To a Worried and Angry Mom

I got your message, and I can hear the frustration, sadness, fear, and anger in your voice. It’s not right there at the top, but deep underneath the vowels and consonants, the tones and intonations is also a mothers deep concern for her children. I’m not adequate to the task of overturning the environment that has created school shootings. I wish I was; I’d put everything I had into it.

Earlier today I thought this through; there is no doubt that untreated mental illness plays a necessary part of these shootings, but so does our system.

The federal system was designed to,

  • Limit centralized power;
  • Empower states;
  • Allow the minority power in the senate;
  • Create an electoral college to balance population inequality;
  • Leave controversies to the courts
  • Allow anything unless specifically prohibited by law or legal precedent; and
  • Make this system very difficult to change.

Our written constitution was created in an effort to recapitulate the unwritten English constitution and deal with real issues at the time. Our Constitution created executive (King), legislative (Parliament), and judicial (Lords) branches. So far so good.

But what about slavery?

After the revolution was successful, there was no promise that the colonies — loosely associated and very different — would gel into an actual country. The south was less, populous, agricultural, and depended heavily on slavery. Thomas Jefferson was, contrary to our popular myth, a champion of natural and states rights. He wanted a weak central government and powerful sates (you can read more about Jefferson here:

Like today, rural states had fewer people, and to keep them in the union there had to be a compromise, something that allowed slavery. The result was states (we didn’t really need them. Few other countries have them) an electoral college, a senate that would allow disproportionate representation for smaller states, a Bill of Rights, and a complicated 2/3 requirement to change this.

The Bill of Rights, which glancingly references “arms” is the lynchpin of the gun issue. But it has little to do with guns. What’s at stake is the deep and abiding suspicion present from the country’s founding, of strong central government.

Remember, the Second Amendment is to millions of Americans what abortion rights are to you, a baseline of cultural, economic, and social independence. If things get crazy, I’ve got a gun; if I get pregnant I can have an abortion.

It’s impossible to understate the existential threat taking each of these things away represents. The sensible idea of limiting guns like any other piece of dangerous equipment like a car or plane is anathema to some, just like the idea of regulating when a woman can choose to terminate a pregnancy might be out of the question for you.

America had never been, nor will it ever be, a bunch of united states. The shootings and our inability to control weapons is not a glitch, as they say, but a feature of our founding and the resulting monster that is the United States of America. We are rapidly becoming a failed state, like Ethiopia or Yugoslavia. The shootings, like birth pangs, come closer together. But so do scandals, recriminations, and civil disturbance.

It has been said that the United States was a great experiment in democracy. This statement is true; but all government is an experiment and sometimes experiments fail. The United States is becoming a failed experiment, prone at its seams to civil war because it made the profound mistake of writing its constitution down. It is an 18th century document being used to govern in a 21st century world.

There is no constitutional right to abortion. And we should abolish the Second Amendment. So far so good. But in our system, that means in Mississippi anyone can by a gun at Wal Mart but can’t get an abortion. Even if we “won” and eliminated the Second Amendment, the Tenth Amendment ensures some states will have easy access to guns. And yes, some states will allow easy abortions. As it is written, so it is done.

This, I’m sure, provides you no comfort. But we’re careening toward civil war. At his trial at which he was sentenced to die, the abolitionist John Brown said this,

“I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved . . . had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends — either father, mother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class — and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”

Sadly, both sides of this issue feel this strongly, and thus are likely to inspire more John Browns, would be martyrs willing to die to make a point and let history validate it.

This is not what you want to hear, but it is the truth: to stop this we have to let go of our resentment of the other side, however justified, and focus on the things we share. We love our children. We have a common popular culture and language. We have common habits. Alexis de Tocqueville in his observations of Americans found that what bound us together was peculiar habits like eating a very early breakfast.

I’ve traveled many thousands of miles across this country over the last two years and here’s some lyrics from a song I fell in love with along the way,

I got a car parked in my front yard
With a floorboard full of slim jims
I piss where I want to
And I fish where I swim
Yeah, I bet you ain’t got it on a tailgate
Or killed a copperhead a time or two
And man, if you’re thinking you’re a better beer drinker
Buddy, I’ve got news for you,

My town’s smaller than your town
And I got a bigger buck and bass on my wall
I got a little more kick in my drawl
Y’all I got little more spit in my chaw
And my truck’s louder than your truck
And my Tick Hound’s a little more blue
You might think that you’re redneck
But I’m rednecker than you

How does that make you feel? If it makes you feel angry, look in the mirror: the problem is looking right back at you. The anthem articulates a deepening of identity, an embrace of difference, that while in other times might be celebratory is becoming toxic.

There were many great philosophers, like Boethius for example. Never heard of him? He wrote about time and existence and was very influential. But as brilliant as he was, he’s not much help today on this issue.

Jesus was a lousy philosopher and never wrote a book and he never founded anything. He, like Buddha, left us with more questions than answers. Or did he?

When pressed, he said the whole point was to love God with everything we have and our neighbor as ourselves. He told us to pray to “forgive us our debts as we forgive those our debtors. He was suggesting that our own fate and future was tied up in letting other people off the hook. Maybe once their debts were forgiven, they’d forgive others too, then maybe the whole system of keeping track would unravel.

I know. It sucks. It’s hard to measure, there’s no winner or loser, and it feels like it means it’s all my fault. But the answer lies in someone pulling the thread first. And as a practical matter, to make change in our system consensus, not simple majorities are required. This means finding what we have in common and admire in each other and building on that, not our differences.

The other solution is violence with a hope that “our side” wins. That’s a good bet too. People have been doing that since there have been people.

As for me, I’d rather drink with someone in Lincoln, Nebraska or in a dive bar in San Francisco than kill anyone to make a point.

So what do we do?

If I could I’d facilitate more get togethers with real people across demographics. We really are more alike than different and our peculiarities are more amusing than threatening. But as long as we continue to stoke the win or lose sense of this, that the other side has to capitulate or we die, then we’re headed for disaster.

Those are my thoughts.