Category Archives: Politics

A License to Insurrection?

A while ago at a gun control blog that I frequent, namely Mikeb302000, we had a discussion about whether the Constitution of the United States authorizes a rebellion against the govenerment.

This question arose because some who advocate for gun rights have argued that the Second Amendment was written to give the American people the power to rebel against a U.S. government gone agley. This line of reasoning suggests that since the Founders had just fought a war of rebellion against the British Empire, they understood the need for that option to be available to future generations.

Of course, this thinking ignores two facts, human nature and the nature of law:

1. Rebels declare themselves to be against authority precisely until they are themselves the authorities. At that point, they see themselves as deserving the loyalty of the people they rule.

2. Legal systems rarely, if ever, include permission to overthrow them, even if pressing conditions exist.

So do we have a right to rebel against our government?

Yes–with caveats.

Whenever government overreaches, it loses some measure of its justification for existing. We in the United States have been fortunate for a long time that our government has kept itself within sufficient bounds that its excesses have been remedied–for the most part, but not altogether, alas–through the courts and legislatures. The War on Terror of the last more than a decade has called into question the legitimacy of our recent and current administrations, as we have seen within the last few days, thanks to the revelations of NSA spying on American telephone calls.

Obama’s response to this news?

If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges, to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.

I do not take comfort in that. In fact, I hope that we do not come to a point at which our government loses all justification and deserves to be overthrown. But the question remains as to how such a rebellion would itself be justified. I answer that with the following two points:

1. The American Revolution was based on the premise that the new government to be created by the rebels would offer better protection of the rights of the people than the British government. It’s the equivalent of a man asking a woman to divorce her husband on the grounds that the new man can treat her better. That may be true, but the new fellow loses his claim if he falls short.

2. More than that, morality and rights are prior to law. That is to say, we are born with rights. Morality is how we protect each other’s rights while we live together. Law is a tertiary system that defends and depends upon the first two.

Governments exist to protect the rights of people living within their jurisdictions and to encourage through cooperative effort the growth in areas such as culture, technology, and so forth. Government is justified when it uses its power to the furtherance of those ends, and its legal system provides the detailed explanation of how it may operate.

Perhaps the Founders wrote the Second Amendment with these ideas in mind. But I prefer to avoid the intentional fallacy and take the text as it’s written. Beyond that, we must keep nested priorities in order and recognize that we do not justify the concept of insurrection in law but in higher sources.

Understand that this is not advocating treason or rebellion. It is instead a reminder to all of us, both citizen and government agent, that we must work within the system, so long as that system is serving its purpose. As long as we all remember that requirement, there should never be the need for anything else.

Carl Sandburg Rises from the Grave?

On the 21st of January 2013, the Chicago Tribune reported on the discovery of an unpublished poem supposedly written by Carl Sandburg.

Here is an image of the document:

sandberg-poem

And this is the text, reproduced in full:

A REVOLVER

Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.

The article informs us that this poem was discovered by a volunteer at the library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, one Ernie Gullerud, an eighty-three year old who once taught social work at the school. Gullerud has been entering Sandburg poems into the library’s computer system. His comment about the piece is telling: “Golly, someone could have written this today.”

Indeed.

The Tribune offers no skepticism, but I hereby state mine.

1. Old sheets of paper are easy to come by. So are antique manual typewriters.

2. The timing of this “discovery” is interesting. Gun control is on the political agenda at present, and this poem arrives just in time to suggest that an American icon would stand on one side.

3. More importantly, the language of the poem strikes me as having been written by someone who has read a lot of Sandburg, but isn’t the man himself:

A. Sandburg used specific details to express his point. He focused on the miniature to bring out the important. Phrases like “amazing language,” “umistakable ultimatums,” “terrible story,” “magnificent precision,” and “original purpose” sound wrong. They’re vague, showing me no image, no concrete thing.

B. Sandburg favored the smallest word that would convey his meaning. There are a good many polysyllabic words in the “discovered” poem. Of them, “amazing” is particularly odd. That’s a word that weak writers use when they can’t do a better job of describing what they mean. I’ve looked through Sandburg’s work to check, and while I may have missed it, I haven’t seen any poem in which he used that word.

By contrast, let’s look at a genuine poem of Sandburg’s, one on the same subject:

A.E.F.

There will be a rusty gun on the wall, sweetheart,
The rifle grooves curling with flakes of rust.
A spider will make a silver string nest in the
darkest, warmest corner of it.
The trigger and the range-finder, they too will be rusty.
And no hands will polish the gun, and it will hang on the wall.
Forefingers and thumbs will point casually toward it.
It will be spoken among half-forgotten, whished-to-be-forgotten things.
They will tell the spider: Go on, you’re doing good work.

(A.E.F. stands for American Expeditionary Forces.)

Note the smallness and the specificity of the language. It makes its point without being blunt. It shows tiny details that add up to the main idea. “A REVOLVER” is more of a shotgun than a target pistol.

Based on the evidence, here are my conclusions as to what this poem actually is:

1. It might be an early draft that Sandburg never finished. If so, it shows us the work that he went through to take his creations from idea to art.

2. It’s a fake, made perhaps to push an agenda, but timed to garner the most attention.

I’m going with the latter conclusion.

Crossposted on http://englreadingandwriting.wordpress.com/

Time for a Change

I’ve been a political junkie for most of my life. I watched the 1980 conventions, even though I was still in my single digits. I saw Lloyd Bentsen smack Dan Quayle on national television. I registered to vote on my eighteenth birthday, and I’ve voted every two years since then. (Want to know who’s going to win the election? If I vote for a candidate, the other guy will win.)

Why am I saying all of this? I’m sick of the current political mess that America is in. I’m sick of Republicans and Democrats. Whatever they say about small businesses or the poor, they both act in the interest of the wealthy people who give them money. The current squabbling over the national debt and the Federal budget shows exactly what I’m talking about.

Part of our problem comes from our Founders. They were concerned over the power of political parties and created a system of government that tried to be oblivious about them. A parliamentary system would have been more efficient. Of course, efficiency in government is often bad for the citizens, and I do approve of having a written constitution that guarantees specific rights, while acknowledging that we have many others not specified. The structure of our system does favor two parties, and those two parties have less and less need to be responsive to individuals who are not fantastically wealthy. As much as we can blame “the system,” though, the real fault today lies elsewhere.

Who’s to blame?

We are.

We American citizens have an extraordinary power: voting. No one but we ourselves gets to control how we vote. That’s the joy of a secret ballot. If you’ve ever held your nose or crossed your fingers while voting, you owe yourself an apology.

How can I say that? It’s because we have alternatives. Take a look at these two parties:

The Green Party

The Libertarian Party

They field candidates in many elections. At the moment, they are marginal–earning only a few votes and holding several strange ideas–but that’s our fault. Those two parties differ on many issues, but their platforms aim at protecting individual citizens.

And the Greens and the Libertarians are only two possibilities. There are others. In every major election, the list of candidates for each office has more than two names. If none of the candidates are acceptable, you can write in the name of your choice. Yes, this requires work. Some will whine about how much research has to be done to vote well, but they’ll get no pity from me. Citizenship comes easily if you’re born here, and it’s not too hard to obtain otherwise, and because of that, we quickly forget the moral obligations that come with it.

I’m not going to tell you for whom to vote. If you approve of the platforms and actions of Republicans or Democrats, by all means, vote for them. But for the sake of our country, stop settling for the least offensive candidate or party. Do the work, and vote for what you want and believe in.

The State of the Age

The White House has announced that during the State of the Union speech tonight (25 January 2011), a variety of sidebars, links, and other such devices will be available on social media to explain what Obama means when he mentions an achievement or proposes a program.  How pleasant.  We have an up-to-date president who exploits all the modern propaganda vectors to infect our minds.  We don’t believe what politicians say these days, so they feel the need to shout louder and more broadly.

Of course, many Americans won’t pay attention.  My students and I will be discussing The Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis, and I presume that the rest of you will use your time equally well.

Remarkable Firing

In the dark of a Wednesday night (20 October 2010), National Public Radio fired news analyst Juan Williams for remarks that he had made on The O’Reilly Factor the previous Monday. The response from bloggers and Fox News was swift outrage, and as much as it pains me to agree with Fox, here I am, joining in the condemnation.

First, let’s review what Williams actually said. He acknowledged that when he gets on an airplane and sees a fellow passenger in “Muslim garb,” this makes him nervous. He referred to the words of the man who failed to bomb Times Square who claimed that America is in a war with Muslims that is just beginning.

NPR stops there. Williams didn’t, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but take the supposedly objectionable remarks in themselves. Williams didn’t say that this nervousness is appropriate. He wasn’t defending fear. He simply acknowledged something that many Americans feel. If we won’t tolerate that kind of openness, there never will be any genuine peace, and NPR was wrong to fire Williams for being open. There are plenty of media outlets that provide only one accepted narrative.

But Williams hadn’t finished his commentary. He went on to say that treating all Muslims as terrorists is the equivalent of treating all Christians as such because of people like Timothy McVeigh. NPR prides itself on allowing time for extended discussion, but here the organization is doing exactly what it accuses other news sources of doing: cutting down the debate to sound bites.

I’ll go into the blather about biases in a moment, but what this incident shows is the insipid timidity that has infected NPR in the last decade. I see a connection here to the firing of Bob Edwards several years ago. Edwards was fired from being the host of Morning Edition, and the reasons given were a lot of doubletalk for “He’s not stylish enough.” Williams has been fired for making complex remarks.

It’s been my feeling for the last decade that NPR is desperate to avoid controversy and desperate to kowtow to power. To some extent, this is understandable, since the Republican Congress during the early years of the Bush administration threatened to cut funding because of a perceived liberal bias. But when NPR sacrifices depth of analysis for mere volume of talk, it becomes just like all the other vacuous news channels.

I have been an NPR listener for the better part of thirty years, and I find the claims of liberal bias to be off the mark. NPR does have an intended audience, namely educated people. For much of the time that I have been listening, NPR worked to provide context for and prospective on the events of the day. It also challenged those in power. It helped me understand the debate over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court; it rejected the hyperbole surrounding the Monica Lewinsky scandal in favor of political analysis. All along, it did not take the side of the Democrats. Instead, it stood outside, and its reporters and commentators did what we need them to do: ask questions and refuse to accept shallow answers.

But then came the years of the Bush administration. NPR went from college professor to elementary school librarian (excuse me, media specialist). The information was still there, but we had to be quiet while reading it and make sure not to spill food on the books.

Is there a way out of this? I doubt that Williams would want to be rehired. Fox News has given him a lucrative contract, and he has no reason to return to where he isn’t wanted. NPR can redeem itself by returning to what it is supposed to be. We have quite enough of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, et al. We don’t need any more Entertainment Tonight channels masquerading as news. It is the duty of NPR to be the voice of reasoned opposition.

What can we do? Dear readers, write to the NPR ombudsman; write on your weblogs; write to your local NPR affiliate. Tell them that you want NPR to be what it was. Tell them that there is no point in supporting what it is now. Goad them where it hurts, and be individually what NPR needs to be collectively: well reasoned, but never satisfied.

Tempests in the Tea Party

The boiling of the Tea Party has been interesting to watch over the last year.  Movements like this rise and fall throughout American political history, often leaving behind a pernicious influence.  One example of this is the ballot initiative in California.  That’s the leftover from the Progressive Era that has resulted in the Golden State being required to spend money on numerous programs, but barred from raising the taxes to pay for them.

Sometimes, the movements succeed.  The Republican Party started as one such movement.  But observe that it had a lot going for it.  Without the personality of Abraham Lincoln, the revulsion against slavery felt by a significant portion of Americans, and the Civil War that ended in decisive victory, Republicans would have joined the ranks of groups such as the Know Nothings and the Equal Rights Amendment supporters.

So what of the Tea Party?  The people involved with it have a strong libertarian streak, something that resonates with American tradition, but as a report heard on NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday (16 September 2010) indicated, social conservatives are also in the movement, demanding that opposition to gay marriage and abortion must be two of the party’s planks.  This reminds me of the Saturday Night Live sketch in which Christopher Walkin keeps calling for more cowbell.

If the Tea Party is concerned only with matters of taxes and spending, it will leave its mark and disappear after one or two elections.  This is the nature of mass movements that rise, but never find a permanent role to play.  If, on the other hand, the partyers want to become a lasting fixture in American politics, they either must find a way to accomodate the schizophrenic elements in the disaffected right, or they must decide to be true libertarians, both economically and socially.

I’d like to see the latter.  Democrats want to control me in public, while Republicans want to control me at home.  It would be refreshing to have a viable political party in America that wants to leave me alone.  I am not suggesting that a libertarian-controlled Congress or a libertarian president would be a good idea.  Laissez-faire is often a good policy, but there are times when the right action must be done, and only those who believe in doing it will do so.  Still, America needs a lasting opposition party, though, one that questions the need for acting and stands up for the individual.

What if, for example, such a party had been a significant voice in the Senate when the PATRIOT Act was up for a vote?  The flaccid Democrats just let that one pass by without much comment.  Even Robert Byrd voted for it originally.  What if the multi-billion dollar welfare check for Wall Street had been held back a while for analysis and comment in public?

There is plenty of room for this kind of a third party in American politics.  The other two could combine together whenever something must be done, but a truly libertarian Tea Party could be present in the discussions to keep liberty at the heart of any American action.

Book Burning

The controversy over the plans of Pastor Terry Jones to burn a copy of The Qur’an this coming Saturday raises a number of points of interest for me, points that derive from contrasting values that I hold.  This plan challenges the idea of freedom, but also the extent of commitment to faith.

As a writer and teacher, I value books in general and abhor burning them.  I will not say that all books are sacred–if everything in a category is sacred, then effectively, nothing is–but the idea of books certainly is.  The Qur’an is clearly an important and complex text.  It comes out of the same Abrahamic tradition as the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.  I do not accept it as binding on my life, any more than the Bible, but I respect those who do, and I recognize the cultural value that it has.  Let’s remember that for many generations, Islamic societies led the world in scientific and economic development, and The Qur’an was a unifying and propulsive force in that.

At the same time, in America, we cannot be compelled to respect anyone’s sacred book.  According to today’s edition of the NPR news program Here and Now (9 September 2010), protesters in Pakistan are demanding that Pastor Jones be stopped from burning a copy of The Qur’an.  What they don’t understand is that this is impossible.  Yes, he does not have a permit to burn, so he may be fined, but that’s it.  The charge would be the same if he burned trash.  In this country, freedom of expression is recognized as a fundamental right.  We can burn flags, photograph crosses in urine, write dirty books, and practice infidel religions.  If that right is supressed, we lose our humanity.

I am concerned at the way that protesters are so willing to defend one book, but not others.  Recall the fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie because of his book, The Satanic Verses, and the death threats against Danish cartoonists who drew pictures of Muhammed.  Is a novel or a cartoon the equivalent of The Qur’an?  I argue that it is.  Each is an expression of ideas and art.  An act of violence against one idea threatens all.  There is a hypocrisy in those who insist that what they value must be respected, while the values of others are taken to be of no consequence.

What is the answer to all of this?  I quote Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California:  “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”  If Pastor Jones dislikes The Qur’an, I ask him to write his own book that explains why.  If Muslims oppose burning the book or are angered by someone else’s expression, they may preach and write in an effort to convince the rest of us to see things their way.  Ideas must be defended on their own terms:  in speech, in writing, in drawing, and in other forms of expression.  Argumentum ad Baculum in either case proves nothing beyond demonstrating which side has the greater force, and as history shows us, empires built on force inevitably fall.  By contrast, the great ideas make who we are, and their influence stays in us.