an open letter to my representatives in congress

Dear Honorable X:

In the wake of the mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, I am writing to ask you to begin each day by reading to the Senate the text of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and to ask the people’s representatives to think hard about its meaning — and then pass meaningful legislation regulating the ownership of assault weapons.

Despite his all-too-frequently announced “reverence” for the “original meaning” of the Constitution, Justice Scalia effectively wrote out of the constitution the first clause of the 2nd Amendment. And so we find ourselves where we are today.

The language of the Amendment is clear:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Sure, the language is a bit archaic and awkward, but, really, are you confused by what it says? The right to bear arms is specifically grounded in the need of the state for a well-regulated militia.

Only a member of a well-regulated militia, acting to preserve the security of a free state, needs a weapon whose only purpose is to kill as many people as possible as fast as possible. Only members of a well-regulated militia should be permitted to possess — or bear — such a weapon.

Many factors may contribute to mass shootings. But the guns are what make them possible and lethal.

It is time to restore the meaning of the full text of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution — and to reject the paranoid fantasies of those who believe they need a personal arsenal to protect themselves from their own government.

A free society has to be more than a society in which everyone goes about armed to the teeth — and where children are sent to school wearing body armor.

Be More

more than mere words

What does a text — particularly a venerated text — mean? Is it’s meaning to be found in the individual words that comprise the text? A disagreement concerning the meaning of those words will not be resolved by appeal to dictionary definitions, not by making the meaning of the whole a matter of assembling the meaning of each clause considered individually. In Madison’s Music, Burt Neuborne asks us to read the first amendment to the constitution of the United States broadly, with close attention not to the words that comprise it but rather the subject of the text: the promotion of democratic government. But what is democratic government? Not simply the expression of the will of the people, which is too easily confused with majority rule and which is all-too-often inchoate. Nor is the purpose of democratic government a strategy for picking the correct answer on a multiple-choice test. Democratic government is the discernment of the common good.

Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech,
or of the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the Government
for a redress of
grievances.

What Newborne asks us to do is to read the text in its entirety. To read the text slowly, without assuming we already know its meaning and that reading is merely arguing for that meaning. To read the text as posing a question or series of closely related and difficult questions that we need to answer anew each time we read it.

scientism and moralism

Patricia Churchland recently gave a Gifford Lecture on Morality and the Mammalian Brain. It leaves me wondering what the argument is. Anyone who has read Midgley or Tallis (or a number of other philosophers and scientists) recognizes that human behavior, by definition, has a biological basis, but that biology is not the entire story. How does all of this information alter the way we pose moral questions, the way we reach moral judgements, or the moral judgements that we make? 

My answer is “not at all”.

disgrace and repentance

′It is all too easy to be sorry for bad behavior. To feel sorrow. Repentance is not, as James McCourt wrote of love, a feeling — or what is said about feeling repentant. It is an act. To speak is to act, to do something with words. But speech (language) as Coetzee both says and shows, can evade the demand for action, intentionally or not. To speak is to act. What we speak may be false.

What I feel is just as prone to being false, being wrong in both senses of the word, as what I say … as what I think. It is a difficult business, being correct about what we think and what we feel — and, at a remove, what we say about what we think and what we feel,

David Lurie insists on ‘his own terms’ … which is both a virtue and a failing. It is not possible to be disgraced ‘on my own terms’. To be embarrassment at not living up to my own ideals is certainly possible and familiar — but that is not the same thing as experiencing disgrace. Why, then, does a person, acting in accordance with what s/he thinks is demanded ‘by his own terms’, experience disgrace? If I experience disgrace, more broadly shame, the reason necessarily involves a desire to be a part of (not the desire to be apart from) society — including those parts of society that are an embarrassment to my own tastes.

I can also experience disgrace, and feel shame, when I am aware of the actions of others long dead and only distantly (if at all) related to me (within the conventional meaning of the term). Shame and repentance … like grief … are permanent conditions, feelings we cannot evade and that cannot be confined to a single generation, a single time, or a single place. To be human is to be able to feel as my own shame for the actions of others, and to accept, as a question that I must answer: and then what?

• • •

Thoughts provoked after reading and marking, and while inwardly digesting, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. The review in the London Review of Books (‘Like a Dog’ by Elizabeth Lowry) is very useful. (OK. So I’m an American pragmatist.)

Selected passages:

… this is not the time or place to go into substantial issues. What we should do … is clarify procedure. (p. 41)

… What goes on in my mind is my business not yours, Farodia. … Frankly, what you want from me is not a response but a confession. Well, I make no confession. I put forward a plea. Guilty as charged. (p. 51)

… I have said the words for you, now you want more, you want me to demonstrate sincerity. That is preposterous. That is beyond the scope of the law. (p. 55)

… we went through the repentance business yesterday. … Before that secular tribunal I pleaded guilty, a secular plea. That plea should suffice. Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse. (p. 58)

… So you stood your ground and they stood theirs. Is that how it was? (p.66)

… That’s not true. You are a soul. We are all souls. We are souls before we are born. (p. 79)

… His own terms: what are they? … A shadow of grief falls over him: for Katy, alone in her cage, for himself, for everyone. (p. 79)

… You keep misreading me. Guilt and salvation are abstractions. I don’t act in terms of abstractions. Until you make an effort to see that, I can’t help you. (p. 112)

… But you weren’t there, David. She told me. You weren’t. (p. 140)

… I am sure they tell themselves many things. It is in their interest to make up stories that justify them. (p. 158)

… he can, if he concentrates, if he loses himself, be there, be the men, inhabit them, fill them with the ghost of himself. The question is, does he have it in him to be the woman? (p. 160)

… Stitched together in this way, the story unrolls without shadows. (p. 170)

… we are all sorry when we are found out. Then we are very sorry. The question is not, are we sorry? The question is, what are we going to do now that we are sorry? (p. 172)

… As for God, I am not a believer, so I will have to translate what you call God and God’s wishes into my own terms. … Is it enough for God, do you think, that I live in disgrace without term? (p. 172)

… I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. (p. 205)

… If Pollux insults his daughter again, he will strike him again. Du musst dein Leben ändern. Well, he is too old to heed, too old to change. Lucy may be able to bend to the tempest; he cannot, not with honour. (p. 209)

… Yes, I am giving him up. (p. 220)

Coetzee as a ‘post-modernist’ author: writing fiction after Derrida.

death, disability, disappearance

I returned this past weekend to Temendia, to clean out the kitchen cabinets, haul boxfuls of paper, unsalvageable kitchen wares and cardboard (boxes of boxes) to the recycling center, drop off at Goodwill disused clothes for which no one who remains here, in Temendia, has any use. It stimulated useful, if far from original, reflection on impermanence and the pathos of the struggle to hold on to a sense of selfhood. (Whether that sense of selfhood is sensible, or not, is another question.)

All that stuff — nine largely unused boxes of Kleenex, all opened with only a sheet or two snatched out; cabinets crowded with empty jam jars, pickle jars, jars from salad dressing, mason jars; a surprisingly large number of wearable but seldom worn clothes in storage beneath the bed, unworn because forgotten; baskets full of birthday and holiday cards from friends and family members spanning years, many with annotations (‘replied May 9’, ‘send a thank-you note’); odd bits of writing on scraps of paper; folders of newspaper articles and excerpts from books that I had thought might interest her; recipes created for her, long since cooked and eaten but documented for future reference — all that stuff is a far from mute testimony to the tense, anxious, relentless effort to preserve a life, a sense of self, against the relentless erosion of progressing disability. (The life to be preserved: no mere appearance of a life, but the lived experience of a certain way of life. The testimony not mute if you stop to listen and let yourself hear, if you stop to look and let yourself see.)

I miss her terribly — recognizing all the while that “it is Madeline you mourn for.”

the end of politics

In 1969 Theodore Lowi published The End of Liberalism. His critique of the ‘liberal’ policies and ambitions of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society brilliantly identified the tensions that threatened social order and seemed to defeat the liberal project itself. But today we seem to have reached the end of politics, both the vacuity of political rhetoric and its incapacity to engage the pressing issues of our times but also raising the essential questions of what the purposes of politics might be. The events in Scotland seem to demonstrate the real need for a vital political dialog and the failure of our political institutions and so-called leaders to respond to those demands in any meaningful way. And as Molly Ball writes in the Atlantic, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president reveals the inability of politicians on the United States to practice politics.

piling sweater upon sweater

The image of a snake shedding its skin seems a useful way of framing different notions of the self.

The common, everyday notion of the self (the notion implicit in the casual use of “I”) implicitly posits the self as standing slightly outside momentary experience, an observer of events, including the event of itself observing its own participation in that momentary experience. This implicit (and more-or-less unconscious) notion underlies a more ‘essentialist’ concept of the self: the ‘real me’ that ties that not-quite-endless stream of momentary experiences together into a continuous life. (Not-quite-endless because it has a starting point, however fuzzy, and an apparent end point, also more than a little fuzzy.)

A similar view invokes an architectural image: Over the course of my life, I tinker with the expression of my ‘essential’ self. It may start as a simple structure — Thoreau’s one-room cabin at Walden Pond. I add a room, build an entire wing, remodel what I have built, redecorate, furnish the rooms to serve my current activities, dispose of furnishings for which I no longer have a use — or which are no longer to my taste. But always somewhere within that elaborated structure there remains the ghost of that original cabin. The additions are just accretions around it. Just as somewhere within ‘me’ there is a self that decides what ‘I’ will be now or next.

The snake as it grows simply sloughs off and leaves behind its outermost self — although its core continues on its way (larger and potentially with the marks of its experience etched more deeply into its flesh).

My own skin, that apparent boundary between my physical ‘self’ and the outer world, is constantly being lost — so imperceptibly that it is seldom noticed. The more visible, but no more permanent, boundary is something I construct (or purchase) — the clothes, the costume, the ‘drag’ I ‘put on’ before venturing out into the world. (And I assume a costume even when I venture no farther than my own living room, with no company other than my own thoughts.)

My personality, too, is a mask (persona) that I put on to present an appropriate face to others — or to myself when I look in the mirror. (Not all mirrors are on the wall. My mind’s eye, gazing upon itself, is an ever-present  mirror. The field of vision does not encompass the eye itself, but still the eye ‘sees’ itself.).Costume seems a better image of the personality than a mask. A sweater (or a pair of jeans or a suit and tie) is more ordinary, more casual, more an everyday image of the person I want others to see — and how I want to see myself in my mind’s eye.

The trouble began when I started to hold on to each sweater, each shirt, each costume as truly being the person I am — here, now, always. I become attached to my old clothes. The sweaters pile up. Unlike the snake which slithers off, leaving its old skin behind, I layer one sweater over another … over another … over another … and haul about with me wherever I go an accretion of ‘characters’ whose times have come and most certainly have passed.

My closet overflows.

walking • 1

Walking around my neighborhood with my only destination being the place where I started (“in my beginning is my end”), with no purpose beyond exercise. Traveling from point A to point A. Discovering the indefinite distances contained in the 4200 meters that separate those two points.

I looked for water, and found C. Musonius Rufus. I lost him, I think, in the galleys coming out …

It took many years of unconcerted effort to lose myself. Lose? Or to bundle myself in layer upon layer of outerwear. Unlike a snake that sheds its skin as it ages, I have merely added layer on top of layer.

Walking through the falling urban night, I start to experience the world outside my skin (the sounds of the city in the deepening evening, the sound of people walking alongside or past me, the sound of people talking, of traffic idling or rushing past, of wind blowing through the trees in which the insects sing) — and the world inside my skin (the straining of muscles too little used, the feel of the soles of my feet rhythmically striking the pavement through the cushioning of shoes, the rise and fall of breathing, waves of tension in back, neck and face).

Who or what experienced that walk?