Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fighting 'the Government' by Killing Your Neighbors

cross-posted from Dagblog

Before dawn on Christmas Eve a man set fire to his car and his house and waited for the firefighters to arrive so he could murder them. He shot four, killing two. They were volunteers. One of the men he killed was also a local police lieutenant. They died for going out on a winter morning to protect their neighbors. Because the murderer kept the firefighters from doing their jobs, his fire spread to six neighboring houses, destroying thirty-three people's homes just before a blizzard rolled in.

This happened seven miles from my house. The neighborhood is a strip of beach between Lake Ontario and a local bay. It is an idyllic place where people go to sail, swim, or sit while their kids build sand castles. I like to walk on the jetty by the harbor's mouth and stand looking at the patient motion of the water. It is restful there. I don't know how any of us will find it restful now, looking at the place where our neighbors were murdered, where their homes were burned.

Gun-rights advocates insist that we have a right to semi-automatic weaponry in order to defend ourselves against the government. But this is what "resisting the government" looks like in practice: one disgruntled citizen shooting at the government agents who come to put out fires.

The Christmas Eve killer is a twisted parody of the guns-vs.-government ideology, but he did not have to twist it much. The rhetoric has come to center on the individual right to resist the government with armed force, and to talk about the government as an alien entity imposed from outside. This is passed off as a version of the original ideology of the American revolution, but it is profoundly different. The modern focus imagines a private individual, perhaps with a few friends, motivated by his own conviction of righteousness, rather than a group of volunteers representing the community at large. It expresses impatience and even disdain for the political processes that the Revolutionary militias were formed to defend. The Minutemen did not believe taxes were illegitimate confiscations of property; they believed that their elected representatives should set the tax rates.

Most of all, our modern guns-vs.-the-government narrative tends to oppose even local governments, exactly the governmental bodies that the Minutemen prized. The local sheriff and county tax assessor are just more government thugs. They are imagined as storm troopers beamed down from orbit somewhere, rather than as neighbors selected to do a job by the rest of the neighbors. But that is what they really are.

The government is your neighbors. The cop who comes to your door is coming on your neighbors' behalf. So is the fire marshal. It's more polite than having us all come over as a mob. And your taxes aren't a confiscation of your property on the behalf of the less deserving. They're a contribution to the community fund that pays for lots of things that you need and benefit from. 

I grew up in a community with a volunteer fire department and a mostly volunteer police department. My mother was the local police lieutenant, one of the few full-time professionals on the force. I remember her going out on calls on Christmas Eve to deal with emergencies. I understood that police had to be on call, because the other people in my town needed them. I was used to neighbors who volunteered as fire-fighters. I understood that people needed to be there for each other, that when there was a fire there had to be people who pitched in to stop it. The American revolutionaries that gun fetishists like to cite understood the same thing. That's why they volunteered. That's why they pitched in when the town needed them.

The men who were killed and wounded on Christmas Eve were practicing the same basic, small-town virtues I saw around me growing up. They were being the "government," which means, for most people on most days, being the folks who step up to be responsible when the neighbors need it. The government is us. Pretending otherwise is suicidal.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Gun Hobby

cross-posted from Dagblog

Our gun laws have been distorted to suit the needs of a single interest group. That small, privileged group’s desires outweigh the needs of nearly every other American, and have more influence with our elected leaders than the suffering of crime victims, the recommendations of law enforcement, or the common-sense demands of public safety. These privileged few are not hunters, or sportsmen, or homeowners concerned with self-defense. They are hobbyists. We live in a gun collector’s paradise, and it is very dangerous.

    Our nation’s worst mass shootings, like this year’s murders in Aurora and Newtown, were committed with semiautomatic weapons that have very large ammo magazines, magazines which were illegal until the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse in 2004. These weapons allow criminals to kill dozens of people without reloading. The concealed-carry laws currently promoted by gun lobbyists are useless when violent offenders use guns with such high-capacity magazines. Assault weapons were designed to overcome armed opponents by firing a large number of rounds at high speed, suppressing fire, so that the target cannot safely fire back. Police officers armed with handguns, no matter how well-practiced or well-trained, cannot easily fight back against such guns, which was one reason behind the original assault weapons ban. Random civilians carrying concealed handguns are not likely to do better. Those who argue otherwise display their willful ignorance about guns.

    The best hope for stopping a mass shooter, and often the only hope, is to attack him when he reloads. At that moment, and usually only at that moment, he is vulnerable and can be disarmed. The Tucson killer, who wounded Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others, was stopped when he needed to reload his gun, and more killings were prevented. The people who disarmed him did not have or need guns of their own. The Blacksburg killer, who murdered thirty-two people, knew how vulnerable he was when reloading and took elaborate precautions to protect himself when he did. Giving killers the ability to fire fifty or a hundred rounds before reloading allows them to kill many more victims, and takes away victims’ best and often only chance to fight back or escape. Limiting magazine size will not be enough to end gun violence in this country. But it would allow more of us to survive it. And restoring the assault weapons ban is something we can ask Congress to do right now.

    Why were guns with hundred-bullet magazines allowed to become legal again? They are not hunting weapons. They take the sport out of sport shooting. (No one needs suppressing fire against a skeet.) They are less useful for home defense than a handgun or shotgun. If you cannot defend your home with a handgun and a shotgun, you do not need more firepower. You need backup. And while some talk about gun ownership as a check on hypothetical government tyranny, these weapons could never rein in our national military with its tanks, planes, and guided armaments. These personal assault weapons are grossly inadequate to the hypothetical task of standing off the federal government, but grossly excessive for any legitimate use.

    These guns are sold to collectors. The purpose of owning them is the sheer pleasure of owning the object. It is ultimately no different, and in itself no less innocent, than owning a vintage baseball card or a Model T Ford. These guns are not tools but toys. They provide a perfectly harmless and interesting pastime for most collectors, and an enormously lucrative market for gun manufacturers. Hobbyists buy expensive high-end products and keep buying more. They are where the money is. So it is natural that the gun makers, and the gun lobby they help fund, are bent on keeping that profitable business legal. The result is that we have laws, written at the behest of well-heeled pressure groups, that are more concerned with protecting sellers and collectors from inconvenience than in protecting honest citizens’ lives. Nancy Lanza, who bought and was killed by the guns used in the Newtown murders, was one such avid hobbyist. But the laws that favored Ms. Lanza’s freedom to build her pleasure arsenal must give equal weight to her neighbors’ freedoms to live peaceably, send their children to school, and grow to adulthood. I do not begrudge collectors their hobby. But that hobby cannot take precedence over every other consideration. Children should not lose their lives so that adults may have their playthings.

Friday, December 14, 2012

What You Can Do About Gun Control TODAY

20 children have been murdered in Connecticut. This what you can do about it right now:

1. Write and call your Congressman. Writing to your Congressional representatives is the most important thing you can do, more important than writing to the White House. Write and call your House member first, and then your two Senators. You can find their contact information at and

Tell them you want them to bring back the assault weapons ban from the 1990s. You may want them to do more than that, but getting them to do more than that will take a long time. This is the easiest gun-control measure to vote for, and the hardest to vote against. Tell your House member and Senators that the gun used to kill those children was illegal fifteen years ago, and that it should be illegal now.

Tell them that passing the assault weapons ban is the least they can do, and that they need to show you that they are leading on this issue.

Tell them that you are very, very angry.

2. Write to the President. You can contact the White House here.

Tell the President you want him to bring back the assault weapons ban that President Clinton passed. Tell him that you want him to show leadership on this issue, and that you are very, very angry.

Also tell him that you want Attorney General Holder to enforce all existing gun laws and make firearms enforcement a top priority. The President does not need Congress to do this. He can do it tomorrow. Tell him to do it.

3. Write all of the same people next week and tell them the same thing.

Elected leaders do not do things because voters want them on the day something terrible happens, no matter how badly the voters want those things or how terrible the day. They do things because they know voters want those things every day,  and will not change their minds. Show your leaders that your mind will not change.

Write to your Congressmen and the White House next week and say that you still want the assault weapons ban and strict gun law enforcement. If they have not done anything by next Friday, tell them you are very disappointed. If they have done something, tell them they are doing a good job and encourage them to do more.

Then write to them the week after that. Write to them every time a gun-control bill comes up in Congress.

If you really want to do something about gun violence in our country, it will take a long time and many stages. It will take steady determination even to get the assault weapons ban back. It will take years of effort and determination to do more than that.

Politicians in our country have learned to fear the gun lobby. They will not back meaningful change until they are more worried about angry voters who want gun control then they are about powerful lobbyists who don't. This is going to take us many, many hard days. Today is the day to start.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Reading the Renaissance for Fun (and Profit)

cross-posted from Dagblog

I stopped blogging for a while around Thanksgiving, partly because I was driving instead (I managed to log about 2500 highway miles in a week and a half), and partly because I needed to unplug both from national politics and from the unrelenting dailiness of office politics. (I go to more meetings at work than I used to, and answer a lot more e-mails.) The advent of winter holidays has always been a good time for me to step away from the noisy bustle and think more about what is durable. It's stepping out of the car after miles and miles of highway and looking up at the cold clear stars over New Hampshire.

Now that I've entered middle age, fewer things seem likely to endure. I no longer have the illusion when I walk in the New England woods that the forest is more than a few decades old, new growth over what used to be farmland. And I can no longer pretend to myself that those woods will abide from season to season now that the seasons themselves have begun to change. I know the winter stars will return for every solstice, but I'm no longer entirely sure about the winter itself.

Maybe for that reason, I have begun doing something that I haven't done in years. For the first time since early in grad school, I have started reading Renaissance literature for pleasure.

It's not that I haven't read a lot of Renaissance literature over the last fifteen years. In fact, I read Renaissance literature all the time: I teach it, research it, write about it. And I have always derived real pleasure from that reading, because the books themselves are intricate and beautiful and arrestingly strange. But there is a difference between reading for work and reading for pleasure, no matter how much you enjoy your work. What I had gotten away from doing is reading these poems simply for recreation. And I had not realized how much I missed it.

I've been making or finding time, most days over the last couple of weeks, to read a sizable but manageable section of one long poem or another, generally in a range between four hundred and a thousand lines. Some days that time gets sewn together out of several shorter scraps; on the best days, I have the luxury of sitting down and doing the reading uninterrupted. I respect the units each work is divided into, so that when I come to the end of a canto or a book or whatever, that's it for that day.  If I don't finish a section, I get to it the next day, but I don't plow straight through to the next section of the poem. This enforces a leisurely pace. Reading the two poems I'm currently reading on this schedule would take about three months even if I didn't miss a day here or there, as I inevitably will. That speed is completely impractical if you're reading for work or for school. It's a pace designed for pleasure rather than business, and it works pretty well. In fact, I'm convinced that at least one of these poems was intended to be read at just about this speed.

These are books that I seldom teach, and almost never teach in their entirety. They're also books that I never write about, and have no plans to write about in the foreseeable future. Neither fits into the book I'm writing now, or the book I'll write after this one, or anywhere in the long queue of articles and conference papers I need to finish. I'm not looking for ideas to work into articles. The point of reading these books is that I enjoy reading these books.

That impractical pleasure is deeply necessary. I was in no danger of losing it when I started out in my profession. When I started graduate school I wasn't many years past my first encounter with any of those books, and the excitement of literary discovery was still fresh in my heart. Reading for orals was a stupendous feast, even if it mandated some overconsumption. And beginning my first job required me to think about some famous texts in ways I hadn't before, so that I could teach them. I'm not in danger, today, of losing my love for these works. But I am twenty-five years from the experience of reading them for the first time, and I have at least another twenty-five years of my working life ahead of me. If I spent the next quarter-century reading only instrumentally, in order to complete some task or other, I would risk losing touch with why I am doing this at all. My connection to this material is not a permanent thing to be taken for granted. It is something that I need to leave time and space, something that I need to husband and renew.

But reading very old books for pleasure, unplugged from my various professional tasks and the short-attention-span demands of office life, also reminds me of how very durable literature can be. Not eternal, and not unchanging: these poems change with the years because the years change their readers, and hold the pages up to the different lights of different days. But I am grateful that I can read these words four hundred years later with a full measure of delight and wonder. It's a comfort to be able to turn to those works after years have gone by, and to find them both familiar and subtly changed now that I read them with older eyes.

And I am thankful for the enduring power of the art works that I do teach to puzzle and move, to confound and amuse, centuries after they were first written. I am grateful to make students laugh by reading them a four-hundred-year old joke. I'm privileged to be there at their discovery of these works and these words for the first time, to share the moment when they encounter these books as something new. And I am desperately grateful to teach works so rich and complicated that I can teach them for decades on end without any danger of becoming bored. A book that can reward rereading after reading, years on end, is a gift of humbling artistic generosity. And the past has left us an enormous trove of such gifts, far more than any of us have the time to properly enjoy. At the end of this autumn, I am thankful for art, and for the company it keeps us. As Keats says to the Grecian urn, "Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ Than ours, a friend to man." I am counting on that abiding companionship for the many winters still to come.