The 2nd Amendment

Not many people in America give a shit about anything but continuing to live more or less as they did yesterday in America. And that’s not a bad thing. We live in a country that’s wonderful more because of its people than because of its government, and who wouldn’t want to keep the government off our backs if that’s the thing that blows about this country?

You can go into any general store in Alabama, any mall in Pennsylvania, and you’ll meet people with whom you may not agree at all, but who would probably give blood for you if you needed it. Some would go further and give you a kidney if you needed it. That’s a wonderful thing, having people like that as your compatriots.

Many of the people you’d meet might well own guns. They might like to do skeet, or hunt turkeys, or they might even have it for self-protection. All that is perfectly understandable, and it is perfectly legal. But I’d wager you’d know for sure if any of those good people were members of the National Rifle Association. The NRA is sort of like an advanced stage of illness: at some point, it becomes all you can talk about, it becomes your life. You not only buy the T-shirt, but you wear the hat, the jacket, the gloves, probably the underwear, all Official NRA stuff, of course. And you proselytize, and you harangue, and you fulminate against a phantom menace that threatens to take away your guns: of course, that’s a big part of it, the threat of becoming a gun-eunuch. Left with nothing but a straw for a pea-shooter, your manhood won’t allow such nonsense, no! You’re gonna wear that NRA patch proudly wherever you roam. And you’re gonna push it in my face when I’m at that store, you and your goddamn 2nd Amendment bullshit, as if you have a right to submachine guns, hand grenades, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

Here’s where the NRA guy would stop me. “Nobody’s asking for ICBMs, you idiot!” he says. “Wayne isn’t asking for that; nobody ever asked for that.” Well, no, but what if they did? What if they did? What do you want to bet that you’d use the same 2nd Amendment to defend such a claim? Well, since neither machine guns, ICBMs, high-powered rifles, pistols with clips holding 10 jacketed bullets, nor hand grenades were around when the drafters wrote the Constitution, it’s unclear, and it’s pointless to speculate about the founders’ thinking when it involves things that did not happen in their lifetimes. So, in effect, nothing you own is protected…or else, everything that is a weapon is protected. There is nowhere to logically draw a line. If you have a right to weapons, then it is an unimpeachable right to own nuclear weapons. You cannot distinguish how to grade the shades of weaponry, and you don’t admit it’s possible; that’s because you won’t admit that you adjust that slider yourself simply to avoid the argument of where to stop with the acquisition of weapons.

It’s a great country, but man, there are some fucked up people out there. But even they would give you their blood if you needed it.

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Supreme Court rules in favor of Donald Rumsfeld.

The whole point of the suit was to show that Rumsfeld had, in fact, given orders for torture. That his subordinates engaged in it is not debatable; but that was not being argued. The plaintiffs did not get a chance to try their case, which was to bring forth evidence showing Donald Rumsfeld to be a war criminal. It is indicative of America’s decline into authoritarianism to see such an anti-democratic ruling.

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Measuring America

Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of DemocracyMeasuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy by Linklater Andro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was one of those books that added much to my understanding of America. Every time I look at a map of the U.S., I marvel at the number of small towns in the South, and the relative paucity of them in the North. I wondered why the Western states all have boundaries that can be drawn with a ruler, a few quite nearly square, while none east of the Mississippi have that characteristic. I wondered how in the world anyone surveyed the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina: it is, after all, the Dismal Swamp.

Can boundary lines influence culture? Is American individualism an outgrowth of the links and chains of a surveyor? Why was being a surveyor such a dangerous occupation?

If you can still find it, probably somewhere on Amazon, I very highly recommend reading this book.

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The Spy I Never Voted For.

Well. The big news item these days is the degree to which the National Security Agency has been getting info on our phone calls, our email, our Skype calls, our Internet surfing. Repubs are having a field day; this subject reverberates among conservatives as well as it reverberates with liberals like me. It pisses me off.

It would also piss me off to lose both my legs in a terrorist bombing. We have no idea how many terrorist attacks were thwarted with these measures. Maybe many; maybe not a one. But we are giving up more chunks of our privacy, it seems. Except for one thing.

We don’t have a right to the Internet. We don’t have a right to cell phone calls. Cell phones use public airwaves. Many are at 960 MHz, a frequency that has to be auctioned off because the airwaves belong to everyone and no-one. The Internet was developed by and for the military-industrial complex, designed to keep the flow of information going even in the event of a nuclear war.

You want privacy? Write letters. Use stamps. Visit your friends and relatives. Nobody could ever justify opening millions of Americans’ letters and posting unmarked cars outside your friends’ houses to monitor your comings and goings. 

Yet. And that is the problem.

June 7, 2013

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Book Review

Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's LegacyImpeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy by David O. Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book gave me all the information I wanted on a subject that I knew little about but that I suspected had more importance than normally is accorded it. Suffice it to say it changed the way I think about Reconstruction; it changed the way I think about America. President Grant, for instance, is commonly thought of as a very lackluster President who allowed all sorts of corruption in his Administration. Think about it: what Presidential Administration after Jackson was not corrupt? The Spoils System was well in place by 1860, and the payoffs, nepotism, and outright bribery were de rigeur for the age. Grant was notable because he was the first President to appear under oath in a court, because the newly powerful Southerners made common cause with disaffected Northerners to short-circuit civil rights legislation by shining the spotlight on one of America’s greatest generals — and in my opinion, greatest Presidents. Just look at the dimwit who followed Grant: Rutherford B. Hayes, who couldn’t string more than four words together without mismatching subject and verb.

Anyway, the details about the impeachment trial are boring as hell, which is, I discovered, most likely why nobody is interested in reading about it. But the trial takes up only a fifth or so of the book, so much of what you’ll encounter is pretty brisk political warfare. For all those interested in American history, this is an indispensable book. It will change the way you see this country.

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Taxation and Manifest Destiny

Opposing taxes, it is said, is as American as apple pie. The surest way for a candidate to lose an election in the United States is to both propose a new program AND to provide a tax-based means of paying for it. Americans like their freedoms, which are protected by our governments — but they don’t like to see the money actually coming out of their own pockets. This is rather like a carnivore who has a distinct aversion to visiting slaughterhouses: you want the result, but don’t want any part of how it got to your table. Why is this? Why do we not pull back in horror when we have to buy groceries? Why do we not hold a weighty grudge against the person who sells you gasoline? And yet, in both cases, some of what you spend is tax. The god-awful thing: tax.

Understanding this aversion requires knowing how this country financed itself for is first 125 years. There was an awful lot to pay off, too: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War. All had to be paid for somehow, and there was no income tax nor any real-estate transfer tax in those days. In the early years, there were two main ways of providing revenue to the government: the so-called American System of protective tariffs, and land sales through the General Land Office. As the territory of the United States began to grow, through purchases, treaties, and wars, the Land Office assumed greater responsibility for raising revenue. After the American System was knocked down and strangled by Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, the Land Office had to do, well, Land Office business.

The Preemption Act of 1841 provided, among other things, that 500,000 acres be given by the feds to the states included in the Act. This money was to be used for public works such as roads, canals, and such. Sort of like a Community Development Block Grant, but much more quaint. One of America’s greatest orators, Daniel Webster, made his great speech to Gov. Hayne because of the restriction on Western land sales proposed by Sen. Samuel Foot. Webster, a Northerner, didn’t mind much if the government continued to be financed by protective tariffs, since his native New Englanders, as merchants and purveyors of manufactured goods, stood to profit from them. The South, on the other hand, mulled nullification of federal laws if western land sales were restricted, because how else was the South to be provided with sufficient revenue?

This aspect of western expansion, of Manifest Destiny as a means of funding government, has not heretofore been sufficiently explored. History books are filled with ruminations about some misty-eyed fundamentalists whose belief in God somehow translated into a command to expand westward. Manifest Destiny, a term coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan around 1841, was another term for American expansionism, which, as envisioned by John Quincy Adams: 

The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs. For the common happiness of them all, for their peace and prosperity, I believe it is indispensable that they should be associated in one federal Union.

Note his mention of the North American continent. He was including in this thought what is now Canada, Nunavut, Mexico, and Central America — not simply a westward horizontal movement hemmed in by a northern and a southern parallel. So much for the misty-eyed dreamers. (This may be the first instance in history of anyone referring to John Quincy Adams as ‘misty-eyed’.) I’m sure it occurred to Adams that convincing these places already operating under their own laws and political systems probably did not want to be under any other jurisdiction, least of all that of John Quincy Adams. We were content with 49 degrees north latitude in the Oregon Territory, and we left a rump state of useless land to Mexico.

Why, then, did we need all that land? What was behind the misty-eyed rhetoric of craven politicians not otherwise given to poetry? 

Ah…money. Having lots of money gives one a sense of personal security like nothing else. Well, unless you lose a Presidential election, that is. But just as no politician now can run on a policy that mentions the nitty-gritty of taxes, no politician of the 19th Century could run saying, “Let’s go to war with Mexico so we can pay for roads in Michigan!” No, it had to be couched in loftier terms. We went to war with Mexico because of an ill-defined border issue, but the enormous price we forced Mexico to pay (while we paid them $15 million for their trouble) gave us decades of roads, decades of railroads, canals, land improvement, and forts, all taken care of without a penny taken from a taxpayer’s pocket.

From early on, the tax policy of this country was, “You need a bridge? Great! Let me sell this lot to Mr. Jones…okay, here’s your bridge appropriation.” We literally got used to getting things for nothing. In essence, the Mexicans and Native Americans paid our taxes throughout the second third of the nineteenth century.

Manifest Destiny was not a term commonly used by those in government. Expansionism, though, was the dominant ideology among those who were elected, but it was not an ideology based on a quasi-religious zeal as is commonly assumed. John Quincy Adams wrote, in 1838: 

The neglect of public worship in this city is an increasing evil, and the indifference to all religion throughout the whole country portends no good.

Three years later, if we accept the quasi-religious argument for the nature of the expansionist ideology, Adams’ observation was turned on its head? I sincerely doubt it. The westward expansion of this nation in the 19th Century was nothing but a massive evasion of responsibility for a proper tax policy. We have been seeking consensus on just such a thing ever since we ran out of land to sell, and had to change the Constitution in 1913 to allow for income taxes. It remains a dubious achievement in many people’s minds.

We still want something for nothing. We still think that out there, somewhere, the government can turn land into gold.

Posted in Manifest Destiny, National debt, Taxation | Leave a comment

The Real Issue

Let’s just admit it: the gun control debate is depressingly familiar. One side says add more laws. The other side says the laws restrict legitimate gun owners’ rights. Well, both sides are missing the boat.

Gun control

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