Category Archives: books

Guns, damn guns and things I didn’t know: Part the gajillionth

During the American Revolution, local militias –  who played the role of today’s  National Guard – had no collective arms and depended entirely upon the arms and ammunition of private citizens. (Okay, I knew that part.)

american-colonial-militia-rifleman-randy-steeleTo facilitate response time (the British are coming! the British are coming!), they often stockpiled their arms in one place for easy access. Basically, an armory.

Before the Revolution and in its very early days, the British – the ‘central government’ of that day – took to seizing those arms, something the good folks  took personally – those guns were private property after all. (Might that be the origin of our love affair with personal weapons – well, public weapons as well, since we are the largest arms exporter in the world.)

There are several references to militias in The Constitution (which I did not know; I thought it was only addressed in the Second Amendment). Article I assigns Congress the power to:

. . . provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; [and]

To provide for organizing, arming and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing of such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States.

(I’m getting this from Jeffrey Toobin’s terrific 2012 book about Obama and the Roberts Court by the way.)

Toobin goes on:

Article II says the president is C in C of the army, navy and “Militia of the Several States when called into the actual Service of the United States”. It wasn’t until the Militia Act of 1903 that their functions were formally subsumed into other agencies, like the National Guard . . .

And this: in the first 200 years of our existence, the Supreme Court discussed the Second Amendment exactly once, in 1938. It – U.S. v. Miller – was a challenge to the National Firearms Act passed in 1934 in response to the gang violence of the day and in particular to the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, which horrified the country not least because ‘machine guns’ were used. The Court ruled – unanimously – that the Act complied fully with the Second Amendment. Justice McReynolds spoke for the Court, saying they’d concluded that the Second Amendment existed to preserve the rights of militias – not individuals – to keep and bear arms.

And the issue disappeared once again, resurfacing only after the Kennedy assassinations.

massacreThe Gun Control Act of 1968 had widespread public support including the strong support of the NRA (when they still represented actual gun owners). 

IRONY ALERT: That didn’t change until Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign for the presidency. Writing an article for Guns and Ammo in 1975, he set off an entirely different conversation about guns, working opposition into a libertarian message, even insisting that the Second Amendment prohibited gun control – so much so that the 1976 Republican platform proclaimed a new-found opposition to gun control, reversing its previous 1972 platform supporting gun control. And in 1977, hard-liners staged a coup d’etat at the NRA to align with the new position). Everything changed.

But back to 1939. Toobin calls the U.S. v. Miller decision:

entirely originalist in its reasoning. The opinion quoted the provisions of Article I  dealing with the powers and then stated “With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces, the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view.”

Toobin continues:

Indeed, if the Second Amendment were intended by its framers to give individuals a right to keep and bear arms, the initial militia clause [“A well-regulated Militia  being necessary”, etc.] would be both unnecessary and meaningless.”

I find the reasoning of both that 1939 Court and of Jeffrey Toobin to be impeccable. (And as proof that I care, know that I had to type all this . . . no cut and paste from da books!)

I’ve always wondered

Why do fictional detectives only get to drink bitter-but-better-than-nothing coffee when they get back to the squad room? And why do they only get to drink awful instant coffee when they question neighbors from crime scenes at their homes?

Michelle comes to a logical conclusion.

First, RIP Gore Vidal, perhaps the last of this country’s ‘public intellectuals’: where are the likes of Buckley, Hitchens, Vidal? A brilliant mind, a brilliant wit, painfully honest and deeply patriotic –  and a wonderful writer.

Here’s Michelle Bachmann today telling her Gore Vidal story:

“It’s very interesting because I had been a Democrats — and I’d actually worked on Jimmy Carter’s campaign. And I was reading a novel by Gore Vidal, and when I was reading it he was mocking the Founding Fathers. And all of a sudden it just occurred to me: I set the book down on my lap, I looked out the window of a train I was riding in, and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t think I’m a Democrat. I think I really am a Republican.’ Because the Founding Fathers were not the characters that I saw Gore Vidal portraying in his novel.”

For the good Congresswoman, that apparently passes for actual reasoning.

Ignorance. Fear. Blame.

The late Octavia Butler was an important sci-fi author and a favorite of mine. In re-reading her Parable of the Talents 15 years later, I came across this verse. It feels frighteningly relevant to the world we inhabit today. But she did leave out something I think is an essential part of today’s regressive right-wing narrative: Find someone to blame.

Butler:

Ignorance protects itself. Promotes suspicion.

Suspicion engenders fear.

Fear quails, irrational and blind.

Or fear looms, defiant and closed.

Blind, closed, suspicious, afraid.

Ignorance Protects itself. And protected,  ignorance grows.

RIP Christopher Hitchens

The English language took a terrible blow today when it lost its finest practitioner. There haven’t been many like Christoper Hitchens – even across centuries – who, during a journey from working class to Oxford to Trotskyite to American to war supporter, enriched the body of liberal and secular literature and thought with unique and eloquent passion. With words.

In the Times obit, he is quoted thusly:

“I personally want to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive,” he wrote, “and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.”

And there he articulates what I’ve always hoped for myself, but haven’t been able to articulate. I hear others say they want to die quickly, perhaps in sleep, ‘suddenly’ (as we say when it’s unexpected).

Not me. I want to know, I want to ponder but mostly I want to experience it and say goodbye to my world, my life. Like Hitchens.

Already?

But he just started his book tour!

Donald Trump triumphant!

I just read a so so sci-fi novel called Flash Forward. It was once a TV series, one I really liked (and that usually guarantees cancellation. The Unusuals, Jericho, Detroit 1-8-7. Ah well.) The series took  the premise of the book and made it exciting and dramatic – which is why I stayed with the book  hoping it would get better. It didn’t. A terrific fictional premise underexploited.

But I did come away with this little gem. Within a list of  things that will be true in 2030 was this:

Donald Trump was building a pyramid in the Nevada desert to house his eventual remains. When done, it will be ten meters taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Giggle, giggle.

Muslims and atheists and the father of our country

A few years ago I read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. It was a thrilling read, a page turner, genuinely exciting – I credited the author with that; now I know it was because Hamilton was exciting. Because I am now reading Chernow’s biography of, ahem, George Washington.

The young George Washington

Chernow’s account confirms what we’ve always known about George – he was no Alexander Hamilton. Washington was a singularly un-exciting person, as methodical in his days as a well wound clock. I’ve only gotten to 1860 1760 but I will stay with it – in the hope that things pick up around 1776.

Boring yes, but very principled – I doubt he’d make it in today’s political and media climate. I just came across this passage which would doom him were he to reappear amongst us for another shot at the top job.

 ” . . . the exemplary nature of Washington’s religious tolerance. He shuddered at the notion of exploiting religion for partisan purposes or showing favoritism for any religious denomination. . . . When he needed to hire a carpenter and a bricklayer for Mount Vernon, he stated that ‘if they are good workmen, they may be Mohamatens, Jews or Christians . . . even atheists.