July 2008

Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Back in the day, I often wrote as many as four or five articles for an issue of the Spectacle. Today, I am happy to have the energy to write a single one.

Since each month I pick just one idea, and let others go by the boards, I decided to institute an episodic monthly column in which I can mention other thoughts in passing, throw out half-formed ideas, mention stuff which may not rate an article of its own, and name-check things which I hope to write about later.

The name, "Rags and Bones", is inspired by some lines from Yeats' "The Circus Animals' Desertion", arguably the greatest poem ever written in the English language:

Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

At age 53 (I was 41 when I started the Spectacle), I have the impression, similar to what Yeats was saying, of being a small organism which after years in the surf, has washed up on a beach where I've finally emerged from the spray and mists and can see a few things clearly.

"Rags and Bones" has a second meaning. This is my forum for ragging on and picking bones with people and institutions.

I have resisted making the Spectacle into a blog (a blog is a fragmented newsletter, updated irregularly, where in lieu of a fully formed essay, the author tends to give a few thoughts or facts with lots of links to other material). "Rags and Bones", with its somewhat random format, will make the Spectacle a little more blog-like.

OK, here goes.

The Supreme Court decision on guns, about which Bruce Clark writes in this issue. I have read the Second Amendment a few thousand times and still am not entirely certain about what the Framers intended by its ambiguous language:

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.

That said, I will admit that, applying the same common sense rules of interpretation I would apply to anything else, I think (reluctantly) the Supreme Court is probably right that the Second Amendment intends an individual right.

I think the amendment is badly written. Here is an analogy:

Clarity of expression being important to people generally, the weather is nice today.

If you said these words to me, I would respond with a thought process as follows: "Hmmm. There are two clauses. Each of them make sense individually. I am not sure what is intended by putting them together. The first clause is more general, the second more specific. Due to the use of "being" in the first clause and "is" in the second, my attention is drawn to the second clause as the more important. I will take the second clause as a simple statement of fact or intention, even though I am not sure what the speaker meant by attaching the first to it."

The fact that the statement about clarity and the weather constitutes a non sequitur does not undermine the fact that the sentence includes a clear, straightforward statement about the weather.

I look at the Second Amendment rather similarly. I wish the Framers had been a whole lot clearer. But if their intention was to say that only state militias had a right to guns, they could have said it much more simply. So I am forced to take the second clause, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed", as being as clear as "the weather is nice today."

All the rest is lawyering. I think my side of the issue--the pro-gun control side, or at least pro some gun control--has tried over the years to twist the Second Amendment to its own advantage. So Bruce, and the Supreme Court, are probably right.

I regret that the Framers decided to protect an individual right to guns. (Saying so in a public forum has earned me at least one credible death threat over the years, and a few less believable ones.) I think that the link between firearms and liberty is a whole lot less immediate than it seemed in the late 1700's, while the "collateral" damage--for example, rollerskating children killed by stray bullets during gang shootouts--is almost unbearable. But as the gun enthusiasts say, "That's just the price we pay for liberty."

Also in this issue: Tom Vincent's entertaining essay on foregoing elections and just appointing the richest person President. This is reminiscent of a piece I wrote in issue 1 of the Spectacle, January 1995, in which I proposed that we ban the spending of any money on political campaigns. Recently the Supreme Court threw out a "millionaire's exception" to the election finance laws, allowing candidates more room to move when their adversary is rich. On the face of it, these kinds of exceptions--writing generic laws to address very specific situations--tend to be ludicrous in design and almost impossible to enforce. Had the law stood, it was still a bandaid on a gushing wound. In the future, we will see more billionaire presidents, senators, mayors and such-like. On the one hand, such people, Bloomberg being a prime example, tend to be truly independent and not political hacks. On the other, the idea of having all of our social policy decided and carried out by billionaires, no matter how independent, is rather horrifying. As is the idea that in a supposedly egalitarian democracy, nobody can aspire to political office unless they inherit or amass billions first.

This week's third highlight, the discovery that the interrogation techniques used on Guantanamo prisoners were derived from a 1957 study in an armed forces journal of the techniques the Chinese used to elicit false confessions was both macabre and funny. I have to admit that up until now I believed that the CIA, howver brutal and misguided, wanted to elicit the truth from interrogees. Now I think we are living entirely in a film noir world, a la Maltese Falcon, where actual guilt or innocence are irrelevant and finding somebody to blame (take the fall) is everything.

Speaking of the Chinese, I was thinking the other day that my attitude towards them has for some time become quite benign. Certainly they don't threaten to nuke us, rant and rave, call for the death of our civilization. Instead, they are allies, trading with us, looking to introduce capitalism to their country without calling it that and without really democratizing. The more you think about the way things really work in China, though, the more alarmed you need to be. People who try to "speak truth to power" are still being arbitrarily jailed and beaten and sometimes still are killed. When did this become acceptable? I have been angry my whole life at countries who behave this way with US cognizance and support, including a wide selection of Latin American rightist dictatorships, the military junta in Greece, and present day Russia. Last night, my wife and I watched a movie I hadn't seen since 1969: Costa Gavras' "Z" in which dissidents are clubbed to death by nationalist goons encouraged and paid by the police. And I felt the same indignation I felt when I first saw it. When I tried to find a distinction between 1960's military-run Greece and present day China, I could not.

I can come up with a few theories about why I and other people might be more indulgent about China. First, there's the proposition that some people are just more indulgent of left wing dictatorships than right, or vice versa. I don't think I suffer from that particular bias; a claim of socialism has never excused state crimes and I don't believe that the end justifies the means, or that life is inherently better in a left wing vs. a right wing totalitarian state. (In fact, as a bourgeouis, I would personally make out better in the latter.) Secondly, there is the possibility that we rate countries based on their change over time. The China of today, while still brutal to dissidents, is nothing like the China of Mao, either in murder or rhetoric. Third, there may be a racist double standard for countries where "people just like me" (middle class Caucasians) are being beaten and killed (Chile in the 1970's) and countries which started so far behind the eight ball (huge populations of other ethnic groups, famine, no democratic tradition) that they can't really be expected to be democratic (how can you have a democracy in a country where there isn't enough to eat?) Fourth, and most important, there is the spin factor. Even people like me who believe they are free thinkers are vastly influenced by the tenor of the press. The Times covers China's bad behavior--today's first section had an article on a meeting of human rights campaigners with American politicians which was disrupted by the police. But even the Times reports these stories far differently than it does the misbehavior of North Korea. In the one case, you have the sense of a cruel crazy country run by a cruel, crazy man. The coverage of China is much softer, often with the sense that the cruelty is happening around the edges, that the government isn't causing it and will intervene to stop it, or that these are simply growing pains that the Chinese are encountering on their way to becoming Just Like Us.

OK, that's my first stab at a column. See you next time.