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Friday
Mar092018

How to Improve our National Conversations

Here are a few observations, admittedly from an educated, white, male point of view. These all have to do with the current climate of discussion and political thought in American, more among the grass roots than among elected officials in Washington. My general belief is that discussion—on both sides of most political or cultural issues—has degenerated into illogical, often uninformed arguments. I think the following opinions, with regard to three contentious issues, are pertinent to improving our national conversation. Of course these are only my opinions.

1. With regard to the role of guns in our society:  The constitution may preserve a right for American citizens to own guns, but the reasons that amendment was put in place and its applicability to modern gun ownership is distorted within the gun debate. When the constitution was written, the United States had just won a revolutionary war against a colonial power and that war would not have been won if citizens had no access to guns. With the establishment of a federal government, there was fear that such a defense of the union would be necessary again and the U.S. had no standing army. To a lesser extent, among those who advocated rights of individual states there was also a fear that the national government could become as dictatorial as the previous colonial government, so it was thought necessary to preserve state militia’s who could defend against such an occurrence. Such militia’s needed to have the right to be armed and since they were made up of ordinary citizens, the ordinary citizen, if he belonged to such a militia, needed to have the right to own a gun. Neither self-defense nor hunting was ever the focus of the 2nd amendment. Today, the guns have changed—they include AR-15s, which fire multiple rounds at enough velocity that almost any wound can prove fatal—and the reason for owning them has changed —either sport, in the sense of target practice, or self-defense against one’s neighbors or criminals (many people own guns to hunt, but such guns have never been the focus of gun control efforts). While some people maintain that the possession of guns is necessary for citizens to protect themselves against a potentially dictatorial government—the same argument that fostered the 2nd amendment in the first place—the likelihood that this will happen, except as part of the paranoid ideation of militia groups who probably pose more of a threat to their fellow citizens than does the government, is miniscule and must be weighed against the carnage caused by hundred of thousands of people carrying guns everyday. There is overwhelming evidence that the prevalence of guns and their easy accessibility is the major factor in extraordinarily high and unique (among economically successful developed countries) murder rates and mass shooting rates within the U.S.  The idea that ordinary citizens within the United States, which bills itself as the most enlightened and socially advanced nation in the world, need to carry guns in order to defend themselves, rather than rely upon law enforcement for that function is absurd, and the statistics on how high gun possession causes more damage than it cures, is incontrovertible. This is a clear area where American ignorance has muddled the conversation.

 2.     So-called “identity politics” are what we today label political arguments that focus upon race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation or gender as major issues that ought to determine political policy. The “identity” argument with regard to each of these characteristics is that, in our society, those who fall on one or another end of the spectrum on each of these variables have historically and are currently experiencing enough disrespect and discrimination to curtail their deserved and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms or their economic and social opportunities. Those who malign identity issues claim that such injustices and inequalities either don’t exist, except within the consciousness of those who claim them, or are the result of factors other than those that determine identity (e.g. work ethic).  

Innumerable statistics and studies show that unequal outcomes in income, wealth, and health characterize racial differences within the United States. To deny this is to deny established facts. The causes of such differences are multifactorial, but overt discrimination has been shown to be one of them, and a major one. This also applies to gender differences in income and opportunity. A recent study of lending practices across the country showed systematic discrimination against people of color in obtaining home mortgages, even when income, previous defaults, debts, etc. were controlled. Possession of a home is a major component of wealth for most American families. Numerous studies have substantiated wage discrepancies between men and women in almost all industries and executive positions in businesses are overwhelmingly held by males, despite evidence that there are not systematic differences between men and women in the qualifications for such positions. These evidences of discrimination are real and they contribute to the unequal outcomes attained by different racial and gender groups in the United States.

Discrimination based on “identity factors” in the workplace, in lending, in treatment by law enforcement, and across a wide spectrum of activities has been found to be illegal and unconstitutional by our courts. Arguing for policies that prevent such discrimination represents an effort to support our constitutional guarantees as well as our national identity as a country that treats all of its citizens equally. So what is wrong with identity politics?

One way to counter discrimination is to alter the prejudices people have toward one another based upon racial, ethnic, gender etc. stereotypes. Black pride, women’s pride, gay pride, etc. are all efforts to do this. So is identifying instances of negative stereotypes being presented in the media, in our academic institutions or as a basis for decision-making in business or government. Some people believe that focusing upon such issues, as well as upon disparities in income, wealth or things such as incarceration rates based on race or ethnicity is the cause of divisions among people in this country. However, these disparities are real and so are the prejudices and discriminatory practices which support them. Pretending they don’t exist is just that—pretending. Unfortunately, however, such identification has been stretched to include subtle, unconscious, and even hidden examples of prejudice and stereotyping to the point that nearly every celebrity or political interview, every media presentation, and even every academic discussion has become a dangerous minefield in which the speaker or presenter or author must be hyper alert to possible bias in his or her expression and the gist of his or her message is sometimes lost in the focus upon such transgressions and the demand to apologize for them. It is not that such subtle prejudices don’t exist or aren’t sometimes harmful, it is that they can become the dominant focus in discussions or expressions of ideas to the exclusion of other, often valuable ideas. Furthermore, it has become increasing popular to claim that only those who belong to a certain disenfranchised group have a right to comment on the conditions in which that group finds itself or the causes of those conditions, much less suggest solutions to them. Such efforts by “outsiders” is labeled “mansplaining,” or “whitesplaining” or “cisplaining.” When opinions are excluded because of the group to which the opinion holder belongs, it not only reduces the range of opinions heard, it does, in fact, reinforce divisions between people in our society.

Our political and social processes would function at a more productive level if they did not include denial of real inequality caused by discriminatory practices in our society and if they did not include exclusion of all other factors except such discrimination in our discussions of policies and ideas and attacks on those who try to analyze these problems and search for solutions.

 3.     The United States Constitution is one of the most profound and influential documents written in the history of Western society, perhaps of the world’s societies. That said, it is not perfect; it is over 200 years old, it was written by real men, not saints, who represented a social and economic elite of the times and who embraced prejudices of their era and compromise as a method of insuring acceptance of the document by people with very different interests and opinions. The major part of the constitution details the components of the United States government and their relation to one another as well as the relation between the federal government and the states. The most contentious parts of the document have been this latter material regarding federal and state relationships and the Bill of Rights and how these first ten amendments should be interpreted in the light of changing times. The ultimate arbiter of disputes about how the constitution should be applied in modern times to modern issues is the United States Supreme Court, itself composed of 9 judges, chosen by various presidents and approved by the Senate, most often for political reasons and because of known political biases of the candidate judges, rather than for their expertise as constitutional scholars.

Neither the factors going into writing the constitution nor the choices involved in selecting the Supreme Court justices who will interpret it are any guarantee of fairness, justice, or wisdom in how the constitution determines what is allowed and what is not allowed within the United States. However, we all agree to abide by both the document and the decisions made as to how it should be interpreted, and this is the basis for our law-abiding democracy.

Some of the basic rights guaranteed by the constitution have been expanded over the years, so that, for instance, the right to privacy, while not explicitly mentioned in the constitution has been guaranteed by interpreting rights to one’s beliefs, to freedom from illegal search, from self-incrimination, and the right of due process to include a right to personal privacy in one’s behavior and decision making. This has allowed extension of the right of privacy to issues of abortion, sexual behavior, and conversations using electronic devices, no doubt not issues the founding fathers had in mind when they wrote the Bill of Rights.

By the same token that basic rights have been expanded to meet changing times, they can also be restricted. Gun control is an issue that the courts have sometimes allowed restrictions and sometimes not, depending upon their interpretation of the intention of the original words in the constitution. Those who would insist upon not interpreting such words in the light of modern conditions are simply denying the accepted way in which we have been able to make an antique document apply to our current society over the last two hundred plus years.

The United State Constitution must be a living document because common sense tells us that no document written over 200 hundred years ago in a society that had just won its independence as a nation and was an infant in the process of governing itself, in a society that only allowed land-holding white males to vote or even participate in designing the document that would govern the whole country, in a society that contained human slavery, which was based upon racial inequality and prejudice, and a society that had no telephones, internet, cars, trains, or airplanes, and in which no global entities such as the United Nations existed, could apply to our current society without modification and interpretation. This means that the freedoms and political processes described in the constitution are and should be the subject of interpretation in light of our modern society and its needs. “What the founding fathers had in mind” may or may not be what is best for us today (a simple example being that they had in mind only men voting, the continuation of slavery, and counting African-Americans as only fractions of a “person” in allocating representation to states). For those who say that, “the constitution may not be perfect, but it has worked for over 200 years,” it is helpful to remember that it didn’t work for African Americans until 150 years ago with regard to slavery and until 50-60 years ago with regard to segregation and voters rights. For women, it didn’t work until until less than 100 years ago with regard to voting rights. The constitution only “worked” on these issues after it was amended. Applying the constitution to our society is a deep, thoughtful process and is going to contain errors, but we should stop having knee-jerk unthoughtful conversations about it and take it seriously instead of as a process in which we exercise our biases or our ignorance.

I’ll save discussion of the Climate Change debate for another day.

 

 

 

Reader Comments (3)

Your vital statistics are irrelevant factors in expressing your opinion. Let your words be judged on their inherent merit alone.

1. Law enforcement has no legal obligation to defend the citizenry it allegedly protects. You are therefore duty bound to protect yourself. Far more citizens use guns to defend their lives and property on an annual basis than there are citizens wrongfully killed with guns.

2. Unequal outcomes are not a sign of inequality. Lack of equal opportunity through systemic bias is a true type of inequality. Point out the systemic biases against anybody and I'll help you fight them. I think we should start with anti-Asian discrimination on college admittance testing. Then we should move on to under-policing in black neighborhoods because police allegedly don't understand the culture. Then we can move on to the concept of "diversity riders" which deny meritocracy and mandate a racialized and gendered view of talent, ability and experience. Any sort of set-aside program that disenfranchises merit and eliminates equal opportunity needs to be immediately ended.

If you want equal outcomes for all, there are quite a fewfailed and failing socialist countries which would like to absorb and spread your wealth so that you'll soon have as little as everybody else.

3. The concept that the US Constitution has some sort of obligation by a leftist divine mandate to become a living document is non-factual and absurd. It's not as if human beings have changed much in the last few millennia. We haven't. The same basic drives are still in operation. That's why we still study Plato, Homer, the Bible and Shakespeare 'in situ'. So much of the past will always remain vital and useful. The US Constitution has slowly evolved and will continue to do so. I think it's quite telling that we haven't needed a constitutional amendment for the past twenty-five years. But leftists want to strategically warp this epic document for their own transient and immoral purposes so that it becomes nothing more than a cudgel to achieve the hallucinogenic nirvana state of "Social Justice."

As for climate change, don't wait too long to address that issue. California could be under thirty feet of water in the next few days. 98% of climate scientists say so.

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

1. legal obligations of police https://www.americanbar.org/publications/criminal_justice_section_archive/crimjust_standards_urbanpolice.html
2.self-defense killings vs murders https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/19/guns-in-america-for-every-criminal-killed-in-self-defense-34-innocent-people-die/?utm_term=.0b35a569cedd

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/28/politics/justices-rule-police-do-not-have-a-constitutional-duty-to-protect.html

This is settled law; determined in at least two Supreme Court rulings of which I'm aware. Thus,
what I stated before is irrefutable. The police do not have to live up to their oath to protect. We saw multiple examples of this in the Parkland mass shooting.

Why do you think you have to kill someone else in order to defend yourself? A defense by gun can be a sign on a door stating gun ownership, general knowledge that a person is armed, flashing your gun, firing a warning shot or even shooting at a criminal without necessarily killing them. This sort of statistical manipulation is how anti-gun advocates attempt to minimize the deterrence effectiveness of gun ownership.

As for gun suicides, I find the statistic meaningless. Ill intent toward oneself can be accomplished in multiple ways. In my area, guys simply walk in front of commuter trains. I don't blame the trains for enabling someone's suicide.

March 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

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