Friday, January 14, 2011

Emerson for the Day

"A holiday, a villegiatura, a royal revel, the proudest, most magnificent, most heart-rejoicing festival that valor and beauty, power and poetry ever decked and enjoyed--it is here, it is this. These stars signify it and proffer it: they gave the idea and the invitation, not kings, not palaces, not men, not women, but these tender, poetic, clear and auspicious stars, so eloquent of secret promises...All experience is against them, yet their word is hope."

Photo: Chandra X-Ray Laboratory image of Galaxy M82.

Guns in Town

It's a lesson from western movies: when there are guns in town, they will be used. Civilization is pretty much defined as a place where law and custom rule, not where the streets are ruled by guns.

Guns on the street aren't acceptable in a civilized town. It's the citizens who enforce this really, but it is the law that backs it up.

So what does that say about us right now?

Number of people who died from gunshots in the Tucson incident: 6.
Number of people
who die from gunshots every single day in the USA: 80.

Guns destroy civilization, and they also destroy democracy. Bringing a gun to a Town Hall Meeting is the definition of an anti-democratic act, a subversive act.

President Obama last night described the scene in Tucson on Saturday:

"On Saturday morning, Gabby, her staff and many of her constituents gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech. They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders –- representatives of the people answering questions to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns back to our nation’s capital. Gabby called it “Congress on Your Corner” -– just an updated version of government of and by and for the people. And that quintessentially American scene, that was the scene that was shattered by a gunman’s bullets."

But how do citizens feel confident in participating in this quintessential American scene, this central tenet of democracy now? It's not just that a deranged gunman opened fire in Tucson. It's that it was legal and acceptable for anyone to bring a loaded gun to a public meeting. In fact, the shooter wasn't the only one armed. Someone else had his finger on the trigger, and almost shot the person who disarmed the shooter, because he was still holding the gun he'd taken away from the perpetrator.

The principle is simple. Democracy belongs to the most persuasive voices, not the biggest guns. Guns at public meetings used to be an image associated with eastern European or Chinese Communists or Nazi SS. The effect is easy to understanding. If chipping away at some corner of free speech produces a "chilling effect" on free speech, what does a gun at a public meeting do?

First and foremost, it deters people from even showing up. If I had a child, a nine year old girl who just won a student council election say, I would think more than twice before allowing her to attend a public meeting, even in a grocery store parking lot in the middle of town. Not just because one nut might bring a gun. But because all people might be carrying guns, where it is acceptable and legal to do so.

Are you going to argue over health care with somebody who might have a gun? Are you even going to go vote with people who might be armed?

Even if Americans have "a right to bear arms," I don't see where the Constitution says they have a right to bear them in a Town Hall meeting. Isn't there something about a "well-regulated militia" in that amendment?

I think Eugene Robinson was right to use the word "insane" in characterizing recent refusals to regulate guns. I really don't much care about length of barrels and size of clips, or all the other compromises. I'm sure police would feel better if it wasn't so easy for criminals to obtain more lethal weapons, and the idea of restricting guns only from appearances by members of Congress is what it transparently is.

You can debate all the sophisticated technical solutions and compromises, but for me the very first thing that has to be done is to restore the rule with force of law that you cannot bring your gun to town, anywhere in America. You cannot bring your gun to any public place, and you certainly may not bring your gun to any public meeting.

There is no conflict of rights here. No one except officers of the law should have the legal right in a civilized society to endanger innocents in a public place by carrying lethal weapons. No one has the right to threaten the foundation of democracy: the right of citizens to peaceably assemble.

But even more powerful than rights and law is the power of the people to set and enforce this standard by sending the message that this is unacceptable behavior, and anyone engaging in it is outside civilized society, period.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

In Memoriam: John Roll

"Judge John Roll served our legal system for nearly 40 years. A graduate of this university and a graduate of this law school, Judge Roll was recommended for the federal bench by John McCain 20 years ago -- appointed by President George H.W. Bush and rose to become Arizona’s chief federal judge. His colleagues described him as the hardest-working judge within the Ninth Circuit. He was on his way back from attending Mass, as he did every day, when he decided to stop by and say hi to his representative. John is survived by his loving wife, Maureen, his three sons and his five beautiful grandchildren."
--President Obama at University of Arizona, Tucson, last night.

In Memoriam: Dorothy Morris

"George and Dorothy Morris -– “Dot” to her friends -– were high school sweethearts who got married and had two daughters. They did everything together -- traveling the open road in their RV, enjoying what their friends called a 50-year honeymoon. Saturday morning, they went by the Safeway to hear what their congresswoman had to say. When gunfire rang out, George, a former Marine, instinctively tried to shield his wife. Both were shot. Dot passed away."
--President Obama

In Memoriam: Phyllis Schneck

"A New Jersey native, Phyllis Schneck retired to Tucson to beat the snow. But in the summer, she would return East, where her world revolved around her three children, her seven grandchildren and 2-year-old great-granddaughter. A gifted quilter, she’d often work under a favorite tree, or sometimes she'd sew aprons with the logos of the Jets and the Giants -- (laughter) -- to give out at the church where she volunteered. A Republican, she took a liking to Gabby, and wanted to get to know her better."--President Obama

In Memoriam: Dorwan Stoddard

"Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard grew up in Tucson together -– about 70 years ago. They moved apart and started their own respective families. But after both were widowed they found their way back here, to, as one of Mavy’s daughters put it, “be boyfriend and girlfriend again.”

When they weren’t out on the road in their motor home, you could find them just up the road, helping folks in need at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. A retired construction worker, Dorwan spent his spare time fixing up the church along with his dog, Tux. His final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife, sacrificing his life for hers."
--President Obama

In Memoriam: Gabe Zimmerman

"Everything -- everything -- Gabe Zimmerman did, he did with passion. But his true passion was helping people. As Gabby’s outreach director, he made the cares of thousands of her constituents his own, seeing to it that seniors got the Medicare benefits that they had earned, that veterans got the medals and the care that they deserved, that government was working for ordinary folks. He died doing what he loved -– talking with people and seeing how he could help. And Gabe is survived by his parents, Ross and Emily, his brother, Ben, and his fiancĂ©e, Kelly, who he planned to marry next year."
--President Obama

In Memoriam: Christina Taylor Green

"And then there is nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. Christina was an A student; she was a dancer; she was a gymnast; she was a swimmer. She decided that she wanted to be the first woman to play in the Major Leagues, and as the only girl on her Little League team, no one put it past her.

She showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age. She’d remind her mother, “We are so blessed. We have the best life.” And she’d pay those blessings back by participating in a charity that helped children who were less fortunate.

And in Christina -- in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic, so full of magic. So deserving of our love. And so deserving of our good example.

Imagine -- imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -– we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

As has already been mentioned, Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called “Faces of Hope.” On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child’s life. “I hope you help those in need,” read one. “I hope you know all the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart." "I hope you jump in rain puddles.”

If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on this Earth -- here on this Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and we commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit."

--President Obama last night. Christina Taylor Green was buried today. First Lady Michelle Obama has written an open letter to parents concerning how to talk about these events with children.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Imagine -- imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -– we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations."

President Obama
Tucson, Arizona
January 12, 2011

President Obama Speaks in Tucson

This is President Obama's address at the memorial in Tucson. Here is the transcript of the address as given. It includes his riveting announcement that moments after he visited her, and as some of her congressional colleagues were in the room (including Nancy Pelosi), Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes for the first time. To this point the swelling prevented this. It is another good sign. Pelosi, now minority leader, was present at the memorial. Majority leader Boener was offered a seat on Air Force One to attend, but he stayed in Washington to attend a Republican political meeting.

Response to President Obama's speech has been mostly very positive. Here are some reactions. Jim Fallows is among those who call it one of his best and most lasting.

Those who watched the memorial in Arizona and across America may have taken note that one of the heroes honored, who sat with the First Family, is a Latino American. And one of the people who risked their lives to stop the shooter was a gray haired woman.

Some commentators differentiated between what he said about the civic community and what he said about each of the people who was killed, the heroes who aided the wounded and prevented the shooter from reloading, and everyone's personal reflections. What they missed apparently was how elegantly he threaded them together, paying off completely in the end when he talked about the nine year old who was killed, Christina Green. I will quote that part of the speech in another post.

However, I'll add this comment on it by Andrew Sullivan, because it was exactly the same thought that I had:

"Watching Christina Green's parents as the president speaks brings home the enormity of this crime. Making her brief nine years of life the focus for hope and inspiration is a lovely peroration. "I want America to be as good as [Christina] imagined it."
And one senses palpably that Obama's own love for his own daughters is behind this message."

The Wrong Ideal

Here's one more angle on the political atmosphere in which this shooting happened, from Jessica Valenti writing in the Guardian:

This is not the kind of history we want to be making. US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the youngest woman to be elected to Congress... is believed to be the first female politician in America to be the subject of an assassination attempt...

Without obvious answers at the ready, Americans are focusing on the culture of increasing vitriol in US politics...What's not being discussed, however, is that a fair amount of this violent language and imagery is coming from female politicians on the right..."

She offers the examples of Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle: "And in an interview with a local Nevada paper, Angle said: "The nation is arming … If we don't win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?"

Stephen Ducat, author of The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity, says that masculine and violent language is often used in elections and campaigns – especially by men on the right – because of a fear of being perceived as feminine. In a sexist society, what could be worse than being called a girl? So it doesn't seem unlikely that conservative female politicians feel the need to peddle their ideas in gendered and violent language in order to fit in with the masculinised right.

After all, the phrase – and sentiment – "man up" was one of the most popular in the 2010 elections. In the Colorado Senate primary, Republican Jane Norton accused her opponent of not being "man enough"; in the Delaware Senate primary, Republican Christine O'Donnell said that her opponent was "unmanly"; Angle told Harry Reid to "man up"; and Palin praised Republican Arizona Governor Jan Brewer as having "the cojones that our president does not have" to enforce immigration laws.

In a country that sees masculinity – especially violent masculinity – as the ideal, it's no wonder that this type of language resonates. But it's a sad state of affairs when women in politics have to resort to using the same gendered stereotypes that kept all women out of public service for so long. "

Apart from the mixed agendas within the feminist movement (which have always been present since the 1970s) or the loaded charge of sexism, the salient point here is one I've been thinking about since I first read this opinion piece a few days ago. We do seem to have gone backwards to a sense that physical force and the expression of uncontrolled violent emotions are the proper answer to almost everything. We've lost the sense that those with the courage to use peaceful means, or to struggle for reconciliation and take the hard messy path of resolving conflicts honestly but without violence, can be masculine role models--like Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy--as well as proper leaders of any gender, race, class or sexual preference.

It has become standard in the media to use vulgar terms and reductive, simplistic analysis to explain political positions and behavior that are not overtly confrontational. It then becomes easier for political opponents to make outrageous and insulting remarks, which also get widely reported and become part of the dialogue. This past campaign certainly was a humiliating example.

At a time when we need all the complexity of thought and feeling we can muster to face the complex and emotionally unusual crises that test the evolutionary fitness of human civilization, we seem to be falling back into habits and states of mind we worked hard to overcome, and thought we had. This is one more indication of that sorry prospect. It's also a further distortion of masculine virtues, for the young who are going to need them.

Alien Nation

Another angle from Robert Wright:

"Six months ago, police in California pulled over a truck that turned out to contain a rifle, a handgun, a shotgun and body armor. Police learned from the driver — sometime after he opened fire on them — that he was heading for San Francisco, where he planned to kill people at the Tides Foundation. You’ve probably never heard of the Tides Foundation — unless you watch Glenn Beck, who had mentioned it more than two dozen times in the preceding six months, depicting it as part of a communist plot to “infiltrate” our society and seize control of big business.

Note the parallel with Loughner’s case.... But it doesn’t matter who Loughner got the idea from or whether you consider it left wing or right wing. The point is that Americans who wildly depict other Americans as dark conspirators, as the enemy, are in fact increasing the chances, however marginally, that those Americans will be attacked.

In that sense, the emphasis the left is placing on violent rhetoric and imagery is probably misplaced. Sure, calls to violence, explicit or implicit, can have effect. But the more incendiary theme in current discourse is the consignment of Americans to the category of alien, of insidious other. Once Glenn Beck had sufficiently demonized people at the Tides Foundation, actually advocating the violence wasn’t necessary.

By the same token, Palin’s much-discussed cross-hairs map probably isn’t as dangerous as her claim that “socialists” are trying to create “death panels.” If you convince enough people that an enemy of the American way is setting up a system that could kill them, the violent hatred will take care of itself."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Except for the numerologically inclined--and a classical music radio host in desperate need of a theme to organize her broadcast hours--I'm not sure anyone took much notice of the 1/11/11 of today's date. Especially since it's been little more than a week since 1/1/11.

But I think these dates have more of a spooky novelty to those of us who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century, when they were less frequent. I remember Huntley-Brinkley noting 6/6/66 on the evening news--a rare departure from serious world affairs in those days, and with no mention of the Satanic tie-in left to our more enlightened age to discover. The next such date would have been 7/7/77, some 11 years later.

But that's the nature of numbers when the years get past 12, the number of months in the year. Whereas those born and/or bred in the 21st century, with its tiny numbers, are much more used to these symmetries, beginning with the century's first day (at least according to some) of 1/1/1. There's been at least one of these every year since. We'll have yet another this year, on 11/11/11. Then next year we'll have 12/12/12.

But then that'll be it for awhile. In fact, quite a while. Until February 2, 2022, if I'm not mistaken.

Guns and Madness

Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post:

"We may not be sure that the bloodbath in Tucson had anything to do with politics, but we know it had everything to do with our nation's insane refusal to impose reasonable controls on guns.

According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, about 80 percent to 90 percent of disqualifying mental health records are not in the background-check database. Some states simply don't bother to submit the information; others do so haphazardly. Arizona is neither the best nor the worst on this score.

We must recognize the obvious distinction between rifles, shotguns and target pistols used for sport on the one hand, and semiautomatic handguns designed for killing people on the other. We must decide that allowing anyone to carry a concealed weapon, no questions asked, is just crazy. And for heaven's sake, we must demand that laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of lunatics be enforced."

Senator Frank Lautenberg is being widely quoted today: "We don't have more madmen. We have more guns."

Well, we certainly have more guns.

And we give our madmen daily coast to coast radio and TV broadcasts.

Mourn This, Too

Michael Tomasky in the Guardian (writing from the U.S.):

"I would like to report to you that my nation is in shock, and that we will work together to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. Alas, neither of these things is close to true.

Of course an event like this is hard to believe in the moment; but in the context of our times, it's really not surprising at all. Last summer, a California man armed himself and set off for San Francisco with the express intent of killing liberals at a nonprofit foundation that had been pilloried by Glenn Beck and others. Only the lucky accident of his arrest en route for drunk driving prevented the mayhem then.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has documented more than two dozen killings by or arrests of rightwing extremists who intended to do serious political violence since 2008. One Tennessee man killed two worshippers at a liberal church, regretting only that he had not been able to ice the 100 liberals named by author Bernard Goldberg as those most responsible for destroying America. Giffords herself received threats after voting for the healthcare reform bill, and shots were fired through the window of her district office. An event like this has been coming for a long time."

Monday, January 10, 2011


The suspected shooter in the Arizona assassination attempt has appeared in federal court, and his photo is everywhere right now--except here. His flaring eyes and grin may demonstrate various things to various people, but to me they say that he's finally the center of attention he intended to be. And the media is giving him exactly what he wants, along with more incentive for others to copy his actions. But not here. Instead, a photo of Christina Green, killed by the bullets of his gun. She was nine years old, born on 9/11. I might add that four of the six people killed were over 60 years old. Four were uninvolved in politics except as citizens. 19 people were injured and will bear scars of various kinds for the rest of their lives. So while all eyes are on the eyes and personality of the perpetrator, I'm keeping my eyes on them.

Playing with Guns

Guns have become rhetorical toys. They are images played by politicians. They are sexy accessories in fashion layouts. They are weapons of mass entertainment. They virtually kill virtual hordes in nearly every video game children play.

Now we're supposed to be surprised that they kill people.

Today's Gail Collins notes that in a previous Gabrielle Giffords rally, a gun fell out of the pocket of a man carrying a Don't Tread on Me sign and bounced on the ground. Giffords dismissed it. Collins continues:

Back then, the amazing thing about the incident in the supermarket parking lot was that the guy with a handgun in his armpit was not arrested. Since then, Arizona has completely eliminated the whole concept of requiring a concealed weapon permit.

Today, the amazing thing about the reaction to the Giffords shooting is that virtually all the discussion about how to prevent a recurrence has been focusing on improving the tone of our political discourse. That would certainly be great. But you do not hear much about the fact that Jared Loughner came to Giffords’s sweet gathering with a semiautomatic weapon that he was able to buy legally because the law restricting their sale expired in 2004 and Congress did not have the guts to face up to the National Rifle Association and extend it."

People who play with guns play with the rhetoric of guns.

Today's Krugman makes these points:

"When you heard the terrible news from Arizona, were you completely surprised? Or were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?

It’s important to be clear here about the nature of our sickness. It’s not a general lack of “civility,” the favorite term of pundits who want to wish away fundamental policy disagreements. Politeness may be a virtue, but there’s a big difference between bad manners and calls, explicit or implicit, for violence; insults aren’t the same as incitement.

The point is that there’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.

And it’s the saturation of our political discourse — and especially our airwaves — with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence.

Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be “armed and dangerous” without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.

And there’s a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you’ll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won’t hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly, and you will."

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Fully Automatic

Gabrielle Giffords remains in critical condition after surgery. She was able to "respond to simple commands" when conscious, but doctors are not speculating on the ultimate outcome of this shooting. The FBI is in charge of the investigation of her shooting because she is a federal official, and its agents have found evidence of a planned assassination by the alleged shooter, 22 year old Jared Lee Loughner. The second "person of interest" turned out to be a cab driver not implicated in the shooting.

There is speculation that Loughner had ties to an anti-immigration group. If so, it is further evidence of that issue as a flashpoint in Arizona. On the same day Giffords was shot, the NY Times reported that the state of Arizona used a new state law to shut down a Latino literature class in a Tucson high school. According to the Times, "Mr. Acosta’s class and others in the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American program have been declared illegal by the State of Arizona — even while similar programs for black, Asian and American Indian students have been left untouched." The federal judge who was shot and killed as he greeted Gabrielle Giffords, John M. Roll, was slated to rule on the legality of this law.

Gabrielle Giffords won reelection this fall by a slim margin over a Tea Party Republican candidate Jesse Kelly. It came to light today that during the campaign Kelly held a campaign event at which supporters could shoot an assault rifle with him. The event was promoted with these words: Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.

This is the kind of rhetoric that has become acceptable in American politics. Whether you consider this dog whistle (or unconscious) promotion of violence, or a thoughtless and moronic exploitation of undifferentiated anger, or a cynical and dangerous attention-getting device, it never should have been given the tacit approval of mainstream politicians and media. While I thoroughly agree with Meteor Blades that there is no left-right equivalency on fomenting violence--a now standard tactic of the Rabid Right--using extreme rhetoric to gain attention or to inflate dissatisfaction with violent language has become far too ordinary. As an Arizona poster on Daily Kos has learned, when she or he wrote a diary criticizing Giffords' vote for someone other than Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader by saying that Giffords "is now dead to me" in its title. Extreme rhetoric has become even more standard on the Internet than in politics.

I do however differentiate satirical caricature, such as referring to the GOPers as death eaters, and the new Speaker of the House as Voldemort. But maybe I'm wrong on that. In any case, violent rhetoric from the Republican Right has become fully automatic, and fully accepted, at least until now. That, linked with the Republican Right's gun fetish, and the Democrats' politically calculated cowardice on at least keeping guns off the public streets--something that's been a universally accepted standard of civilization for at least a century--has created a dangerous brew. Among the five people killed in Tucson was a nine year old girl, who was born on September 11, 2001. Also killed was a 79 year old woman retiree, a Republican. The violence starts with unhinged perpetrators, but it doesn't necessarily stop there.