Oh, the constitution, that immutable and unchangeable avatar of rights and righteousness. These rights shall not be infringed. These rights shall not be qualified or contained. These rights must remain immutable, and the alternative is unthinkable. Yet is not the death of school children equally unthinkable? Not, it seems, equally.
There are people who think tighter, more sensible gun control is one of many solutions to the death of children. At least 60% of America, as it happens. If you ask about specific policies, such as stricter background checks, even more of us agree: to possess weapons are a right, but it should be a well-regulated right, not a free-for-all.
Agreement does not lead to action. Agreement creates a great body of followers, willing to go along with a thing, but unlikely to champion it. By and large, Americans want more control over guns. The problem is not with the public unwillingness to agree, but with the champions.
I have been pulled over. I have been in accidents. In both cases, I have interacted with the police. Once I was pulled over for speeding at 1am, which I was, because I missed the transition from 55 to 30. I was doing 60 in a 30, and the cop said “you don’t have a record in New Hampshire, so I’m going to give you a ticket for 45mph instead.” I certainly didn’t fear for my safety.
Once I was pulled over for doing 65 in a 45, along with a dozen other cars, because the police had camped out at the speed limit transition just over a hill, and I didn’t slow down fast enough. It wasn’t fair, but I wasn’t in danger.
Once I was pulled over for doing 37 in a 25, because it was raining and foggy and I missed the sign. I tried to explain that. The cop was surly, and wrote me a ticket for 40 in a 25 instead, and claimed on the ticket that the weather was “clear and dry,” and was definitely punishing me for doing anything other than meekly agreeing with him. But I wasn’t afraid—just annoyed.
Whenever the state yields to a smaller, less powerful group, we are tempted to cry “victory.” And this is what many of us are doing now that the state has declined to permit the current route for the Dakota Access Pipeline. To some extent, it is a victory; it is, at least, a short respite in a conflict that has been escalating for months. So, in this moment to breathe, I think it worthwhile to discuss what this moment tells us about violence and the use of force.
The use of force is held in monopoly by the state and by the powerful. Where the powerful conflict with the state, the use of force is accepted on both sides and moderated by the state. Where the interests of the powerful and the state overlap, their use of force is ignored. Where the weak and the powerful conflict, the use of force by the powerful is ignored, and the use of force by the weak is considered heinous.
Consider another case: we claim, in our constitution, that the right to bear arms is a right of all people, yet the constitution was written for white men. If you are a black man, your supposed right to bear arms is supplanted by the state’s right to kill you for doing so. And even if you are a sovereign nation, like the Standing Rock Sioux, your right to the most basic exercise of force (in this case, non-violent blockade is treated as a use of force) is supplanted by the state’s right to use force against you.
So I would like to consider, for a moment, what a temporary victory like this costs in our society.
There are a bunch of people out there right now who want to tell you “support the police” and “blue lives matter.” Many of these people also say slightly more nuanced things like “there is more crime in black neighborhoods so police are needed there” or “there are a few bad apples, but the police need the freedom to act” or “black people would be safe in encounters with the police if they just do what the police tell them.”
But all of those phrases have a missing word, right there at the end where it matters the most.
People lie. People lie pretty much all the time—but most of those lies aren’t the sort of lies that matter. They are untruths that we expect and reinforce socially. They are lies that are, in a sense, required.
“How are you today?”
“Fine, how are you?”
I have trouble with things like that because I always want to answer truthfully. It took me a while to accept that it’s not a real question so much as a script, and that the answer is part of the script, and that because the answer doesn’t convey real information, it isn’t really untrue. It’s not really a lie. I may not be fine, but if I say that I am, that’s fine.
That’s a lie that isn’t really a lie, repeated for the benefit of a social script. We like social scripts, and they make us feel better. They make us feel like we understand the world. But there are lies we tell ourselves, too. There are social scripts we repeat to ourselves, and others, that are deeply, fundamentally, untrue. And while most of us know that “fine” doesn’t really cover it when the lie is about ourselves, it’s easy to forget that the scripts don’t really cover it about anyone else, either.
Especially if they have a different experience. And especially if the script is a script for those of us with social privileges. Like, say, if you’re white.
This is too bloody to be peace. Every week, nearly every day, this does not feel like peace. And yet, if this is war, who is the enemy? We all seem to be searching, and many of us claim to have found that enemy—but our claims don’t agree.
We say the enemy is Isis, and yet so many of these killings are committed by our own people. We say the enemy is Muslims, and yet Muslims are dying with everyone else. We say the enemy is the police, and yet the police are dying. And black people are dying. And LGBTQ+ people are dying, and poor people are dying, and immigrants are dying, and women are dying, and we are all dying, but the marginalized among us bear the greatest weight of it.
And they bear our hate, and they bear the full weight of that.
At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.
This one, though, is a little bit different. Usually I put the things I’ve read into categories only and leave it for you to decide which you’d like to look at. This time I’ve put them in an order that reflects things I want to say about the tragedy of this month, but better than I could, and all together more clearly. Continue reading →
It hasn’t been a good week. You wouldn’t think much could be worse than a hate-motivated mass shooting against LGBTQ people who had gathered just to be themselves; but the killer also claimed to have been driven by an ideology of hate, inspired by a small segment of religion that hates people for not thinking the same things they do. And it isn’t just ISIS that does that, because there are large swathes of American Christianity and American Politics that say the same thing. So it was a bad start to the week.
And then something worse happened: while many people were still wrestling with how to think and feel and support each other and understand this attack, while many people were wondering if they were safe or if their friends were safe, a lot of people started saying horrible things. These people started saying things steeped in judgment, scorn, and self-righteousness. They buried the dead under a series of disproven talking points, and they buried the living right along with them.
Horror is all too common of late. It indicts us, and our inaction, and our self-righteousness. It leaves us searching blindly for narrative, for meaning, for sense. It drives us to a place of confusion and darkness because we already have a story, and the story is about being a beacon of the free world and a bastion of hope and a place where anyone can be great, and this is not that story.
Instead, this is a story about how our division and our fear and our posturing makes us weak. This is a story about a nation where horror is disclaimed, but nothing is done to prevent it. This is a story about championing liberty and justice, but refusing to ensure it for all. This is a story about the apotheosis of freedom through empty rituals, while the real freedoms we need are marked daily and ignored.
The people who died in Orlando this past weekend are our common responsibility, and the direct result of our paralysis and division. This is not the first time. It is not the second, or the tenth, or the hundredth, or the thousandth. If we continue as we have, this will not be the last time, because every other time we have done nothing.
So this is a story about us, and our monumental failure to be who we say we are.
Honesty is the most important thing—at least, that was a value I learned growing up. No criticism was left unspoken, nor was there any thought that it should be. I learned to value blunt, direct language. I learned to say what I thought. I learned to be brutally honest, and to believe it was the right thing to do.
What I learned was not unique. I see a lot of people who prefer to be direct and who find honesty refreshing. I know a lot of people who find subterfuge and subtext exhausting, and who are actively annoyed by people who weave and bob and refuse to say what they think. And I, like a lot of other people, am actively annoyed by the fact the public figures say whatever they think people want to hear with no regard for truth. Honesty, I think, is objectively valuable.
What I didn’t learn, at least for a while, is that brutality and honesty need not go together.