Why Do We Accept Gun Violence as a Norm?

“Americans Are Safe from Gun Violence Except in Schools, Streets, Malls, Movie Theatres, Workplaces, Streets, Own Homes”––– Spoof headline by Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker

Think about this: A one-year old child was shot when a bullet was fired into her home during a neighborhood party in Detroit, Michigan; a 16-year old was shot several times at his home in Houston, Texas, and a 17-year old was hit by gunfire during a drive-by shooting–––and on and on and on it goes.

Joe Nocera, an editorial columnist for The New York Times, publishes a gun report on his blog, and the people listed in the paragraph above were drawn from his posting for the dates of November 8-10. They are among 107 people Nocera identifies as injured or killed by gunfire over those three days, and among the estimated 10,455 people who have died in gun violence in America between the December 14, 2012 Newtown massacre and November 14, 2013.

How can this epidemic of violence be our accepted status quo? The Right Reverend Porter Taylor, Episcopal Bishop of Western North Carolina, summed it up in a recent newsletter: Gun violence in America is an epidemic that “has something to do with our polarization, our loss of community, and our culture of fear and antagonism…We have lost a common green where citizens come and share their hopes and lives with one another. We are losing a sense of the common good.”

This loss of common good was evident this week when the mayor and council in my city of Asheville, NC complied with a new state law and voted to allow concealed guns in city parks and playgrounds. Given the facts of every-day gun violence across the USA, it is not hard to imagine children being caught in the cross fire of an argument in which the protagonists resort to firearms.

But, there was no use in debating the council’s action because, they said, it was mandated by the state. And that is the problem: there is no conversation, no debate. Every time a thoughtful discussion is started, gun advocates and their lobbyists shut it down.

Bishop Taylor is correct­­­––––we have lost the common green where issues can be discussed and argued, and a consensus built around compromise. The gun advocates brook no compromise and belligerently attack anyone who suggests something as limited as background checks. Take the case of Dick Metcalf in Pike County, Ill.  as told by The NYT’s Nocera.

Metcalf, 67, is a gun enthusiast and a writer for gun-related periodicals owned by InterMedia Outdoors. He wrote the following, “I firmly believe that all U.S. citizens have a right to keep and bear arms, but I do not believe they have a right to use them irresponsibly” and he proposed mandatory training for gun owners.

Gun advocates attacked his words as “boneheaded, uninformed and a patently obvious misinterpretation of the Second Amendment.”  Gun manufactures contacted InterMedia Outoors and told them they would pull their advertising if Metcalf continued writing in their publications. Nocera reports that “within 24 hours Metcalf was permanently banned from the company’s publications” and an editor was fired.

This is an example of the gun lobby’s strategy: don’t permit discussion about any idea that does not support their cause, either in public or in legislative halls.

How do they get away with it? Money: 49 lobbyists from eight gun rights organizations (with a budget of $3.9 million) prowl the halls of Congress, while four groups with nine lobbyists represent gun control interests––– and their budget is $150,000.

The National Rifle Association contributed $1.5 million to candidates in the 2012 elections, and other gun rights groups added another $1.5 million. Gun control groups contributed less than $5,000 during the same period.

This is not how a vital democracy should work. A vital democracy faced with an epidemic that is killing thousands of its citizens each year would seek data and have an intelligent conversation about how best to combat the disease.

Ideas such as banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, and requiring background checks before a gun can be purchased would be considered. A fact-based national conversation on these issues would not violate the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

It is interesting to note that gun rights advocates rarely mention the first four words of that amendment. It seems to me that those four words (“A well regulated Militia”) are a qualifier for what follows.

My questions: Why do we allow such a major public policy decision as shunning gun control–––one that involves dozens of deaths and injuries from firearms each day–––to be imposed on us. To borrow from Bishop Taylor: Is it because it’s easier to yield to fear and antagonism than confront it?

Have You Gerrymandered Your Information Sources?

Gerrymander: “To divide a voting area so as to give one political party a majority in as many districts as possible or weaken the voting strength of an ethnic racial group…to manipulate unfairly so as to gain advantage…” Webster’s New World Dictionary

Thomas Jefferson said, “The most dangerous threat to the Republic is an uninformed citizen.” But after the political debacle of the past few months many Americans might say that the United States Congress is the most dangerous threat to national wellbeing, and that much of their dysfunction comes from gerrymandering.

Leaders of the right and the left refused to engage one another and took refuge behind their respective ideological barriers in gerrymandered districts. Each side refused to listen to any idea or solution that was not a perfect fit to their partisan cloak of armor. They instead lobbed dogma bombs at each other, accomplishing nothing but a government shutdown that cost the taxpayers $24 billion.

It is at this point that Jefferson’s concern about uninformed citizens meets contemporary American politics.

This is not to say that Americans do not seek out information. It is not to say that Americans don’t inform themselves about public policy. But it is to say that the information often comes from “sources that may please them, but rarely challenge them.” These are the words of David Carr in The New York Times.

Carr’s thesis is that “the polarized (gerrymandered) political map is now accompanied by a media ecosystem that is equally gerrymandered into districts of self-reinforcing discourse.”

He pointed to Jennifer Senior’s New York Magazine interview with Supreme Court Justice Antonia Scalia. Senior asked the Justice “What is your media diet? Where do you get your news?” He responded “The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times.  We used to get the Washington Post, but it…just went too far for me. I couldn’t handle it anymore…It was slanted and often nasty. And, you know, why should I get upset every morning? They lost subscriptions partly because they became so shrilly, shrilly liberal.” (Read the entire interview here)

What are my reading habits? Each morning I read The New York Times that is delivered to my home, and The Washington Post on my iPad. The Nation, the New Republic, Slate and The Economist are monthly staples of my reading diet. But I also have subscriptions to the conservative National Review and The Weekly Standard on my iPad, as well as to The New Yorker, The Hill, The Atlantic and USA Today. I often read the columns by John Pohoretz in The New York Post.

My primary Internet political information comes from Politico.com and Talking Points Memo. But I also get several alerts each day from the conservative Drudge Report.

I can tell you from personal perusing of different sources of news that Carr is correct in his belief that there has been “a kind of personal redistricting of news coverage by the citizenry.”

He points out that 78% of Sean Hannity’s Fox News show identifies itself as conservative, and just five percent as liberal; and only seven percent of Rachel Maddow’s audience on MSNBC identifies itself as conservative.

I find it helpful to read conservative writers, but I simply cannot watch or listen to the likes of Hannity, Limbaugh and O’Reilly. Their strident self-righteous dogmatism makes my skin crawl. But I suspect that conservative thinkers have the same sense of alienation when they tune into MSNBC.

The great tragedy is that there is no meeting place where alternative visions are welcome and can be civilly shared. As Carr characterizes America’s plight, “The village common–––you know, the place where we all meet to discuss our problems, relying on the same set of facts–––has shrunk to the size of a postage stamp, surrounded by gated communities of like minds who never venture into the great beyond.”

The only hope I see is that the center left and center right develop the courage to transcend the ideological extremes and expand that postage stamp into a great bridge that unites the two halves of our political divide.

Take the issue of global warming as an example. For progressive centrists this could mean refusing to enter into battle with obstinate no-compromise climate deniers. Instead, we should make book with those on the center-right who accept that climate change is a serious threat, but who also fear economic catastrophe if aggressive regulations are implemented.

I am sure we could reach an agreement that would address both sides of that coin. The extremes would howl, but progress would be made.

Do you think this is possible?

How Do You Straighten Out Your Priorities?

“C’mon Bill. This is October. You need to get your priorities straight…”

That was the response from my friend Tony to the October 17 Question of the Week, which examined the hardening of America’s partisan arteries. He attached an article about the American League Championship series between the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox.

Tony’s words hit the mark. As the boys of summer fought their way through the playoff chills of October, baseball 2013 was nearing its conclusion. Precious few days were left before we entered the great void that stretches between the final out of the World Series and pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in mid-February 2014.

And I was too obsessed with the political shenanigans in Washington to fully appreciate the final sweet days of my great American pastime.

Just before midnight on October 30 the winter officially descended:  Baseball season ended when Matt Carpenter swung at and missed Boston closer Koji Uehara’s 13th pitch for a series-ending strikeout.  The Boston Red Sox had supplanted my beloved San Francisco Giants as the champions of the baseball world.

But after a couple of days of mourning, true baseball fans perk up as the hot stove league heats up… and as Washington argues about budgets and deficits, we ponder such crucial questions as:

 Should the designated hitter be eliminated, be adopted by the National League, or stay as it is?

 Should we scrap interleague games during the regular season?

Is the season too long… should it end before the temperatures dip into the 50s? (Hint: this could be accomplished by eliminating interleague games)

What about starting playoff games at an earlier hour so that kids and old men can make it to the ninth inning?

What off-season moves should my team make to strengthen itself for the 2014 season? Should the Giants rely on homegrown talent, or spend big in the free agent market?

What is the best baseball movie to watch during the void?

Whatever happens in Washington in the next few months, I will be in Phoenix, Arizona for spring training in March 2014, and I will be in San Francisco for at least four games during the summer, and I will be at McCormick Field in Asheville, NC at least once a month from April until September to watch our local class-A minor league team.

Meanwhile, I will fill the baseball void by following University of Arizona sports and the San Francisco 49ers, but the passion isn’t quite the same. As John Steinbeck said: “Baseball isn’t just a sport; it is a state of mind.”

I don’t mean to be frivolous. Politics is serious business and deserves our critical attention. Decisions made in Washington (and in states, counties and cities across the USA) affect the lives and wellbeing of 317 million Americans. We owe it to ourselves and to those who follow us to be engaged citizens; to do the work necessary to be fully informed about issues; to participate in public debate and to vote.

But we also owe it to ourselves to back away when we become too obsessed, when we begin seeing political opponents as enemies, and when we get to feeling overly righteous. I am grateful to Tony for gently chiding me!

My question for October 31 is this: What is your pastime? When your priorities get rigid and the trials of life get too stressing, how do you loosen up?

I listen to a ballgame. As the plaque in Cooperstown reads: “Baseball is the only sport that you can watch on the radio.”






Lizard-brianed Politics

Do not seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything! Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I held the Rilke quotation close as I traveled, interviewed, and wrote while working on The Idea of America.

His words intrigued me, but they seemed a bit opaque at first. However, over time, the power of Rilke’s message became clear: Life is not about certainty, about finding all of the answers right now, but is about living with an inquiring mind and genuine curiosity. If we co-exist easily with unanswered questions and stay faithfully grounded in our principles, we will “live along some distant day into the answers.”

This message does not fit the American character, and the lizard brain that increasingly governs our politics cannot comprehend it. We want immediate and simple answers to complex questions; we abhor mystery and we categorize everything in terms of absolute right and absolute wrong.  There is no middle ground and the idea of compromise is dismissed as a betrayal of principle.  We, thus, divide ourselves into factions and competing interest groups, and we label our opposition as enemies of all that is good.

I confess that I am guilty of this distortion. Why, I ask myself, can I not stand firmly on my beliefs without dismissing–––and judging rather than considering––– the ideas of those who see things differently? The truth is that neither side has all the answers, or even knows all the right questions.   The greatest potential strength of America is our diversity, but we turn it into a weakness when we reject and ridicule our opponents.

It is also easy and tempting to see those on the other side of issues as the bad guys, as those who are the cause of all that is wrong with the nation. Easy and tempting, yes, but wrong!

So I leave you with a question that came from a class I attended today: What would the world be like if we approached others from the standpoint of their possibilities, rather than their liabilities. What would American politics be like if Democrats and Republicans approached each other from the standpoint of possibilities rather than liabilities?

Naive? Pie in the sky? Perhaps, but what we are doing now is an abject failure and is threatening the future of our country. Let’s try something radical: Trusting one another to have the right motives and wanting to do the right thing.



Question of the Week: Can the Hardened Arteries of America’s Political System be Repaired?

“War is a coward’s escape from the problems of peace.”

I read this Thomas Mann quotation in an essay by The Rt. Rev. William Swing, founder and president of the United Religions Initiative.

Bishop Swing wrote “The anatomy of religiously motivated violence is a given through history… What is not a given and is much harder and is of far, far greater worth is creating the anatomy of religiously motivated citizenship… where people of differing faith traditions struggle together to give birth to a livable and promising equilibrium for the sake of the whole society.”

Bishop Swing’s essay explored the roots of violence in Kenya but, with apologies to him, I drew a parallel to the recent political mayhem in the USA:

Polarizing political fervor motivated by rigid adherence to ideology from true believers on the right and the left is a given in today’s American politics. What is not a given and is much harder and is of far, far greater worth is the formation of a political citizenship in which people of different political traditions struggle to give birth to a livable and promising equilibrium for the sake of the common good.

But to get to that point we must first wrestle with this question: Why is it that the politician who wants to succeed seeks to discredit rather than work with those who have different ideas?

The answer is obvious: The politics of destruction works. Partisan agendas are advanced when the politician successfully divides people between the righteous “us” and the devilish “other”, between the true believers and the heretics.

This behavior reduces American politics to slander and sloganeering, to fighting over  selected hot button issues that excite the party base–––while the nation decays around us.

As I wrote in The Idea of America, it is time for “those of us on both sides of the ideological divide to loosen our ties to rigid positions and be open to reasonable compromise. This does not mean giving up what we believe; rather, it means being committed to the tough work of finding common ground.”

This is an enormous task. As Nobel economist Paul Krugman wrote, “We are a deeply divided nation, and the divide isn’t about programmatic issues, about which policies are best; it is about differences in our moral imaginations, about different beliefs in what constitutes justice. The real challenge we face is not how to resolves our differences but how to keep the expression of those differences within bounds.”

To revisit Mann’s quotation from the top of this post, the politics of blame and destruction is the coward’s way to escape the hard work of governing.

My question for you is this: Given the mess of the last few weeks (and months and years), can the hardened arteries of America’s political discourse be repaired? If so, how… if not, why not?