You may have seen this a couple of months ago. The girl who recorded it, Olivia Wise, died last week. There’s something about her singing that transcends what could have been maudlin and instead captures everything, creating that rare space in which all we can think about are the dizzyingly intense blips that are our lives, the lives of those we love, and the lives of all others whom, in our best moments, we also love.
Maybe I’ll have more to say here about the great law school crisis of the 2010s. (Spoiler: Too many people unproductively conflate supply and demand issues in the legal market with longstanding pedagogical issues. And all the while we ignore the unmet need for legal services among the not so rich.) But for now, I just want to say this: Law comes down to the incredibly interesting question of how we will live together. What rules are needed to elevate us from a chaotic mass of people to a society? People disagree wildly about such questions. It’s complex. It’s consequential. And the doing of law, whether as a lawyer, legislator, judge, or other policymaker, is a cooperative enterprise that is backed by a hell of a lot of power: the power to make people do what they would not do in the law’s absence.
Somehow this extraordinarily powerful and interesting collaborative endeavor is carried out by people who are far too often dissatisfied and isolated. That’s one problem in our discipline that is definitely not a temporary result of the Great Recession. Indeed, it’s one that we actually have the power, but not yet the imagination or understanding, to change.
The family needs a new car. The old one is increasingly unreliable. It eats gas, and costs a ton in maintenance. What’s worse, if you drive it very far, it eventually overheats, stranding you for hours out in who knows where. Everyone agrees the car isn’t working anymore. It was made back in the 1930s, lacks modern safety systems, and doesn’t even resemble a contemporary automobile. They can’t keep driving it. But that’s where the agreement ends.
The obvious choice is just to get a modern car like everyone else drives. They know it will work. They can estimate its up-front and recurring costs. It will get the job done. The problem, you see, is Uncle Jim. Jim is prone to reaching rigid conclusions on any issue he feels is an important one but does not see the point in becoming very well informed before doing so. And Jim is adamantly opposed to the whole “modern car” idea. While he agrees the existing car has some problems, his solutions are not forthcoming. When pressed, he says vague things about letting the car be itself and waxes about the “freedom of the open road.” Jim seems serious, and this is all it takes to make some family members wary of doing anything rash.
To keep the family peace, Jill suggests buying a quirky car that has many modern features but retains the look and feel of the old car. The new one would have seat belts, would be unlikely to overheat, and would at least get somewhat better mileage while perhaps reducing major maintenance expenses. Retaining that old look and feel would come at a price, however, relative to doing the obvious thing and buying a boring car. Parts are harder to find, and so cost more, and there’s no guarantee that suppliers and mechanics will be plentiful enough to have meaningful choices (and thus inexpensive ones). It’s likely this quirky car will have … well some quirks. And so they can expect to be back in the shop a few times early on to fix unexpected problems and to tune things up. But at least it’s safer, and Grandma (who is the one who often needs to drive long distances) won’t be stranded anymore.
Jim is livid (despite the fact that he had suggested getting this very car a decade ago in an attempt to scuttle the purchase of different car he didn’t like). Instead of pointing out some very real concerns and suggesting alternatives, Jim argues that buying this car would be an evil act — he doesn’t explain the moral valence of a decision about buying a car — and is really a clever attempt by Jill to wrest control of the family. “Why are you attacking our beloved car? The one that brought the children home from the hospital. The one that took all of us to our proms. I’ve never been stranded before, and people can decide for themselves if they want to risk it. This new car is just a ruse for you to drive us all around and only go where you want us to go.” When asked directly what he would do instead, Jim says, “Not THIS! How about some common-sense steps to improve our car-driving experience. Thats what I’d do.”
With no reasonable alternatives and laboring under a perception that the family’s narrow support for getting a new car at all would evaporate if the choice were made to try to get a more ordinary car, the family buys the quirky car.
Predictably, the car isn’t perfect. When the tail-light malfunctioned, Jim pronounced the whole new car idea flawed from inception, despite the fact that the old car had no tail-lights at all. Jim tries again and again to convince the family to take it back and retrieve the old car from the junkyard. All the while the family is in the middle of several other important crises, and it is perfectly obvious that whatever its flaws, the new car is no worse than the old one. When Aunt Cindy announced she was expecting her third child, people asked how she was doing, if she’d thought of a name, and when she was due. Jim looked at her and said, “If we don’t take that car back, we’re all going to die.” To a few of the crazier relatives, he suggested that the pregnancy was a smoke-screen to distract attention from the car crisis.
Every Sunday morning — no one knows why — Jim is still invited to deliver the dinner blessing, and every time he says the same crazy things. But boy is he entertaining.
It’s Friday and sunny here. I’m listening to the aural equivalent of psychedelic bubble gum:
— and for this one instant in the moment I’m forgetting about limitations and obligations and the inevitable disintegration of mind and body, the creeping death in front of me, and forgetting all the week’s nonsense (like the judge bristling with self-refuting confidence, demanding to be told the birth-seconds of various individual rights as revealed by some juridical atomic clock because trees don’t fall if no one is around) and I’m feeling like I’m speeding along with youth’s airy illusion that this will never end, horizon unlimited, and that it all just means so, so much. I’m sixteen again and alone in the city again and staring again into that glowing jukebox that breathed with energy. The world and everything in it drips with consequence, and I’m there so naive and yet finally beginning to understand that no one else has a fucking clue either. The sudden freedom of the platform you’re standing on dropping from beneath your feet. Yes, you can grow up, but it’s a one way trigger. The freedom to live unbearably bright and yet shackled to the void from which we can’t entirely turn away, and so there we are, white-knuckled, smiling, tumbling. There are times though, like right now, filled with the pure joy that I’m an exploding thought of the universe itself. It breathes.
[This is an introduction I rejected. It now lives on in the blog world, where it may well be read by more people than the introduction that replaced it.]
Law, like wilderness, is a process, not a thing. Only in their evolutions from moment to moment can we be sure that they are occurring at all. Stare as long as you like at a photograph of an idyllic, apparently natural scene complete with buzzing insects, wildflowers, grazing elk, and brown bears lumbering above on meadow-covered slopes. You will still be left wonder: an instant of wilderness captured on film or an illusory tableau, a zoological artifice masquerading as untrammeled nature, with roads, tourists, and cages just off camera? Is it the immediate result of land management, bear relocation efforts? What causes predominate here?
We define wilderness as the unfolding story of the parts of the universe from which our influence is substantially absent. If we play a significant causal role in the happenings of a place, then we can say that this place is not a wilderness. But the moment we substantially withdraw, and non-human causes take or retake control of the destiny of this physical space, wilderness has returned. A large and persistent wilderness, one in which our absence is longstanding, can be beautiful and terrifying. But even a crack in a forgotten sidewalk, shooting up weeds and lined with colliding highways of commuting ants, can be wilderness for as long as we remain strangers to it. Wildness refers to our relative lack of involvement in processes and causes, not virgin beauty.
We, of course, are of the universe and as “natural” as anything else in it. Wilderness therefore has no meaning detached from the human perspective. It is a way we have to understand our own negation, part of its lure our bearing witness to the world’s getting along just fine without us. And while we have chosen as its exemplars swathes of land inhabited by our fellow DNA-bearing creatures, it is also to be found in the nuclear fusion in the hearts of stars, where nothing we have ever done or will do matters. There or perhaps in the coldest, emptiest parts of intergalactic space, we find its purest, most fearsome examples.
In contrast, wherever people are present, we can find in the social glue between them the process we call law. Where wilderness is the evolution of a place without people, law concerns only the interactions of people. It may refer to physical things, but it consists in a purely human system of information and organization. If wilderness is the operation of causes in a space without people, law is the processing, encoding, and creating of information — destined to become causes — purely in and among the minds of people.
Law describes the way people act toward one another when they decide to act together. They transcend the mere plural of person and become a public only when they desire to do at least some minimal thing together and then only with respect to that thing. The concept of law and the concept of a public are therefore inseparable, one yielding the other. Each is subject, and each is object.
It is possible to imagine multiple, solitary individuals acting separately upon the landscape, never cooperating. There would be no law there, only volition. Law, again, is the name we give to the process by which (and there is always a process, however changeable) a public realizes the social purposes its constituent people share. Every public, therefore, has a legal system, and every legal system belongs to a public. Modern societies are composed of layer upon superimposed layer of publics and legal systems. Corporations are publics. Families are publics. Churches, law faculties, school districts, criminal gangs. All are self-consciously groups of people, and all have processes that maintain the social glue that defines them, effectuating the purposes that draw their constituents together.
I live in a great neighborhood. I bike to work in less than fifteen minutes. From my relatively quiet and tree-filled, winding road, there is a pub, a grocery store, a wonderful coffee shop, and, soon, a bakery within ten minutes’ walk. And yet, this little collection of shops called Five Points could be much, much better. The chief problem is a mutually destructive, suburban-style attitude toward parking. Among the costs of this tragedy of the anti-commons is the thus far foregone opportunity to establish the greatest biergarten in … well, at least in the county.
Things are changing, but too many places, even hippy-friendly Athens, Georgia, still design our world for our cars. Neighborhoods that are snakes of streets and cul-de-sacs sprinkled with housing, warehouses — with just enough paint to be passed off as retail stores — dwarfed despite their size by asphalt fields given over to the automobile, the strip mall the very soul of which is defined by the iron horses that wait patiently outside. I pretty much actively dislike the auto-sprawl style of development, but I’m not concerned here with adding my voice to the anti-car chorus.
Cars are often useful and sometimes essential, even in semi-urban places like parts of Athens. The problem in Five Points is not so much cars themselves and not even parking as such. Rather, it’s the failure of the private market in parking that has locked the neighborhood in a senseless state of restrictions destructive of its potential and antithetical to its basic character.
I’ll write now specifically about Five Points, but this very casual case study quite obviously bears similarities to many other places. Each business in Five Points owns its own parking spaces and prohibits their use by patrons of other businesses. Some proprietors more aggressively police their lots than others. And some, like Earth Fare (our local grocery store) have a greater need to reserve for customer use the closest places to park.
There used to be a row of public parking in front of an apartment building with ground-level retail. But the proprietor has engaged in lengthy and wasteful litigation and so far “won” the right to privatize these spaces. He is the most active enforcer of his parking, charging money to park unless one is visiting one of the few stores that still remain in his building. While he has unwisely made himself the subject of active dislike by many locals, I don’t blame him for fighting for spaces in a neighborhood in which all the other businesses have exclusive parking. Not smart business, but understandable.
What we have is a tragedy of the anti-commons, a situation in which excessive private ownership actually makes everyone, including the property owners themselves worse off. If parking were shared among businesses, open to all but perhaps metered or otherwised priced to reduce demand, then the spaces could be used more beneficially. One could park in Five Points, grab a pint at the pub, walk for yoghurt, pick up some coffee beans, and get a few groceries. Students at the yoga studio could get coffee afterwards or purchase food for dinner. Parking is now a feature of every business, taking up space that could be used by people, uglifying the streetscape, and constraining people to moving between businesses only by moving several tons of machinery is hurting everyone. Yet no rational business can open its parking to everyone. If we can solve this problem, then we might begin to see all the possibilities for the neighborhood that have been obscured by our assumption that every single shop needs an asphalt lot.
Consolidated, shared parking could reduce the number of curb cuts, the breaks in the sidewalk through which cars enter private parking areas, each one of which marginally reduces walkability and creates an opportunity to worry about young kids on bikes. Utilization would improve. Late night businesses with empty lots in the morning and daytime businesses with empty lots at night would all benefit from a shared set of spaces that could even be reduced in aggregate number. (Is there anything more wasteful in a neighborhood than empty space covered in asphalt but usable by no one?)
People often bring up the possibility of a parking deck. Perhaps, but just by sharing parking, better using the capacity we have, we would increase parking opportunities. And we could probably get rid of the tiny lots that front the street. I had an excellent student a few years ago in land use who wrote a paper about how and why to implement shared parking in Five Points.
Before mentioning an example of the many great opportunities we could realize by devoting neighborhood land to people rather than cars, I’ll just mention that I’m also in favor of making it easier and more obviously a “way to do things” not to park a car at all. Just by moving parking from positions of prominence in front of businesses, the place will look like a place that’s more fun to walk around in. There are hundreds of homes, apartment units, fraternities, and sororities in the surrounding neighborhood within trivial walking distance of Five Points. If you ride a bike, it’s accessible to almost everyone in the area.
Secondly, and to describe this properly requires a separate post, a bus system could actually work. I have a hypothesis that bus systems are underused in part because of frequency concerns but also because of the complexity of the routes. Suffice it to say for now, I think a frequent trolley-style bus that goes along a single street (for you locals: one each for Lumpkin, Milledge, and Prince) would make it psychologically convenient to get to Five Points and downtown without a car. If you have to decipher a serpentine bus route and timetable and think hard about when to pull the stop chord, they’re doing it wrong.
But finally, I’d like to mention a concrete benefit to Five Points of solving this tragedy of the anti-commons. Between a street-fronting restaurant, a set-back bottle shop and beer growler dispensary, and a street-fronting pub is a parking lot. It need not exist. Imagine instead a beer garden, strung with lights, a fountain in the center, tables and umbrellas. From time to time, there could be live music, for which Athens is well-known, open mic, wine tastings, kids’ puppet shows, and who knows what else. Such shared but commercial space could draw Athenians from all over. It would be an expression of what everyone already loves about where we live.
The open-ended nature of what could occur there slaps us in the face and reminds us that land is a platform for cultural expression. We plan best when we plan not for what exactly humans will do but for the full unleashing of their ever-changing talents and ideas. To make a parking lot into a biergarten is unquestionably awesome.
An anti-commons like Five Points is frustrating in the same way as is the clinging pathologies of humans as individuals. That lingering fear of letting go and seeing the world as it really is prevents us from being our best selves. To see the collective version of that error, itself the product of the clashing weaknesses of the individuals who compose the community, is to understand what is so tragic about the blindered refusal to look past apparent self-interest and so to miss opportunities that even the selfish person would be a fool to pass up.
Justice Scalia does not seem to think much of section five of the Voting Rights Act, its theory, its democratic support, or even the Act’s name. As with his comments at oral argument in the Obamacare cases, we should leave open the possibility that he will not decide according to the theory he suggested at argument. Indeed, I hope he won’t, because he seemed to be advancing the worst theory of constitutional law I have ever had the misfortune of hearing. My twitter-length summary upon reading the tanscript:
Scalia: Courts are needed to reinforce the representation of discrete, overly-sensitive majorities.
If you’re not a law nerd, this formulation may not trigger instant recognition. But more on that in a moment. Here is Scalia’s soliloquy on the Voting Rights Act and “racial entitlements”:
This Court doesn’t like to get involved in — in racial questions such as this one. It’s something that can be left — left to Congress. The problem here, however, is suggested by the comment I made earlier, that [the margin of congressional support for the Act has increased with each reauthorization even as the need for it has become less clear.] And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same.
Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.
I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act. And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity unless — unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution. You have to show, when you are treating different States differently, that there’s a good reason for it. …. [T]his is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress. There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law just about now. And even the Virginia Senators, they have no interest in voting against this. The State government is not their government, and they are going to lose — they are going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act. Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?
Put aside that the bail-out and bail-in provisions of section five contain the proper seeds of its own termination. The astounding thing about Scalia’s theory is just how closely it hews to the mirror image (or the bizarro world version) of the theory embbedded in and grown from the most famous footnote in the history of the Supreme Court, footnote four of Justice Harlan Stone’s opinion in United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152 n.4 (1938):
It is unnecessary to consider now … whether prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and which may call for a correspondingly more searching judicial inquiry.
This represented, finally, a statement of the Court’s understanding of the circumstances in which it should strike down legislative enactments. Strike down a law whenever the Court disagrees with it, and the Court becomes an unchecked super-legislature, the most tyrannical of government entities. Footnote four (and the rest of the Carolene Products decision) suggested that the Court should generally defer to legislative policy judgments. But the engine of democracy seizes when political majorities make repeat losers of political minorities. While normally one would expect losing legislative sides to protect themselves through shifting coalitions and other means (and by the fact that losers on one issue may be the winners on another), that may well not work when it comes to the interests of identifiable social minority groups who cannot so protect themselves.
When legislatures single out socially discrete minority groups for negative treatment, especially for the benefit of social majorities, courts should be suspicious, cast aside their usual deference, and give the law a much more careful look. The genius here is in the identification of a criterion for judicial review that seems legitimate, non-interventionist, and which is all about helping democracy to work better by reinforcing the democratic representation of minority groups who otherwise might be victims of a pathological form of majoritarianism. Plato’s caricature of democracy as a rule of the mob is possibly averted by giving this narrow and exceptional role to courts.
The principle of footnote four and it subsequent elaboration is not without criticisms and defenses, but it at least cabins the potentially awesome power of judicial review, cedes primary policymaking authority to legislatures, and reserves heightened judicial scrutiny for those situations in which we are truly suspicious democracy has gone off the rails because of its targeting of stigmatized groups.
Scalia’s theory is similarly grounded in helping to correct structural problems that the democratic process cannot handle on its own. But here, it’s political and social majorities who need the Court’s help. Democracy fails, the argument goes, when a majority is blocked from doing the very sensible things the majority wants to do because politicians are afraid of being called racists. Fear of being smeared or of appearing insensitive is now such a potential pitfall of democratic lawmaking that we just cannot trust that even a unanimous vote of the Senate represents the fair functioning of the political bodies. This “is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress.”
The deep, apparently abiding suspicion that our representatives are trapped by political correctness and unable to engage in rational lawmaking is now a reason for a court to subject a law to heightened scrutiny. I guess I should at least be grateful to hear, finally, why some think courts are needed to overturn the judgments of politically accountable bodies that affirmative action is necessary (a situation in which there can be no rational fear that majorities are attempting to subjugate a social minority).
The point is this. We can rationally agree to disagree about the policies of the Voting Rights Act or the policies that give rise to affirmative action programs. Such disagreements are rightly the subject of intense political debate. But whether a court should be able to settle such matters on its own no matter how much support a law has among the public and its representatives, well that is another question entirely. It strikes me as positively bursting through the outer atmosphere of majoritarian victimhood to complain that our democratic discourse is so captured by the interests of racial minorities that it cannot be left to the People to decide how the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow are best eliminated.
One day, I might get around to revising, rewriting, or otherwise rethinking this. But here at the twenty-third hour of the twenty-first anniversary of my marriage, I think I’ll just repost it. With all that’s happened this year, it seems like I wrote these words a lifetime ago. I love you, Meredith Turner, and I still mean every word of this.
My twentieth wedding anniversary was last week, and we finally went away together to celebrate. Ergo, the lack of posting. While sipping mojitos and relaxing by the beach, I kicked around this post for awhile, but kept putting it away and hating it as pablum. Even if it is, it’s an antidote to other nonsense I used to believe. So here goes. Maybe I can combat, even a little, the dangerous, malformed view under which I labored as a young person. For me, growing up meant gradually letting go of lots of comforting ideas and learning how to embrace reality. This is about one of those: true love.
You’re either groaning because you think true love is such an absurd idea that it’s essentially a straw-man or because you’re pained that anyone would lead the empty life of a romance-atheist. These antipodes, and I’ve experienced the eye rolls from each, are yet another instance of the opposing forces always at play when working out our place in the universe. Is our position privileged or not? And if it’s not, what’s the point?
True love, soul-mates, destiny, all of these are ways of describing a deeply embedded but wildly destructive cultural myth. Your partner is that one person for whom you were meant and whom you really, really love, the one who makes your heart beat faster, the one who is supposed to be so close as to be a part of you. It’s psychologically comforting. It affirms our specialness and provides an aura of security so unbelievably tempting in this life that seems otherwise perilously close to being cast adrift in rough black seas, at night, alone. Even if we don’t believe in the Myth, and most people probably don’t intellectually, we may grasp onto it in dark times. Some days we just need it to be true.
You probably already know all I’m about to say in response and are wondering why I thought it worth writing down. Well, it wasn’t obvious to me as a young person, and I know too many others sabotaged by an attachment to some part or other of the Myth. Our culture, our movies, our music, and our books are filled with it. Marriage ceremonies too often pretend simply to recognize true love’s existence. We’re overrun with the message that love is something that happens to us, that we either feel or don’t. I’m convinced that this belief, even if only subconsciously entertained, causes too much suffering to be ignored.
The answer to the Myth’s seductive promise is to be mindful of reality. There are thousands of people out there with whom you could fall in love. Thousands and thousands. If you were in a boat with forty random people and shipwrecked on an island, you’d probably fall in love with one (or more) of them eventually. The supply of people with whom we could fall in love is vast, and we’ll keep meeting members of this set throughout our lives. Obvious, yes, but dangerous to deny.
For me, love is not faith in the idea that the universe has delivered to me my one, true companion. Rather, it begins with the adherence to a wager, the most important choice I’ve ever made. I’m betting that this single, precious life will be best spent with a single, compatible person. Again, the wager is this: life will be better lived with steadfast commitment to one partner than with one’s devotion lurching from person to person, wherever the sensation of love takes it. I can’t tell you whether this is always the right choice, but it is mine.
Love starts, of course, with biologically-driven infatuation. But the body will keep doing that to you, if you let it. Every time you meet a new member of the set, if you leave open the possibility, infatuation will lay in its hooks and begin to do its work. Part of love is deciding that you will not let this happen, that you will draw boundaries so broadly that you never give infatuation with another a fighting chance to become something more and so broadly that your partner is never asked to wonder whether you’re still together in all this. It’s your obligation to reassure. Deep and whole-hearted sharing of a life, my definition of love, cannot really happen without that security.
I wish I’d understood marriage this way from the start. You grant each other the luxury of knowing that your loyalty will not depend on a day-by-day calculation of competing desires. If you’re guided by momentary calculations of happiness, you’ll sooner or later jump ship. That’s human nature. But together you’ve made the long bet. And once you’ve both committed to that, truly committed to irrevocability, infatuation with each other never really goes away for long.
After twenty years, the love I have for my wife is not at all how it began. My feeling of it is inextricably bound to our shared history. Whether either of us could have been happier with someone else is not a relevant question. That’s a life we didn’t lead. We’re betting not that we’re happier together than we would have been with any other people in the world, but that we’re happier living irrevocably together than conditionally, and thus, in a real sense, alone. Soul-mates are made, not born. And we are soul-mates, because we choose to be.
The power of the Myth of true love lies in the assurance it provides that our seemingly secure lives are destined, that our love is embedded right in the moral fabric of the universe. Life is a story we’re living out, a movie in which we’re the sympathetic hero. But what happens when what you feel isn’t the “outside this universe,” timeless, emotion as the voice of God, overwhelming conviction that you’re in love, when you don’t feel that electric jolt of infatuation for your supposed soul-mate? Well, then how could this person really be your soul-mate? If he or she were, there would simply be no way you could have the feelings you do for someone else. The people in the movies sure don’t seem this ambivalent about the love they find. So your soul-mate must still be out there somewhere, and, obviously, this relationship must end for the next one, the destined one, to begin. But that way lies sadness, because love is not a sensation, but the sharing of your one, precious life. Don’t waste it trying to chase a phantom. Love is yours to choose.
Truth is that like a lot of people I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating on much else since the tragic shooting in Newtown on Friday. Sadness, anger, wishing, regretting. I keep thinking about my own kids, the schools they’ve attended, the teachers they’ve had. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is haunted by imagined versions of the horrible instants when so many children and heroic adults were brutally murdered. It’s so far beyond everyday comprehension, the product of a will so foreign to any humanity I can understand — and the consequences so unbelievably devastating for the families.
These spectacular mass-shootings are but one of the costs of guns in the United States. Over 30,000 deaths per year, almost exactly the same number as car deaths (which number I try to keep in mind as a sort of risk and magnitude benchmark), result from guns. Some of these deaths, obviously, would still occur if there were no guns. But just as surely, some would not. As Atrios pointed out a couple of weeks before Newtown but after yet another incident of gun violence (everything now occurs either just before or just after some mass shooting): “It’s really easy to kill somebody with a gun. It’s pretty hard otherwise, even if you really want to.”
So what should we do? What’s amazing to watch is the recapitulation of the oldest and most fundamental of political debates in a context in which it is absurd: religious faith in markets vs. a belief that collective regulation can sometimes be efficacious. Ideological libertarianism vs. pragmatic balancing of individualism and collectivism. There are those who suggest, without evidence in support and despite evidence to the contrary, that no regulations can possibly reduce the costs of gun violence. This is compounded by other logical errors. (For example, while it’s true that guns don’t kill people on their own, it’s also true that people don’t shoot bullets from their fingertips. Nor is it particularly availing to the arm-everyone cause to argue that some violent killings would occur even without guns, that some people would still manage to acquire guns, or that we should also do more to combat mental health problems. On the last point, I’m delighted to see a national consensus apparently develop around the importance of at least some types of healthcare.)
Some are telling us that the problem is too much regulation. If everyone carried guns, no one would try this, and if they did, they’d be stopped by responsible gun owners. Teachers should carry guns, restaurant employees, churchgoers, everyone! It’s Mutual Assured Destruction for everyday life. The problem, we are told, is that well-meaning but misguided laws keep people from owning and carrying firearms, not that they permit it.
Whatever the merits of libertarian thinking in other kinds of social interaction (campaign finance, financial markets, seat belts, etc.), it strikes a dull chord in the market of death and destruction. Even if you believe, as I do not, that the solution to problems in all speech markets is more speech, or that the solution to healthcare market failures is no regulation, or that the financial markets collapsed because of too much rather than too little government oversight, it takes a special kind of Randian religiosity to think that the problem with violence in America is down to too little freedom to make, buy, sell, carry, and use guns.
I’m pretty sure I’m in the majority when I say I don’t want to live in a public in which everyone is armed, where everyone straps on an insta-kill machine before walking among their fellow citizens. A free market in violence would make me feel like a slave, not a free person. Freedom — the true freedom to develop our potential, to make and care for friends and family, and to create new things — is fostered by assumptions of trust in a community, not by individually and continuously planning to respond violently to the worst. I wonder at the psychological impact of a Mad Max kind of existence. In any event, I’m doubtful of its efficacy. You’ve surely seen the statistics being bandied about: owning and carrying a gun appears to increase your chances of a gun death and, even if assaulted, you’re more likely to be shot by a factor of over four if you’re carrying a gun.
However we decide to change after Newtown, my great hope is that it follows a rational process of sifting through evidence and committing to trying things that have a good chance of working to reduce dramatically the 30,000 gun deaths (not just those from spectacular mass shootings) and many more injuries that occur every single year. A ban for the sake of a ban isn’t that. But among other things that should be evaluated: serious limitations on guns and ammunition, not just cosmetic restrictions on scary-looking guns, better support for clinical services for the mentally ill, more funding for basic and clinical research into mental illness, and perhaps better and more numerous armed security at certain venues. (Perhaps we should more systematically provide, at least temporarily, support for some armed presence at schools, for example. It makes no sense that Al Qaeda and their sympathizers target airplanes when they could shut down cities with far less effort, like the DC snipers did. But they choose airplanes and so security resources go there. Maybe it’s the same here.) I’m even open, despite my deep reluctance to live in such a world, to being proved wrong about the desirability of arming more ordinary citizens.
To put it bluntly, to respond to the mass murder of first-grade students with unexamined ideological assumptions and without an open mind is immoral. Wrong. Wicked. For too long, ideologues have claimed the moral high ground of “family values.” No more. Morality demands you show concern and compassion in your approach to actual people, not just fealty to ancient texts, tax pledges, or partisan orthodoxy. Maybe pursuing that kind of morality is one way we can begin to change.
Original Poster (OP): Instead of praying just when there is a tragedy, why don’t you try praying every day. The world would be a much better place!! Also, guns are not the problem, sick and evil people are the problem. If someone wants to kill one person or many, they will find a way! A gun isn’t the only thing you can kill someone with!!
X: AMEN, [OP]. Well said! In fact, I’m going to share this.
Me: Yes, but it’s extremely hard to kill twenty people in a few minutes without a gun. Not saying that fact should necessarily lead us to regulate in any particular way. But we should at least acknowledge that guns make it easier to kill people. Each year, there are about 30,000 gun deaths (about the same as car deaths), with a little over half of those being suicides. As you point out, many of those would occur through other means in a world without guns. But maybe many wouldn’t. I think it’s important just to have an open mind - neither disposed to knee-jerk regulation nor to an assumption that guns themselves aren’t a problem. We’re all united in being sickened by this and other mass killings. I really think we could be united in pragmatically looking for ways to prevent tragedies like this one. That might include better mental health surveillance, better resources, better security, reduced press exposure, and, perhaps, regulations restricting access to weapons and ammunition that are peculiarly useful for mass killing. But our commitment to these things should not be ideological. If it works, let’s try it. If it doesn’t, let’s move on to another strategy. The truth is that we don’t yet know what mix of things will work - and assumptions either way are only that.
OP: Did the terrorist on 9/11 use guns, he could use a car, bomb etc. I could go on and on!! We have always had guns in our culture! The tragedies started happening when we took prayer out of schools, started being politically correct and stopped going to church and taking our children to church! Instead of complaining about guns, we all need to get on our knees and beg GOD to forgive us for taking him and his son Jesus Christ out of everything and realizing that GOD knows best NOT MAN!!
Y: ￼You are awesome [OP]!!!!! Never lose that fighting spirit!!!!
Z: [OP] - I agree a million percent!!!! Thank you for your insightful post!!!! Those are my thoughts exactly…
Me: [OP], you’ve made a testable, empirical assertion about the causes of gun violence. As someone who puts solving the problem of crackpots killing scores of people every few months ahead of any particular ideology, I’m open to looking at the evidence for your assumption - but I’m doubtful that general religiosity has much to do with the maniacs who murder children. Frankly, I think a refusal to look at the evidence about what could save the lives of kindergartners is deeply immoral.
X: ….and some people just have A LOT of book sense but absolutely NO common sense!!!
OP: Mr. Turner, i think you lack alot of faith and for that I feel for you! I don’t really care what you think for I know GOD exist and that if America doesn’t start to realize what the “Real” problem is and go back to our faith and realize that Jesus Chris IS our Savior, our country will continue on the down spiral we are in and more tragedies will continue. I will keep you on my prayers and may The Lord have mercy on us all!!
Me: You have about as much evidence concerning my supposed lack of faith as you do for believing that if most people were Christian maniacs would stop murdering children. I guess I’m naive, but I honestly thought we could unite around practical solutions to mass killings.
OP: Like I said, I will pray for you!
Me: I just don’t see any conflict between Christianity (or any other religion) and also searching for earthly ways to stop the mass murder of children. I just can’t believe that’s a reason to pray for the salvation of my soul. Seriously, to do anything else strikes me as deeply, deeply immoral. Sorry to extend this thread, but I can’t honestly believe that we ultimately disagree that we ought to look at all our options to prevent mass shootings of elementary school students. But if we do, I’ll just leave it at that.
OP: When you take God out of places, such as schools, it leaves the door wide open for evil to enter. It is time for people to take responsibility for their actions and stop the blame game. That sick man pulled the trigger, the gun didn’t start shooting all by itself!
This blog, for the moment, remains available despite the fact that it's hosted in a flooded datacenter in Manhattan. Folks from Squarespace, my hosting and platform provider, and their datacenter partners are literally doing all they can to keep us on the Internet. They're manually carrying fuel to feed to generators, ensuring the pumps remove floodwaters from the building's basement, and troubleshooting any number of other problems arising when a sophisticated datacenter floods and loses power.
The threat of downtime for blogs and other websites (many that are far more important than mine) is hardly the most critical impact of the devastating hurricane. It is, though, one of the many disruptions, small and large, that sum to a major disaster. And the determined efforts of my hosts are small reminders of the grit and ingenuity humans so often show in the face of unexpected adversity, when the normal rules, the ordinariness of the everyday, disappear in an instant. Thanks my friends!
Normally my blog scribblings manage to attract literally fours of readers. I did have one post, attacking the idea of true love on the occasion of my wedding anniversary, that was passed around a fair bit. Not exactly viral, more like a topical rash. I use this forum to work out ideas in my head on all kinds of topics. I learned as a math student the difference between thinking you have a good idea and actually having a good idea. Writing down a proof can reveal that you’ve done nothing at all, whatever the sensation of reason and accomplishment you might have had in your head. And my one rule is that I just write what’s on my mind in no more than a couple of hours or so. A bit more than a scratch pad, quite a bit less rigorous than an academic article or book.
My latest post, a letter to my Republican friends, attracted quite a bit more attention than normal. It was passed around on Facebook and Twitter before attracting a lot of attention on reddit.com. It’s now been read by almost 25,000 people and still getting about 1,000 hits per hour. About half of my new readers hate it. Some took the effort to drop me a line:
Subject: Your Obama speech,…
Message: You sir are someone who is grossly drunk on donkey fluid…no RATIONAL person would truly believe your pile of utter BS on Obama would had been so great if it weren’t for those scumbags who voted against him in 2010. So clueless and naive.
Happily, Crimefighter, as he likes to be called, is not representative of the feedback I’ve gotten. The discussion on reddit has been very good, if highly critical. Take this comment, by masterwit, who took exception to my reference to pollster and political strategist Frank Luntz as one of the world’s most repulsive humans:
I do not care what party an individual may attach themselves to… but referring to the political opposition as repulsive humans is intellectually immature. Granted there are repulsive humans in this world, but this sort of dialect is not healthy in trying to persuade “a Republican”.
Terrible article regardless of one’s political view.
I think masterwit is correct. While I am not strategically trying to persuade anyone and therefore not bothered that my language might sabotage some political aims, it’s no way to talk about another person if interpreted naturally. Of course, I didn’t mean literally to denigrate Luntz as a human being. In a conversation with friends, of whatever political stripe, this reference would be accompanied with laughter and the unspoken humility that makes it possible to love and respect ideologically disparate friends. Luntz, in my view, is partly responsible for some of the more regrettable features of our politics. But when read by strangers, this bit of hyperbole stands on its own. And on its own it sucks.
From flashmedallion (and echoed in other form by colorlessgreenidea):
This article kind of undermines itself a little; the author talks about how he’s not interested in getting Republicans to vote against Democrats on account of policy… but he keeps getting sidetracked and bashing policies.
There are indeed two paragraphs of the post that focus on substantive policy differences. I included these because I do think there’s a connection between the rigidity of the procedural obstruction and the unyielding ideology the Republicans have practiced in the last few years. This article by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein makes that point far better than I could.
I also wanted to highlight that I have serious policy disagreements with the Republican leadership. Let’s not hide this. I’m not trying to tell Republicans that our political positions are close. But I made sure to add explicitly that I was offering no supporting argument in the post for any of my preferred policies. It might be that many readers will be turned off when I suggest it’s “inexplicable” to insist on immediate spending cuts in the middle of a demand-induced recession or that Republican foreign policy is “wild-eyed and unrealistic.” That’s ok. We don’t have to agree, and my goal is not to coax you to my position with soothing language. Rather, I’m saying we need to figure out how to govern effectively despite the fact that we vehemently disagree.
Pakyaro says I “lost [him or her] at ‘EVAR’” and Ganonderp_ says:
How the hell did he become a law professor? This reads like an editorial in a high school newspaper.
Look, I’m a total goofball. I admit it, and I encourage my students to challenge me by telling them that I say stupid things all the time. Anyway, I wasn’t hired as a teacher or scholar for my admittedly random blogging. Some people seem to like it, and some don’t. The point was to emphasize that while it’s shrill to suggest that this election involves the most important issues ever to confront our Republic, we do face a critical structural problem — at a time when we need to get things done. Maybe it was a goofy way to say it. If you want academicky sounding things, go download my papers here. No, really, please go there!
Perhaps predictably, a fair number of comments (many on reddit, one by email, and one over twitter) suggested I’d been too quick to reject the idea that a third party is a better solution than rewarding one of the two we have. (I’m beginning to think there may be an unusual concentration of Gary Johnson among the internetterati…. Joke. As a long-ago slashdot, digg, and usenet participant, I’d have been disappointed to find otherwise.) Yes, the paragraph in which I discuss this is hardly conclusive. @ariel_kirkwood on Twitter pointed me to this interesting article on score voting by Andrew Jenings, Clay Shentrup, and Warren D. Smith. On the reddit discussion, there are several good threads discussing third parties.
I just don’t have a well-formed opinion on the issue. I’m not at all opposed to altering the Constitution, which has many flaws. (See Sandy Levinson’s work for an example of what a fresh reconsideration of our Constitution might reveal.) My brief point, which is really all I can say at the moment, was that without constitutional amendment, norms are our best shot at preventing damaging obstruction as election strategy. Failing to achieve one’s goal, election, may cause a re-examination of strategy, unyielding obstruction. Absent more fundamental reforms, I think our best chance is electoral defeat of obstruction.
A few took issue with the premise that obstruction could even have been effective since the Democrats enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority. There’s not much to this claim, though. Despite a big election win in 2008, the Democrats managed sixty senators for only a couple of months following the extensive litigation to prevent the seating of Al Franken and before the death of Ted Kennedy. It also counts Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman among the sixty. In any event, I’m not making an abstract argument but citing to what a number of Republicans have said the strategy was.
Finally, there are a number of people that I know I’ll never convince. That’s fine! We don’t have to agree. Come hang out with me at Two Story Coffeehouse here in Athens and we can debate and share some laughs. For example, funfsinn14 writes:
So vote for Obama because institutional gridlock is present? I like institutional gridlock, the less things the sociopaths in govt can get done the better.
I’m happy to have the election run honestly on those grounds. If you have a majority that desires to vote for gridlock, I’d be surprised. But I appreciate the forthrightness.
On the other side, I’ve been told that I should know this is an assymetrical fight, for reasons similar to what funfsinn14 said. If one party is basically fine with getting nothing done but the other is not, then only one will practice obstruction as an electoral strategy. Two responses. First, I agree this asymmetry exists, and I guess I appeal to my Republican friends’ sense of fairness more than fear. I’m optimistic enough to believe that if it were perfectly clear to everyone that one party had intentionally obstructed in order to run on accusations their opponents were not able to get anything done, then the public would soundly reject them at the polls. Second, though, even if it’s true that a Romney win would lead to the Democrats’ rolling over and compromising like they did during the W. Bush administration, I’m not sure this will continue. Eventually, the party will lose its taste for being bloodied. And the structural exploits that will be used to level the playing field will be at everyone’s expense.
That’s why my central points are: (a) the Republicans themselves have said that obstruction was the strategy to win election, (b) they are in fact running on accusations that Obama has been ineffective in passing things and getting bipartisan consensus on what he has passed, and (c) that strategy must lose.
Dear Republican Friends,
Look, we need to talk. We can’t keep going like this. No matter how much you dislike President Obama and no matter how much you disagree with his policies, you need to vote for him in November. I’m not saying you have to like it or that you can’t go back to voting even for extreme conservatives in the next election, but this election is different.
The problem is not that the issues involved in this cycle are THE MOST IMPORTANT ONES EVAR. No, they’re important, but many elections have involved similarly important issues. I think you’re wrong about taxes, spending, healthcare, foreign policy, the judiciary, and regulation. But I’m happy to keep disagreeing on these subjects in the normal course of our politics.
Here’s the thing: if Romney wins, it validates a strategy that, if adopted by my team too, will make America pretty much ungovernable. From the day Obama was inaugurated, the Republican strategy has been to refuse to cooperate on virtually every issue, to fight every piece of legislation, to block every nomination, and even to threaten to kill clearly needed legislation in the style of a hostage taker.
And when I say “from the day Obama was inaugurated,” I mean it literally. That night, at a strategy dinner organized by one of the world’s most repulsive humans, Frank Luntz, and attended by House and Senate Republican leaders, including Paul Ryan, key Republicans discussed the need to “challenge [the new administration] on every single bill.” Killing everything, running on a lack of progress to take back the House in the midterms and the White House in 2012, that was what mattered. Newt Gingrich told the assembled crowd: “You will remember this day. You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”
One attendee, Texas rep Pete Sessions, explained shortly after this and after the House Republicans had unanimously voted against the stimulus bill:
Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban. And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes. And these Taliban — I’m not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban. No, that’s not what we’re saying. I’m saying an example of how you go about [sic] is to change a person from their messaging to their operations to their frontline message. And we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with.
In 2010, Senator Mitch McConnell famously declared that his most important priority was to ensure that President Obama would be a one-term president. Supposed fact checkers have pointed out that, in the context of that interview, McConnell perhaps showed more flexibility. But in the context of everything else we know, it could not be clearer that winning the White House in 2012 using a strategy of unyielding obstruction was precisely his top priority. That mindless, nihilistic obstruction has been a means to that end is obvious not only from the record but also from what other senators have said. We know this both from off-the-record comments and also from on-the-record statements. Here’s former Senator George Voinovich:
If he was for it, we had to be against it. … . He wanted everyone to hold the fort. All he cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory.
Vice President Biden claims he was told by several Republican Senators, before taking office, “For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back.” You may generally disbelieve Biden, but the gist of these conversations was confirmed by Republican Senators Bob Bennett and Arlen Specter. (The source here is the same link as above, an article by Greg Sargent reporting on the contents of Michael Grunwald’s book, The New New Deal.)
And obstruct they have. I won’t recite the list of bills and appointments Republicans have blocked. Loud, obnoxious, and illogical opposition in the House is paired with efficacious holds and filibustering in the Senate. Take a look at this chart showing that the number of filibusters more than doubled when Democrats took control of the Senate. It is to the point where absolutely nothing gets through the Senate without sixty votes, which means Republicans can and, more importantly and tragically, do veto everything. The Democrats did indeed maintain a sixty-vote majority for a brief period, counting two independents who normally voted with them, but any sensible person quickly understands that’s not enough, given the way that a single Democratic vote could be easily peeled off. (Obstruction could provide the appearance of division that would be used as a bludgeon in races in vulnerable districts.)
This strategy combines toxically with a party ideology that moderates of all stripes have observed growing increasingly inflexible, increasingly unmoored from the facts and pragmatism, and ever more fond of insane litmus tests like Grover Norquist’s tax pledge (guaranteeing in advance that no matter what happens candidates will not vote for any income tax increase of any kind).
But, my fellow American, I’m not asking you to vote against your party because of its policy choices. I do find inexplicable their insistence on dramatically cutting spending in the wake of a demand-induced recession despite record low interest rates and no real inflation, their dogged determination to maintain historically low levels of taxation on the richest Americans, their obsession with eliminating regulations, their preoccupation with controlling female sexuality, and their attachment to wild-eyed, unrealistic foreign policies. I’m not giving you any arguments on those here, however. But pointing out just how extreme your party has become goes some way toward explaining why they’d be willing to engage in unprecedented levels of hypocrisy (fully aware how hyperbolic that can sound when discussing political bodies) to defeat a president:
The results can border on the absurd: In early 2009, several of the eight Republican co-sponsors of a bipartisan health-care reform plan dropped their support; by early 2010, the others had turned on their own proposal so that there would be zero GOP backing for any bill that came within a mile of Obama’s reform initiative. As one co-sponsor, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein: “I liked it because it was bipartisan. I wouldn’t have voted for it.”
And seven Republican co-sponsors of a Senate resolution to create a debt-reduction panel voted in January 2010 against their own resolution, solely to keep it from getting to the 60-vote threshold Republicans demanded and thus denying the president a seeming victory.
Now stick with me. It’s perfectly fine for the opposition robustly to fight the President’s agenda. Especially after losing a high profile election, it’s natural to get together, to strategize about how to protect what matters most in your own agenda, even to make plans to win the next election. And normal politicking involves caricaturing your opponents, tough negotiations, and rough rhetoric. Our politics, though, have gone well past this.
The President has compromised endlessly only to attract zero Republican votes and face, again no matter how compromising, charges that he was partisan and uncompromising. If we liberals had our way, we’d have single-payer healthcare, an adequate stimulus (twice as big as what was done and as all reasonable economists indicated was necessary - and as interest rates are virtually begging us to undertake), bankruptcy cramdown, no prison in Guantanamo, much higher marginal rates on top earners, and the list goes on. But we never expected to get our way on everything. People disagree about things, especially important things. That’s fine. And it’s why the president’s healthcare plan took as its model a conservative proposal that had managed to unite the parties in the past.
The immediate and urgent problem here is not what Republicans believe but the two-fold strategy they have chosen to pursue: (1) Make sure nothing gets done. (2) Run a campaign criticizing President Obama for not getting anything done.
This can’t be allowed to work, and I think this is a point on which we both can agree. This is so important that I want to say it again: This can’t be allowed to work. Imagine your party’s candidate does win. What is my party supposed to do? If we adopt your strategy, Romney will fail. Winning an election does not mean you should be able to get your way without compromise. But at the very least everyone in our system should be accountable. You don’t get to obstruct everything and then run a campaign accusing your opponent of failing to reach across the aisle to get things done. If you think that’s an acceptable strategy, then ask yourself if you want my party to adopt it.
Wait a minute, some of my independent-minded friends may say! The problem here is the two-party system. We just need a viable third party. Nonsense, unless you’re plan is (a) to replace the winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system we have, with, say, a parliamentary system or (b) to destroy and remake one of the two parties you generally favor. Believing that a three party system is viable in the presidential context under our current election rules is like believing the moon is made out of cheese. I’m quite open to thinking about (a) — though not at all sure how realistic such a radical change is. And on (b), well if it leads to the remaking of a more pragmatically minded conservative party, I’m all for it. But it’s a method for realigning, maybe even renaming!, the two parties, not for stably adding a third.
I understand the stakes here. The economy is likely to improve over the coming years (at least in the short term), regardless of who is elected. If Obama is re-elected, he will probably go down as a great president, for many reasons. If not, Romney will get credit for rescuing the economy. But more important than any particular policy is our continued ability to make policy at all. The model of governance and campaigning demonstrated by the Republican party over the last four years, if adopted by everyone, would be a suicide pact. Let’s not sign it.
For what felt like the first time, he saw the sun for what it really was. All at once, a distant star, a comforting ball, an ocean of hell, an impossibly dense core. Jets of plasma exploding out of a nonexistent surface streamed into space above him, and it all owed to the simple fact that there was so much of it. He could feel himself there, part of the source, not just a distant bather in brilliant radiation. And he was also able, lying there on the rough ground, to stare right into it without pain or even the need to blink. I know what you are, he thought. I’m made of your exploded sisters, and I’ll outlive you.
It was a great comfort to the old man that he would soon be dust, which would then be so many unjoined atoms in space temporarily blown apart before, maybe, transmuting in the heart of a future star, before bursting forth as heat and light shining down on a future world and a future dying man.
But the thirst! The agony was still agony though accepted willingly. This is right, he thought. This is good. The sun’s disk in and out of focus. He was aware of the dust covering the dried blood on his peeling lips.
He no longer knew why he was out here, unable to move, miles from his car in the Chihuahuan desert, Elephant Tusk in front of him appearing like his own worn down, rotten molars. He was naked and lacked any possessions. Without wind, it was as if there was no air at all. The man didn’t care to breathe. He knew he’d forgotten why he was here but not the paramount importance of his own death, which had to be in this spot in the desert of his dreams. He knew he wanted it more than anything.
Regularly, time would speed up, and the clouds would stream across the sky, dipping down to the Tusk, the sun dropped from the sky, and all the other stars would roll over him tilt-a-whirl. Then he was gone and flying over the cracked ice of glaciers, perfectly serene as the resultant static image of eons of geological causes yawned at him from below. Ice and rock cast together by a universe that mercifully let them lead just separate enough lives that still other bits of matter would call them by different names.
When he roused, as he always did, he was staring again at the sun and suddenly aware of his thirst and his pain. He’d linger in the oppressive stillness before finally weakening in spirit and calling out to people he could no longer remember. He used made-up names out of desperation. It felt safe, for while he knew he must die alone, no one would hear him scream. And so his yearning for the full presence of love could be given his weak, gurgley voice, even his full conviction, but only because that voice would assuredly fail to find a listener. Only so much vibrating air. He was becoming more sure all the time that there wasn’t any air anyway.
The Tusk stood there, indifferent. His whole life, he felt, he’d thought of himself as wholly unlike the rocks, dust, water, and even maggots and flies of this world. Now that he was seeing clearly, he regarded himself as a virus refined just enough to grow a body and brain. It would become unbearable, the thirst and the pain. His gut was wracked with wave upon wave of empty, twisting torture. The only fluid in his body was rattling in his lungs.
Eventually, he’d have to cry out. It escaped his lips as whimpering, or at least the motions of lips and chest of a whimpering man. There was no air and so no sound. And in the sun, he’d finally see relief. With his pain, so grew the sun. At the zenith of both sun and pain, our star was everything, and in its heart he’d see a human face. Sometimes a woman, sometimes a man, always a stranger. But a stranger with a look of compassion. Their mouths would move, all intent but without effect. The world was the sun, mouth moving. They exuded distant compassion, but the people of the sun were consumed with their own troubles. There to help but not the ones for whom he called.
He felt his hand grasped, though no one was there. The world was fully illuminated and baking and now hands were on his shoulders and forehead and at both his hands and he was crying without tears and asking why he had to do this and no answer came. The sun, smiling serenely, and finally the slightest yet overwhelming sensation of liquid in his mouth, sweet and blissful.
Everything recedes, the intensity of existence retreating even faster than it had come upon him. And he’s dreaming again.
Last night, Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three embassy staff members were killed in a senseless attack. An idiot in the U.S. made a ridiculous film disparaging all of Islam. And some other idiots in Libya felt the proper response was to attack and murder people who disagree with said idiot but who happen to be Americans.
The human mind is capable of such compassion, such creativity, and perseverance. It can be goofy, selfish, or overly proud. But it need not be filled with hate. We’re here for such a brief time, in the midst of uncertainty over just about everything but our own eventual demise. Whatever life is about, and however certain you are that you think you have the answer, it has to be about more than rage.
My mind, at times like these, invariably goes to the most moving music I know, a mash-up of two wonderful compositions, songs that could hardly be more different but which combine in a way that transcends them both.
This bitter earth,
well, what fruit it bears,
this bitter earth?
And if my life is like the dust
that hides the glow of a rose,
then what good am I?
Heaven only knows.
This bitter earth,
yes, can be so cold.
Today you are young.
Too soon you’re old.
But while a voice within me cries,
I’m sure someone may answer my call.
And this bitter earth,
may not be so bitter after all.
This bitter earth,
Lord, this bitter earth.
What good is love
that no one shares?
And if my life is like the dust
that hides the glow of a rose,
then what good am I?
Heaven only knows.