Reviewing the National Review, Part 2

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Recently I’ve had occasion to drop in again and check out the lay of the land at the National Review. And it really hasn’t changed much since I first familiarized myself with it nearly two decades ago.

Chasing the Chappaquiddick Chap

What led me back there was that someone brought to my attention a “review” of the film Chappaquiddick by the NR’s “critic”, Kyle Smith. (I put those words in quotation marks because Mr. Smith focuses on supposed political, rather than artistic, merit.) The caption breathlessly proclaims that the film “exposes Ted Kennedy at last”. This in itself was enough to make me bust a gut.

These are folks who are fond of promoting the silly and ill-informed stereotype of Hollywood celebrities as shallow, coke-snorting, self-absorbed brats who are out of touch with the real world — a myth adopted so people like NR hacks can summarily dismiss, in genetic fallacy fashion, any non-reactionary cause those celebrities espouse.

Yet when the film industry produces a flick that “exposes” a librul icon, they are eager to hail it as a divine revelation of infallible gospel.

And Mr. Smith is just getting warmed up. The first paragraph of this “review” reads:

Chappaquiddick must be counted one of the great untold stories in American political history: The average citizen may be vaguely aware of what happened but probably has little notion of just how contemptible was the behavior of Senator Ted Kennedy. Mainstream book publishers and Hollywood have mostly steered clear of the subject for 48 years.

A quick check of Amazon shows that no fewer than a dozen books about the Chappaquiddick incident are available for purchase, as well as many more books in which the event is at least discussed. A quick check of IMDB shows that it has been the subject of at least two documentaries. What would it take to avoid the charge that Hollywood and the publishing industry are “steering clear” of the subject — obsessive reporting of it 24/7? Been there, done that.

Mr. Smith evidently wants his readers to believe that the tragedy was just swept under the rug by the librulmedia. (Perhaps this is what he was taught in one of those “conservative” college classes.) It’s characteristic of wingers to figure that if they can’t remember something, then it didn’t happen.

But as someone who was both alive and sentient at the time, I can assure you that there was nobody this side of Andromeda who simply ignored the incident. It hardly could have received more media saturation even had Mary Jo Kopechne been wearing a stained blue dress. And years later, when it was still a heated topic of discussion, I recall commenting to someone that the senator must have been driving one hell of a huge automobile considering how many people were so certain of exactly what transpired that they must have been passengers themselves.

Wingnuttery sort of makes sense if you’re willing to ignore (or concoct) enough facts. It isn’t enough that Smith calls Kennedy’s behavior “despicable” without mentioning that the senator was severely disoriented from his injuries, including a concussion.  He also declares, quite falsely, that Kennedy simply “rested” beside the water while Ms. Kopechne was drowning. In fact, despite his state of mental disarray, Kennedy made (as reported by The Boston Globe) at least “seven or eight” attempts to rescue her. But hey, who cares about pesky details when you have an ideology to promote.

The Big Fake-Out

While I was in the neighborhood, I also checked out another Smith masterpiece, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Outrageous Assault on Our Democracy. The topic is a serious one, something that people are rightly concerned about: i.e., the way Sinclair has forced its talking heads to parrot a canned statement about “fake news” that makes it clear the network is goose-stepping behind the 45th White House Occupant. It’s a development that many of those talking heads themselves are quite uneasy about.

Smith, however, snidely brushes it aside in a manner that is his clumsy attempt to wield irony, a technique he doesn’t quite seem equipped for. While superficially striking a posture of concern, he makes it clear that in fact he is a Sinclair goose-stepper himself. He’s also a deft side-stepper, skirting the real issues with statements such as his closing:

Whatever will become of this country if people use the media properties they own to simply say whatever they feel like saying?

Allowing his strained irony to tip over into sarcasm, he scoffs:

Judging by the truth as established by ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, PBS News, NPR News, CNN, MSNBC, and nearly every newspaper and newsmagazine published in the United States, the truth is actually quite similar to what the Left believes.

It’s an obeisant nod not only to the “liberal bias” myth and the “both sides” myth, but to the popular right-wing narrative that certain media outlets (most notably CNN) exhibit biases and inaccuracies of only one flavor. And it’s a foghorn false equivalence to suggest that the sporadic (and mostly inadvertent) journalistic lapses of these outlets — of both a “liberal” and a “conservative” nature — are on a par with constant, round-the-clock, deliberate dishonesty and distortion of an exclusively right-wing bent by the likes of Fox and Sinclair.  Mr. Smith seems to be utterly oblivious to the distinctions between bias, inaccuracy and dishonesty.

He also takes advantage of the opportunity to invoke that trusty old “Hollywood elite” myth with jabs at Jimmy Kimmel and John Oliver. Can he really be so clueless as to be unaware that most comedians are much better informed than the average citizen, much better informed than many politicians and putative journalists — and infinitely better informed than most NR hacks? Speaking of Kimmel, Smith indulges in another false equivalence by suggesting that ABC’s airing of Kimmel’s program over hundreds of stations is comparable to Sinclair headquarters dictating that its anchors parrot a boilerplate disingenuous and manipulative spiel.

And he sneers at veteran newsman Dan Rather, whom he labels as (wink, wink) a “widely respected source of nonpartisan media commentary”. Yes, this is the same Dan Rather who said…

George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions, and as just one American, wherever he wants to line up just tell me where..

…even as Dubya was gearing up to exploit the 9-11 terrorist attacks as a pretext for ramming through a whole raft of fanatical right-wing measures that were often quite unrelated to security. The same Dan Rather who later acknowledged that he failed, for years, to do his job by probing the supposed justifications for the assault on Iraq — a journalist undertaking that, I’m guessing, would have been regarded as hopeless and shameless librul propaganda by the good folks at NR. Most of us might be tempted to deprive Mr. Rather of his Librul Propagandist badge for this kind of neglect. But Mr. Smith knows better: he knows that anyone who fails to hew unwaveringly to standard right-wing talking points is so deep into left field as to be over the wall.

While he’s targeting Rather, Mr. Smith takes the opportunity to focus on a Facebook post that is (slightly) awkward in its wording, and declare that Rather has committed “grammatical lapses” and sneers, “You’d lose your ability to construct a sentence too if you sensed the risk as keenly as Rather does”. This from the same rag that not only touted the virtues of a tongue-tied “misunderestimated” simpleton, but now touts the virtues of an incurious despot who speaks “bigly” in three-word sentences, mostly with himself as the subject. It’s a glaring instance of genuine irony that seems quite lost on the redoubtable Mr. Smith.

Finally, he gets around to quoting the statement with which Sinclair is programming its talking heads, a superficially innocuous manifesto about shunning bias, false reporting, and an agenda in favor of Facts and Truth. Taken at face value, it’s a string of noble sentiments. But anyone who is at all familiar with Sinclair knows better than to take it at face value. Well, except for Mr. Smith, perhaps:

So Sinclair is against media bias, one-sided reporting and fake news? It asserts that truth is “neither left nor right”? Preposterous.

An even slightly perspicacious commentator might have observed that Sinclair’s very act of thrusting a cookie cutter declaration upon its mouthpieces is a damn good indication that it speaks with forked tongue.

And then he segues into the ultimate coup de grace to his own credibility:

Need I say more? These lunatics are actually playing into the hands of [the White House Occupant], who has also said he doesn’t think the media should run fake news.

Unless he’s much more adept at wielding irony than he appears to be, Mr. Smith actually believes that the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant — who rode to fame on the back of fake news, rose to the White House on the back of fake news, continues to profit from fake news, and spreads fake news with every breath — is actually a mortal enemy of fake news, just because he says so.

If you really believe that, you are not merely ignorant. You really shouldn’t try to live on your own without full-time supervision. On the other hand, you have a lucrative career awaiting you at the ever-entertaining National Review.

 

 

 

 

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Second Amendment Follies, Part 5: “Pre-existing Rights”

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As we have seen in the previous installments, there is nothing in the Second Amendment that explicitly guarantees the right of an individual citizen to own firearms. But while arguing to the contrary, gunsters also hedge their bets by claiming that the amendment was not really meant to grant such a right but to reaffirm it; that, since many people owned guns in Revolutionary times, they obviously had a right to do so, and therefore such a right is still in effect today.  It was and is, so they say, a “pre-existing” or “innate” right. Many times they will even refer to it as a “God-given” right, as if that celebrated stone tablet had had a flip side on which was engraved, “Thou shalt be armed to the teeth with weapons to be invented millennia hence”.

There are really two separate but related issues here: tradition as precedent, and the presumed right of ownership in general.

The tradition of tradition

By “tradition as precedent”, we mean the conviction that just because something has always been done or was done in the past, that makes it acceptable, preferable or even mandatory.  This tenet is the backbone of conservatism and even neoconservatism. And it’s absurd on the face of it. As Tevye so famously discovers in Fiddler on the Roof, there are times when faith in tradition severely butts its head against harsh reality.

Surely anyone can readily tick off a list of activities that most people consider undesirable, yet have a very long tradition: murder, theft, rape, child marriage, racism, slavery, violent conquest, genocide and greed, to name just a few. Not only have all such actions been committed on an individual basis for countless ages, but most have been officially sanctioned by societies and governments at various times and in various places.  Indeed, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that tradition, far from being ample justification for continuance of an action, is more likely to be an indication that an action should be curbed.

There is an old saying to the effect that your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. And quite often, one particular action that could be regarded as a right (or at least as permissible) under one set of circumstances could be justly prohibited in a different social context. If you only rode your motorcycle on deserted roads, it well might be that you would have a right to ride as fast as you wanted, without a helmet.  But if there is a chance that other motorists will be using that road, then it is incumbent upon you to consider the lifelong impact upon their lives that your unhelmeted, dumbassed death might occasion.

If you live in a cabin on an isolated mountaintop, then you might have every right to burn your trash and take target practice in your yard. If you live in the heart of Los Angeles, that’s another matter altogether. So even if we assume that Americans in the Eighteenth Century had a right to own guns, that wouldn’t mean that the same is true in today’s radically different world.

Reason and the evidence of history indicate that if people followed what is sometimes called The Golden Rule, we’d all be much happier and better off. But they don’t, and won’t. Which is why we have laws.

Of course, the existence of laws and governments results in an occasional clash between legal rights and what we perceive as innate (“God-given”) rights. Homosexuality, for instance, has very frequently and universally been the target of repressive regulation. And we’d normally assume that a family has a right to have as many children as it wishes. But the government of China, fearing catastrophic overpopulation, decided that there should be no more than one child per family (in most cases), which seems to be a violation of said right.

On the other hand, one could argue that such an innate right does not really exist in circumstances under which large families would pose a burden to society (bear in mind that “society” is just another name for “other people”).  Furthermore, it’s at least understandable if not justifiable that a couple in any country should be prohibited from having more children if they have been horribly abusive to the ones they already have.

In any case, whether it’s a matter of innate rights or legal rights, mere tradition alone is clearly not an adequate justification for any activity.

Nine-tenths of the law

But what about the right to own property in general? Surely in a free society you have a right to own your house, your land, your automobile, and — why not — your shooting implements, without any authorization from the government. Don’t you?

Actually, the same principle applies. Let’s not forget that for the vast majority of human history, there was a presumed innate right to own other human beings. It was not until fairly recently in our evolution that we collectively began to realize that slavery was not merely a swing of the fist, but a punch to the nose of human decency. And few people would maintain that a citizen has a right to own a nuclear warhead. Guns are designed for essentially the same purpose on a smaller scale.

Summing up

But aren’t there indeed basic, innate human rights that cannot be justly compromised by any legislation? Well, sure. The Founders of the Republic summarized them very nicely: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. That may sound like a short list, but it actually covers a great deal of territory. It includes, for instance, such basics as food, clothing, shelter and medicine. But do guns fall in that category? Perhaps for a limited number of individuals in a limited range of circumstances. But to declare that there is a “God-given” right for all citizens to be armed is a very big stretch indeed — particularly when the evidence indicates that guns do considerably more harm than good.

You certainly have an innate right to defend yourself from harm.  So how, you may ask, do you defend yourself without a gun?  We just as easily could turn the question around and ask how can you even consider guns a viable element of self-defense when they are statistically so ineffective and even, evidently, downright counterproductive. (As a person who once was mugged at gunpoint, I say with confidence that one reason I am alive today is that I wasn’t armed.) But the short answer is, you use your head instead of your trigger finger. It’s hard to be more specific than that, because techniques and strategies will vary by the individual. But in any case, it’s naive and foolhardy to assume that a right to self-defense means you should be armed. And it’s ill-informed to believe you have an innate right to be.

In short, the right that Americans now enjoy (if that is an appropriate word) to own firearms does not come from the Constitution. It does not come from God or any synonym thereof. It does not come from tradition or reason. It does not arise from a need. It proceeds solely from the fiat of “conservative” justices.

 

Reviewing the National Review, Part 1

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As you may be aware, right-wing fanaticism in the U.S. comes in several overlapping varieties, each catered to by its own set of delusional and manipulative media outlets.  The largest segment is the Good Old Boy Faction, centered in the Deep South, which revolves around blatant bigotry and manufactured outrage; it finds its main voice in Fox “News” , OAN and talk radio. Then there is the Tin Hat Brigade, which never met a conspiracy theory too kooky to swallow — at least if it’s about someone named Clinton or Obama; its outlets are also the above, as well as Breitbart, Alex Jones, NRATV, et al. And a relatively small but supremely influential sector is the Smug Pseudointellectual Coterie, which tries to excuse or gloss over the beliefs promulgated by the other two groups, often while selectively citing some Eighteenth Century theorist and/or pretending that Ayn Rand is actually worth reading. Its most powerful media organ is almost certainly the ever-entertaining National Review.

The NR was founded in 1955 by William F. Don’t-You-Dare-Omit-My-Middle-Initial Buckley Jr., a poster boy of white privilege who became the godfather of modern “conservatism” (i.e., neoconservatism — see the difference here). Its objective was to provide this “conservatism” with a voice he felt it had been lacking in American culture, a claim he made with a perfectly straight face.  Unlike most reactionaries, Buckley was highly educated, articulate and suave — indeed he played those qualities to the hilt. Even as a teenager watching him on TV, I was amused by his haughty demeanor and stuffy lip-licking pretentiousness.

But a jackass that can bray in different languages remains, nonetheless, a jackass. And Buckley’s displays of pomposity could not conceal the speciousness of his arguments or the faultiness of his facts. Despite his efforts to mask the bigotry at the core of conservatism and “conservatism”, it sometimes oozed to the surface, not only in his beloved political journal, but in his own words.  Peel away the slick veneer of William F., and you find the grubby persona of Billy Bob. In one of the televised exchanges with his frequent verbal sparring partner, Gore Vidal, he called Vidal a “queer” (a major slur back then); and he was to the end an opponent of gay marriage.  A partial list of his other extensive crudities, courtesy of Rationalwiki:

  • Buckley’s career began in 1951 with the publication of God and Man at Yale, an attack on his alma mater that urged the firing of professors whom he felt were insufficiently hostile to socialism and atheism. Despite this early assault on academic freedom, Buckley in later years routinely took offense at what he saw as liberal “political correctness[8]
  • Suggested that prostitutes and addicts with AIDS be tattooed so as to warn others.[12]
  • Supported Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism, which he never seemed to regret.[23] Freedom if it’s only your freedom, right?
  • Prior to [officially] renouncing his racist views in the mid 60’s, he used the National Review to support segregation. He even wrote an article in support of white supremacy, and he never really apologized for the article.[24]

Not only did he “never apologize” for his white supremacist screed of the Fifties, he reaffirmed his commitment to its tenets when questioned about it in a more enlightened era decades later.

In 1988 Buckley sneered at the presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis on the grounds that he had no experience in Washington. Twelve years later, he was hawking former Texas Governor George W. Bush and sneering at those who questioned Junior’s lack of experience in Washington. It’s unbearably painful to contemplate the Gordian knot such an erudite gentlemen as Buckley must have twisted himself into in order to get behind a witless wastrel who didn’t know that Social Security was a federal program, and thought that “persevere” was the same word as “preserve”. For that matter, the elder Bush, whom Buckley touted over Dukakis, was not exactly an intellectual titan himself.

The torch is passed

Buckley is gone now, but well before his departure, he inspired others to carry on his great work at the ever-entertaining National Review.

Over the years, the NR has provided a frequent platform for the likes of Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, John Derbyshire, and countless others more or less equally vile. For most of its personnel, however, the problem isn’t so much vileness as cluelessness and naivete. Which brings us to Jonah Goldberg.

Not only a frequent contributor but for a time the online editor, Goldberg was an excellent choice to assume the mantle of eloquent advocate for vacuity. (Except that his elevation to the post violated The Master’s expressed dictum that the editor should be a “believing Christian”. But hey.) He’s even authored a book called  Liberal Fascism that is every bit as inane as it sounds.

Jonah entered my life shortly after that disastrous 2000 election. Like other thinking and concerned citizens, I was quite disturbed by not only the caliber of the individual who had attained the office of the presidency, but also by the manner in which he did so. And I really, really wanted to understand how so many people could support not only one, but both. So I resolved to try to find whatever justification there might be (and that I possibly might have overlooked) for the views and attitudes of the American right-wing culture at the turn of the millennium. And it seemed to me that the best way to do that was to read the NR. Which I began doing regularly.

But my quest for a revelation was entirely a bust. In fact, I ended up more bewildered and appalled than ever. For all its pretense at scholarly depth, this reactionary rag just dressed up the same seedy wingnut talking points in a glittery ball gown: that the Second Amendment enshrines a citizen’s right to pack heat — and any attempt to reduce the number of people guns kill is pure Gestapo; that abortion is murder — and outlawing it is the best way to make it go away; that American media has a liberal bias; that liberals are simultaneously socialists, communists and fascists; that racism is either extinct or no big deal; that America should be a fundamentalist theocracy; that the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor; that Ronald Reagan was a Great Communicator and a Strong Leader of Impeccable Character who brought back patriotism, ended the Cold War and cured insomnia; and that Ayn Rand is actually worth reading.

The NR declared that obviously American media have a liberal bias, because there are more news stories about “gun control” than about guns. Never mind that (a) guns are normally not very newsworthy until they kill someone, and (b) gun-totin’ “conservatives” themselves are more interested in reporting and hearing about “gun control” than anyone else. The cover of one issue featured a smirking George W. Bush — who declared that his electoral victory was “political capital, and I intend to spend it” and taunted congressional Democrats to “get on board or be left behind” —  proclaiming that his most endearing quality was his “modesty”.

At one point one of NR’s readers wrote in to ask for recommendations about where college kids could attend “conservative” classes. Rather than admonish the reader for trying to polarize knowledge (which “conservatives” frequently do by wailing about academic “liberal bias”, which is more imaginary than real), the editors obliged by actually making some suggestions about where to do just that. To these folks, there are liberal facts and there are conservative facts (also known as alternative facts); and they feel they are entitled to be saturated and protected from reality by the latter, whether it be in the media or in academia; and any professor who fails to do so is guilty of trying to indoctrinate students into communism. (Thumbing through a “conservative” high school science textbook, I once came across this statement: “We can be sure the earth was created exactly as the Bible tells us.” This is no doubt the kind of science “conservatives” want to see in university textbooks as well.)

Craving a smidgen of illumination, I wrote to the editors of NR Online about some of the idiotic statements it had published, and to my surprise, I received several replies from Jonah Goldberg, the online editor in the flesh. I give him credit for at least making an attempt to bridge the communication gap with one of them librulz, and perhaps he honestly was doing the best he could. But he didn’t exactly appease my horror and disgust any — quite the contrary.

When I commented about the many, many, many, many shady GOP election shenanigans in Florida in 2000, he replied that he knew there were no irregularities because a journalist pal in Florida had told him so. He was dead serious.

He wrote a piece bemusing that “liberals” protest so much about GMO’s but seem to be quite okay with stem cell research. I gently pointed out to him that, first of all, objection to GMO’s was by no means exclusively or even primarily, a concern of the left (most of the left-leaning folks I know consider it much ado about nothing, as I do myself). And second,  how often do you hear of anyone consuming a petri dish full of stem cells?

Desperate to find any excuse he could to ridicule the “kumbaya crowd”, he even wrote an article about the leftist excess known as … wait for it… vegetarianism. Which he assailed with “facts” that he must have obtained from a “conservative” professor. Whereupon some of his readers informed him that they were both vegetarian and “conservative”, so STFU already.

Meanwhile, one of his fellow columnists penned a smug self-congratulatory piece about how he had made peace with being a “crunchy conservative” — i.e., a right-winger who appreciates “health food”. In classic winger fashion, he focused on the impact upon his own well-being and pocketbook, steering clear of the impact his choices might have for the rest of the planet.

While indulging in the usual right-wing nonsense about abortion, Jonah opined that “liberals” don’t seem to have any clear belief about when life begins. I responded that on the contrary, most “liberals” seem to just figure life begins when it actually begins: i.e., with birth. And even if anyone could prove otherwise, and establish beyond a doubt that a fetus is a fully entitled person that has a right to live, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that said fetus has a right to live inside another person’s body. And I noted that the very fixation on when life begins is a major tangent than has no bearing on the more crucial questions of what factors contribute to abortion and what measures can prevent it. I asked him why, given the counterproductive chamber of horrors that resulted when abortion was banned in the past, he presumed it would be any more effective in the future.

Moreover, I invited him to indulge with me in a little thought experiment. Imagine, I suggested, that the government actually succeeds in decreeing that life begins at conception. Will it then begin issuing certificates of conception instead of birth certificates? And in order to make certain that such conceptions are accurately documented, will it begin monitoring them? Is that the kind of role he envisions and desires for the Big Bad Government he professes to be leery of?

But such an attempt to provoke a more thought-provoking discourse than the NR probably had seen in a decade would just meet with a response like, “Sorry, I just can’t take this seriously.” Which is, alas, the big problem with people like him. They have no trouble being dead serious about birtherism, voter fraud, “deep state”, climategate, “socialized medicine”, “death panels”,  gun confiscation, the “War on Christmas”, and Planned Parenthood “selling baby parts”. But facts and possibilities that pierce their smug “conservative” bubble? Sorry, can’t swallow that.

He exchanged emails with me several times, probably because he was consumed by the right-wing obsession with confrontation and one-upmanship. But finally he stormed off in a hissy fit and wouldn’t come out of his trailer again. And what prompted it? I had sent a message in which I casually commented that I generally had found Jews to be more tolerant than Christians. You’d think that Jonah, being certifiably Jewish himself, would have been pleased by that. But while wingnuttery may exist for the exclusive benefit of the male WASP culture, it has managed to entice a number of individuals outside that caste (token minorities, etc.) into passionately defending it. And thus he replied in a venomous snit riddled with uncharacteristic errors of grammar and spelling, as if I’d sprayed graffiti on the Statue Of Liberty.

The honeymoon was over. But truth be told, I was ready for it to be over. I had begun to realize that if you’ve read one NR article, you’ve pretty much read them all.

(See Eric Alterman’s astute commentary about NR on the occasion of its 60th anniversary.)

 

Second Amendment Follies, Part 4: “to keep and bear arms”

 

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So we have examined the first half of the Second Amendment, the clause that explains its real purpose. Now let us cut to the chase and examine the part of the text that the gun CULTure considers most vital — and indeed often lifts out of context and places on a hallowed pedestal: the second half of the amendment, which reads:

…the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

This, remember, was intended as a condition of a “well-regulated” militia. But let’s humor the gun fanatics for a moment and pretend that the first half of the amendment never existed. Just how does the second half stand up on its own? Answer: upon the most wobbly of legs.

A group effort

First of all, notice that people is plural. And the people in a passage like this is presumed to be a collective noun. Which is to say that it isn’t necessarily intended to refer to every individual. It would be a true statement to say that the American people eat beets, but it’s not true to say that every American person does. And you can have a right for Americans as a nation to be armed without having a right for every American to be armed.

Gunsters, of course, will insist that such a right is implied, or even explicitly stated.  Our old friends back at GunFacts try to establish this by citing other commentators, court rulings and even public opinion. It’s true, as its author notes, that courts have affirmed several times that the Second Amendment should be interpreted on an individual basis. But they also have ruled otherwise on several occasions. And even when the rulings went in favor of the gun lobby, they were not unanimous; dissenting justices sometimes expressed grave concerns over such a tortured reading.

And here’s the thing: why should it require the interference of a court at all to establish such a meaning? To repeat an intractable principle we’ve stated before: if an interpretation is not unequivocal, then it is not absolute.  Which is to say, if something isn’t clear then it isn’t clear. What could be more basic than that? Courts often step in to determine the exact circumstances to which a constitutional provision should be applied; but in this case, the court made a declaration about what a constitutional provision actually says.

Having and holidng

The next point is that the Second Amendment does not even address gun ownership at all. It just stipulates the right to “keep and bear” arms. Soldiers, whether regular army or militia, routinely keep and bear arms without personally possessing them. And in the Eighteenth Century, the expression “bear arms” was normally, though not always, used in a military context.

Of course, things were very different back then. Militiamen were not only presumed, but required, to supply their own firearms. They were also presumed to be white males. But it doesn’t automatically follow that the Framers of the Constitution presumed such an arrangement would always obtain, throughout all future generations. Moreover, the “right” enumerated in the Second Amendment, as practiced in Revolutionary times, was not one that today’s gun culture would find particularly appealing. As Fordham history chair Saul Cornell comments:

In 1776, most of the original state constitutions did not even include an arms-bearing provision. The few states that did usually also included a clause protecting the right not to bear arms. Why? Because, in contrast to other cherished rights such as freedom of speech or religion, the state could not compel you to speak or pray. It could force you to bear arms…

Militias were tightly controlled organizations legally defined and regulated by the individual colonies before the Revolution and, after independence, by the individual states. Militia laws ran on for pages and were some of the lengthiest pieces of legislation in the statute books. States kept track of who had guns, had the right to inspect them in private homes and could fine citizens for failing to report to a muster.

These laws also defined what type of guns you had to buy — a form of taxation levied on individual households.

Members of the “militia” (National Guard) are no longer required to supply their own weapons. The conditions that led to the adoption of the Second Amendment have radically changed. Which means that the amendment no longer serves the purpose it was designed for.

Another thing that has changed, very drastically, is of course the weaponry itself. And if the Framers could have foreseen what kinds of horrific implements of destruction would be available in the future, chances are they would have worded the Second Amendment such that today’s gun fanatics wouldn’t assume they are entitled to wield an AR-15 or a Nimbus 2000 or whatever.

A flawed comparison

If you’ve ever made the latter suggestion within firing range of gun fanatics, however, then most likely you’ve heard at least one of them retort that by the same token, the Framers would have limited the First Amendment to the use of newspapers only, since that’s the only form of media they were familiar with. It’s a flawed comparison not only because there is a big difference between a medium of mass communication and a medium of mass slaughter, but also because it fails to grasp the actual parallels between the two amendments.

While both amendments mention certain things (“the press” and “arms”), in neither case is this thing the real topic of discussion. Rather, the topic of discussion is the activity with which that thing is associated (expression and defense respectively).  And the First Amendment, while it guarantees the freedom to express oneself through the press, says nothing about anyone’s right to own a press — or a TV, or a computer. Likewise with the Second Amendment and “arms” of whatever flavor.

There have been cases, for example, in which a judge ordered an individual guilty of possessing child pornography, as part of the probationary process, not to have any Internet access. Which is in effect a prohibition against that person owning or accessing a computer. This does not seem to be a violation of First Amendment rights. Why should it be deemed a violation of Second Amendment rights to put restrictions on private usage of something far more lethal? (And let’s not forget that the First Amendment does not imply any right to commit slander or libel, or to disclose classified information.)

On the fringes

Which brings us to that final word in the amendment. What exactly does “infringing” entail, anyway? It certainly does not mean, as the NRA would have you believe, that there should be no kind of restriction on guns whatsoever. In fact, if you read the Second Amendment for what it is, you realize that even if U.S. citizens were strictly prohibited from all private ownership of guns, it would not be an infringement on the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” in the service of a “well-regulated militia”.

That’s never going to happen, of course. But even if we insist on contorting the Second Amendment into a proclamation that all individuals have a right to be armed, that doesn’t rule out also deciding that heavy restrictions on guns are perfectly constitutional.  In fact, the Supreme Court did just that in its celebrated 2008 fiat. Yes, the “conservative” Supreme Court.  Yes, the Supreme Court that is snugly ensconced in the hip holster of the gun lobby. Even as the “conservative” majority incorrectly asserted in Heller v District of Columbia that the sacred text applies to the populace in general, it also freely acknowledged that this does not mean everyone has a right to bear any type of weapon under any circumstances.

In sum, the Second Amendment was meant to guarantee a well-regulated (and organized) militia, in service of the federal government rather than in opposition to it, and was not meant as a guarantee that any citizen could be armed for any purpose. But confronted with these facts, the gun culture goes for a hail Mary, trying to buttress its version of the amendment with an argument outside the amendment. And that’s something we’ll consider in the final installment of this series.

Should Propaganda Be Penalized?

 

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On March 5, Pastor Frank Pomeroy was sitting in his car outside his church in Sutherland Springs, Texas when a man and woman approached and began vandalizing a poster on the church where a horrific massacre had occurred 4 months earlier.  When he confronted them, they recognized him and began verbally accosting him, calling the bloodbath a fraud and insisting that Pomeroy’s daughter, who was killed in the massacre along with 25 other people before his eyes, never even existed. “Show me her birth certificate”, the man yelled, “show me anything to say she was here.”

Sadly, this incident was not unique. There is a growing army of delusional people out there who believe that every gun massacre or domestic bombing is a “false flag” staged with “crisis actors”. Many of them also believe that astronauts never landed on the moon, that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, that 9-11 was an inside job, that climate change is a hoax, that the holocaust never happened, that Hillary caused the deaths in Benghazi, and/or that the earth is flat.

In discussing this massive “stupidification” of America, columnist Leonard Pitts asks exactly what, if anything, one should say to such folks. And the clear answer, as he duly concludes, is nothing. These individuals are utterly beyond reason because of a hopeless mental incapacity — whether due to deficient intelligence, disconnect from reality, intellectual laziness, the tunnel vision of ideological fanaticism or some combination of the above. Until they obtain professional help, or experience a paradigm-shifting cataclysm,  there is nothing anyone can do to convince them that black isn’t really white in disguise.

But there is a more vital question that Pitts neglected to pose. The mentally warped have always been with us. But the phenomenon we are now witnessing is peculiar to contemporary America. No matter how mentally incapacitated people are, there would not be such a mass subscription to the same nutty delusions if those ideas hadn’t been planted in their heads by someone else. For the past three decades, there has been a concentrated campaign to deliberately “stupidify” America for the personal profit of the demagogues doing the brain-planting. And the real question is, should those manipulators be held accountable for their actions?

Many people will maintain (at least in reference to propaganda that supports their own beliefs) that such an exercise would be a violation of First Amendment rights.  Horsefeathers, balderdash, poppycock and codswallop.

Freedom of expression is not absolute. Sometimes “expression” crosses bounds of civilized conduct; and it’s generally easy enough to determine when that occurs. There are laws, for instance, against “free speech” that constitutes slander and libel. It’s difficult in the U.S. to win lawsuits for these offenses, but it isn’t because guilt is hard to establish; on the contrary, it’s usually quite easy. But due to a strained reading of the First Amendment, the American legal system heavily skews such cases toward the defendants (particularly since they’re often individuals of power and prestige).

The usual litmus test for slander and libel is whether the false statements are injurious to the subject’s reputation (which quite often translates to whether it might cause them to lose money somehow). Shouldn’t there be at least as stringent a safeguard against someone being subjected to the kind of emotional cruelty that this minister was?

And what about the possibility of bodily harm and even homicide? There are also laws against “free speech” that incites violence. Remember Pizzagate? That little bit of right-wing lunacy almost got people killed. And the next time, we might not be so lucky. How many lives must be lost before we think it’s justifiable to put a damper on this kind of “freedom of expression”? Libel and slander are punishable by fines.  Inciting to violence is punishable by imprisonment. Pizzagate-type narratives often fall into both categories, in addition to being seditious.

But there are other means of penalizing propaganda without criminalizing it.  Recently, Great Britain barred visits by several American promoters of Pizzagate, white nationalism, and theories about “white genocide”. In refusing them entry, British authorities (quite understandably) designated them as potential troublemakers and a corrupting influence on society. Quite predictably, American reactionary pundits took up the torch for these individuals, calling them “reporters” (they were actually bloggers and trolls) and declaring that they had been refused entry merely for being “conservative”. And needles to say, they invoked the ever-handy straw-filled whipping boy of “political correctness”.

But the transgressions of such people go far beyond merely having or expressing a political viewpoint. Hateful and delusional narratives of the type spewed out by Fox “News” et al are slanderous, seditious, and provocatory. Yet they get away with it all day long, every day. (Bear in mind that this is in the same country where TV personalities can be fined heavily for uttering the f-word on broadcast media even once. ) It’s quite possible that some of the ideologues of Fox and Breitbart and other cesspools actually believe the lies they peddle (see Jones, Alex) — in which case they wouldn’t be guilty of lying themselves. But is that any reason they should be allowed to hawk them with impunity? Should kids be allowed to play with loaded guns just because they imagine them to be light sabers?

Reactionary propaganda is as dishonest as slander or libel — which indeed it often is. It’s as incendiary and dangerous as sedition and incitement — which indeed it often is. Isn’t it time to start treating it as such?

Such a suggestion invariably provokes, especially among Americans, the knee-jerk response that there is something tyrannical and Orwellian about detecting and squelching dishonest and manipulative communication. They declare it to be overstepping by the big bad guvmint that will lead to all kinds of totalitarian consequences. They claim that it reeks of the “thought police”, and of government trying to shut down anyone who has a “dissenting opinion”. But contrary to the official spin in this Age Of Alternative Facts, not all beliefs are created equal. There are clear lines of demarcation between matters of opinion and matters of fact; and while scurrilous opinions may be relatively harmless, scurrilous lies can be very damaging indeed. (There is a middle ground: analysis, which is necessarily subjective. But it’s also clearly distinguishable from mere opinion and belief on one side and blatant falsehood on the other.)

Did we mention that most Americans seem to have no problem with the government imposing six-figure fines for saying “fuck” on TV? They also have no problem with the government regulating vehicle traffic, since the alternative would be chaos, disaster and tragedy. Nor do they object to the government operating a system of criminal justice, since the alternative would be mob rule and vigilantism.  Yet they can’t seem to grasp that propaganda can have consequences just as dire.

Well, let’s humor them and imagine a government crackdown on propaganda extended to its most dystopian extreme. Let’s suppose, first of all, that in instead of, or in addition to, being obsessed with preventing profanity from falling on pristine public ears, the government also took punitive and preventative measures to curb dishonest and defamatory polemic. That would mean, most likely, that Fox, OAN and NRATV among others would close up shop. Oh, the unimaginable horror.

Let’s go even farther and imagine government regulation applied also to social media and the citizenry at large. Imagine, for instance, that Facebook received fines for allowing dishonest and inflammatory memes to be posted. That most likely would prompt Facebook itself to crack down and penalize its users who post such material — by, say, suspending their privilege of use for a few days. And the users, in turn, most likely would start being more conscientious about what they post, and maybe even do some actual research before they hit the Share button. As a result we would end up with a public that is better informed, more cordial to each other, more broadminded, more willing to cooperate with each other, and more prepared to make sound choices at the ballot box. Which is to say it actually would result in a public better equipped to stave off overstepping by the big bad guvmint!

Explain to me exactly how all of this would be such a terrible thing.

 

Second Amendment Follies, Part 3: “the Security of a Free State”

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So we have seen that the real purpose of the Second Amendment was to guarantee a “well-regulated militia”. Why? Well, continue reading to the next phrase: “being necessary to the security of a free state”. Which is, compared to some of the other amendment’s components, rather straightforward. Which hasn’t prevented the gun fanatics from turning it completely on its ear.

According to them, the real function of this beatific addendum to the Constitution is so “patriots” can be armed to fight against their own government (if the president happens to be a Democrat). Under their logic, they could offer the ultimate demonstration of their “patriotism” and “support for the troops” by killing as many troops as possible.

Never mind that the chances of an armed citizenry successfully fighting an armed government are exactly two: slim and none. No, make that infinitesimally slim and none. The peddlers of this myth like to claim that the American Revolution itself was an example of such a successful campaign. Nope. The Revolutionary War was not fought between civilians and their government; it was fought between armies, supplemented by militia. And that militia, as we’ve already noted, was not merely a gaggle of armed citizens.

But at the moment, we’re not really concerned about how realistic this bit of dogma is, but rather with how constitutionally grounded it is or isn’t. And the gunsters also maintain that the Founders wanted future citizens to be prepared to fight their own government because that’s what they themselves had had to do. In other words, having overcome a tyrannical regime imposed by a monarch on the other side of the planet, the Founders carefully and meticulously constructed a new republic with a system of checks and balances designed to make certain that its government never became monarchical; yet they had such little faith in this new system they designed that they also installed a loophole to encourage anarchy against it.

To buttress this claim, gunsters often quote the Founders on the topic, or at least so it appears. Here’s one example that’s been making the rounds.

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Seems like an unequivocal pronouncement from an unequivocal Revolutionary authority, no? Unfortunately, this photo is fake, and so is the quote — at least the part of it that really matters to the gun cult.  Washington’s actual statement, in part, was this:

A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a Uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.

The comments about “discipline” and a “Uniform and well digested plan” is a strong indication that the Father of the Country wasn’t talking about the kind of nightmare scenario that today’s NRA has brought to fruition.

Yet there are other quotes from figures of the Revolution that the NRA cult has packed into its arsenal.  For example, there’s this one from Thomas Jefferson:

The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.

That’s definitely a strong case, and Jefferson is definitely a well qualified person to make it, so… um, wait a minute. Turns out that one is bogus too.

Of course, there are many genuine quotations from the Founders and their compatriots that seem to support a citizen’s right to be armed. But it’s important not to take them out of context. And it’s especially important not to take them as an admonition to be armed against one’s own government.  There are at least two major obstacles to such a conclusion.

First, there’s Article 3 of the Constitution, which includes this:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

In other words, taking up arms against your own government. That’s a very serious offense, traditionally punishable by death. So do you believe that the Founders spelled out what treason is, and then appended a provision to the Constitution that encourages citizens to commit it?

The second obstacle can be found in Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution:

The President shall be 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;

And in the Militia Acts of 1792:

That whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, [words requiring notification by an associate justice or district judge were omitted in 1795 revision. The revision gave the President more authority] the same being notified to the President of the United States, by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such state to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed. And if the militia of a state, where such combinations may happen, shall refuse, or be insufficient to suppress the same, it shall be lawful for the President, if the legislature of the United States be not in session, to call forth and employ such numbers of the militia of any other state or states most convenient thereto, as may be necessary…

All of which adds up to the bottom line that the militia is ultimately answerable to the president.  Furthermore, if one state’s militia is unwilling or unable to do his bidding within the bounds of its state, the president is authorized to summon forth militias of other states to do the job. (And note that the mention of different militias for different states is a strong indication that a militia was meant to be more than just an armed populace.) Which means that in order for the gun culture fantasy of bringing down Uncle Sam to be realized, the president would have to mobilize the militia against himself. And while some really kooky happenings are happening at the White House these days, this is not likely to be one of them any time soon.

Still, it’s not inconceivable that the Founders did indeed intend for the militia to be available to combat tyranny. It’s just that, inevitably, it would be marshaled to support the federal government instead of to oppose it.  A classic example occurred in 1957 when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus refused to comply with federal directives to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. Faubus initially mobilized the Arkansas National Guard (i.e., the militia) to impose his own will and resist what many southerners considered the “tyranny” of forced desegregation. This sounds like the gun culture wet dream. No, actually, it would be more like armed civilians marching on Washington and overthrowing the president because of this “tyranny”.

But what happened then was that President Eisenhower stepped in and took control of the Guard, as presidents have the right to do. The tyranny of Faubus was suppressed, and segregation in Arkansas schools was ended. This is the kind of “security of a free state” the Founders had in mind. And it’s the way they intended militias to work. How do we know? Because they clearly said so.

(Next installment: we get to the heart of the matter, the gun culture’s favorite part of the Second Amendment.)

Second Amendment Follies, Part 2: “a Well-Regulated Militia”

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As we have seen, the purpose of the Second Amendment was actually to guarantee a “well-regulated militia”. But what exactly does that mean? Just what is/ was a militia, anyway? The gun culture, of course, has its own answer for that, whether it conforms to reality or not.  Let’s turn again to what is perhaps the definitive treasury of NRA talking points, the publication and website called GunFacts:

Today “militia” might be more meaningfully translated as “defense service”, associated with a “defense duty”, which attaches to individuals as much as to groups of them, organized or otherwise. When we are alone, we are all militias of one. In the broadest sense, militia is the exercise of civic virtue.

Wow. Militia of one. Fancy that tattooed on your knuckles as you pump off a few rounds of civic virtue. In less grandiose terms, what gunsters proclaim is that “militia” today means all of the citizenry, because that’s what it meant when the Second Amendment was etched in stone. But there are at least two major flaws with this claim.

First of all, it just isn’t true.  Gun fetishists likes to quote George Mason, Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, thus:

I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.

But this line uttered in debate is not a part of an official governing document. (Ironically, many individuals willing to brandish it as gospel are also quick to brush off Tom Jefferson’s comment about the wall of separation between church and state because it’s unofficial.) And given the tenor of the times, it’s likely that Mason didn’t quite exactly mean all of the people. Because the Second Militia Act of 1792 (passed only a few months after the Second Amendment was written) designated the composition of the militia as being:

every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years

So if the NRA crowd actually adhered to the original intent (or rather the original meaning, as they really seem to be professing to do), then today’s “militia” would consist only of white males between 18 and 45. And they would be outfitted only with

a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder

And maybe a slingshot or two.

Either Mason was being non-literal, or he was just plain wrong.

Of course, the original definition of militia has been tinkered with over the years since then. In 1862, a new Militia Act finally eliminated the restrictions of race; but there was still no remedy for the sexism and ageism of the original.

Then in 1903 another Militia Act, also known as the Dick Act, established the National Guard as the official “organized militia”, and demoted those who are eligible for Guard membership (i.e., able-bodied males within a certain age range) but not actual members as “unorganized militia” . In recent years, the gun culture has twisted the language and intent of this law into an assertion that “unorganized militia” means anyone who wants to tote hardware for any purpose.  The gun culture asserts that all civilians are a part of the “unofficial” militia and therefore covered by the Second Amendment; they must be wondering why the army never seems to need their services.

Sorry, but the Dick Act does not authorize you to be a — well, jerk. Being part of that “unofficial militia” doesn’t entail wearing a uniform or being privy to a secret handshake. And even if one could make a case that the Dick Act makes all of us “unofficial militia”, whatever rights it confers/ enshrines are legal (i.e., legislative) rights rather than constitutional rights. Its concept of militia is Twentieth Century rather than Eighteenth, and its provisions were not part of either the original Constitution or the Second Amendment; indeed, the Dick Act was passed when the Founders were all long deceased.

The other problem is that the obsession with the composition of the militia is to an extent a red herring. The most important thing about the militia was not its qualifications for membership, but its purpose for existing.  And that’s also clearly spelled out in the two Militia Acts of 1792:

That whenever the United States shall be invaded, or be in imminent danger of invasion from any foreign nation or Indian tribe, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, to call forth such number of the militia of the state or states most convenient to the place of danger or scene of action, as he may judge necessary to repel such invasion… That whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed, or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, the same being notified to the President of the United States, by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such state to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.

In other words, the militia was designed to be an organized armed force supplied by the states to execute the laws of the nation. Nothing in the Militia Acts said anything about citizens being armed for deer hunting. Or for “defending” yourself against your government — more about that in a future installment. (And the militia was by no means universally revered among the Founders; George Washington spoke of it disapprovingly on more than one occasion.) The Dick Act actually makes this even more clear. With the establishment of the National Guard as the go-to unit of reserve manpower, the need for a militia in the traditional sense effectively became obsolete — which means that the Second Amendment also became obsolete.

The purpose of the militia is further emphasized by the expression “well-regulated”. And as you might expect, the gun culture also has its insistence that “that word does not mean what you think it means”. Thus from GunFacts:

The origin of the phrase “a well regulated militia” comes from a 1698 treatise “A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias” by Andrew Fletcher, in which the term “well regulated” was equated with “well-behaved” or “disciplined”.

And the author goes on to cite several other illustrations of the word well-regulated from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1709: “If a liberal Education has formed in us well-regulated Appetites and worthy Inclinations.”

1714: “The practice of all well-regulated courts of justice in the world.”

1812: “The equation of time … is the adjustment of the difference of time as shown by a well-regulated clock and a true sun dial.”

1848: “A remissness for which I am sure every well-regulated person will blame the Mayor.”

1862: “It appeared to her well-regulated mind, like a clandestine proceeding.”

1894: “The newspaper, a never wanting adjunct to every well-regulated American embryo city.”

What the gun culture has done, in other words, is set up a false dichotomy. On the one hand, there is what they want “well-regulated” to mean: skilled in marksmanship. And on the other hand, there is what they want the “gun control” advocates to want it to mean: strict prohibitive legislation imposed by the government.  And, they suggest, if it means one then it can’t possibly mean the other.

In fact, as you can see from the above examples, even GunFacts acknowledges that well-regulated spans a range of meaning. But all of its possible definitions embrace the sense of disciplined, organized and efficient. And they all apply to a military unit, such as a militia. Incidentally, members of the militia in Revolutionary days were generally conscripted for service. And one of the major ironies of today’s gun fetishists is that they worship the Second Amendment as the embodiment of what they believe to be the ultimate freedom, when in fact it was intended to be a codification of civic obligation.

Indulge the gun zealots for a moment and imagine that “well-regulated” means only skilled in marksmanship. Imagine all the “militias of one” running around on their own initiative and dispensing “civic virtue” in each other’s direction at will. Do you really think this would be a well-regulated militia in the sense that the Second Amendment intended? Militia, like military, is derived from the Latin word for soldier. And a soldier never acts alone even when he is alone.  It is only when an organized body of soldiers, whether they be regular army or militia, is well-regulated in virtually every possible sense of the term, that it will effect the “security of a free state”.

Which is the troublesome phrase we’ll examine in the next installment.