Thursday, December 27, 2012

Return of the Liberal Gun Owner

In a previous post (“A Liberal’s Defense of Gun Ownership”), I tried to explain why an avowed lefty would own a gun (or a bunch of them). That was prompted by a direct challenge from my mother in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting. After the shooting in Newtown, I have been hesitant to weigh in, not because I don’t have strong feelings about the political issues that have arisen as a consequence, and not because it’s somehow impolite to talk about an incredibly important news story while it’s still news, but because I needed to spend some time reading the responses to this tragedy in order to formulate my thoughts. As a liberal, I am on a bunch of e-mail lists wherein pundits and politicians keep me up-to-date on the mainstream liberal party line and the radical left-wing version. Because I’m a gun owner and read up on gun-related subjects, I’ve also found my way onto the e-mail lists of the NRA and their ilk. As a public school teacher, I have been reading about how schools are supposed to respond. I’ve also been talking with real teachers who know a lot more about real schools than so-called “school reformers,” and I have a pretty good idea about the broad spectrum of responses teachers are voicing. Oh, and I’m also a human being, so thinking about those children and parents in Newtown is still emotionally overwhelming. I don’t have any insight into that grief, but I hope the confluence of a liberal, gun-owning, public school teacher might offer something useful to others.

First off, to my liberal sistren and brethren, please, please stop using the phrase “assault weapons.” I understand that you are referring to the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, and I know that is commonly referred to as the “Assault Weapons Ban,” but you must understand that this doesn’t just close the ears of responsible gun owners because they have some knee-jerk antipathy towards a specific piece of legislation. It closes their ears because you sound ignorant. There is no such thing as an “assault weapon.” Don’t believe me? Go into your local gun store (I recommend that you don’t wear your Obama T-shirt for this outing) and see if they have a section marked “assault weapons.” Ask to see if there are any boxes for any guns marked “assault weapon.” When you find that there aren’t, ask the proprietor which of the guns in the store are, technically speaking, “assault weapons.” She may laugh at you. She may calmly explain that the term has no specific meaning. Either way, the answer will teach you a lot. You will come to understand why the 1994 “Assault Weapons Ban” was such a loophole riddled piece of legislation that it only successfully banned some dozen individual models of guns. You will also quickly deduce why gun owners are so resistant to talk of limited gun bans from people who clearly know so little about guns. After all, for all the talk about protecting the rights of hunters and other responsible gun owners, if the anti-gun advocates know so little about guns, isn’t it entirely plausible that any legislation they propose might be another toothless collection of loopholes? And isn’t it equally possible that legislation written by people who believe in mythical “assault weapons” might ban far more than they intended? As I tell my students, if you want to be taken seriously, you have to do your homework first.

For the sake of being “Fair and Balanced,” to my fellow citizens who find themselves on the other side of the political aisle, especially those who allow themselves to be swayed by the Fox News talking points, please, please try and be a tiny bit realistic when you blame violent movies and video games. First of all, this line of reasoning inevitably makes you sound a good forty years older than your real age. What’s next? Criticisms of the length of boys’ hair? The volume of rock and roll music? Pass me that crystal dish with the hard candy please, grandpa. Much like the mythical “assault weapons,” your definition of violent video games is so amorphous that even us casual gamers worry you’ll be banning just about everything. You do understand that Pac Man was about a yellow blob who was running for his life because he was being chased by murderous ghosts, only when he would devour a magical pill he gained the ability to incapacitate those ghosts temporarily by consuming them whole? Super Mario Brothers starred some plumbers who jumped on their enemies’ heads, stomping them to death, in an effort to rescue a kidnapping victim. The aforementioned Mario also starred in the game Donkey Kong, where he charged directly at an oversized primate who was trying to kill him by throwing barrels at him. What games would be left if violent video games were removed? Tetris and Pong would still be fine. And sports games like Madden Football… oh, wait.

And what about these violent movies that are corrupting our youth? The Godfather is probably the greatest movie ever made. In it, about twenty people are killed, more than half with guns, some with semi-automatic pistols, others with machine guns (those are assault rifles, which are real things, and not “assault weapons,” which don’t exist). Oh, and a really violent thing happens to a horse. Should we prevent people from seeing The Godfather because it is violent? What about Saving Private Ryan? Or Schindler’s List? Ah, you say, but those have historical, artistic, and socially redeeming value. Agreed. But did Steven Spielberg’s first short film, the one that led to Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, have that same value? I don’t know, because I haven’t seen it. You probably haven’t either. But if we banned violent movies, I’m guessing it wouldn’t have seen the light of day based on nothing more than the fact that it was a Western titled The Last Gun. I’ll bet there’s some gun violence in it.

And if we’re going to even consider banning the viewing of violence because it could lead to real world violence, we should certainly start with 24 hours news networks that make their money by keeping their viewers continually angry and afraid.  Pundits spewing toxic amounts of vitriol and doom are far more dangerous than episodes of Tom and Jerry.

Now, to my teacher friends, here in Oregon, we have our resident rhetorical-bomb-throwing-boob in our state legislature who has suggested that teachers should arm themselves. I’m sure there are some teachers who would feel more comfortable if they were armed, but I have two reasons why I, as a responsible gun owner, would not. First, a big part of my job is making students feel comfortable in my classroom. Contrary to those who look back fondly on nuns hitting kids on the knuckles with rulers, I firmly believe that children learn better when they are not scared. People should have a healthy fear of guns. So when kids have that fear, and some have it exaggerated by the fact that they are kids, and other have it exaggerated by the fact that their home lives have given them even more reason to fear guns than should be warranted, their ability to learn will be diminished if they know I’m packing heat in class. Second, I would be afraid some kid would grab my gun and use it. Kids are impulsive, some dangerously so. The proximity of other teenagers makes kids more likely to do stupid things. I wouldn’t want one of those stupid things ending with some kid pulling my gun out of my holster while I’m trying to help another student correctly place a comma in a sentence.  So if Newtown inclines any teacher to consider carrying a gun into a classroom, especially one of my son’s classrooms, I hope that teacher will also remember Columbine or Kip Kinkle here in Oregon and imagine his or her own gun falling into the hands of someone like that.

As to the NRA’s idea of a police officer in every school, I think it’s a great idea, but not for the same reasons the NRA likes it. They like it because it gets the conversation away from gun bans. I like it because it’s government stimulus spending on unionized workers in every community in the country. I know that it might not prevent something like what happened in Newtown. As many critics have pointed out, Columbine had an armed guard. But as long as it means more cops in more schools showing kids that police officers are not scary, distant enemies but friendly, relatable public servants who keep them safe, that’s all to the good. My only caveats would be that the officers’ salaries and all their expenses must be fully funded by the feds so the money doesn’t come out of the local or state education budgets, the legislation has to be written so the police will be there for the long haul and not just until the next round of budget cuts, and the police officers must live in the communities where the school is located. If the deficit hawks in Congress will go for that, Obama should sign it immediately. Take the money out of the Homeland Security budget and call it an anti-terrorism measure. Because what we saw in Newtown is indisputably domestic terrorism.

Police in schools cannot be the end of the discussion, though (sorry, NRA). We need to massively beef up our mental health services in this country. My wife is a mental health counselor who works at a live-in facility for severely mentally ill children. The stuff she sees would break most people’s hearts. But you know what breaks hers? You know what broke the camel’s back the one and only time I saw her job bring her to tears? It was when a kid who needed care had to be sent away because his parents private insurance wouldn’t cover his care any longer. Yes, high quality mental healthcare is expensive. The facility where my wife works has a two-kids-to-one-adult ratio, and that’s spendy. But parents, good parents who love their children and are trying to do what is best for them, should not have to give up custody of their children and turn them over to the state just so the kids will qualify for state-sponsored insurance. These parents shouldn’t have to quit their good paying jobs where they contribute to their communities and pay the taxes that fund those services just so they can move to other states with better care and go on the public dole in order to get their kids the care they need. That’s stupid. That’s backwards. And that’s the system we have. Ramping up our mental healthcare infrastructure isn’t sexy and it won’t show an instant payoff in lowering mass shootings because the future killer you’re treating is still a little kid getting the help he needs today to avoid that fate years down the road. But when it comes to preventing mass shootings, even with its high price tag, robust mental health infrastructure is still going to be the biggest payoff. We just need politicians willing to do things that won’t show results until after their term has ended, and we need a public willing to admit that taxes are investments in our society’s future.

While we’re being realistic, we can do some serious things about guns without making up fictional categories of firearms. There is no good reason that the same background check that I have to go through when I buy a gun at a store shouldn’t be mandatory when I buy one from a friend or from a “friend” who sits behind a card table at a gun show. I understand that the most extreme conspiracists worry that a more robust national background check system is just a means for the evil government to find out where to come take guns from. Furthermore, they worry that limiting the ability of the mentally ill to acquire guns would be a means for a nefarious government to keep guns out of the hands of law abiding citizens. To both critiques, I say, cut your losses, guys. Just as teachers’ unions need to do a better job of making it clear that we don’t protect bad teachers (We don’t. It’s a lie that’s been repeated so much people think it’s true. We protect the contract and the process to keep it fair, but bad teachers CAN be fired if administrators do their jobs.), gun owners need to make it clear that they do not support putting guns in the hands of those who would hurt others or themselves. As we beef up mental health services, counselors should have to report those who are potentially dangerous or suicidal, and those people should not be able to buy guns. From anybody (see the gun show/ private party loophole above). People who sell guns to criminals or the mentally ill should be criminally liable as accomplices if those people commit gun crimes or shoot themselves. Keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people will do more to protect innocent people than trying to ban this gun or that gun.

To my fellow liberals and conservatives who’ve found common cause (or at least a common talking point) in protecting the rights of hunters and sportsmen, you are missing the purpose of the Second Amendment, and I think you’re doing so willfully. The Second Amendment is not about hunting. It’s about protecting yourself, your loved ones, and your property from your own government. Liberals don’t tend to like this amendment, but I think they should reconsider. I’ve made my share of jokes about the practicality of standing up to the U.S. military, with its complete arsenal of nuclear weapons, using common, handheld firearms (“assault weapons” or otherwise), but there’s something very real going on there. I’m not a hunter yet. The only thing I’ve ever killed with a gun was the gopher in my mother-in-law’s garden that she’d winged but was unwilling to shoot point-blank with a .22 to put it out of its misery. I plan on learning to hunt goose and duck during this next year, though. But even as I’m serving some succulent duck to my family (let’s be honest: I’ll probably overcook it the first few times, so I’ll be serving dry duck to my family), I’ll be fully aware that the founding fathers did not write the Second Amendment to make sure my family had duck to eat. They wrote it because governments can do horrible things to their own citizens. Just ask Japanese-Americans. And who, in our modern America, is most likely to be labeled as a potential traitor who should be rounded up and shipped off to a camp? Though I’m proud and grateful that I’ve never been involved with any group that has even hinted at armed insurrection (peaceful protest is not only more moral, but more effective), those of us who have marched in pro-union rallies and Occupy protests shouldn’t be too quick to believe we wouldn’t be on the short list if a very small, tyrannical minority ever managed to take power. As I’ve said many times, I hope to live my whole life without ever pointing a gun at another human being, but if that 1% of tyrants had a hard time rounding up jack-booted thugs to drag Americans out of their beds because they had very complete data telling them that a lot of those Americans were armed, if that knowledge made them think twice about kicking down the doors of “traitors” and “subversives” and liberal public school teachers, then the Second Amendment is doing its job, and in that unlikely (but not impossible or even historically unprecedented) dystopia, we’ll be glad it was there in the Bill of Rights. 

Lastly, let’s acknowledge that we could do everything in our power, beef up mental health care, close every gun purchasing loophole, ban this gun and that gun, hell, ban the sale of every gun and start kicking down doors to get the old ones melted down, and we still might not be able to prevent the next Newtown. We also wouldn’t be any closer to understanding this terrible, tragic, and ultimately incomprehensible act. If the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has compelled us to reevaluate some public policies, let’s harness that energy to make good ones, but let’s acknowledge that we will be more successful at preventing some of the thousands of other deaths in this country than at preventing the kinds of mass killings we simply cannot comprehend. If we maintain a focus on doing what we can do, and on doing it well, we might manage wrest a little bit of something meaningful from this mindless horror. I worry that, if we only focus on this one tragedy and the specific models of guns chosen by a madman, we’ll fall back into pointless bickering, do nothing, and insult the memories of those we’ve lost.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

"Jesus is here." Best email exchange ever?

Today I was forwarded an email exchange that passed between a couple colleagues of mine at school. The high school where I work has a high enough Latino population that this didn't initially raise any eyebrows. Trust me, this was completely un-ironic. I'll let it speak for itself.

To: J-
From: N-
Subject: Jesus is here
Would you like me to send him to you or would you like to come over?

To: N-
From: J-
Subject: Re: Jesus is here 

Thank you for your help with Jesus.

Jesus was suspended today for extreme attendance issues. I have a meeting set up with him and his guardian tomorrow morning to discuss what he/we can do to help.

Thank you,

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Poem: The Kind of Teacher

I was inspired to write a little poem during school today. I'm sure it would have been much better if I hadn't been forced to wait until my prep period to write it down. This certainly is not about any great lesson I taught today, but I wish it were.

The Kind of Teacher

When class begins
I can see the skepticism
The loll of tired heads
Eyes rolling
Maybe a sneer.

At my best,
I can earn a nod
Acknowledgement of time well spent.
Maybe a thoughtful “Huh.”
Occasionally a “Whoa.”

Of course the class ends with
My obligatory thanks for their attention
Wishes for a good day
Reminders about pending assignments

But if I were the kind of teacher I want to be
All the classes would crescendo
With that moment of realization
Where a teenage skepticism is breached
Punctured by some uncool grownup insight.

And I would look them in the eyes
Unrolling eyes
Attentive, expectant eyes
And shout,
“So There!”

Okay, so I know it's not the greatest poem in the world. But then, the greatest song in the world isn't the greatest, either (see below). I guess this poem is a tribute to the poem about teaching I wanted to write. I think teachers will get it, though.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Debate About the Hatred, Intolerance, and Misogyny in the Religious Right

My friend Scott, commenting on my dissemination of an article critical of the role the Religious Right is playing in our country's politics, challenged the assertion that the Religious Right is hateful or intolerant. He acknowledged the zealotry of fringe elements, but challenged the notion that the mainstream of the Religious Right is hateful or intolerant. This is an excellent illustration of a kind of inside-the-bubble thinking that is causing the conservative movement to lose touch with the American mainstream.

I do not believe that right-wing evangelicals, conservative Catholics, conservative Mormons, or conservative Jews hate gay people. I don't think they hate African Americans or Hispanics. I don't think they hate women. But if they can't see that their marriage to the Republican Party and its platform will cause them to be associated with policies that are hurtful to those groups, they will not be able to build a winning coalition on a national level.

Back in the days of slavery, masters did not necessarily hate their slaves. Even in the days of Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws, conservatives who wanted to "preserve traditional marriage" did not necessarily hate black people. Now, I know these examples will immediately infuriate conservatives who don't want to be compared to slaveholders or racists. I'm certainly not saying that opposing gay marriage or immigration reform are one-to-one equivalents to slavery. But the comparison is fair in the sense that modern conservatives look back at that kind of racism and see it as hateful and intolerant, but cannot see their own policies in the way they will be perceived by the effected parties now, or by the way they will be viewed by our grandchildren in generations to come.

To the gay couple who wants to be married, the personal feelings of a right-wing Christian are irrelevant. The policies advocated by the Religious Right are themselves hurtful. Furthermore, because they are based on a view that an important part of a gay person's self-identity is immoral, the policy is hateful.

To the Mexican-American (or any other Latino mistaken for a Mexican American), policies of self-deportation that cause them to be harassed, that cause employers to hesitate when considering them for employment, that cause them to worry that their government is going to be rounding up millions of people who look and speak like them and send them over the border... These concerns are far more relevant than the personal feelings of the religious conservative. The objective fact that vitriol towards Mexican immigrants has led to a dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes directed at Mexican Americans, regardless of their documentation, is far more real and immediate than some distant pastor's hedging from the pulpit about how we should love our brothers and sisters while trying to round some of them up in cattle cars and send them over the border.

To a woman who is told that, if she is raped and decides not to keep that child, God wanted that to happen (or at least allowed it, though it's an unfortunate tragedy), that good can come from that pregnancy, that because someone else believes this she has no choice in the matter, and that her rape probably wasn't really rape since she allowed herself to get pregnant, that right-wing evangelical's love for her is less than meaningful. More insidiously, when she’s told she doesn’t need any legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to assure her a chance to get into the courthouse if she’s discriminated against because she can depend on the goodwill of CEOs, she knows she’s being dismissed. And when she’s told that her desire for birth control makes her a slut, and her desire to have a health clinic nearby which offers affordable medical services is unacceptable if that facility also offers abortions, she knows her concerns are not valued. Finally, when she’s told that the religious affiliation of her employer trumps her own judgment about what healthcare she needs, she knows the party defending some religious board members does not care about her. That’s hurtful. And the notion that she can’t evaluate these things properly because she’s a woman, and a man or a group of men should get to decide is a textbook example of misogyny. (Oh, and then there's this.)

As for intolerance, not only is the religious right intolerant, but it should be. Intolerance is not always wrong, and tolerance is not always a virtue. Religions get to be intolerant. Furthermore, they get to be intolerant regardless of popular opinion. If a religion dictates that abortion in a sin, it should refuse to tolerate it within its own membership. While American Christianity is busy pulling that mote out of its own eye (because there are a lot of Christians who have had abortions) it might also want to take a hard look at Jesus’ teachings about wealth. He wasn’t a big fan. I would be very interested to see how the Religious Right would implement a systematic intolerance of the service of Mammon within its own ranks.

The problem with the Religious Right's intolerance isn’t that it’s drawing lines in the sand and deciding to take a stand based on its particular interpretation of scripture. That’s the prerogative, if not the responsibility, of religions. The problem is where they’ve drawn those lines. Nations states also have a responsibility to be intolerant to some degree, but they must look to a different authority than a religion. While people of faith can look to a text or a religious leader to tell them what or who to tolerate and what or who not to tolerate, democratic governments must look to their voters. In this country, that means the government will be responsive to Christianity in proportion to the voting habits of Christians and non-Christians. But the Religious Right has so wedded itself to the Republican Party that it dictates the party’s platform. Even that is fine. If a large enough constituency of any party draws its lines based on a shared religion or principles which join the members of its party, that party’s platform should reflect those principles. The problem pointed out by the article is that the Religious Right’s principles are out of step with Biblical Christianity and the American electorate.

Now, since I’m no longer a Christian, I can’t really weigh in on the debate about the principles of the Republican Party and their relationship to Biblical Christianity. When I was a Christian, they didn’t seem to fit the Bible I was reading. I’d hear the claims made by religious figures speaking in the name of the religion I claimed, and, no matter what translation they cited, I felt like they were reading a completely different book. I kept on trying to redefine Christianity, pushing back against the right-wing version I couldn’t square with the version of Jesus I found in the Gospels. More and more, I felt like I was saying, “I claim the label X, but I redefine it as Y. X means something completely different for me, but I hold on to it and believe all those who don’t accept Y are wrong.” People who do this are either dynamic leaders who move organizations to their positions, or they are crazy people. I felt overwhelmed, and it pushed me out of a feeling of brotherhood with the larger Church, or at least the American variety. I stuck around because I attended a wonderful church (shout out to the greatest congregation and greatest pastoral staff in the world at Newberg Friends). Eventually I abandoned the claim to the label for theological reasons. (To be more precise, it was for epistemological reasons.) The loss of a firm belief in an all-mighty deity and in an afterlife, and my reluctant embrace of agnosticism, was quite a blow. The loss of my congregation still hurts. But losing the broader American church? No skin off my nose. They kicked me out. Or maybe I pulled away. Ultimately, that’s six of one or a half a dozen of the other. If the church would recognize the kind of loving, tolerant Christianity described by Frank Schaeffer in the article in question, I think that would be great for our country. That’s why I posted a link to the piece in the first place. Whether it would be good for Christianity is now a debate from which I have recused myself.

But Schaeffer’s second point, that the Religious Right’s positions are out of touch with the American mainstream, is clearly true. When polled, Americans do favor comprehensive immigration reform over policies of forced or self-deportation. We have come around when it comes to gay marriage. And we want to leave reproductive choices up to individual women, especially in cases of incest and rape, which means the Republican Party’s stated platform (not just some fringe kooks’ poorly worded statements in debates) is out of touch. And while the conservatives convince themselves that they are not in the thrall of the Religious Right because they nominated a (conservative) Mormon, their willful ignorance of the way their policies will be received by the American mainstream aren’t just a lesson for religious leaders who want to be politically relevant, but for the whole conservative movement. Conservatism, according to William F. Buckley, is the political philosophy that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop[.]” Unfortunately, in marrying itself to right wing Christianity, it’s held hands with people who demanded that it stop in a place where the majority of the country does not want to be. It can stand there and reject the idea that it’s hateful and intolerant all it wants, but if the majority of the country says that’s a hateful and intolerant stand to take, the conservative movement will soon find itself standing on the fringe, trying to redefine the term “American” as the vast majority of Americans wander off toward progress, shaking their heads and shrugging about the crazy guys they are leaving behind. Trust me. I know how that feels.

William F. Buckley also warned that, “Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.” As a progressive liberal who wants a great deal of change, I firmly believe in the value of conservatives. We need the intellectual counterweight to make us stop and consider and we push toward progress, even if it means we push more slowly. But, as they protect the status quo, if the conservative movement can’t recognize that its intransigence will open itself up to charges of hatefulness, intolerance, and misogyny until the day when we achieve a society devoid of systematic injustice, that’s a kind of intellectual sloth that will prevent them from doing the job this country needs them to do. The degree to which those charges of hatefulness, intolerance, and misogyny stick relates to the movement’s willingness to shift its priorities and focus, but ultimately it’s just not up to them. When America wants to move, it will move.