Page Two: Unreasonably Reasonable

Political arguments depend on mutual respect

Page Two
When you get right down to it, what the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says seems fairly simple. It is only one sentence: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." Yet it is no surprise that that sentence has proven to be anything but simple. Every word, including conjunctions and prepositions, has been seriously studied and hotly debated, with the passionate solemnity of those studying the Bible over dozens of generations.

Recently, I was listening to a discussion of the Second Amendment on Alex Jones' radio show. One guest, a strong pro-gun, no-restrictions advocate, was talking about the Supreme Court discussion of the current case concerning Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns. Apparently, one of the justices asked the attorney arguing against the ban whether one could conceptually assume that the word "unreasonably" would fit between "be" and "infringed" at the end of the amendment. The attorney concurred. The pro-gun advocate was outraged at this suggestion that there should be any restrictions, reasonable or not, imposed on this constitutionally guaranteed right.

It might seem obvious that concepts like "unreasonably" and "fairly" might be implied rather than expressly stated in most law. But that really isn't the case – far too many fundamental, ideological arguments are now in fact controlled by those holding the most extreme positions, and they argue that anything less – any compromise or consideration of any other point of view – is unacceptable and treasonous. Since this method of argument basically becomes "my way or the highway," the debates become overly intense, personalized, self-sanctified, and nearly impossible to resolve in a constitutional republic.

Sadly, it is not unreasonable for Second Amendment advocates to argue against any restrictions on the right to bear arms. Equally sad, it is also not unreasonable for pro-choice advocates to argue against any restrictions on choice. In their domination of these debates, extremists make less extreme positions appear to be surrender – and thereby invite additional legislation.

In other words, by dominating the debate and convinced they are absolutely right, extremists create self-fulfilling prophecies. In that light, it is not unreasonable to suggest that some who say they favor some restrictions on guns really support banning all guns, seeing the restrictions as a necessary first step. Likewise, some of those who support unrestricted gun-ownership are in favor of cop-killer bullets and powerful automatic weapons being in personal hands, not as necessary to prevent further restrictions but because they really want access to them.

Although I've been told there is an Alex Jones segment during which he severely chastises me for being against the Second Amendment, I'm actually a fairly strong supporter. Obviously, others won't think that I am any kind of supporter because I always presume – as is true of cars, airplanes, home-garden pesticides, and household appliances – that the "unreasonable" qualifier is self-apparent and pertinent. In the same way that there are reasonable rules and restrictions on cars, there should be reasonable restrictions on guns. They should be minimal.

I understand the concerns that we don't live in "reasonable" times during which concerned citizens and politicians (can) discuss issues and negotiate compromises. Thus, a pro-gun advocate can, as can any advocate of any position, argue against any limitation or restriction. This is the case as it is now in so many ways. In the long run, I fear that this is not just self-defeating but unhealthy for us all.

I like guns, although I haven't shot any in a while. When I lived in Vermont, we used to go out shooting all the time. I was a friend of a number of hunters, still some of the few folks I've ever met who were absolutely comfortable going off into the wilderness for days at a time (not always to hunt). They didn't simply understand but lived by the functioning of natural and ecological systems. But my support is not simply because I enjoy guns.

There are two main reasons. The First Amendment is as simply stated as the Second Amendment, although it covers an astonishing range of some of the most important issues regarding the rights of citizens. It states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Like many readers, I take this to mean, among other things, the strictest separation of church and state. Such separation seems an absolutely crucial necessity for a multiracial, multicultural, multireligious country. Yet all the provision actually says is, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...." Interpreting it the way I do, and would argue is the right way to interpret it, requires some generosity of thought toward the words and their meaning. Those who believe that the idea of being in a "militia" as pertinent to the Second Amendment's guarantee of the right for all citizens to bear arms are not approaching it with anywhere near the same generosity.

The most obvious reason to be against banning or overly restricting gun-ownership is that our history has made it all too clear that prohibitions don't work. At their worst, they take large numbers of otherwise reasonable, honest, and good citizens and criminalize them. This is not just an injustice to these citizens but damages, often extensively, the strength and workings of the whole social fiber.

An aside here: Sometime back in the Sixties, I remember Allen Ginsberg commenting that pot, regardless of your take as to its expanding consciousness, is relatively harmless unless you also want to outlaw driving, fried foods, Twinkies, and breathing the air in cities. He argued that, if it then was still made illegal, distribution systems for it would spring up throughout the suburbs and even rural areas. Since these distribution systems were for pot, given the unreasonableness of the ban on it and the relative safety and real pleasure of smoking it, they would spread widely. Ginsberg went on to argue that logically, sooner or later, all other kinds of drugs would move through these same networks, proving a suburban and rural plague. Unfortunately, this proved prophetic.

It is time to legalize marijuana for so many reasons, including common human decency.

We live in an era where all too many, even those who most strenuously oppose big government, look for their mores and values to be imposed on all by blanketing legislation. In every case – choice, animal rights, the death penalty, homosexual rights, illegal immigrants, religious privileging – advocates don't believe they are imposing their morality on others but that instead they are supporting values as solid as the rock of ages – concrete morality for all humankind.

The conflicts thus created can be intriguing. How do those who are obsessed with illegal immigration, regarding it as one of this country's most serious crises, resolve opposing universal IDs, the most logical way to deal with the problem in the long run?

Others insist that anyone who disagrees with them is corrupt, evil, and/or being manipulated. Can't there be honest disagreement in the ongoing discussion about global warming, rather than accusations that knowingly corrupt scientists, on one side or the other, are engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to manipulate the masses or ignore unpleasant scientific reality?

Read some of the posts on the Chronicle website (austinchronicle.com). Disagreement over particular issues justifies the most vicious, aggressive accusations; personal specific insults; and verbal assaults. The Constitution is all about compromise. It is not about extremes and very consciously opposes the imposition of one overwhelming, towering political, moral, or social agenda.

Enough. This column advocates nothing but the legalization of pot. Okay, that – and rational interactions among citizens in which disagreements are treated as principled, rather than absolutist and corruptly motivated.

In the early Seventies, I lived in a small town in Southern Vermont while student-teaching at a middle school in Bellows Falls, a mill town about 10 miles north of my home. Every morning and early evening, I made the commute through some quite spectacular scenery. The very first day, I vowed that I would never get to the point where I took the stunning views for granted and I would always be conscious of how lucky I was to travel this vista. Now, I'm pretty sure I never managed "always" – but routinely, going or coming, I'd take a minute away from whatever else I was brooding over, just to soak it all in with focused appreciation.

All of us too often miss the forest for the trees. Speaking just for myself, I eat without tasting; I walk outdoors without enjoying the wonders of breathing and seeing and the like.

The greatest of ongoing daily pleasures in my life are the people I am lucky enough to work with all the time. Not just all the folks at the Chronicle and South by Southwest, but all the other people I get to interact with just in the course of doing business. The wonder of Austin is people. This is something that I never forget and never take for granted.

Working with me can't be easy, so I'm especially appreciative of all those at the Chronicle and SXSW who I regularly work with, whether or not we ever interact. I mean this, though some of my fellow workers may find this startling, given my constant preoccupation and uneven disposition. The reality is that I couldn't be more proud of and thrilled by the people I get to do whatever it is I do with, and absolutely, life-lucky, daily struck-by-lightning-gifted to get to be involved in what we all produce together. (Admittedly, writing posts full of false allegations and imaginatively nasty name-calling is probably more rewarding, but I wouldn't know.)

Right now this is relevant because Carol Flagg, who has worked at the Chronicle for the past seven years, most recently as advertising director, is leaving us. Carol is not only the best there is at her job, constantly going above and beyond the most unreasonable expectations, but is a continually fun, intriguing, challenging, annoying presence – I can't imagine what it will be like here with Carol gone. Next column, I'll welcome our new ad director – but for this one, I just want Carol to know that the whole staff's best wishes and deepest gratitude go with her as she is off for new adventures. Yes, Carol, you will be missed. And in so many ways.  

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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