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.

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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.

 

 

What Children Learn From Their President

 

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A U.S. president wears many hats, some unwittingly. Officially, (s)he is the chief of state, the chief executive, the commander in chief, the chief citizen, the chief diplomat, the party chief, and the chief administrator.  Unofficially, she is other things, including the global figurehead of the United States as a whole, and — what we often don’t think about enough — a role model for children.

For a period of 8 years, American children and their parents were fortunate to have Barack Obama in the White House. He was the epitome of grace under fire, of coolness and confidence under the harshest and slimiest attack (of which there were too many to count), of cheer and good will toward all. And many other qualities of sound and admirable leadership.

But kids have not always been so lucky.

Richard Nixon taught them that the end justifies the means. Ronald Reagan taught them that style triumphs over substance. George W. Bush taught them that family connections are more important than ability. And now we have number 45, who is teaching them all of the above plus much, much more.

They are learning that they can lie brazenly, outlandishly, constantly, without fear of repercussions.

They are learning that bragging, threats and pettiness are considered signs of “strength”.

They are learning that, contrary to what adults have been teaching them for years, bullying is really cool and gets you lots of admiring attention.

They are learning that selfishness and narcissism are the ultimate virtues.

They are learning that if you are rich and powerful enough, you can get away with anything.

They are learning to never accept responsibility for their mistakes and misdeeds — and they should just lie, deny, cover up and deflect blame to someone else.

They are learning to pick scapegoats for any problem they have been experiencing.

They are learning that instant gratification is all that matters.

They are learning that childish insults and attacks against other people will make themselves feel more important.

They are learning that there is no need to learn anything about anything if they pretend to know everything about everything.

They are learning that it doesn’t matter what they actually do, as long as they can convince enough people to believe whatever they say.

They are learning that there is no need ever to grow up because childish behavior will be rewarded superlatively.

It will be a few years before we see how these lessons really bear fruit.  But for once, we’d better hope like hell that kids aren’t paying attention.

 

 

Second Amendment Follies, Part 1: An Inconvenient Clause

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Let’s be clear: Americans have a right to own guns. But it’s not a constitutional right. And it’s not a “God-given” right. It’s a right conferred by the rulings of a “conservative” Supreme Court, in a grotesquely distorted reading of the Second Amendment.

But in the interests of accuracy and satisfying curiosity, let’s consider the Second Amendment in more detail. We’ve touched on this topic in a previous discussion, but it was hardly exhaustive. In fact, it was quite cursory, and was designed to show that the amendment is a semantic mess that, at the very least, casts serious doubts on the gun culture’s claims of a constitutional right to be armed. And as long as there is one scintilla of doubt, then you cannot say (as many do) that there is an absolute right enshrined in the Constitution to tote a hogleg.

The gun culture tries to dance around the actual meaning of the Second Amendment in several ways. First of all, it simply ignores the first part of the sentence, the inconvenient explanation for its existence:

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…

And instead, gunsters just cut to the part they actually like…

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

You seriously will hear many of them simply quote that second half as representing the entire Second Amendment (as on that handy-dandy magnetic sign pictured above), perhaps followed by a haughty “what part of that don’t you understand?”

How about the part they omitted? The part which, as we mentioned before, could be construed as the actual subject of the sentence. The part which, whether one reads it as the subject or not, is placed at the beginning and is clearly crucial to understanding the Amendment’s meaning and purpose.

Even when they acknowledge this elephant in the living room, the gun fanatics try to diminish its importance. They often try to dismiss the opening as merely a “justification clause” while the second half is the actual “rights clause”; or alternatively, “prefatory clause”, and “operative clause”. Nice words, but they don’t change anything: the beginning clause still expresses the purpose and reason for the amendment being drafted in the first place: i.e., to ensure a “well-regulated militia”. The gun culture’s conclusion that “gun rights” were not meant to be limited to this purpose alone is based on clues extraneous to the amendment itself, and indeed extraneous to the Constitution. (Incidentally, in strict grammarian usage, the two phrases referred to are not really “clauses”; but since that’s the label they’re commonly given, we won’t be sticklers on this point for the time being.)

Suppose you opened up a cookbook and found a passage like this:

A well-made fruitcake being necessary for a traditional Christmas celebration, you should make certain to have a supply of citron on hand.

Would you conclude that this sentence was written to encourage everyone to stockpile citron, all year long? Or would you conclude that it was written to help ensure a well-made fruitcake?

Another tactic the gun culture (and right-wing extremists in general) often employ is playing the “original intent” card; if the Constitution doesn’t say what they want it to, they try to discern what the framers really meant. They do this in part by just playing psychic, though they try to buttress their claims by scratching through an endless supply of documents for “historical context”.

Now certainly historical context is, up to a point, useful and even vital. It’s important, for instance, to understand what words like “militia” and “arms” meant to the Framers who used them. But the “original intent” crowd often turn historical context into a bottomless pit by mining all manner of documents for clues that are really tangential to the point under consideration. I recently had someone try to argue with me, for instance, that the Civil War was really not about slavery because her great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy, and by god he had other motives, and if I would just read all the letters and other papers left by the other Southern peasants, I’d see that they had other reasons for fighting. No doubt. But they weren’t exactly the ones who made the decision to declare war, were they? The ones who did make the decision were quite unequivocal about their motive.

An excellent illustration of how the gun culture utilizes this tactic can be found in what is surely the ultimate compendium of gun culture propaganda: Gun Facts , which is intended to address every “myth” that has been, is being, or ever will be, perpetrated by the “gun control” advocates. It covers gun culture talking points of every possible breed, from mass shootings, to children and guns, to gun laws, to microstamping to concealed carry — and of course to the Second Amendment and court rulings as well. A sleek PDF of Gun Facts can be downloaded for free; and oh by the way while you’re at it, you also can purchase another book heavily marketed within its pages that betrays the real NRA agenda: drawing a bead on “liberals”.

Incidentally, there is a simple but quite reliable litmus test for gauging the probable reliability of any such source of gun “facts”; just check to see whether it places obeisant faith in the absurd “statistic” of 2.5 million defensive gun uses per annum. If it does, there’s an excellent chance it will be just as sloppy about the rest of its “facts”. Gun Facts does, and is. (It also fails another telling litmus test, parroting the claim that Nazi Germany “established gun control” in 1938.) Furthermore, in another section, GunFacts states that firearms are used to prevent 400,000 crimes per day — which would be a whopping 146 million annual DGUs! How can this publication expect to shoot down “gun control propaganda” when it goes gunning against itself?

The main tactic the author uses in the “original intent” argument is to cite passages from several state constitutions (written before and after the U.S. Constitution) that declare residents of those states have the right to be armed for individual purposes. This supposedly demonstrates that the Second Amendment was drawn up with the same intention. See if you can follow the logic here: (a) Several states had constitutions that enshrined an individual right to “bear arms”; (b) the framers of the U.S. Constitution were familiar with these provisions; (c) they did not insert such a stipulation into the U.S. Constitution; (d) therefore, they meant to insert such a stipulation into the U.S. Constitution.

The author also mentions that during the deliberations on the Second Amendment, one senator proposed inserting the words “for the common defense”, but this suggestion was voted down. Evidently, he concludes that rejecting that wording also means a rejection of the concept. (In fact, “for the common defense” is, for one thing, redundant when you already have “well-regulated militia”).  And note the logic here: the absence of a phrase about the common defense means the whole concept is null and void, whereas the absence of a phrase about individual defense means this is clearly what the founders had in mind.

Not content with having shot himself in both feet, the author then turns around and shoots himself in the ass as well by quoting the first draft of the Second Amendment:

The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.

Talk about an inconvenient clause. Why would there be a provision for conscientious objectors if the purpose of the amendment is to guarantee individuals the right to go deer hunting or gun down illegal immigrants invading their homes? Yes, this clause was eventually eliminated (after being retained in the second draft). And evidently, the Gun Facts author believes, in Orwellian fashion, erasing the text of it erases it from ever having existed at all. But if you’re talking about original intent, it’s hard to argue that the Framers had private gun ownership in mind when they talked about military service and religious objections. It’s very clear that they were really talking about a well-regulated militia, whatever that means.

And just what that means is something we’ll be looking at in the next installment.

 

 

A Field Guide to Political Labels

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“Liberal”? “Conservative”? “Left-wing”? “Right-wing”? “Neocon”? “alt-Right”?”Progressive’? These are all terms that get thrown around quite a bit these days, along with several others that are considerably less complimentary (e.g., “libtard” “wingnut” and “snowflake“). They get used and misused and abused so much that their actual definitions are as blurred as the original shape of melted ice cream. So let’s see if we can sort them out, shall we? This is not going to be a comprehensive treatise, mind you; just a bare-bones approach to getting definitions straight. And yes, it will be rather subjective — but still quite accurate.

The two anchor categories are conservative and liberal. In broadest terms, conservative means cautious, resistant to change; and liberal means loose, generous, open to change. Neither is inherently a bad quality, nor are the two qualities inherently in conflict.  A person can be liberal in some situations and conservative in others; or both in different senses in the same situation. Both are, after all,  relative qualities. The conflict occurs only after we get more specific in ideological application — when we add “isms” and capital letters.

Conservatism

Among the best definitions of conservatism, in the political and ideological sense of the word, are surely these by Merriam-Webster:

2 a disposition in politics to preserve what is established
b a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change; specifically such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (such as retirement income or health-care coverage)
3the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change

Classic conservatism, then, is a devotion to tradition above all else. And this means that it is implicitly (and even explicitly) a reverence for hierarchy. In traditional conservatism, the rich are above the poor, males are above females, whites above blacks, religion above secularism, Christianity (in Western society) above other religions, and of course one’s own country above all others. Conservatives have been defenders of theocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, patriarchy and nationalism. They have championed slavery, segregation, strict gender roles, and all manner of class and caste systems.

One of the greatest contradictions of conservatism and its contemporary incarnations (which we’ll get to shortly) is that on the one hand they promote a draconian black-and-white approach to crime, encompassing the death penalty — the attitude that human nature cannot be improved, that people are either good or bad, and the bad apples are generally beyond reform. Yet on the other hand they promote a central role for religion in governance; and not only does Christianity at its best promote compassion and forgiveness, but Christian dogma hinges on the concept that human nature can be reformed drastically and instantaneously by the mere act of religious conversion.

Liberalism

The same lexicographers also have an excellent definition of (classic) liberalism:

a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy (see autonomy 2) of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (such as those involving race, gender, or class)

Liberal shares a the same root as liberty; and liberalism is at its best a striving for liberty from oppression. Specifically, in political terms, classic liberalism (which was first used to designate a formal ideology probably in the early Nineteenth Century) aimed to throw off the yoke of the religious establishment and the aristocratic establishment, which often are intertwined. But even before the coinage, settlers came to America prompted by the former type of liberalism; and revolutionaries in America established a new nation prompted by the latter kind.

The removal of aristocratic and theocratic domination, of course, means that some other type of government structure must be installed in their place if you don’t want pure anarchy. And the criticism often leveled against liberalism is that the government structures themselves may become oppressive. Sure, that can happen. And if it does, that government is no longer liberal.

Progressivism

At some point, liberals realized that true freedom demands equality, and thus requires more than just eliminating sources of oppression; it also requires proactively making sure the playing field is level as possible for everyone.  You can’t achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number” by just letting things take care of themselves — because oddly enough, those born on the top rungs of society tend to do whatever it takes to stay there.

In other words, equality requires progressivism, which is often used interchangeably with liberalism. But while progressivism is liberal, liberalism in not necessarily progressive.  Officially declaring racial discrimination illegal is liberal. Taking practical measures to actually prevent it from happening is progressive.  An official Progressive Party flourished in the U.S. in the first half of the Twentieth Century; it was neither the beginning nor end of American progressivism, lower case. The American Revolution was not only distinctly liberal, but quite progressive. Likewise Social Security, the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, female suffrage and civil rights legislation.

Not all such measures are going to be effective, but at least liberals and progressives are willing to experiment.  Affirmative action was intended to address racial inequality, but proved itself to be problematic. Other measures fail because they are sabotaged by reactionaries (defined below). The informal movement which has been named (rather inappropriately) “political correctness” started as an effort to foster respect for other demographic groups by urging people to be mindful of their terminology and iconography. But it has been branded and spun as censorship and totalitarian “thought control”, which is quite the contrary of what it was supposed to be. (More about “political correctness” in a future discussion.)

One contemporary philosopher who recently critiqued “liberalism” (and he was really talking largely about progressivism) posited that it ultimately is doomed to failure, because if we keep improving the human condition, we eventually will reach a state at which no other improvement is possible. And wouldn’t that be terrible! But aside from the astronomically dubious chances that such a plateau ever could be achieved in the lifespan of the human race, the very premise hinges on the false assumption that progress travels in a straight line. In fact its course takes many backs and forths and zigzags and loops.  Who ever could have predicted, for instance, the progressive responses necessitated by the AIDS epidemic?

Radicalism

Although the word radical  gets injected into political discourse quite a bit, radicalism in not a political movement, nor is it even per se a political term.  It’s simply a modifier frequently attached to political terms.  It’s often used as a synonym for extreme , but technically it’s a bit more specific. The word is derived from a root meaning… well, root  (as is radish).

A radical approach, then, is one that aims to get to the root of something, totally root it out, and establish something else in its place from the roots up. An overthrow, a revolution, a new order. Once again, we can point to the American Revolution, which was not only liberal and progressive, but rather radical. Note, however, that it is by no means just liberals and progressives who are capable of being radical.

Left (wing) / Right (wing)

When representatives met to draft a new constitution during the French Revolution, the aristocrats were seated on the right and the commoners on the left.  This arrangement has filtered down into the figurative lexicon of political discourse ever since. And it’s unfortunate, because for one thing, it reinforces the attitude among conservative types (as if it needed reinforcing) that their position is all that matters — that they are, in that other sense of the word, always right. Conversely, non-traditionalists are viewed as being left out or left behind.

Many of us who happen to be southpaws are quite aware of this linguistic bias.  From the Latin word dexter meaning on the right, comes dexterity , meaning skilled or agile; while  the French gauche, meaning left, has come to mean crude or awkward.  And the Latin sinister meaning left or on the left has come to mean underhanded, malicious and downright evil. They’re merely words. you may say; but mere words do affect attitudes (which was the inspiration in part for “political correctness”).

Nowadays, when we speak of “left wing” or “right wing”, we’re generally referring to extremism — and not in a complimentary tone. If the wingers are especially extreme and unhinged they may be called “wingnuts” — which theoretically could be a loony at either end of the spectrum, but in practice the term is almost always applied to those on the right.

Wingnuts are people who spin separation of church and state as “taking God out of the schools (or courthouse, or whatever)”; who spin journalists’ reporting of facts that clash with right-wing convictions as “liberal bias” in the media; who spin abortion as “killing babies”; who spin protests against (Republican) presidents as “hating America”. And so on. And on and on. They often make a conspicuous display of “patriotic” gestures, and assail the patriotism of anyone who doesn’t copy them — indeed, they assail the patriotism of anyone who doesn’t concur with their beliefs. It’s also very characteristic of right-wing fanatics in any age to regard science as an enemy, and try to suppress scientific facts that undermine right-wing dogma — which is a great many facts.

Republican / Democrat

In our time, Democrats are known for dallying with interns and secretaries, while Republicans are known for dallying with underage boys — while lecturing about “family values”. Republicans are thought of as the party with no heart, while Democrats are thought of as the party with no spine. And not without some justification; certainly the Democrats are all too willing to compromise and cooperate, while Republicans regard cooperation and compromise as signs of weakness — after all, they’re “right” aren’t they?

Decades ago, Will Rogers quipped “I’m not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” The point is, alas, just as valid today. No matter how strong their platform or their candidate, Democrats have an uncanny knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

There’s no guarantee that Republicans will be conservative/ right-wing or that Democrats will be liberal/ progressive/ left-wing, but in both cases the odds are substantially increased. But this hasn’t always been the case, and certainly not on every issue; the names Republican and Democrat have been applied during the history of the U.S. to a wide range of ideological platforms. This is something that Republicans often forget (assuming that they ever learned it in junior high history class in the first place), particularly when they are accused of promoting racism. When that happens, they are likely to respond that, hey, it was the Democrats who fought to defend slavery in the Civil War — even though at other times these same Republicans are likely to deny that the Civil War was really about slavery at all.

What they are forgetting, or ignorant of, is that the two major parties have both altered their stances drastically since then, particularly in regard to race matters — on which they pretty much have exchanged positions altogether. Portraying today’s Republicans as champions of emancipation because a party with the same name fought for it a century and a half ago is rather like saying that Henry Fonda must have opposed the Vietnam imbroglio, since Jane did. It’s inexcusable to be that ignorant about either your own party or the opposition.

Republicans have even been known to recast themselves as champions of civil rights in the Sixties, since a larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (82% to 69% in the Senate, 80% to 63% in the House). But these figures are misleading. Actually, a larger number of Democrats voted for the Act (46 to 27 in the Senate, 153 to 136 in the House); but the percentages are reversed because there were a lot more Democrats and many of them hailed from Dixie. In fact, it was geographic origin and not party affiliation that was the overriding factor. When you break the parties down by geography, Democrats scored higher in every division. Among Northern states, it was 98% to 84% in the Senate, and 95% to 85% in the House. Even among Southerners, 5% of Democrats in the Senate and 9% in the House voted for the measure, compared to a grand total of ZERO Republicans.

Incidentally, the proper designation is “Democratic Party”, and not “Democrat Party”. The latter is a haughtily dismissive appellation applied by right-wingers only. And come to think of it, “Grand Old Party” is arguably a rather inappropriate nickname for the newer of the two parties. All of this betrays the Republican Party’s chronic problem with getting facts straight.

Reactionary

Another holdover from the French Revolution,  reactionary describes an individual who wants to take things back to the way they were in the past. While this word, like wingnut, theoretically could be applied to a fanatic on either end of the ideological spectrum, it applies in practice almost exclusively to those on the extreme right.

Neoconservatism

These days, when people talk about “conservatism”, they almost always mean neoconservatism , which has dominated the Republican Party since at least the advent of Ronald Reagan. While true conservatism is cautious about change and clings to the status quo, neoconservatism actually seeks severe change — by reversing change that has been effected by liberalism and progressivism. It is, in other words, rather radical, which is actually the opposite of conservative (that’s why I so often put “conservative” in quotation marks).

Neoconservatives, in short, are today’s reactionaries. You will often hear them use oxymorons like conservative movement and even conservative revolution. Neocons want to take us back to the Golden Age of the Fifties, as their warped memories portray it: a time when there was no drug abuse, no welfare, no secularism, no homosexuality, no black power movement, no violence, no crime, no abortion — after all, these things didn’t receive nearly so much media attention, so apparently they must not have existed, right?

Furthermore, they attribute the existence of that lost Cold War Shangri-La to a raft of incredibly silly factors: capital punishment, parents spanking kids, forced prayer in schools, people attending church more frequently, tamer pop music, shorter hairstyles for men, censorship of profanity in the media, etc., etc., etc. Neocons frequently have been known to speak glowingly of Joe McCarthy, and to excoriate the decadent era of the Sixties, which ruined everything. Above all, they abhor liberalism (or what they perceive as liberalism) as the supreme evil, a plot to destroy America.

Still, neocons do have many values in common with traditional conservatives: they value hierarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, theocracy, patriarchy, nationalism and warmongering, to name a few.  But they are often more subtle about how they promote these supposed virtues. Whereas conservatives in the old days blatantly argued for racism on the grounds that the white race was superior,  neocons are more likely to just deny that their policies promote racism — and indeed to deny that racism even exists.

Neocons also like to pursue the golden fleece of “limited government”, but how they (don’t) put it into practice is quite another matter. Contrary to the persistent spin, it is Republicans, not Democrats, who are the party of “tax and spend“. And not only do they pass excessive legislation, but much of it is of an intrusive nature, aimed at restricting such private matters as sexuality and reproductive freedom, self-expression and freedom of (from) religion.

When they hawk the fool’s gold of “deregulation”, they are being either disingenuous or inexcusably naive — as if they believe that if they can eliminate government controls, human nature will become perfect overnight, and we will be living in a Star Trek utopia.  But as law professor Joel Bakan sums it up so nicely:

When you deregulate, you’re not reducing the state’s involvement one iota. You’re merely shifting whose interest government is acting for.  Every time the state rolls back standards for environmental quality, worker safety or consumer protection in the name of deregulation, what’s actually happening is that the state is creating more rights for corporations, and throwing more power behind the enforcement of those rights. In a deregulated economy, the state remains heavily involved in the economy, but now on the side of corporations rather than on the side of citizens and the environment. (Utne magazine, June 2006)

Couldn’t have said it any better.

Alt-Right

The Alt-Right (or alt/Right, as it is often written) is a very new faction, or rather a new term to describe an ideological sector that has been around in some form for a long time. It is an even more extreme form of neoconservatism that openly embraces white supremacy, white nationalism, islamophobia and other forms of xenophobia, homophobia, male chauvinism, and violent memes directed toward its perceived enemies. It has wormed its way into the Republican mainstream, and was instrumental in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. And no, there is no such thing as the “Alt-Left”.

Libertarian/ libertarian

Yes, there is a difference. The word libertarian, lower case, has been around since the Eighteenth Century. Like liberal, it shares a genealogy with liberty, which was originally its primary focus. In short, libertarians originally were essentially the same as liberals. In fact, the two words have been used as near-synonyms as recently as 1960 or so.

But the official Libertarian Party, capitalized, is a rather different animal, though not an incompatible one. It was formed in 1971 (essentially by one man), largely because some people felt that modern liberalism had strayed too far afield from its roots. And while it adopts some positions that are considered “liberal” — supporting same-sex marriage, ending capital punishment — it has others that are considered more right-wing — abolishing the IRS (not necessarily an exclusively right-wing proposal) and championing “gun rights”.

In practice, however, Libertarianism tends to fall discernibly on the right end of the spectrum — indeed, 12 percent of Republicans identify themselves as having Libertarian sympathies, compared to 6 percent of Democrats. You’ll hear Libertarians attack “liberalism” fairly often, but how often do you hear them attack “conservatism”? It’s quite likely that one of the main reasons the Libertarian Party has been unable to establish itself as a viable third party alternative is that it has been unable to distinguish itself sufficiently from the Republican Party.

Like many Republicans, Libertarians preach the virtues of “limited government” — some have even advocated for the privitization of police forces. But while Republicans tend to oppose government programs that enact progressive reform because they enact progressive reform, Libertarians tend to oppose them because they are government programs. It has been said jokingly (?) that Libertarians regard it as government overreaching if the city picks up their garbage. The chances are pretty good that you’ll hear them spout the “anti-collectivist” twaddle of the Ayn Rand cult.  Moreover, they often can be found in bed with the NRA; and infatuation with weaponry is (usually) a distinctly right-wing trait.

Nonetheless, the wide ideological swath among Libertarians indicates that they tend to be much broader minded and more tolerant (not to mention better informed) than Republicans, and definitely more so than neocons/ reactionaries.  But they do have their share of birthers, creationists, anti-vaxxers, climategaters and flat earthers.

Socialism

In the current climate, you’re most likely to hear socialist used as a term of disparagement, applied as a knee-jerk reaction to Democrats/ liberals/ progressives. But while socialism does utilize the concept of liberalism — and even progressivism — it is not in itself a political ideology. It is, rather, an economic ideology. The basic idea of socialism is that the people control the means of production, and the proceeds go to benefit both the common good and individual citizens in proportion to their contribution and/or need. Of course you need some kind of government system to make it function, but there is all manner of leeway about what kind of system. Accordingly, you have many different flavors of socialism: e.g., Democratic Socialism, Libertarian Socialism, Green Socialism, Revolutionary Socialism, Fabian Socialism, Market Socialism, Utopian Socialism and even Christian Socialism.

No nation has an entirely socialist system, but a great many nations, including the U.S., have long employed socialist ideals to some extent. And several nations are nearly totally socialist, and despite the potential drawbacks (high taxes, for one), it has worked out rather well for them.

Communism

Once the favored bogeyman of reactionaries, the commie label isn’t quite so much in vogue as it once was. But by no means has it gone away. It’s still often applied as an insult to anyone who is left-leaning, and often is construed as synonymous with socialist. But there are many important differences, with perhaps the most important being that under communism, private property is abolished and replaced by the concept of “usership”. While both systems in theory strive for equality among classes, and even a class-free society, the reality is that under communism there is equality only among the working class, but there is still a ruling class, with an iron ceiling between the two.

Another distinction that gets perhaps more press than it deserves is that a communist system is officially atheist — which has prompted many reactionaries to conclude that since communism is atheist, atheism must be communist.  Furthermore, they conclude that atheism itself is an ideology, and that it is directly responsible for the atrocities committed by (nominally) communist regimes.

In reality, communism has embraced atheism precisely because atheism is not an ideology. Communist rejection of religion is based not just on its being a competing ideology, but also on its being a competing power structure that wrests away a portion of control from the state, and perpetuates the class structure that communism seeks to eradicate. The great Communist Messiah Karl Marx indicated that he believed religion would die a natural death if communism flourished. Accordingly, there was no reason for the state to be overtly hostile to religion or persecute its practitioners  — although that little wrinkle was certainly added by some of his later disciples. That said, there is such a thing as Christian communism.

Although communism is, like socialism, primarily an economic system, one could make a much stronger case that it is also a system of governance. Because while socialism can be practiced under a wide variety of governments, communism demands central control.  The decisions are not made by democratic process, but by an oligarchy, a dictatorship, a one-party state. Wealth is not distributed for the benefit of the people but for the benefit of the state. One could also argue (quite successfully) that pure communism never actually has been applied. Every country that has ever had a go at it has devolved into oppressive, even genocidal totalitarianism. It is the prime example of a system that begins with liberal impulses and morphs into something that is the opposite of liberalism.

Fascism

Finally we come to the f-word, which is used almost as often as the other one. It has become the default smear to brand anyone whose policies you don’t like as a fascist. In the past, there was at least a general understanding that fascism is historically a form of right-wing extremism. But in recent years neocons, in their tireless quest to demonize “liberals” above all else, have undertaken a propaganda campaign to rewrite history and proclaim that liberalism spawned fascism. Just for good measure, they also have declared that fascism spawned liberalism. Seriously. Meanwhile, they also brand “liberals” as communists, apparently blissfully unaware that communists and fascists were on opposite sides of the Great War. (We’ll address the myth of “liberal fascism” in the future.)

As with other ideologies, there are different kinds of fascism — though the two main varieties, at least historically, have been the Italian (under Mussolini) and the German (Nazism, which is what most people associate with fascism). Perhaps the main difference is that Nazism promoted a strict class structure, and the inherent superiority/ inferiority of races and classes. Both varieties believed in fierce nationalism, strict gender roles, warmongering, corporatism and — most important — absolute dictatorship, even to the extent of the state controlling media.

The United States has long incorporated certain hints of fascism. But never has it done so to such an extent as its installation in the White House of a white nationalist, isolationist, dictatorial corporatist.

…………………………………………

And there you have it, a rundown on the primary labels and categories of political ideology as practiced in the U.S. today. It’s quite possible, however, that in a few years this list could look very different.