Throughout American history, whenever the United States has felt threatened, our response has been repression. In hindsight we come to realize that the nation was not made any safer from the loss of civil liberties. This is a crucial lesson to be remembered as the country deals with the terrible tragedy of Monday’s bombings in Boston. The impulse to take away constitutional rights to gain security must be resisted because, in reality, complying with the Constitution is not an impediment to safety.
Over the last year or so, I've written at more length than most readers can probably tolerate about the myth of the gun lobby's power. But there's one part of that myth that I haven't addressed too much, and it comes up today as the Manchin Toomey background check proposal is being voted on in the Senate (as of this writing it looks like it will be unable to overcome a Republican filibuster). This part of the myth isn't completely false, it's just dramatically overstated. As you've probably heard, one of the reasons the gun lobby is successful is that gun owners are "single-issue" voters who not only won't consider voting for anyone who isn't right on guns, they're highly energized, writing and calling their representatives all the time, while the other side is passive and disengaged, not bothering to get involved on the gun issue. That means that representatives feel intense pressure from the right and no pressure from the left, making it all the more likely that any measure to stem the proliferation of guns will fail.
The hot conservative story of late last week, starting with a USA Todayop-ed by Kristen Powers, was the failure of the mainstream media to cover the horrifying case of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor accused of committing infanticide, and maiming and, in some cases, killing his patients (most of them poor women) in an unsanitary abortion clinic. Perhaps the story does deserve more coverage than it has received, but the lessons to be drawn from it are different from the conclusions conservatives are making. Here are five points currently being overlooked in the coverage of the controversy.
Last fall, California voters were confronted with two major and hotly-contested ballot measures—Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal (Proposition 30) to raise taxes on the rich to end the state’s chronic budget shortfalls, and a conservative initiative (Proposition 32) which would have curtailed unions’ ability to spend their treasuries on political campaigns. Proposition 30 passed and Proposition 32 was soundly defeated, but they had to overcome a joint, well-funded campaign by rightwing interests to prevail.
Ah, bipartisan compromise, just what the country is yearning for. We saw some yesterday, as NRA favorite Pat Toomey (R-PA) and NRA favorite Joe Manchin (D-WV) got together to see if they could come up with a plan for universal background checks, which as everyone knows are supported by 90 percent of the public in just about every poll that's been taken on the subject. What they produced, however, wasn't anything like "universal." Is it better than nothing? Sure. Should it be celebrated? Eh.
When former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Ralph Wenzel passed away, after a long battle with dementia, he had the brain the size of a one-year-old's. The defensive stars Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, both of whom recently committed suicide, were found to have a severe brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head.
Invoking “dysfunction” is now the basic black of punditry about American politics. As the British political theorist David Runciman recently observed in the London Review of Books, “Commentators find it almost impossible to write about American democracy these days without reaching for the word ‘dysfunctional.’” Consider the lowlights of our political culture in just the past 15 years: a puerile impeachment; the subsequent president elected via a Supreme Court filled with political allies; a radicalized Republican Party, convinced that taxation and domestic government spending are a form of socialism; a failure by bipartisan elites even to prioritize, let alone tackle, continued high unemployment and the looming catastrophe of climate change. As Runciman’s editors titled his own essay on America’s lumbering democracy, “How can it work?”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 45 years ago yesterday, and one of the interesting little sidelights to the debate over guns that you might not be aware of is that gun advocates claim King as one of their own. You see, King had armed guards protect his family, and at one point applied for a permit in Alabama to carry a concealed weapon himself. He was turned down, since in the Jim Crow days the state of Alabama wasn't about to let black men carry guns.
You can find references to these facts on all kinds of pro-gun web sites, as nonsensical as it may seem. Gun advocates want to claim King as part of their cause, but also want to completely repudiate everything he believed about the power of non-violence, which is kind of like Exxon saying John Muir would have favored drilling for oil in Yosemite because he sometimes rode in cars. The reason Martin Luther King sought armed protection was there were significant numbers of people who wanted to kill him, and eventually one of them succeeded. If you're a target for assassination, you should go ahead and buy a gun. But most of us aren't.
Last week's oral arguments in two landmark cases involving same-sex marriage will likely not be followed by opinions until late June. In the interim, there will be a great deal of speculation about what various rulings might mean. With respect to the legal challenge to Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, speculation about the outcome will be less common because most legal observers (including me) expect a comfortable majority of the Court to strike it down. With respect to the challenge to California's Proposition 8, however, the outcome is less certain. Each outcome will lead to markedly different developments for gay and lesbian rights. For this reason it's worth teasing out the implications of the possible rulings in the challenge to Prop 8.
Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has portrayed himself as Washington's last reasonable man, pleading that we can find some common ground on almost any issue despite our disagreements if we just listen to each other and open our hearts a little. Republicans complain that it's all just an act—he's just trying to look like the reasonable one, to make his opponents look more intransigent and stubborn and gain the upper hand politically. That may be partly true, even though they don't need his help to look unreasonable; they do a fine job of it all by themselves.
The latest narrative on the gun issue is that the prospects for meaningful legislation are slipping away as the tragedy of Newtown fades from our ridiculously short memories and members of Congress feel little of the public pressure required for them to stand up to the NRA. So Obama has been campaigning for his favored legislation, and yesterday he gave a speech in Colorado, the centerpiece of which was a plea to both sides to cultivate some empathy. Here's an excerpt:
If you want to produce change, make politicians as terrified as this sandwich. (Flickr/Sakurako Kitsa)
As the effort to enact new gun legislation hobbles along, liberals have noted over and over that in polls, 90 percent or so of the public favors universal background checks. In speaking about this yesterday, President Obama said, "Nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change." Then Jonathan Bernstein explained that opinion doesn't get political results, what gets results is action. I'd take this one step farther: what gets results is not action per se, but action that produces fear. I'll explain in a moment, but here's part of Bernstein's argument:
Outside of the Supreme Court this week—where the nine justices were hearing oral arguments about the constitutionality of California's ban on same-sex marriage—a young woman and an old woman were arguing.
"If you put all the gay people on an island," began the older woman, who looked to be in her fifties.
"See, this is why people think you guys are like the KKK!" interjected the young woman. "You're talking about rounding us all up—"
"Let me finish! If you put all the gay people on an island, in a generation there would be no gay people. They would die out."
"That's not a realistic scenario. We all live in this country together."
When 20-year-old Sarah Smith got into an accident with a motorcyclist in 2008, it was nothing but bad new—she was driving with a suspended license. It got worse. When police showed up, officer Adam Skweres took Smith aside and implied that he could either make it look like the accident was her fault or give the other party a ticket. It depended on whether she’d agree to perform unspecified sexual favors. Skweres also threatened that if she told anyone, he’d “make sure you never walk, talk, or speak again,” and looked at his gun.
When 20-year-old Sarah Smith got into an accident with a motorcyclist in 2008, it was nothing but bad news—she was driving with a suspended license. It got worse. When police showed up, officer Adam Skweres took Smith aside and implied that he could either make it look like the accident was her fault or give the other party a ticket. It depended on whether she’d agree to perform unspecified sexual favors. Skweres also threatened that if she told anyone, he’d “make sure you never walk, talk, or speak again,” and looked at his gun.