Thursday, February 22, 2018


In some dialogue related to my preceding post, I think I may have encountered what I have to describe as the ZeNRA, whose adepts seem to favor disarming the police and replacing them with unregulated, random, concealed-carry civilians who never fire their weapons. At least that's what it seems like. Upon examination I was able to turn up some precepts:

ZeNRA is this: In the mayhem of a mass shooting, quietly sit down, embrace your gun and do nothing. Let the death and chaos become to you as peace and tranquility. Be one with your gun. If you die, you die. If you live, you live. It is all the same in the flower of time.

ZeNRA is this: Aim with your eyes closed.

ZeNRA is this: Death never comes from a gun, because the gun is a scapegoat, and bullets are its droppings that smell like eviscerated targets. Death is only the occasion for a pooper-scooper.

ZeNRA is this: Never pull the trigger; let the trigger pull you. In this way no guilt will ever touch you.

ZeNRA is this: Prying a gun from your cold, dead hands is a dead giveaway. Rejoice after it's too late.

ZeNRA is this: Life never gives you more ammo than you need, but more than 10 rounds starts to look like greed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Flip the Second Amendment

Parkland, Florida: another atrocity, and of the worst kind: mass murder of school children by a single shooter with an assault rifle.

Students and teachers in agonized grief and anger demand a solution and threaten a national walkout until something is done. The "something" in most of their minds is some kind of limitation on the availability of semi-automatic firearms.

No way, says the other side: such a limitation would be unconstitutional and wouldn't work. A shocking on this side don't even counter with a solution, seemingly willing to accept these massacres as a new normal. The ones that do have an answer call for more armed security in school and for either more mental health screening or for shoring up the family, the breakdown of which is presumably producing the murderous pathology driving school shooters to act.

A few observations:
  • There is no single or simple solution. "The answer" does not exist, except as a complex of solutions from the personal to the cultural, but also including legal ones. One hopeful example from the recent past is the decline in deaths caused by drunk drivers, due to this kind of complex interaction.
  • That the process was led by the mothers grieving the senseless deaths of children should not be overlooked, particularly by such commentators as Fox's Tomi Lahren who seems to think that there's a sundown clause for this kind of grief, when instead it seems by its very longevity not only to inspire activism but to insist on it. The aggrieved students galvanized into action by the latest massacre understand this: now is the time to act, when emotions are raw, not after people have lapsed into ephemeral passivity. It's no different from the aftermath of 9/11, when grief and rage served to unite the United States at least for a few months.
  • The process of determining those responses has a necessary political dimension. Despite the polarization over this issue, voters must hold their elected officials accountable for actual, implemented solutions. Leadership is needed, not passivity, not stonewalling, not kicking the can down the road, and especially not making dishonest excuses about "needing more facts" when at the same time you're preventing the CDC from gathering facts (Paul Ryan).
  • Those favoring so-called "gun control" solutions overlook the constitutional dimension of the issue to the detriment of their own cause. They of all people should read the Heller decision, even the ones who are blind with anger, and even if it was written by conservative jurist Antonin Scalia. This is now the mainstream constitutional understanding: the 2nd Amendment guarantees a personal right to gun ownership, regardless of its connection to militia service. It does no good to say--as New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik did the other day--that this "notion is novel, radical, and wrong." What Gopnik and others seem not to realize is that -- unbelievable as it may seem 230 years or so after the amendment was approved -- the decision serves as a first-time, comprehensive review of 2nd Amendment adjudication. "Liberals" should think of Heller as the Roe v. Wade of the 2nd amendment: subject to being overturned, certainly, but given the partisan curve of judicial appointments, unlikely to be anytime soon. As such, it is a constitutional rock upon which ill-advised gun control measures will founder again and again and again, no matter the number of school children who are butchered by assault rifles.
  • UNLESS ... "liberals" read the Heller decision and see that it leaves all manner of avenues for "gun control"--most explicitly licensing, but also other kinds of limitations and regulations, including restrictions to do with civil fitness ("felons and the mentally ill") as well as "laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms." These are the kinds of things that keep the NRA up at night.
  • In keeping with its anarchic vision, the NRA will challenge every proposed limitation at every level as "infringement" disallowed by the 2nd Amendment. This is why, in my opinion, the quickest way to safe schools and -- hey, why not? -- a safe society is to develop answers, including legislation, that work explicitly as aspects of the well-regulated militia invoked by the amendment's initial clause. In other words, flip the 2nd Amendment. We can't have infringement, but we can and we must have regulation to maximize public safety.
  • (The NRA wants nothing to do with a well-regulated militia. It ignores the very existence of the clause in the amendment. If you don't believe me, follow "Founders intent" constitutional advocate Edwin Vieira, Jr., on Twitter (or just go to his archive and browse). When I say Founders intent, I mean that Vieira wants to return to a metal-backed dollar and do away with the Federal Reserve. Vieira continuously calls out the NRA on his Twitter feed for pretending that the 2nd Amendment is about the individual right and nothing more.)
  • I don't say this to advocate a cynical type of camouflage for gun control. I truly believe that the revival of a true citizen militia in which all adults serve as a matter of duty--NOT AS VOLUNTEERS--would have untold, positive ramifications not only on our day-to-day safety but on the health of our democracy. After Sandy Hook, my form of grieving was to write a novel with this kind of theme to try to educate readers out of their 2nd Amendment ignorance. As to its effect, is zero a number? But hey, grief being what it is, maybe it's time to write another one.
  • My bonafides aside, let me give you a couple of examples:

School Guards: The favorite idea in the gun crowd is to protect school kids with armed guards. How many? At what cost? "Oh, we'll get volunteers." Really? For every school building in every state? Tennessee, for example, has 1,859 school buildings. In the non-urban area of my county alone, the number of school buildings (22) is almost half the number of county patrol officers (46), so let's say even if the proposal is for one guaranteed officer for each school--there are presently 4 SRO's for all those schools--you're talking about a personnel budget increase in this area of something like 40%. And that's for a tactical response that is entirely inadequate if the goal is to defend a school against sudden invasion by a well-armed, presumably competent criminal. I can't see that kind of increase happening in a low-tax state. In the existing system, an adequate solution funded by public money is just not going to happen.

Now consider an alternative: a universal-service militia, in which all adults between 18 and 65 are obligated to serve. Duty, not voluntarism. The administrative costs for the system would be borne by sales taxes (Tennessee loves sales tax!) on firearms and by arsenal stockage fees paid by those who own more than, say, three guns. Those adults not wishing to own weapons may opt out, but must still perform militia duty in a support role. In my Tennessee county, 60% of the total population falls within this age group; at current census levels, that is 93,600 people. The most efficient administrative model would call for county-wide organization, thus my county's two municipal school system buildings would be added in, bringing the number of school buildings to be covered to 40. Given a school year of 180 days, it would be possible to cover every school with a platoon of 13 people every day that they are open. Not all of these people need be armed: reconnaissance and communications are as significant as firepower in responding to a school invasion: where is the shooter? What are the escape routes? Training would obviously be a significant need, and for this reason the minimum extent of annual militia duty would be 5 days: 4 days of graduated training and one day of live school patrol. Payment for these days would be a statutory amount equal to a progressive assessment of statewide average before-tax income of the militia pool and would at the beginning of every year be paid to the state, pending service, at which point it would be reimbursed.

Concealed Carry: To me nothing reveals the bankruptcy of public security thinking among individual-rights gun owners more than concealed carry. All of these presumably good guys with guns cannot be discerned by the general public they are said to be protecting. Given a live shooting scene, who's the bad guy? Who are the good ones? Expect chaos. Look what happened in Parkland: the shooter was able to mingle with his targets and get away. It is simplicity itself to imagine a shooter killing people and then proclaiming himself to be a good guy and literally getting away with murder (should it be left to an unread novelist to imagine such things?). For this reason, open carry is much to be preferred to concealed carry, but even better than open carry would be militia open carry, in which open carry would be regulated (with statutory exemptions for hunting, etc.) to coincide with periods of training mentioned above. Militia carry would involve wearing some kind of identifier -- a hat, a badge, a uniform -- to inform the public and also to achieve whatever deterrent effect armed presence has. Come to think of it, militia identification could be used for those who for whatever stylistic reason prefer concealed carry. Identification is key--and could even introduce an unintended "more eyes on the street" effect in that unarmed militia members--those in training awaiting their day of duty--would also be walking around. Sparta, here we come!

This sort of thing constitutes regulation, not infringement. It was not only expected by the authors of the 2nd Amendment, it was called for. There are plenty of historical examples of these kinds of regulations from back in the days when there actually was a well-regulated militia in the US (1790 - 1830). Without this the 2nd Amendment is at present doubly a bad deal. Not only do we not have a well-regulated militia, we have a public sphere that is awash with assault weapons abetted by anarchic attitudes towards their purpose.

Flip it or repeal it. If you're not going to use it for its intended purpose, why have it? As Scalia said, the right to appropriate self-protection to individuals was already protected by common law before the 2nd Amendment. The Founders approved the Second Amendment in order to secure an arsenal, provided by the people themselves, for what was to be the most important component of an occasionally-Federalized military and--while you're at it--a support for state and local law enforcement. It would be on a Federal scale such a conception of militia duty as every state already had at the time the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were approved. Solid militia duty, structured at a Federal scale, would prevent reliance on a standing army, which not only would be expensive but would also be a temptation away from the patriotic duty of participating in your own common defense.

"To provide for the common defense." {Does my idiot-calling-naysayer know where that comes from? If I must be an idiot, please let me be a most unuseful one.) We have an internal enemy. Common defense is needed to defeat it. The internal enemy is not the law-abiding gun owner. The internal enemy is the law-UNabiding gun owner. No one wants a law-UNabiding gun owner to commit mayhem. That "no one" includes law-abiding gun owners. The 2nd amendment, flipped properly, contains its own cure. Drink from the purple bottle of folly. :-)

Friday, February 16, 2018

Cold dead hands

It's not a great time to be an American in the Elysian Fields. The Spartans especially are having the time of their deaths hooting in derision at the American "well-regulated militia."

"You can put a man on the moon but you can't regulate a militia? What's with the land of the free that it's so rotted by mistaking libertinage for liberty that it knows nothing of DUTY?" roars Leonidas, still buff after all these years after Thermopylae.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Antonin Scalia, et al (Gallatin) just hang their heads.

"It was you, Tom, and all your fantastic notions about the virtue of the yeomanry," mutters Adams.

"It's the Christians selling out to the End Times. End Times! End Times! How many End Times have there been since Jesus died? One for every wild-eyed doomcaster that ever lived," spits Jefferson in fierce response.

Antonin Scalia tut-tuts, "Look, if people will actually read what I said in Heller, they will understand that regulatory remedies for firearms are readily available in the militia scheme. Why every governor of every state doesn't make it the top priority to regulate the statutory unorganized militia -- meaning at present (if you will pardon my obiter dicta) every adult fucking male who isn't in the National fucking Guard -- I do not understand. Licensing, annual inspection, muster requirements, weapons classification with varying levels of permission: all such things are possible. Where is the creativity of the American political class at the state level?"

Al Gallatin says nothing, but nods over in the direction of where Charlton Heston shambles by, dragging a musket by the butt, its muzzle in one of his cold, dead hands, holding a tattered Valentine from the NRA in the other.

Jefferson, Adams, Scalia, et al (Gallatin) just hang their heads. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

It's all right there in "Black" and "White"

Ah, Black History Month (a.k.a. February for you non-Americans). I understand the need and the purpose, but it makes me sad, the way affirmative action makes me sad: for the reason that it is a paltry fraction-measure of what's needed to eradicate the cancer of metastatic racism in this country.

Simply stated--and to examine the afflicted body for other pathologies--it is an easily demonstrable fact that American history--the other 11 months?--told without "Black" history is not just an empty vessel, it's a body whose soul has been devoured by some demonic spirit. Without "Black" history, American history is worse than a lie.

And lying to itself about history is something America's pretty good at, apparently. Here's a good example of how: a survey in which only 8% of students were able to identify what caused the South to secede. Take a careful look at the survey. It does not ask "what caused the Civil War." It asks about secession. Anybody with any real knowledge about Southern secession knows that the first states to leave the Union--the majority of the Confederacy--did so explicitly and forthrightly over the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln and the threat that supposedly posed to the South's "peculiar institution." It is there in black and white in the secession covenants written by the conventions that enthusiastically decided that it was time pursue their slaveocratic destiny by erasing their stars from Old Glory.

Speaking of which: these days one of the diversions touted by the carnival-barking Traitor-in-Chief (as he will be shown to be) is the kneeling of protesting "Black" football players during the National Anthem. "Those son-of-a-bitches!" he says, and his defenders say, "He says what he thinks!" Haha. Sorry. That doesn't count as "thinking." Nor does most of what he says. Except, ironically, when he's lying: lying is far and away the most thinking he does.

It's not just Trump, though: I know at least one Clinton supporter who refers to the kneelers as "thugs." So, let me ask you: where was "Black" America when the anthem declared the USA to be "the land of the free"? Hint: it was written in 1814 by a slave-owning lawyer who also represented "Blacks" seeking freedom to such an extent that he became known as "the nigger lawyer" AND who promoted African colonization as a way to offshore "Blacks" who had been freed AND who feared racial "amalgamation" (what a future generation would less delicately call "race-mixing") to such an extent that he did everything he could to prevent abolitionist ideas from seeing the light of day.

But chances are pretty good none of this is known any better than the cause of secession.

"So what? We don't have slaves anymore. Everybody's free." Let bygones be bygones, right? Wrong. There ain't no bygone in it.

To wit:

I recently found out, via a virtual high school alumni service, that a former schoolmate of mine just died, someone I lost track of after high school. I have only one real enduring memory of him: that he and I, along with a handful of others, wore black armbands to school (Northside Jr. High in Chattanooga) on the day of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, funeral 50 years ago this year. The school had not been integrated that long and had only a few African-American students. Most of them didn't come to school, but observed the day apart from the "White" multitude. One who did come (brave soul), also wearing an armband, complimented me on being integrated. Solidarity forever, however, didn't save me from being threatened by a "White" thug: "Don't show your nigger-loving face outside at lunch." So, at lunch I kept to the thug-free indoors and made it through the day with armband and face intact. My recently-departed schoolmate wasn't as lucky: as soon as he got to school his armband was torn off.

It seems amazing to me that it's been 50 years since then. As in everything to do with lived experience, it feels like yesterday ... a yesterday at the bottom of a pile of other, younger yesterdays, none of them seeming very real except for the fact that they happened. They engrave themselves in ways you do not know, and with depths you cannot predict. Wearing a black armband that day was the total, innocent naivete of someone who thought, by way of parental influence and the evening news, that Dr. King represented the best way to civilly right some civil wrongs, but in bringing me face-to-face with hate that was incomprehensible to me, it opened my eyes and gave me the merest iota of a speck of a sliver of a glimpse of what might these days be called the "unprivilege" borne by certain fellow Americans day in and day out since before there was even a country to call "the land of the free."

Merest iota of a speck of a sliver of a glimpse. Pretty small, huh? Bring it back to scale by multiplying it by 300 years of slavery, the withdrawal and collapse of Reconstruction, the KKK, sharecropper serfdom, Jim Crow, lynching, "separate but equal," redlining, whites-only New Deal Progressivism, Confederate statues in the 20th century, sundown towns, more KKK, racist law enforcement, and the carceral state. Whatcha got? I don't begin to know, but I'm guessing it's something like the water in Flint, MI: poison.

It's a ton of negatives. It's like a bunch of mice living in a cage with a cat right outside: that ton of constant cat stress is heavy enough to set mouse against mouse. It's science: it would even happen to "White" mice, all ye bell curve holdouts praying for race. If it was a landfill, the only people that would be allowed to live nearby would be "Black," and they'd be forced to live there--quite legally, as is the way of things--until such time as somebody like King would come along and get killed for trying to get it changed.

For me, though, all these years later, remembering back to my brush with "White" hatred and thinking how far I was from being able to gauge the strength of that cat-stress or the depth of that landfill, as luck would have it Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates got in a fight.

Harvard professor and progressive pundit West started it by calling Coates--in an opinion piece in The Guardian--"the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle" who "fetishizes white supremacy" by making it "almighty, magical, and unremovable." While giving Coates some credit as a "talented wordsmith" for his work in The Atlantic that "rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy," West tore into what he perceived to be Coates's pessimistic fatalism and his failure to connect racism with the structures of "domination" like imperialism, capitalism, sexism, and homophobia.

What really seemed to get West's goat was Coates's application to Barack Obama of "twin honorifics" once applied to Malcolm X (after his assassination): "our living Black manhood" and "our own Black shining prince." West fumes at this "gross misunderstanding" that "speaks volumes" about Coates's neoliberalism.

What did Coates do in response? He ... disappeared: after tweeting "i didn't get in it for this," he deactivated his Twitter account, which had over a million followers (which for some reason makes me feel better about not going outside for lunch with my black armband).

"White" people on Twitter warned other "White" people not to get involved or have opinions because it was a "Black" thing. Wait a minute, I thought, this is about important ideas. In a different era those same people would've counseled ignoring W.E.B. DuBois taking on Booker T. Washington. As long as the "problem of the color line" beats at the heart of America, if you're not making some effort to take the pulse, you're still living in the la-la land of the free you learned about in high school history. I want to live in the real one.

As one who had followed Coates in The Atlantic ever since being blown away by his article on reparations (which I would require every American voter to read if I were Benevolent Dictator for Life), I was taken aback by West's assault. From my reading of Coates, West's "neoliberal" tag seemed like a cheap shot with a trendy progressive insult. But at the same time I was delighted by it, because it held out the promise of a savory, dialectical exercise: I couldn't be fair to West--familiar to me up to this point only as a media pundit--without reading his standard Race Matters (now in a 25th anniversary edition), and since West's column was in effect a damning review of Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power, I really needed to close the circle by reading it as well.

Having completed the exercise, I now have to give West a great deal of credit not so much for his critique of Coates (more on that in a bit) as for a political posture that stands on unequivocal moral ground beside and in support of all those whose lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness are foreshortened, robbed, and obstructed by powerful forces that need to be resisted in the public arena--and defeated there as well. Race still matters--and it deserves creative problem-solving in not only the political but the cultural realm as well (West is particularly incandescent in illuminating the cultural dimension)--but so do poverty, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism. It seems to me that MLK himself would have wound up in this ideological neighborhood, had he lived, a supposition that at least to me is greatly to West's credit.

But there remains the matter of how to resolve the West-Coates dissonance; or can it be resolved?

<aside>One of the fun things about reading West is his jive style of high seriousness. I mean, he bops the rhetoric. He invokes jazz as a cultural force, but it's also obvious that he takes it to heart as a personal, stylistic one as well. As for Coates, he talks about having hiphop songs as models for his writing, but--maybe ironically--to me his prose goes down as smooth as a Mozart symphony.</aside>

A good approach to the problem is to compare West's chapter "Malcolm X and Black Rage" (the ultimate chapter in Race Matters) with Coates's chapter "The Legacy of Malcolm X--Why His Vision Lives On in Barack Obama," perhaps the chapter in We Were Eight Years in Power that more than any other sparked West's vitriol in The Guardian.

I personally benefited from reading both takes on Malcolm X. One problem with focusing on history in my reading, as I do, is that I seem to require a 50-year remove before I trust that the archival realm has been built up enough to make writers trustworthy enough to read. Well, the 50 years is up on Malcolm X, so that I can finally try to understand, as a "White" person, what he means to "Black" people.

Whatever their differences, Coates and West agree on the essential meaning of Malcolm X: he held up "Blackness" as a transcendent device for self-definition over and against the dominant, "White" power structure, be it political or cultural. The "rage" of West's chapter title was already there in the African-American psyche and was Xplicit (as it were) in the Malcolmian doctrine, but its real value was that it channeled that rage into a constructive, Black-positive approach to personal renaissance free of oppressive, "White" influences.

From here on West and Coates diverge. West, ever the professor, enumerates point by point the various ways that Malcolm X's "doctrine" (my word) possessed 1. an inchoate, apolitical nature that made it insufficient as a political platform to direct a cohesive, collective struggle and 2. a deep suspicion of American cultural hybridity--cultural race-mixing?--which West, like MLK, celebrates as "the past and present bonds between blacks and whites."

Coates, by contrast, chronicles (riffs?) a personal curve on the theme of Malcolm X: how the fresh, proud Afrocentric culture of Coates's youth was put aside (literally, as in a poster of Malcolm X that went into storage) as he navigated the project of establishing himself in the hybrid American culture. "Raised in de facto segregation," Coates writes, "I was carried by my work into the mostly white world, and then to the blasphemies of having white friends and howling white music." What brings him back to himself is "Election Night 2008," which, Coates asserts--contrary to those who proclaim that it cast Malcolm X's "naysaying" permanently into the trash heap--was effected not only by "black people's long fight to be publicly American," but also by "those same Americans' long fight to be publicly black." The success of that "latter fight" can be laid at the doorstep mostly of one person, concludes Coates: "Barack Obama is the president. But it's Malcolm X's America."

As to the conflation of Obama with Malcolm X that so outrages West, it is a mere extension of the central point about X that West and Coates agree on: his self-invention as an explicitly "Black" person. In Obama's case it was an important key to his ability to enter fully into African-American culture and project an identity and style that enabled him to communicate so broadly and successfully to that culturally hybrid nation that West himself describes.

West's prickliness at Coates's rendition of Xness to the Obamasphere is an extension of West's politics that brings all the big progressive issues together under one big tent. Because of these linkages, according to West, if Obama is wrong (or too moderate) on the economy or on imperialism, he necessarily vitiates his credibility when it comes to race. But to paint Coates himself as an Obama-style neoliberal is to misread Coates.

Coates is certainly no Obama henchman. If one thing is clear from his book, it is that Coates disagrees with Obama on a great number of things, even if he provides an objective account of Obama's positions. To understand this, West need only review the last sentences of Coates's book:
[T]here can be no conflict between the naming of whiteness and the naming of the degradation brought about by an unretrained capitalism, by the privileging of greed and the legal encouragement of hoarding and more elegant plunder. I have never seen a contradiction between calling for reparations and calling for a living wage, on calling for legitimate law enforcement and single-payer health care. They are related--but cannot stand in for one another. I see the fight against sexism, racism, poverty, and even war finding their union not in synonymity but in their ultimate goal--a world more humane.
If that is not a progressive platform, I do not know what is. Yet that platform--which is West's bread and butter--is neither Coates's forte nor his focus. Coates views the world through the prism that is downside of "White" racial oppression, which is a force unto itself. It is not a derivation or an unintended consequence or an externality. He is its balladeer, as it were. Coates is as lyrical in his writing as he is obsessive with his focus as he is thorough with his documentation as he is unflinching (or generous) with his personal history. It all comes together in his writing.

Nothing is sadder to this reader than this sentence in Coates's book: "For most African-Americans, white people exist either as a direct or indirect force for bad in their lives." I, as "White," am of course in no position to say. I do, however, take Coates to be a reliable narrator of this particular ballad. How reliable? Documentation is one of his strong points, and it's not like he's without anecdotal support (in an interview published just the other day, for example, Quincy Jones momentarily left the juicy gossip to say that racism is the worst it's ever been).

Beyond its value as a chronicle of "Black" experience vis-a-vis "Whiteness," it has value in providing the basis for an empathetic appreciation of the social psychology of prejudice on a broader scale: what adjustments do women have to make to face sexism every day? The same question applies to hispanics and Muslims with regard to xenophobia, atheists with regard to rampant fideism (especially in the South), indigenous peoples, LGBT people, disabled people. Oh, and I almost left out poor people.

But this is just me channeling my under-employed black hispanic atheist lesbian with hearing loss alter-ego, so no big deal, right?  Yeah, I can hear the Nietzscheans grumble: spare us the victims; give us Superman. Fuck that. I'll take Jesus Christ any old day: love thy neighbor and the golden rule. This, by the way, is where West shines. He trumpets the need for a moral basis for social uplift, not just in the "Black" community, but among all humanity. And then he goes out and walks the talk, while Coates sinks into despondency at the Trump election. I wouldn't doubt it if he were considering a move to France.

So this is how I resolve the West-Coates dissonance: to see both as, in West's own words, an "interplay of individuality" that, "as with a soloist in a jazz quartet ... is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative [emphasis West's] tension with the group--a tension that yields a higher level of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project." The arc of justice is one slow rainbow, but both are involved in the effort to advance it. West might be more laying down the beat, so to speak, but Coates is soloing away to excellent effect, reaching people with a powerful message that otherwise might not be heard. Put another way, even if West is out playing in the square and Coates is blasting from the insulation of a isolated sound booth, there is a return from both venues.

If we have to have "Black" History Month, for god's sake don't whitewash it by leaving out the whole messy context and pretending that we're through with all that. In this regard I very much hope Ta-Nehisi Coates returns to print to provide challenging analysis that hoists William Faulkner with his own petard: the past isn't dead; it isn't even past.

Meanwhile my ninth grade dude self will continue to abide inside the lunch room. After all, as Ishmael Reed said, "writin' is fightin'."

[My usages "Black" and "White" are meant to punctuate the reality that these concepts, however universally used in the US, are conceptual grotesqueries: they are cultural categories the gross imprecision of which serve only to divide. Furthermore, their direct and recent lineage to discredited notions of biological human categorization lends itself to the survival of those very notions in popular, nonscientific thought. But that is a subject for tomorrow's lunch room.]

Monday, November 6, 2017

Second Amendmentitis: Inflammation of a vestigial law

The appendix in the human body is vestigial: it used to do something but now it doesn't. And sometimes it gets sick and has to be removed.

The Second Amendment in the U.S. Constitution is likewise vestigial: it used to provide the basis for arming a universal militia, in which every adult citizen served as a matter of law, but since that system broke down and was replaced by the National Guard, the Second Amendment no longer serves a purpose. Some people say that it guarantees an individual right to gun ownership, and it may indeed. However, that was not its purpose. And that is what makes it vestigial.

America is very sick right now. It is sick of gun violence. It is sick of the slaughter of masses of innocent people. It is particularly sick of its impotent division in the face of this slaughter. One side wants gun control; the other side is all guns and undisciplined, open-carry nonsense.

In this case--unlike an appendix--the vestigial Second Amendment has made America very sick not because the amendment itself is sick, but because it has lost its original purpose.

And--also unlike an appendix, which must be removed when it gets sick--a vestigial amendment can be returned to health if it is restored to its original purpose. And given the impasse between the two sides that shows every sign of getting worse and worse (I saw a tweet today that said that the two sides would erupt into a war), it seems to me that someone somewhere should be talking about doing that.

One of the things that's making us sick is that we no longer act like we are the government. The government is something other than us, even if we elect our representatives. This is particularly pronounced on the Tea Party right, which has tossed out the traditional conservative reverence for state and local government, and which regards even such traditional civic solutions as public education with undisguised scorn.

In this fevered atmosphere we should remember that the most universal governmental institution of the early Republic--the one in which the entire public of the time (adult white male) was involved--was the militia. You might not have enough property to vote, but you had to serve in the militia--by law. None of this volunteer garbage. This meant that there was one universal arm of government in which everyone participated, and which provided a check on the power of elected or appointed officials.

Today, with the definition of citizen broadened to include everyone of both sexes, universal militia service would provide a common bond of civic duty unparalleled in the nation's history. Don't tell me that wouldn't make a difference.

I tell my gun control friends: stop talking about gun control. Instead, revive/update the militia law of 1792 by requiring all citizens to be armed, then regulate! The Second Amendment allowed it then, and it allows it now.

  • Don't want to have a gun? Pay a tax, the same as people who don't want Affordable Care pay the mandate. Those taxes would pay for the administration of the militia system. Reduce or eliminate your tax by participating in the "peace militia" that would perform a wide variety of public services.
  • How many people should have semi-automatic weapons? That's a military decision to be made by militia commanders in each state. Only those authorized for military purposes would have them.
  • Concealed or open carry would be not be based on individual whim but would be subject to military regulations established by each state militia.
  • Require semi-annual (at least) inspection, drill, and firearm education (especially safety) of all gun-bearing citizens.
  • Those buying or selling firearms contrary to militia regulations for registration, fitness, etc., would be treated as insurrectionists.
  • Make the militia relevant by giving it a hard purpose: dissolve the National Guard, stand down most of the standing army, and demilitarize the police.
These are only a few examples of the kinds of things that are possible with a Second Amendment well-regulated militia. Right now we are living practically in a state of anarchy when it comes to firearms. Change the culture. Let the Second Amendment be the Second Amendment.

Or you can keep on doing like you're doing and either not get anything done or do something half-assed and not address the real problem.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Compromise and the Civil War: My way AND the highway

What's this crap about compromise preventing the Civil War? Anybody saying that is ignorant of some real basic facts. It's so easy, people! The facts that are right in front of your @#$%^&* face!

(There must be something about something being so obvious and easy that nobody talks about it--kind of like the well-regulated militia in the 2nd Amendment.)

Here you go: a simple timeline.

Nov. 6, 1860: Abraham Lincoln elected President of the United States. Will not take office until Mar. 4, 1861.

Dec. 20, 1860: South Carolina secedes. (Lincoln not president yet.)
Jan. 9, 1861: Mississippi secedes. (Lincoln not president yet.)
Jan. 10, 1861: Florida secedes. (Lincoln not president yet.)
Jan. 11, 1861: Alabama secedes. (Lincoln not president yet.)
Jan. 19, 1861: Georgia secedes. (Lincoln not president yet.)
Jan. 26, 1861: Louisiana secedes. (Lincoln not president yet.)
Feb. 1, 1861: Texas secedes. (Lincoln not president yet.)
Feb. 8, 1861: Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of America adopted. (Lincoln not president yet.)
Feb. 9, 1861: Jefferson Davis elected President of the Confederates States of America. (Lincoln not president yet.)
Feb. 18, 1861: Jefferson Davis inaugurated President of the Confederate States of America. (Lincoln STILL not president yet.)

Mar. 4, 1861: Abraham Lincoln inaugurated President of the United States. (Whew! Finally!)

What caused secession? The constitutional election of Abraham Lincoln--wishy-washy on slavery--caused pro-slavery-expansionist firebrands in the deep Southern states to break away from the United States. Lincoln was presented with a fait accompli by those states that before his inauguration had already established a separate nation. He could either accept this and preside over a USA shorn of these states, or he could seek by military means to reconstitute it.

No compromise was available--short of accepting the dissolution of the USA. The question was whether it could be put back together by military means.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Graffito: Dissertation Decapitation

A letter in the mailbox. When does that happen anymore? One for you, and one for me.

One for you: I want to blurt it all out, but I'm forcing myself give you an entire explanation.

One for me: "I've just finished reading your dissertation," it began.

Now that was a sure-fire way of getting my attention. As far as I knew, the only people who'd ever read my dissertation were the three professors on my review panel. They'd gotten me my Ph.D., which entitled me to a shot at some beggarly adjunct spot in Beaufuque, Tennessee, that might keep me in espresso and scones if I economized and gave up eating actual food.

But here was somebody outside that world who had read also it.

Sure, the dissertation was good. Sure, it was fascinating! I mean, how could something not be fascinating with a title like "Reconstructing a Symbolist Hymn to the Guillotine: Finding Meaning in the Argot of a Fin-de-Siècle Paris Crime Scene Graffito"? It was all about how I had solved--or thought I had solved--a real puzzle.

OK, so it wasn't the Rosetta Stone, but it took a lot of doing to produce an answer good enough to convince three hoary scholars of epigraphy and French linguistics that it was the answer.

It had all started the way epigraphy always seems to start--with the construction of a sewer, in this case the upgrading of a sewer line in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. Workmen came upon a subterranean room that had a wall with an intact graffito so mysterious and so lovingly inscribed that the crew foreman himself cut it out and delivered it to the Institut français.

The graffito was not of any great age, but the civil authorities soon discovered that it came from the house that had produced a notorious murder in 1875: a woman had killed her husband--probably after she had suffered years of abuse--by decapitating him with a home-made guillotine, which crime earned the murderess the same fate beneath the judicial blade.

But the obscurity of the inscription was such that before long the civil authorities issued a call for help decoding it, via a notice in a bulletin somewhere, which my advising professor happened to notice. "Here's your dissertation," is what she'd said.

It was four lines of French gibberish. You will forgive me if I bore you with it. I know French isn't your thang, but, believe me, it's essential to my reason for writing this letter, so here it is:
Bob Echafaud seconde tous 'ci
S'il--verts beaux culs ennuis anis--
y compacte Tue-Mari immisce:
Prie-Dieu, Bob Echafaud!
Why, you ask, bother with gibberish? If the history of language demonstrates anything, it is that today's gibberish is yesterday's everyday speech. And for me, for some reason, after reading it for the first time, I couldn't get it out of my head. I ran it over and over when I was trying to get to sleep that first night. It sounded like something I knew! It seemed to be calling me with a siren call I couldn't resist.

My non-resistance turned into seven years of work. People who have not done scholarship have no appreciation for what I mean by "work," either. I was possessed: I followed every lead, mined every obscure lexicon with a toothpick, looked at every worm-eaten scrap of archival evidence, talked or wrote to every specialist in the arcana of the Parisian monde and the demi-monde of the late 19th century, and basically lived, breathed, and shat those words for seven whole monastic years. Sure, I went on dates from time to time, but I always wound up sitting at a table alone, because who wants to hang out with someone who is obsessed with translating four lines of French gibberish? It was like I was Dan Brown before DaVinci Code.

I did translate it, and here it is, for what it's worth: "Everybody here, Bob Scaffold is your second. That is, unless his green-ass absinthe issues get in the way and he's only packing a sawed-off Hubby Killer. In that case, Bob Scaffold, you're just a kneeling bench."

But what did it mean? The best part about the dissertation was that I could only say a truly final, conclusive answer, ahem, "awaited further research." Which meant I could publish-or-perish about this damn thing for-fucking-ever. This was truly going to be my lifelong ticket to espresso and scones.

"Bob Scaffold" was most definitely a guillotine. But was it the homemade one or the official one awaiting the murderess? "Kneeling bench" provides a savory equivalence in terms of furniture: the literal translation is "pray-God." Would it be seen as an instrument of divine justice? Even more tantalizing was the fact that the murderess was known to run in the same social circles as Symbolist poets, whose verse made mincemeat out of meaning (but it was very delicious mincemeat). She had met the poets Verlaine and Mallarmé. As far as is known, this was her only poem: etched in plaster, probably after beheading her husband. Even after seven years, I had just bored a hole in the explanation big enough for my head.

And into that breach stepped the letter: "I believe I have some information that can shed some light on your puzzle," it went on. "Your thorough research brought you part of the way, but I feel certain that, with all the work you spent on it, you will be very interested in learning something that will take you the rest of the way."

Interested? No no no I wasn't interested. With that letter I was a fly on the lashes of a Venus flytrap.

There she goes with the piano again. The letter-writer. I was trapped from the beginning.

I responded immediately to the anonymous sender at the address provided: something along the lines of "please I will kill anyone or debase myself in any way you wish if you will only share your information with me," only couched in socially conventional expressions. After a month of sleepless, pins-and-needle agony I received a reply: a carte de visite inscribed "Toussaint, 2017, noon, 947 Ursulines Ave., New Orleans, LA."

Fine. I didn't have to kill anyone or debase myself. I just had to go to the French Quarter on All Saints Day.

It turned out to be a tiny house: a one-storey shotgun with two shuttered apertures in front. I knocked at the one at the top of four crumbling steps. A tiny, white-haired woman answered the knock and asked if it was I, saying my name with a pronounced swallowed "r," French-style. Being told yes, she invited me in. There was a small front room with a couch and a baby grand piano that pretty much filled the room. She invited me to sit on the couch while she went to get a light refreshment for me. She brought some espresso and a beignet, the New Orleans equivalent of a scone. "I will play something for you," she said. It was a very short piece. When it was over, she stood up and said, "That was Bob Echafaud," which didn't really clarify anything. My face must have reflected this sense of unclarity, because she said, "Never mind. Follow me."

She led me through a small kitchen and a smaller bedroom at the back of which was a door. On the other side of the door was ... but wait, not yet.

Here's the deal. She said I could write one letter, so I decided to write to you. You are my last hope.

She is very old: a centenarian? Her mother had her late: "I was a surprise baby," she said. Her mother herself came to New Orleans from France as a young child--orphaned--bringing with her nothing other than the clothes on her back and two pieces of paper: music manuscript of the piece the old woman had played for me and a poem, which she showed me:
Bob Echafaud seconde tous 'ci
S'il--verts beaux culs ennuis anis--
y compacte Tue-Mari immisce:
Prie-Dieu, Bob Echafaud!
That's right: it's the same as the inscription.

She tells me that even though the words look French, they're actually English when they're sounded out. But she doesn't know what the English words are. It's some kind of rhyme--nonsense in French, but an actual rhyme in English. Maybe it is a lullaby? Her grandmother sang it to her mother, who sang it to her. "These are silly English words all dressed up in French," is what mother said to daughter become mother said to daughter said to me.

She sings it in a small voice and accompanies herself on the piano. She doesn't really like to sing, so mostly she just plays it. And constructs palaces of meaning for the nonsense words. It's like all her life she has lived in a Symbolist poem of meaningless symbols.

Here's the deal: she wants to know what English rhyme this is. If she finds out, she will let me go.

"Look," I say, "let me go and I will help you find the answer." No, she says. She has gone too far for that. She couldn't believe what she was hearing when the French consul came to her Creole French circle to talk about the original discovery of the inscription; after that she made it her business to keep up with developments. "It was like being born again," she says. And now that she has found the one person in the world who has the most knowledge of this puzzle, she feels that it is only just that I should die if I cannot give her the answer she seeks. "And if I find the answer?" I ask. I will release you, she says. That is a promise; I have made my plans, she says.

The door on the other side of the bedroom? There was something in that espresso or in that beignet that knocked me out before I saw it opened. I am now on the other side of that door: in a room with pictures of Marilyn Monroe, a nursing Madonna and Child, an undressed dress form, and a smoking cigar with an absinthe distiller's band; as well as an actual, working guillotine, named--of course--Bob Echafaud. I am chained to the guillotine.

I watch the old woman slice watermelon with it. Surely you have guessed that her mother was the daughter of the woman who guillotined her husband in 1875. "If there is no answer, you will beg me to die this way, eventually," she avers in a comforting purr before slicing another watermelon.

I need the English rhyme that sounds like these French words. You are my last hope. You have the address. I await the kind favor of a reply.

I know you will understand when I say I wish you were here.

Instead of me.