History Lesson

In the wake of the most recent spate of killings in a high school in Florida we hear once again the tired mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill  people.” The whole thing is brushed aside as a case of poor mental health. And while there is some truth in this, since anyone who walks into a school and starts shooting innocent teachers and students has to be clinically insane, it remains a fact that guns DO kill people and automatic weapons kill a great number of people in a very short time. Let us now hush the mantra and the mindless dismissal of real causes to consider the fact that there is hard evidence that tougher gun laws do, in fact, reduce the number of gun deaths. This has been shown in the case of both Japan and Australia.

Those who insist that the possession of an automatic weapon is a question of a Constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment need to read that amendment closely and consider the fact it was designed to protect the right of the militia to bear arms and that for two hundred years after the adoption of the Constitution federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by the Second Amendment was limited in these two ways:

“.  . .first, it applied only to the keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of the states or local governments to regulate the ownership of firearms.”

These are the words of retired Supreme Court judge John Paul Stevens who has written a book about the six amendments we need to incorporate into our Constitution. He goes on to point out that it wasn’t until very recently, 2008 in fact, that the tough gun laws that had been passed in this country to deter, for example, the sale of sawed-off shotguns and tommy guns to ordinary citizens were weakened somewhat when the Supreme Court, by a vote of five to four, decided in District of Columbia v.Heller that the second amendment protects a civilian’s right to keep a handgun in his home (not a tommy gun or an automatic weapon) for the purpose of self-protection. Then, as recently as 2010, by another vote of five to four, the Court decided in McDonald v. Chicago that the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limited the power of the city of Chicago to outlaw the possession of handguns by private citizens. Stevens was involved in the discussion of both of these cases and he dissented in each case. He notes that

“. . .nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacles to the adoption of preventive measures. . . . the Court had made it clear that even though machine guns were useful in warfare in 1939, they were not among the types of weapons protected by the Second Amendment because that protected class was limited to weapons in common use for lawful purposes like self-defense.”

In a word, Stevens reminds us that the Second Amendment was never designed to protect the presumed rights every Tom, Dick, and Sally to own and use weapons designed for warfare.  Stevens is convinced that the insertion of a brief clause in the wording of the Second Amendment might help clear this up. It would then read:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

That brief clause would make it crystal clear that the Amendment was designed to protect the right of those chosen to defend their country — in our case the National Guard — and not everyone else who now incorrectly makes the demand to own and use automatic weapons. The likelihood that this amendment would pass this Congress is very near to zero — given their obligation to the NRA and the gun manufacturers who got them elected and threaten them with the withdrawal of funding in their next political campaign, coupled with immense support for their opponent. Nonetheless, as Stevens points out, the states could pass tougher laws with no restrictions whatever from either the Constitution itself or possible legal precedents. Moreover, even at the federal level:

“. . . the Congress’ failure to enact laws that would expand the use of background checks and limit the availability of automatic weapons cannot be justified by reference to the Second Amendment or to anything the Supreme Court has said about that amendment.”

It is assuredly the case that the availability of guns does not, in itself, remain the main cause of the insane spate off shootings in this country. Guns alone are not the sufficient condition, as logicians say, of the gun deaths. But they remain the necessary condition in that if there were no guns there could be no gun deaths. And while the right to bear arms for self-defense and the shooting of game might be seen as protected by the Second Amendment of our Constitution, the possession of automatic weapons clearly is not.

It is time, indeed, past time, that we stop all the mindless drivel and pass laws that will take the guns out of the hands of those who are, admittedly, not fully aware of what it is they are doing, by making it impossible for them to purchase automatic weapons at the very least.

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Our Disenchanted World

My previous blog post, the latest in a series about the Death of God, fell on deaf ears for the most part. I am not surprised given the nature of the topic; it is not a popular one. But, then (while I was a bit disappointed to see the lack of response from the two or three readers I tend to count on) many of the topics I choose to write about are not of the popular variety. I realized some time ago that if I wanted to assure that those who “follow” me continue to do so, or if I were intent to increase the numbers of followers, I should write more cheerful posts. But I must tell it as I see it, and from where I sit there is not much to cheer about these days, though I will continue to look and to laugh whenever possible in order to maintain some semblance of sanity.

In any event, I have spoken about the Death of God, by which I mean the disenchantment of our world. I have asked that in order to better understand our current angst we contrast our world with Western Europe during the  Middle Ages. That was a time when to protect themselves against life’s uncertainties the typical man or woman carried talismans, amulets, charmed stones, magical writings, and almost certainly the “agnus dei” or a crude cross made of wood. He or she memorized prayers and magic spells to suit a variety of circumstances. They did not distinguish between these charms and the icons and prayers in Latin they heard in church — all of which they hoped would alleviate their fears and pain. As Carolly Erickson told us in The Medieval Vision:

“. . .the availability of occult and religious counter-forces prevented a sense of hopelessness, and made possible a certain accommodation between the visible and the invisible worlds. And the Church, while condemning certain (by no means all) occult knowledge, in practice cooperated actively in this  accommodation.”

More to the point, these charms gave those people a sense of certainty in an uncertain world. Typically, medieval men and women spent time each day in Church and most, if not all, of Sunday. They were all-too happy to risk life and limb in building cathedrals despite the fact that those who worked on them, if they survived, rarely ever saw them completed in their brief lifetime. The point is that theirs was an enchanted world of miracles, mystery and authority. These elements provided them with an anchor in a world that otherwise held out only threats of suffering and violent death. Everything meant more than it seemed to as we can see from Dante’s Divine Comedy which has as many layers of meaning as an onion: everything was a symbol of something else. They trusted their eyes less than they did their deeply held convictions about what was real and what was not.

We, on the other hand, have rejected all three, miracle, mystery, and authority. We reject truth and even legitimate authority in the name of personal opinion which we believe to be infallible. We have embraced scientism (please note the spelling. I don’t speak of science, but of the conviction that the scientific way of knowing is the ONLY way of knowing: if a thing cannot be measured, weighed or poured into graduated cylinders it cannot possibly be known) and we have rejected miracles and mystery in the process.

Thus, to return to my main argument, our disenchanted world is considerably less certain, reassuring, and comforting than the medieval world — despite the very real threats and dangers in that world — because we are alone in a labyrinth of our own creation, having rejected anything that might provide comfort and succor. We are too sophisticated to believe in what we cannot see and our intellectual community, at any rate, finds it difficult to discuss theological or religious questions since this is a sure sign of naiveté and heaven knows we don’t want to be thought to be naïve. Better to lose ourselves in literary theory, postmodern gobble-de-gook, alternative facts, political correctness, or, as a last resort in those electronic toys that give us a sense that we are all-powerful when, in fact, we are becoming slaves to those very toys.

We cannot recover the world view of medieval men and women. It is not only impossible, but also almost certainly not to be recommended. But at the same time, it might be wise to open our eyes and look again at our world, accept that there are things in heaven and earth that cannot be known by science and the empirical method, mysteries that lie beneath the surface of what we call “reality.” This is not to deny scientific truth — that would be absurd and something we shall leave to the politicians. It’s to acknowledge the limitations of scientific method and allow for the possibility that there is a great deal we do not know; in order to begin to learn about it we need to put our toys aside, read what has been written by the great minds that have preceded us, talk to one another, and think deeply about what things mean and where we are headed.

 

As Things Now Stand

Anyone who has attempted to understand our contemporary malaise, as I have for many years now, must begin with the death of God. This is an uncomfortable topic and one that is dismissed by many. But if we contrast our current ethos with that of, say, the medieval period, it is clear that God plays a very small part in the lives of the vast majority of people in the West, at the very least. I have blogged about this from time to time and will not repeat here what I have already said. But a passage in one of Dostoevsky’s major works, written in his maturity, raises the issue anew.

Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky was aware, toward the end of the nineteenth century, that he was living in a new age, an age in which God was no longer the viable force He had been during the Dark Ages when faith was paramount, the Cathedrals were being built and, as it has been said, there were no atheists.

In any event, Dostoevsky’s novel The Adolescent (previously translated as Raw Youth), brings Arcady Makarovich and his father Andrei Petrovich Versilov together toward the end of what is a rather long prelude as the novel nears its conclusion. Arcady’s father is imparting his wisdom and while doing so reflects on the godless age in which they are living and imagines what he calls a “fantasy” in which those who once loved God now turn toward nature and toward one another and embrace their fellow humans, “. . . each would tremble for the life and happiness of each.”

“The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state, and it would be with a special love now, not as formally.”

To prepare us for this insight, we are told that

“. . .after the curses, the mudslinging and whistling, a calm comes and people are left alone as they wished: the former great idea has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them till then is departing, like the majestic, inviting sun . . ., but it already seemed like the last day of mankind. And people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy. . . .I have never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid. The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly. . .”

Indeed, neither the narrator not the author himself can think of people as “ungrateful and grown stupid.” But apparently they are. While Dostoevsky drew on his five years of imprisonment in Siberia and his tortured existence before reaching the autumn of his life, he was convinced that humans have a deep need to love and in finding themselves unable to love God any more — after the curses and mudslinging — they would turn to nature and to one another. Without the ability to draw on that experience myself, I find it difficult to say that people have, in fact, turned to one another and to nature. Their need to love, which I cannot deny, seems to have turned upon itself. Humans exploit and destroy nature for their own purposes, ignore one another, and find themselves alone in a labyrinth with no one to love but themselves. Or is it because they love themselves that they are alone in the labyrinth? It is not clear. But either way, Dostoevsky’s “fantasy” is just that. It is wishful thinking on the part of a brilliant and deeply pious mind.

I do not share the man’s brilliance. Nor do I share his deep piety. In any event, from where I sit I see only a perverted love of self that has taken the place of a deep and abiding love of something greater than the self, something “out there” that takes the person out of himself or herself and into a world of wonder and joy — and hope. This may be a mistake on my part, but if it is even partially true it would help explain our current state of mind, our collective anxiety, our sense of despair that is so deep that we would, in this country at any rate, choose an ignorant and callous man, a man who exudes hatred from every pore, to lead us to a brighter place

 

Huck’s Values

In an otherwise insightful introduction to a new edition of five of Mark Twain’s finest novels, Elizabeth Boyle Machlan, Ph.D., makes a fundamental error. She begins with Huck’s fairly long reflection about whether he did the right thing to lie in order to save the runaway slave Jim:

“I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up, would you feel better than you do now? No, says I. I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do the right thing when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that.

Commenting on this passage, Machlan, Ph.D., tells us that:

“Through Huck, Twain reveals the relativity of right and wrong in a fundamentally unjust society.”

In fact, this passage from Huckleberry Finn does not show the “relativity of right and wrong.” On the contrary it shows the universal nature of certain values, such values as friendship and loyalty and perhaps even true justice. While the boy has been brought up to believe that black men and women are inferior to whites and as slaves they are property that should be returned to their owners, he senses that this is simply quite wrong. That is to say, he is not simply a product of what sociologists like to call “enculturation” since he rejects those values he has been brought up to espouse in favor of a deeper sense that it would be quite simply wrong to turn Jim over to the authorities. Lying is wrong, to be sure, (and he feels bad about that), but telling the truth in this case would be much worse, especially if it means giving up your friend.

It is possible that Twain is embracing the ideas of natural human sympathy that were “in the air” at the time, originating in Scotland and finding their way into the thinking of such diverse thinkers as David Hume and Adam Smith. This was the notion that there is a strong bond of human sympathy that holds us together. We naturally care about other human beings, even if we don’t know them and even if they are on the other side of the planet. Smith thought this sympathy would keep the capitalist from becoming overly wealthy at the cost of exploiting those who worked for him (!). In any event, we don’t know whether Twain embraced those ideas. But he did sense, as did Huckleberry that there is something more valuable than the value of property ownership that demands the return of slaves fleeing for their lives.

Rather than demonstrate the “relativity” of values, then, Twain is demonstrating the transcendental nature of certain values, what philosophers are inclined to call the “objectivity” of values. Huck Finn is not simply a young boy raised in Missouri to believe that blacks are inferior to whites. He is a sensitive young boy who prizes the friendship that has grown between himself and Jim the slave. He cannot give him up. To do so would bother his conscience at least as much as lying to save his friend’s life.

We do live in a relative age, an age in which we insist that values are relative to individuals or, at best, to  cultures. But Twain is asking us to consider the possibility that there are values that transcend those cultures and which are deeper and more precious — more valuable, if you will. Society, or culture, does not dictate what we hold to be true and false, good or bad. It helps us learn to think about such things and teaches us much about what is and is not important. But while we might be influenced (some more than others) by society, it does not follow that our values are determined by society. Huck Finn, like Socrates, Jesus, and even thinkers such as Edith Wharton, are evidence of individuals who have seen beyond the values of their culture and have embraced deeper values, “objective” values, values that transcend any given culture and are much more difficult to cast aside in a crisis.

Thus, Dr. Machlan is mistaken. She may know a great deal about Mark Twain. But she doesn’t understand the true nature of Huck Finn’s dilemma or, indeed, the nature of objective values that are not to be identified with the values that a particular culture espouses and teaches its young — if, indeed, it bothers to teach the young about values at all. Certain values simply are not relative — not to individuals and not to cultures. Huck sensed that and that is why we think of him as an extraordinary young man and admire his honesty, loyalty, friendship, and good sense.

In The Shadows

Should you find yourself driving about in Southwest Minnesota, you might elect to follow one of the smooth, paved roads that snakes along the Minnesota River until it suddenly turns into a gravel road deep in the trees that remain near the river; at that point you might find a country house a couple of hundred yards down the gravel road just off to the right with a large black dog cavorting about the front yard. The owner of that house loves that dog, his seclusion, his wife and family (especially his tiny granddaughter in far-off Chicago), his university’s volleyball team, many (not all) of his students, and the writers he has chosen over the years to support in so many ways.

I don’t usually write blog posts about personal matters, much less about my friends. In general, I avoid the personal out of an acquired preference for the ideational, the abstract and general. At present, however, I choose to write about a good friend of mine who is watching his dog Harley chase a rabbit.

His name is Dave and he teaches at the university about thirty miles South of his home near the river in a department of English that is slowly dying a painful death as are so many English departments in universities and colleges around this wonderful country of ours. Like the other Humanities programs in the university it is giving way before the onslaught of the bean-counters who prefer to fund more “marketable” programs of study that will prepare young people for the work force so they can be successful in the only sense of that word Americans recognize.

Dave does love his sports and is an avid supporter of the university’s volleyball team, one of the very best in the entire country as it happens, despite the fact that the university itself is a tiny spot in the vast ocean of collegiate athletics and is virtually unknown. I know whereof I speak because I once coached women’s tennis at the university and despite our success as one of the better teams in the country within a couple of years of my retirement we were almost totally forgotten. Well, that’s not entirely true, because Dana, another good friend of mine, a former sports reporter and then editor of the Marshall Independent, wrote a book about the university’s tennis team in those glory days and Dave had it published.

And this brings us to that most remarkable feature of Dave’s activities. Not only does he teach at the university, support its women’s sports teams, and watch with an ache in his heart as his formerly vibrant academic department dwindles away, he also publishes books. This reflects his love of reading and his high regard for those who write, which should also include Dave himself except that he is not given to self-promotion (unlike so many his contemporaries) and prefers to keep his candle hidden under a bushel. As an author he has written a great many books of both prose and poetry and as a publisher he has published a number of important writers and was, indeed, the first to publish the writings of Bill Holm — a man who acquired a national and even an international reputation before his untimely death not long ago. Dave cannot for the life of him market the books he publishes successfully as he tends to ignore that aspect of the publishing trade. He’s no businessman, and I say that with affection. So the books pile up in cupboards, empty rooms, and empty buildings here and there about his place. But he does pride himself on the quality of the work he has published and well he should.

Sad though it is, it bears mentioning that his prowess both and an author and as a publisher of important literary works is almost totally ignored by those around him — including those at the university where he works among the bean-counters. Like other similar institutions of “higher learning,” the university is caught up in the numbers game, watching the bottom line, waiting for it to come to life or at least show a pulse. It has no time for recognition of those who deserve to be recognized and even lauded.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that a man who loves words and is very good with them is ignored by those around him in their preoccupation with the business at hand — whatever that happens to be. In any event, he deserves to be applauded for the things he does, for supporting promising writers, for his love of teaching, and for his staunch support for the women’s teams at his university who hear him shout out from the stands, often nearly empty when the hapless women’s basketball team is playing, willing them on to better days — and bringing them shiny medals from Mongolia or Germany when they win.

So I felt it worth taking a few minutes to write about my friend whom I meet with once a week, when we can, to “vent,” share points of view, and have a drink or two at the local public house. Exceptional people deserve to be recognized even when they choose to hide in the shadows.

Forget About It!

I have blogged in the past about our country’s anti-intellectualism which is glaringly obvious and has been commented upon by numerous others. I refer to our increasing determination to deny the higher purpose of the human mind, its capacity to achieve order, inclusiveness, and coherence. Our country was founded by practical people who were busy building lives in a new country. Following those early years we seem to have attracted a great many people, with notable exceptions, who were convinced that such things as education were esoteric and not really worth the time or attention they received in Europe, for example. Following those early years, we have seen increasingly pragmatic people who have narrowed their focus on the here and now and such things as the making of profits. Today, as I have noted on numerous occasions, we have reduced everything to the business model, including religion and education. The human mind now simply calculates profit and loss — or checks out social media.

There were exceptions, as noted, and one of those exceptions was Thomas Jefferson who in his Notes on the State of Virginia proposed a system of public education for all (boys) that would be capped off by several years at his university where the very best and brightest would be given the best possible classical education then available.

Interestingly, even in the three primary grades of his proposed public education, Jefferson did not stress such things as reading, writing, and figuring. He thought those things were a given — all kids learned them at home. In the very early years he advocated more substantive subject matters, such as history. The memories of young children were to be

“. . .stored with the most useful facts of Greek, Roman, European, and American history. . . .History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge the future; it will avail them of the experiences of other times and actions; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Jefferson was clearly in the minority, since history has never been the strong suit of American schools and by the time of the intellectual rebellion in the 1960s of the last century history was rejected by student radicals as “irrelevant.” It has now been removed from the basic core requirements of the majority of American colleges and universities and many high schools as well. Henry Ford thought it “bunk,” a sentiment taken up by Huxley in his Brave New World in which his citizens were nothing more than ignorant pleasure-seekers. Young American men captured in Korea during that “police action” were easily programmed to take anti-American half-truths as the whole truth because they were ignorant of their own history. Moreover, many of those who teach, even today, insist that the teaching of such things as “facts” is a waste of time when, indeed, facts are the building blocks of thought and like it or not they must be learned if thinking is to take place. Without those blocks thinking and speaking are merely gobble-de-gook — as we can tell by reading or listening to our Fearless Leader. And history is the subject best able to prepare the young to be “judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Santayana famously said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and we have seen how true that is. But in Jefferson’s program outlined above there are other elements that also deserve to be considered. For one thing, he is advocating what might be called a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest rise, like cream, to the top. Borrowing from Plato, he thought the preservation of our Republic depended on this. Education was the key. The Republic, if it was to be successful must attract the best and brightest to the halls of power to make the important decisions regarding the correct path the country should follow. We have no idea how that might have worked because we have never really committed ourselves to the education of all citizens as Jefferson would have us do. Job training, yes. Education, no. And our anti-intellectual sentiments lead a great many people to regard a liberal education, for example, as “elitist,” a citadel of social privilege, if you will. In fact, a liberal education is one that would provide the very best possible foundation for anyone with a mind to make important decisions and be aware of the forces that operate around them — forces that threaten to imprison them in chains of bias and ignorance and overwhelm them with such things as “alternative facts.”

We pay a huge price for our ignorance, not only of the past which we blindly ignore, but also of such things as science and mathematics which enable us to better understand the world around us and make sense of things. Jefferson’s was a pipe-dream, many would say, though he rested his hopes for the future of his beloved Republic on that base. And my dream of a liberal education for all — which owes its origin to such thinkers as Jefferson and Plato, among others — is also a pipe dream. I have kicked this poor, dead horse so many times my foot is numb (and the damned horse simply will not budge). But we might do well to recall that one of the founders of this nation who had high hopes for a free country of free minds once outlined a program for maintaining freedom in the years to come. And in ignoring his admonition to educate (not train) all citizens we may well have made ourselves a bed of thorns upon which we now must sleep. If we can.