need to subordinate such ideological leanings to a shared commitment to being rational and humane people, wise enough to know that we don’t know much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. While all of us fall short of that commitment to some degree and at some times, when factions form that demonstrate a consistent determination to be the diametrical opposite of rational and humane participants in a shared national endeavor, those factions become the problem we must solve rather than participants in our effort to solve it.
Part I: The Battle Of Narratives
There are two competing narratives at work in the gun control debate (narratives that, in general form, define many of the debates dividing the political “left” and the political “right”). One narrative views the world as a dangerous place, with bad people who do bad things, and that therefore an armed populace needs to be ready to stop those bad people before they can do bad things. Another narrative views the world as not just a dangerous place, but also a promising place and a complex and challenging place, a place where the number of bad people, and the degree to which they are equipped to do bad things, can vary according to the arrangements by which we coexist. In the latter narrative, the former narrative is seen as a facilitator of violence more than as a bulwark against it, a set of memes which increase rather than decrease both the reliance on and recourse to violence as a fundamental defining characteristic of our society.
The first narrative seeks a static equilibrium in which bad people are counterbalanced by good people equally well armed. The second narrative seeks an evolving condition through which both the inclination toward and means to commit acts of violence are gradually reduced through policies which address both the causes of those inclinations and the instruments through which they are realized.
More fundamentally, the first narrative is locked into a status quo rooted in mutual fear and antagonism, whereas the second narrative is reaching for paradigm shifts based on addressing underlying causes and reducing violence by proactively addressing the human physical and socio-emotional needs of our populace to a greater extent.
We are, in fact, by far the most violent developed nation on Earth, as measured by homicide rates. We are also by far the most violent developed nation on Earth according to several other measures, such as gun laws which are based on a paradigm of readiness for violence, capital punishment and in general a very retributive penal system, violent video games and movies, and a too frequently militaristic orientation toward the world.
The adherents to the first narrative want to deny any causal relationship between our lax gun regulations and our high murder rates. I want to emphasize that regardless of whether such direct causal relationships exist, a subtler and more systemic relationship certainly exists: We are a violent culture because we are a violent culture. In other words, our dramatically higher rates of acts of deadly violence in comparison to other developed nations are rooted in our dramatically more pervasive attitudes favoring violence in comparison to other developed nations. And, arguably, the rise in (generally non-lethal) violence that those other developed nations have experienced in recent decades is attributable to the export of some of the products and modalities of our globally hegemonic violent culture.
There is much we need to do to address our culture of violence in America. I have frequently said, throughout all of the discussions in the wake of repeated mass public murders, that the most fundamental factors and challenges do not involve guns: It is more about becoming a society that is more able to lift one another up and less eager to knock one another down, a society that looks for ways to take care of one another rather than for rationalizations not to, a society that addresses problems more by preventing their growth than be reacting to their presence.
What concerns me most about the very strongly positive attitudes toward firearms expressed on many blogs and message boards are the attitudes themselves, a belief that instruments of violence are the defining tool of civilization, and a belief that the best we can do is to impose on one another the constant, ubiquitous threat of mutually available deadly force.
The social order based on mutual threat is not an optimal social order, because it leads to more violence than a social order based on centralized pacification of mutual threat. In 19th century Appalachia, there was little formal government or police, so the inhabitants forged a social order based on mutual threat of retaliation for doing one another wrong. It worked when it worked, but gave way to spiraling descent into generational violence whenever it broke down. The feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys is one example.
International relations is another. It is an order based on mutual threat rather than centralized government, and it is a more violent order, with more breakdowns in the peace, than that of a political unit with a functioning government. That’s the purpose of government; that’s what it can be used for: To remove the need to create a precarious order based on the threat of mutual violence, and replace it with the knowledge that mutual violence isn’t acceptable.
Yes, those laws have to be enforced. But using the degree to which any government inevitably fails to (because there is always a failure rate) as a justification for giving up on government as the pacifying agency of a society, and returning instead to the more precarious and less effective paradigm of mutually threatened deadly violence, is a regress away from being a functioning society.
We can’t solve our problems or grow as a society into something ever-better simply by pitting the “good guys” against the “bad guys” in a societal wide gunfight. We have to pit ourselves as individuals and as a society against our own demons as human beings, our own foibles. And that requires thinking in different ways, on different levels of analysis, with greater aspirations and more commitment to the possibilities.
Part II: The Abuse of the Second Amendment
1) Discussion of the meaning of the term at the time of the drafting and ratification of the Constitution (such as in Federalist Papers #29 by Alexander Hamilton) clearly defined “a well-regulated militia” as a state militia rather than as any gathering of individual gun owners. The Constitution itself, in Article II, Sec. 2, Clause 1, states that “The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States when called into the actual service of the United States.” In other words, militia are seen as organized at the state level rather than as being any group of citizens who choose to bear arms together. Also, in Article I, Section 8, Clause 15, the Constitution states, “The Congress shall have Power To …provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions….” In other words, the Constitution expresses in plain language that it envisions the purpose of an armed militia to be the suppression of insurrections, not the equipping of them. The notion that the Second Amendment is intended as providing a right to rebel is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous; the foundational law of a nation cannot and does not, ever, include the provision “but feel free to ignore the law, or arrogate to yourself final judgment on the meaning of the law in deference to your own manias, if you disagree.”
2) By one historical analysis, the “well-regulated militia” language referred to, in part, the state and local militias southern states relied on to suppress slave uprisings. Since the south feared that the growing abolitionist sentiments of the northern states would lead to the use of the federal government to deny the southern states this indispensable recourse to violent preservation of their inverted understanding of what “liberty” means, they made the inclusion of the second amendment a requisite to their ratification of the Constitution.
3) Even disregarding that particular historical analysis and accepting the conventional mythology instead, at no time previously in our history has the Second Amendment been interpreted to provide the absolute individual right to own and carry any firearms any time anywhere that our current gun idolaters insist it grants them.
4) The language of the Second Amendment is clearly ambiguous, and the emphasis on a “well-regulated militia” clearly leaves room to regulate gun ownership. While there is a great deal of right-wing sophistry dedicated to redefining the word “regulated” in the Second Amendment so that it no longer means “regulated,” the fact is that the plain language of the Second Amendment endorses the concept of regulation.
5) The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, not any and all arms in any and all times, places and circumstances. Just as the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but not anywhere, any time, and for any purpose (it depends on the forum, on whether unfettered speech can impede the purpose of that forum, and whether the speech is malicious and harmful), so to it is well within the discretion of local, state and federal governments to limit what kinds of arms can be borne, where and when they can be borne, and for what purpose they can be borne (recent incidents of gun idolaters brandishing their arms in restaurants and at kids’ ball games, causing patrons to flee and the game to be cancelled, is an example of how the unfettered right can be used for malicious purpose without necessarily firing a shot or explicitly threatening anyone).
6) Such ambiguities in Constitutional provisions are made functional through a process of legal interpretation and the institution of judicial review, by which the courts (and ultimately The Supreme Court) has the final word on legal interpretation. In the absence of judicial review, the Constitution would be reduced to a meaningless Rorschach Test on which each ideological faction superimposes its own ideological preferences and, through lack of any system for resolving such disputes, destroy the Constitution as a functioning legal document.
7) Even the current ultra-conservative Supreme Court, in holding for the first time in American history that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right, emphasized that the Second Amendment does not confer an absolute right, and that it does not prohibit reasonable regulations of firearm ownership and possession.
8) By no reading of the Constitution, past or present, at any time in our history or by the current ultra-conservative Supreme Court, are such marginal restrictions as universal background checks or bans on high capacity clips (laws which got three Democratic state senators recalled, in an abuse of the recall by our fanatical gun idolaters) a violation of the Second Amendment or in any way unconstitutional. Declaring them so is akin to declaring “unconstitutional” a teacher’s request of a student to stop disrupting a high school class with constant loud yelling of obscenities and other verbal misbehaviors, since it is a governmental action limiting a person’s speech. None of our rights are unlimited in that way, and no rational person believes they are.
9) In any case, when discussing these issues, we should always discuss legality, reality, and morality, not just one to the exclusion of the others. The ideal we are challenged to approach is the perfect alignment of the three. The quasi-sacred status of the Constitution means that when people cite it, and particularly the Bill of Rights, they do so as if that answers all three questions automatically. In truth, it only answers the question about current legality, not about morality (what really best serves our shared humanity) or reality (what a pragmatic recognition of the current social institutional landscape recommends). Citing The Second Amendment, regardless of its interpretation, does not prove either the morality or the practicality of our gun culture and the laws which help to perpetuate it; it is only a discussion of legality, and, as popular sovereigns, it is always our responsibility to question whether current legality aligns well with reality and morality or not.
Part III: Why the “Defense Against Tyranny” Argument Has It Backwards
1) Neither violence nor the general threat of tyranny are likely ever to cease. But we can affect the RATE at which violence occurs, and the DEGREE of the threat of the imposition of dictatorship, and, in fact, in the modern context, BOTH are reduced by a less rather than more heavily armed population.
2) The right-wing belief that an armed population reduces the chance of dictatorship is questionable, since armed factions can as easily band together for the purpose of overthrowing the rule of law and imposing their own dictatorship as for the purpose of preventing a government that has no need to use such force from doing so.
3) The political economy of developed nations has developed in such a way that the means of exercising power, and the benefits of that power, are much less dependent on the overt use of force against one’s own population, and much more dependent on the continued peaceful rule of law, than in any previous era.
4) In other words, it’s really not in “the government’s” interests to fundamentally change the current status quo, and the current institutionalized rule of law.
5) The very notion of “the government” is a bit of a fiction, especially in a modern democracy; it’s really a large, complex institution comprised of numerous people and branches with frequently conflicting interests, held increasingly in check by a combination of size, non-monolithic interests, and a complex web of civil restraints. The notion that these millions of people, or even hundreds of very centralized and influential actors will at any time in the foreseeable future have either the desire or ability to conspire to overthrow the system from which they already enormously benefit, in a political culture in which it would only serve to bring infamy and resistance down upon them and would almost under no circumstances succeed in actually improving any aspect of their lives by any measure, is a very large stretch of the imagination.
6) The notion that a heavily armed faction of grease-painted citizen-fanatics, not so steeped in the reality of our political economic landscape, not so socialized into the pragmatic demands of the governance of a modern nation, might engage in activities which harm people and threaten our rule of law, is not at all a stretch of the imagination (in fact, there are numerous examples of it occurring in relatively recent history).
7) Of the two threats to the rule of law in America, to our continued liberty and prosperity and security, it is beyond apparent that the by-far larger threat comes from the armed ideological fanatics, steeped in fictionalized nationalistic narratives, vicariously reliving the overly-sanctified centuries old birth of our nation due to a lifetime of political indoctrination that gradually detached them from any strong tether to modern reality.
8) I would much rather take my chances with the population of current and future political office-holders who have no need or benefit from recourse to violent suppression of the American people, than with any number of potential armed citizen factions whose ideological zealotry and fanaticism could at any time get the better of them and lead to unnecessary and counterproductive armed insurrection, destroying the nation they claim to wish to defend.
Part IV: Why the “Can’t Keep Guns Out Of The Hands Of Criminals” Argument Is both Defeatist and Empirically Refuted
1) I don’t accept the notion that, when confronted with a social problem, we should ever start off with the assumption that there is something physically possible that we are not able to accomplish. When Apollo 13 was stranded in space, the NASA engineers poured everything onto the table, and figured out how to get the job done, and, against overwhelming odds, did get the job done. Starting any policy debate with “it can’t be done” is not who and what we have ever been, nor who and what we should be now. We might, after very careful and thorough analysis, decide that the costs outweigh the benefits, but that should come at the end of a process rather than be mobilized upfront to preempt that process entirely.
2) Almost every other developed nation on Earth has succeeded in doing what these nay-sayers insist we are incapable of. If they can do it, we can too. And they did it without undermining the protection of basic liberties like freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and the right to privacy and due process.
3) While we try to tackle this challenge, we can fairly effectively regulate the production and distribution of rounds for specific types of firearms that we decide are not in our public interest to be easily available to anyone at any time. Without those rounds, the firearms become just unwieldy clubs.
4) In Australia, a rugged individualist, frontier society somewhat similar to the US, when strict gun regulations were enacted several years ago in response to a mass public shooting there, the arguments against it were identical to the ones we hear in America today. Even so, Australia has seen a marked and sustained drop in their homicide rates every year since enacting these strict regulations, and even many of the former naysayers now admit that they were wrong.
5) The real measure of comparative homicide rates shows that the assumption that guns can’t be kept out of the hands of criminals, or that the balance of gun ownership when regulations are imposed favors criminals, is erroneous, since, those countries with stricter regulations have lower homicide rates while those with laxer regulations have higher homicide rates.
6) Anecdotal evidence about high murder rates in cities with strict regulations is often mobilized as “proof” that regulations don’t work. There are several fallacies to this argument:
- It relies on cherry-picked evidence, ignoring, for instance, cities with strict regulations and low murder rates;
- anecdotal evidence never trumps contradictory statistical evidence; for instance, citing all of the cases in which wearing a seatbelt caused rather than prevented a death in an automobile accident does not change the fact that it is statistically far safer to wear a seatbelt than not to wear one;
- in a country with no internal barriers to the movement of goods across state and municipal lines, local regulations are undermined by laxer regulations elsewhere, an observation underscored by the fact that the overwhelming majority of firearms used in the commission of a crime anywhere in the United States are originally put into circulation by being legally purchased in those jurisdictions with the laxest regulations; and
- this anecdotal argument confuses the causal relationship, neglecting to note that the stricter regulations are generally caused by the problem of comparatively high homicide rates, thus requiring a comparison of homicide rates in that locale prior and subsequent to the passage of the restrictions in order to make any meaningful argument, rather than a generic reference to “high murder rates” in a vacuum.
Part V: Why The “Increases Personal Safety” Argument Has It Backwards
The statistical evidence very compellingly suggests that owning firearms makes people less rather than more safe. For every successful use of a firearm by a civilian to defend person or property, EACH of the following uses occurs numerous times: accidental shooting, suicide, crime of passion, use in escalation of a fight or in “mistaken” self-defense, commission of a felony, and, most ironically of all, the person trying to defend self or property getting shot him or herself.
An armed homeowner who confronts the intruder is four times more likely to get shot in a home invasion incident than an unarmed homeowner. A gun owner is more likely to be killed by gun violence than a non-gun-owner. A gun in the home is more likely to be the instrument of death of a member of the household, of or a friend of a member of the household, than to be used in self-defense.
And what was the outcome in the most recent notorious case of an armed “good guy” trying to protect his neighbors’ property from the “bad guys”? He ended up shooting to death an unarmed teen walking home from the store. That kind of “safety” we can all live without, because far too many end up not living as a result.
Again, the fact is that we have the highest private gun ownership rate in the world and the laxest gun regulations of any developed nation, and have the second highest homicide rate of 33 OECD countries, 2 to 25 times higher than that of all but two. Both intranationally (across US jurisdictions) and internationally (among developed nations), gun ownership rates are positively correlated with homicide rates.
The proliferation and lack of regulation of guns increases homicide rates. A gun in the home increases the danger to the people living in it and visiting it. Ownership of a gun increases one’s odds of being shot to death. The gun-idolaters are not increasing our safety with their mania, but rather decreasing it, dramatically.
Part VI: Possibly the Two Dumbest Slogans in Political Discourse
1) “Guns don’t kill; people do.” By this logic, it shouldn’t matter whether terrorists or rogue nations gain access to nuclear weapons, because, after all, “nuclear weapons don’t kill; people do.” Of course, we all recognize that tools and technologies do, in fact, matter. The modern world would look no different from the premodern one if that were not the case, and there would be no reason not to sell nukes at corner stores to whoever wanted one.
Tools and technologies, by increasing the convenience of accomplishing an act, and increasing the effects of the act being accomplished, amplify both the frequency and intensity of acts committed by people. We travel farther and faster, communicate farther and faster, calculate more and faster, build more and higher, and kill more and faster, as a result of having tools and technologies which facilitate these actions.
If the tool is irrelevant, if only the intention of the people wielding it counts, then why do those who make this argument feel such a need to protect their own access to this tool? If a knife or club kills as well as a gun, why not use a knife or a club yourselves and stop making such an issue out of your right to own guns? The reason is simple: Those who are adamant about their right to own guns know that guns are more efficient tools of deadly violence than the alternatives available in their absence, and they want to have tools of deadly violence as efficient as anyone who might confront them has.
When you inject an overabundance of particularly efficient, convenient and easily misused instruments of deadly violence into the mix of human fallibilities –aggression, anger, rage, fear, panic, carelessness, bad judgment, stupidity, jealousy, greed, depression, despair, mental illness, militant fanaticism, vengefulness, bigotry, overconfidence, insecurity, pettiness, false certainty, immaturity, machismo, vigilantism, hero complex, petulance, and numerous other very normal defects abundantly distributed throughout the human population– you get exactly what we have gotten: A far higher rate of deadly violence than we otherwise would have. Empirical evidence confirms what common sense suggests, and anyone who squints really hard not to see it shares in the responsibility for US intentional homicide rates 2 to 25 times higher than those of other developed countries (not to mention our far higher rates of accidental shootings, frequently involving children).
Yes, guns don’t generally kill without some form of human involvement. But since we can’t eliminate all of the human defects listed above, and since their presence ensures a continuing significant rate at which humans are inclined to inflict, intentionally and unintentionally, deadly violence on other human beings, reducing the convenience and efficiency with which it can be done is a rational policy choice, one which has well-served the rest of the developed world.
Can we please put to rest this incredibly stupid slogan, already?
2) “Gun regulations are useless, because criminals won’t obey them.” Right. Criminals are criminals because they disobey laws. So, does that mean that our laws are useless, since criminals just disobey them anyway? Why have laws against murder, theft, rape, extortion, kidnapping, or anything else for that matter, since criminals just disobey them anyway?
Because we pass laws to make it harder for criminals to commit certain acts, and easier for agents of the public to prevent them from committing certain acts. And ease of access to firearms increases the ease of committing certain criminal (or accidental) acts, including acts of violence, many of which are committed by people who weren’t criminals until the moment they were committed, often because the ease of access of firearms increased the likelihood that a spontaneous act of deadly violence would be committed. The question, when passing a law, isn’t “will the people who are inclined to break this law obey it?” but rather “is this a law that is useful to the general welfare, all things considered?”
The argument that could be made (though I think it is still a bad one), is that gun regulations are particularly hard to enforce. in reality, they’re not. Universal background check law is virtually self-enforcing, the ones who must obey or violate not being “the criminals” who would buy guns despite being prohibited from doing so, but the sellers who are obligated to run a background check before selling to them. Bans on certain kinds of firearms and accessories, similarly, are either violated or complied with by venders, who are not “the criminals” who can be assumed to disobey laws.
Yes, there will be a black market, but one characterized by less ease of access, far higher prices, and diminished supply. That’s how laws work. Those who argue that outlawing anything for which there is any significant demand doesn’t work must, by logical extension, oppose the outlawing of child pornography, but we all know that the outlawing of child pornography is both necessary and useful. Just as is the outlawing of certain military grade weapons and accessories.
Conclusion: The War of All Against All or the Establishment of a Civil Society
There is a battle of narratives in America, with one narrative championing an irrational, counterfactual, and violent ideology, and the other opposing it in service to humanity. The former is rooted in fear and loathing; the latter in hope and aspiration. The former views the height of civilization and human consciousness as something defined by hostility and a mutual readiness for violence; the latter defines it as an articulation of realism and idealism that does not ignore the reality of violence but does not surrender to it as the apex of what we should aspire to. The former contributes to cycles of violence by inviting overreaction and error by the ostensibly well-intended, as well as by increasing the ease of access to instruments of deadly violence for those who misuse them. The latter seeks to reduce the ease of access to instruments of violence, and to promote a focus on the reduction in the underlying causes of an overzealous recourse to violence.
Embedded in this conflict of narratives is the awareness of, versus non-awareness of, a basic element of our shared existence: our fundamental interdependence. Yes, we value individual liberty, but individual liberty is something that emanates from, and has meaning only in the context of, a recognition of interdependence. Our Founding Fathers well understood that, drafting a Constitution inspired by such awareness, and dedicating much of The Federalist Papers to proto-game-theoretic arguments about the need to create a viable agency of collective action. See Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems for a more detailed discussion of this dimension of the issue.
There is something almost surreal about being in a developed modern nation still trapped in such a primitive and underdeveloped political division. That there are many in this country who aggressively insist that we must be a nation based on and committed to mutual violence, thus unsurprisingly resulting in our having a homicide rate seven times higher than the developed country average, two to twenty five times that of any other developed nation except Mexico (which “benefits” from a constant flood of our arms across their northern border), is simply mind-boggling. And yet that is the situation that we are in. May the sane among us prevail.
Statistics on greater likelihood of privately owned firearm injuring or killing an innocent person than being used in self-defense: http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/GUNS/GUNSTAT.html
Correlation between easier access to arms and higher homicide rates, both internationally and domestically: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/
More on correlation: https://www.ncjrs.gov/txtfiles/fireviol.txt
Controlled statistical research showing the positive net effects of the DC gun regulations: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199112053252305
Study showing efficacy of certain gun regulations: http://www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2016/03/most_gun_restrictions_dont_wor.html
OECD Homicide Rates: https://www.quandl.com/collections/society/oecd-murder-rates
Two classic statements of the above thesis: http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/ and http://www.americanheritage.com/content/america-gun-culture
A recent article on the compatibility of gun regulations with the Second Amendment: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/17/the-second-amendment-is-all-for-gun-control.html
Evidence refuting the claim that armed citizens reduce the risk of gun violence to innocent people: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gun-science-proves-arming-untrained-citizens-bad-idea/
(For more on this topic, see A Gun Control Debate)
For those who are ready for the debate on how to become a kinder, gentler, and less tragic nation (including but not limited to a discussion of the role of our current paradigm regarding firearms), please visit the robust discussion taking place on the Colorado Confluence Facebook page under the post of the gun wrapped in an American flag. http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence
Here’s the story: http://www.denverpost.com/breakingnews/ci_21118201/unknown-number-people-shot-at-aurora-movie-theater
The first priority now, of course, is taking care of all the people affected by this, showing support, being there for those who need it. Everyone able to offer that moral or material support should do so.
Our second priority is making sure that it never happens again, or happens with far less frequency. We shouldn’t fall into the habit of thinking of this as “an isolated incident,” and treat it the way we might treat a natural disaster, as if it just happens from time to time, and merits mourning but no changes in how we frame our shared existence. Rep. Rhonda Fields, who of course lost her own son to violence, was just on 9-News reminding us that we have to work to ensure that this DOESN’T happen, that we are not a society in the grip of random violence.
And the obvious way for us to stop being such a violent society is for us to stop being such a violent society, in thoughts, in beliefs, in ideology, in how some of us fetishize instruments of destruction, and in actions.
There will be those who insist that it is “wrong” to use this as a catalyst for discussing the underlying social problems involved, but if we don’t draw attention to them in the moments when their consequences explode upon us, then they are more easily minimized by those so inclined in times when their consequences are more remote from our thoughts.
Kyle Clark on 9-News just suggested that we all say or do something nice for someone today so that that ripples out and creates a more caring and mutually supportive society, and Kyle Dyer added that we should do so every day. They’re right; we make our culture and our society through our thoughts and actions. But we shouldn’t live dual lives, one defined by trying to be nice to those around us, and another defined by callousness and a lack of compassion in how we arrange our shared existence.
We need to work to become a different kind of society, a society that believes it’s important to reduce the levels of violence that we suffer, a society that is defined more by how much we care about and support one another than by how much we fear and loathe one another, a society that believes in BEING a society more than it believes in some moral imperative of mutual indifference. We all, as members of a society that participates in the creation of the culture in which we live, share some portion of responsibility for every event of this nature that occurs, either for what we’ve done to cultivate such a violent culture, or for what we’ve failed to do to cultivate something more rational and humane.
Our nation is embroiled in the fall-out from a tragedy brewed from familiar ingredients. Once again, an innocent child is dead, a victim of some undetermined blend of cowboy conservativism, racism, and laws which weaken the state’s crucial monopoly on the legitimate use of deadly force.
There is no shortage of lessons to be learned from the murder of Trayvon Martin, an innocent and unarmed black teen walking home from the store, the culprit protected by a Florida law that effectively legalizes murder, as long as the perpetrator thought the person he was murdering might be a criminal (letting each be the police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, all on their own. So much for “due process…”). To those who insist that they are not racists because racism is dead, it isn’t, and some of you are. To those who insist that liberty and justice require decentralizing the legal right to –and discretionary judgment as to when to– use deadly violence, you are liberating only human folly, and doing so at the cost of innocent others’ most fundamental of rights, the right to life.
The far right insists that if we, as a polity, try to take care of one another through our agent, the state, it is the most antagonistic thing imaginable to individual liberty, but that being able to kill an innocent teen, because he has dark skin and wears a hoodie, in response to some racist impulse, is the most necessary thing imaginable to that same liberty. If that were what the word “liberty” really meant, then it would be an odious thing. But it isn’t, neither what it means nor what it is.
“Liberty” is the freedom to speak your mind, believe and express those beliefs, organize, assemble, aspire, innovate, prosper, and thrive. It is not the freedom to harm others, to hurl our nation into a Hobbesian paradise of a “war of all against all,” in which life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” It is not the freedom to kill an unarmed teen because he’s black and wears a hoodie. It’s not even the freedom to be left to make that choice, each using his or her own judgment whether this or that individual deserves to be killed, in any circumstance other than truly imminent necessity of the defense of self or others.
That we have an ideology reverberating through large swathes of our collective consciousness that ever was foolish enough to blurr that bright line is proof enough that something is horribly amiss, and we are in urgent need of correcting it.
The notion that it is better to address the root causes of any problem or ailment than merely treat the symptoms may seem obvious to most of us, but it is often neglected and rarely unpackaged. It is relevant in multiple ways on multiple levels to multiple issues. And it forms a pathway toward continuing refinement of both our understandings and our actions.
In my new capacity on the Board of Directors of ClearMinds, Inc., a recently established non-profit dedicated to a more holistic, root-cause oriented approach to mental health care, this distinction is front and center. ClearMinds is the brain child of my friend Dr. Mark Foster and Amy Smith, a mental health services consumer who had testified to Congress several years ago on behalf of legislation favoring the status quo, only later to discover by accident how truly dysfunctional the status quo really is.
Amy’s experience involved an accident which prevented her from taking her medications for several days. She describes the effect as that of having woken up after a long stupor, fully alive again for the first time in many years. Mark’s experience comes from what he has seen in his practice as a family physician, and then discovered through research on his own, a discovery which paralleled that of science writer Robert Whitaker, who wrote Mad in America and Anatomy of an Epidemic, detailing how America’s reliance on antipsychotic, antidepressant, and antianxiety drugs has, far from being the miracle solution to the supposed chemical imbalances at the heart of various psychoses and neuroses, fueled an explosion in the rate and severity of mental health problems in America.
This leads to one interesting thing to note about the search for root causes: If not done honestly, it leads us astray. The conventional wisdom, echoed by many in the mental health care industry, is that we are addressing root causes with these various psychotropic drugs, when in fact we are merely addressing symptoms, and doing so in the most counterproductive of ways. The historical lauding of such drugs as “chemical lobotomies,” supposedly more humane and less intrusive than physical lobotomies, captures the truth perfectly: These drugs dull the mind and reduce the lucidity and vitality of their users.
It may be the case that for certain people, at certain times, such dulling of the mind, such a “chemical lobotomy,” is preferable to the alternative, when one’s mental health problems inflict so much damage on one’s ability to function that even being half-dead is a superior alternative. But story after story emerges of someone who describes the experience of finally getting off their meds, rarely on the advice of their doctor, as that of waking up after a long stupor, discovering a quality of life they had been told was unavailable to them, and enjoying that quality of life thereafter, treating their mental health problems in more balanced and restrained ways. This suggests that, while the judicious use of psychotropic drugs still has a role in a complete mental health care portfolio, we need to be more alert to the preference of not using them when not necessary, and striving to make them in almost all instances a mere temporary foot-in-the-door on the way to establishing a healthier and more life-affirming mental health regime.
Despite the rising awareness of the influence of genetics on personality, it increasingly appears to be the case that mental health is more deeply rooted in social context than in biological interventions after all. The citizens of those countries with strong families and communities but little access to psychotropic pharmaceuticals enjoy far better mental health than we do. While biological factors are undoubtedly in play, the environmental factors are the ones that have the greatest impact on how they affect one’s life.
There are many other areas of life in which this distinction between symptoms and root causes, and the quest for working our way ever deeper into the latter, form a critical challenge for us to meet. This is perhaps most evident in the political sphere, where those most passionate and engaged tend to be most focused on the symptoms of our political deficiencies, and least focused on root causes. Two examples illustrate my point:
The first example is that of eruptions of violence, whether in the form of ordinary violent crime, domestic terrorism, or international terrorism. The latter two are easily understood as a form of political action gone awry, with fanatical organizations or unbalanced individuals pursuing some political end through a misguided and violent means. But all of these forms of violence, I believe, are symptoms of deeper causes, and should be addressed by increased attention to those deeper causes.
After every such violent act, there is always a chorus of voices decrying the act in vengeful tones. Ironically, I consider this reaction to be as much a part of the problem as the act itself, because it forms the sea of anger and hatred from which those cresting waves of violence emerge. The anger and hatred in which so many participate, to so many various degrees and in so many various ways, is, I think, a deeper root cause of the violence than the mere malice or political agendas of the perpetrators of the violence.
There are many, of course, who dig a little deeper, and cite mental instability as a root cause, and even go a bit deeper than that and cite our failure to adequately address mental health issues as a root cause. This points to something I will talk about below: Digging deeper, and recognizing a root cause of a symptom that itself is a symptom of deeper root causes. Because, while recognizing the salience of mental health issues, and of our mental health care policies, as root causes of eruptions of violence are steps in the right direction, I think we can go deeper still, and recognize that our easy recourse to anger and hatred, often treated as harmless and normal in many contexts in which they are non-violently expressed, combined with our ideological tendency toward extreme individualism, is at the heart of both this aspect of our mental health deficiencies, and our failure to address those deficiencies with adequate public policies.
The second example from the political sphere is the distinction between electoral politics and public attitudes. Enormous amounts of energy and passion are devoted to affecting electoral outcomes, and, in the course of doing so, specific public attitudes on specific issues have come to be seen as an important battlefield on which this political struggle is waged. But we address those attitudes as means to an end, seeking the most effective marketing campaigns to affect perceptions on a very superficial and transcient level, mostly ignoring the underlying attitudes that would make people more or less inclined to favor this or that public policy or candidate.
In political debates about political outcomes, the focus is always on political strategies and tactics, but almost never on how we as a society, acting in organized ways, affect how we as a society, diffusely, fundamentally understand the world we live in. I have often said that the real political battlefield is the human mind, and that the greatest long-term investment political activists can make is to nurture an understanding of the world compatible with the policies that they favor.
This distinction between symptoms and root causes is less a dichotomy than a continuum, from the more superficial to the more profound, with the most easily identified root causes of particular symptoms being themselves symptoms of deeper root causes. Therefore, we should never be complacent that we have found the ultimate underlying answer to any question, or the ultimate treatment regime for any disease or social problem. Just as the fictional character Algono found that every solution to every puzzle was itself a part of a subtler puzzle to be solved (see The Wizards’ Eye), we are forever on a path into increasing subtlety of understanding, tracking a world far more complex than any of our models or conceptualizations.
That is why the starting point of all wisdom is the recognition of not knowing. More than any other habit of thought, more than any other virtue, this skepticism, this humility, is at the heart of our ability to grow and improve and do better. With it forever front and center in our consciousness, we can continue to dig ever deeper through the layers of symptoms and root causes, increasing both the subtlety of our understandings and the effectiveness of our practices, increasing our mental health as individuals and our social and economic and cultural and political health as a state, nation, and world. This is the real challenge, and glorious endeavor, of human existence.
To some, the following sequence of syllogisms, logically demonstrating that employing reason and humility leads to both the growth in human consciousness and the increase in human cooperative and mutually beneficial behavior, may seem too obvious to state. But my recent experience debating a group of fanatical libertarians on a Facebook thread (More Dialogue With Libertarians), and the explicit embrace by one in particular of the opposite of reason and humility as defined in this post, inspired me to formulate this argument. Obviously, those who are completely impervious to reason (as is that particular individual) will be insulated against this argument as well. However, I believe that there are people who are somewhat inclined in the direction of the irrational Facebook commenter, but are not completely impervious to reason, who may be somewhat swayed by this argument. I hope it finds its way to as many of them as possible.
Premise: Mutually exclusive absolute truths cannot be simultaneously correct, by definition.
Premise: Humans tend to divide themselves into mutually exclusive ideological camps, members of each certain that theirs and theirs alone represents the one absolute truth.
Conclusion: At most one such camp, and possibly no such camp, is correct in their belief that their ideology is the one absolute truth.
Premise: At most one, and possible none, of the mutually exclusive ideological camps purporting to represent the one absolute truth is correct in its belief that it does represent the one absolute truth.
Premise: All humans, including myself, are fallible.
Conclusion: Because I am fallible, it is possible (statistically highly probable, in fact) that the one absolute truth that my own ideological camp represents is not the correct one absolute truth.
Premise: Since it is possible (statistically highly probable, in fact) that the one absolute truth to which I adhere is not the correct one absolute truth, reason requires me to realize this fact, and adapt my thinking and behavior to it.
Premise: One such adaptation, called “skepticism,” which requires not taking factual assertions or conclusions on faith, including one’s own current understandings, but rather requiring empirical and logical proof (such as I am providing here, proof being a mathematical concept, and this being a mathematical proof), is the cornerstone of scientific methodology, which has become the most robust producer of reliable knowledge, and most robust bulwark against error, on all matters involving factual verification and causal and systemic relationships among variables.
Conclusion: Reason recommends the employment of skepticism, even about one’s own current understandings, in a process similar to scientific methodology, in one’s thoughts and interactions involving our understanding of the world. (Such skepticism of one’s own current understandings can be called “humility,” the recognition of one’s own fallibility, and the incorporation of that recognition into their understanding of the world.)
Premise: When people who do not employ the form of reason described in Syllogism 3 encounter one another, and do not belong to the same ideological camp, they are locked into mutually antagonistic disagreement. (In fact, even if just one party does not employ this form of reason, that party will reject as unacceptable the party who recommends it, and will thus lock them into mutually antagonistic disagreement.)
Premise: History is replete with the consequences of such mutually antagonistic disagreement, including ideological and religious components to warfare (rarely the only cause, but often a significant and possibly decisive factor), failure to compromise and cooperate, and, in general, a world comprised of more rather than less violent mutual belligerence.
Conclusion: The failure to embrace the form of reason described in Syllogism 3 contributes to the violent mutual belligerence in the world.
Premise: When people do employ the form of reason described in Syllogism 3, they must listen to opposing arguments and confront the evidence and logic within them, considering the possibility that those opposing arguments are more correct in some or all ways than their own current understandings.
Premise: When people listen to one another’s arguments, consider their possible validity, and adapt their own understandings to new evidence or logic, their understanding grows, and their relationships become more mutually beneficial and cooperative.
Conclusion: Employing the form of reason described in Syllogism 3 (i.e., skepticism and humility) leads to the growth in human consciousness and understanding, and the increase in the degree to which our (intellectual and civic) relationships are mutually beneficial and cooperative.
Afterword: This argument was formulated in response to someone insisting that it represents “moral relativism,” and is therefore to be avoided and rejected. Actually, it does not represent either moral or ontological relativism, but rather something called “fallible realism.” It takes as a moral good the continuing growth in human consciousness, the continuing decrease in mutually antagonistic and destructive belligerence, and the continuing improvement in human cooperation and mutually beneficial behavior. And it describes a methodology and an attitude for pursuing those moral goods in an effective manner.
Synopsis: Political ideologies do not exist simply on a left-right continuum. To capture the full complexity of political ideological variation, we would need to consider a multidimensional space defined by multiple axes. As a starting point for such a conceptualization, I offer here a two-by-two table defined by one distillation of the left-right dichotomy in terms of substantive beliefs, and a similar distillation of the corresponding dichotomy in form of expression that does not necessarily match the substantive positions.Cooperatively Expressed Combatively Expressed Cooperative Ideology 1 2 Combative Ideology 3 4
This two-by-two table is, of course, a gross oversimplification, in many ways: The political ideological space is defined by continua rather than simple dichotomies; it is defined by far more than two axes; and there is more nuance and complexity even in these two dichotomies than I am incorporating into them now. But I provide it as a frame of reference to develop and refine. And I want to emphasize that I am using the words “cooperative” and “combative” in broader and more inclusive ways than they are normally used, to incorporate related emotional, attitudinal, and expressive modalities; inclusivity v. exclusivity; and nuances that are not immediately easy to assign to one or the other (e.g., creating a vibrant, competitive market committed to fairness and sustainability is “cooperative” rather than “combative” since it serves everyone’s interests, whereas creating a market rigged or left unregulated in ways that lead to an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and opportunity is “combative” rather than “cooperative” since it is predatory rather than committed to our shared humanity).
Some directly related dichotomies include civility v. belligerence, compassion v. indifference or hatred, strong in-group bias v. tendency toward global humanism, violent v. peaceful, and inclusive v. exclusive (all variations on the same theme). Some more indirectly related dichotomies include rational v. irrational, analytical v. ideological, evolving v. stagnant, predominantly hopeful v. predominantly fearful, and long time horizon v. short time horizon. These dichotomies could define axes in the more elaborate analytical framework alluded to toward the end of this essay.
Though those who identify with the ideology substantively associated with “combative” in this grid are not likely to embrace my characterization of their ideology, keep in mind that I am referring to the ideas and manners of expressing them, rather than to the character of the individuals who serve as vehicles for both. (While there may generally be a strong relationship between individuals’ character, on the one hand, and their ideologies and modes of expression, on the other, they are not always perfectly aligned; what’s in a person’s heart and what underlying emotions motivate them may be very different from both the nature of the ideologies they profess and the nature of their form of expressing them.)
During the many blogosphere discussions on the topic of the postulated (or refuted) possible relationship between, on the one hand, combative political rhetoric and imagery, and, on the other, actual acts of violence (particularly but not exclusively political violence), I found that it’s important to make a distinction between the way we communicate our political ideological convictions, and the substance of those political ideological convictions. In terms of how we communicate our convictions, there is enough vitriol across the spectrum that trying to argue that one side is more guilty than another ends up being more of a distraction than a source of illumination, easily debated and not really very productive.
But when you look at the substance of the political ideologies, you see a clearer distinction: There is a basic competition between, on the one hand, an ideology which almost fetishizes deadly weapons and their use, strongly believes in retributive justice (“revenge”), idolizes the military, vilifies outgroups, and opposes empathy-based social policies; and, on the other hand, an ideology which takes seriously the harm inflicted by deadly weapons, favors restorative justice (prevention, rehabilitation, and compensation for harm done), considers the military the recourse of last resort, recognizes shared humanity with all human beings, and favors proactive policies based on the notion that a society is about lifting one another up rather than knocking one another down. These substantive differences can be understood in many ways, one of which is in terms of a difference in reliance on combative attitudes and combative means.
Now, when you combine this substantive difference with what might be called the expressive similarity among ideologies, you get four basic categories: 1) a cooperative ideology cooperatively expressed; 2) a cooperative ideology combatively expressed; 3) a combative ideology cooperatively expressed, and 4) a combative ideology combatively expressed. I would argue that category 1 is the one to which we should all strive to belong, and category 4 is the one which should cause us all the most concern. (Between categories 2 and 3, frankly, I find category 3 more benign: Gun-loving, militaristic extreme individualists arguing their beliefs without rancor and with a modicum of humility and civility are preferable to dogmatic progressives wantonly spitting venom and bile, the latter group being far more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.)
It’s important also to recognize that the substance and the form either mutually reinforce one another, or are mutually inhibiting to one another. So, a cooperative ideology cooperatively expressed (i.e., expressed without rage and vitriol) is a powerful message, full of credibility and inherently persuasive, while a cooperative ideology angrily expressed loses credibility, and seems to be a false belief in service to a destructive emotional inclination. Similarly, a combative ideology combatively expressed is particularly frightening, boding ill for society and for people caught in the cross-hairs of that substantive belligerence expressed in belligerent terms, whereas a combative ideology argued by people striving to be reasonable people of goodwill holds the promise of eventually yielding to reason and goodwill, of being dominated by the good nature of the people arguing it rather than by the bad nature of the ideology they are persuaded by.
One important caveat to the desirability of aspiring to the ideal of a cooperative ideology cooperatively expressed: a commitment to “civility” (the form of productive discourse) should never trump a commitment to “humanity” (the substance of productive discourse). When the allies invaded the European mainland, for instance, that was very uncivil of them, but also very humane of them, for defeating Nazi Germany was essential to our shared humanity. And there are times when laying bare the irrationality or inhumanity of a position seems impolite, but is essential, in order to create a more powerful narrative that attracts more people.
This model can be refined in various ways. A slightly more elaborate version would be to conceptualize an ideological plane defined by two axes: how substantively combative an ideology is and how combatively it is expressed, representing the dichotomies in this grid as the continua that they in reality are. Further refinement would involve unpackaging what I lump together into “combativeness” here, creating various substantive axes (e.g., “mutual indifference v. mutual support,” “nationalism/tribalism v. humanism,” “retributive v. restorative justice,” “reactive v. proactive,” “collectivism v. individualism,” “dogma v. humility,” etc.). Ultimately, such continuing refinement of this model would involve both broadening the range of independent variables included, and including dependent as well as independent variables (e.g., rates of violent crime, poverty rates, homelessness rates, children’s educational performance, unemployment rates, access to health care and health outcomes, etc.). Such a model would try to explore how changes in independent variables affect changes in dependent variables, using a dynamical systems analysis (the paradigm of which I begin to delineate in the series of posts in the first box on the Catalogue of Selected Posts page).
In some cases, maximizing human welfare requires moving as far as possible along one continuum; in others (such as “collectivism v. individualism”), it involves striking optimal balances in relation to other variables (e.g., economics, morality, social responsibility). But however we conceptualize this political ideological space or these political ideological categories, the challenge remains the same: To continue to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, both in what we are advocating, and in how we advocate it.
My arithmetic lesson for the day: extreme individualism + military infatuation + gun infatuation + retributive orientation to justice + unwillingness to invest in proactive social policies to reduce underlying causes = higher rates of violence (among other things). Study hard, kids. There’ll be a test on this in one year and ten months.