Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Yes, Wayne, Absolutes Do Exist, But This is Not One of Them

According to a January 23 news release, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre told a Weatherby Foundation awards ceremony that the Second Amendment gives Americans the unfettered right to own firearms. “Absolutes do exist, words do have specific meaning in language and in law,” he said. “No government gave them to us and no government can take them away.”

It is not clear from the news release what LaPierre was referring to when he said no government gave “them” to us. Did he mean that government did not give us the right to own firearms? If so, LaPierre is utterly and frighteningly wrong.

Absolutes do exist. The speed of light. The charge of the electron. In fact, a whole list of physical constants. But the right to own firearms is not an absolute. The federal government has, in fact, given us this right in the Second Amendment. But the Constitution provided a mechanism for amending the Constitution. Therefore the Constitution, and the Second Amendment thereto, are not absolutes.

Furthermore, there is no absolutely clear definition in the Second Amendment of what these “arms” are supposed to be. It is illegal to own nuclear weapons or missiles. Are these arms? It is illegal to use, and in most cases to own, machine guns. Even the NRA has not dared to call for the legalization of private ownership of machine guns and nuclear weapons. The right to bear arms is therefore limited, not absolute, even if you were to interpret the Second Amendment as an absolute commandment from God.

One could interpret arms, within the Second Amendment context, as whatever is necessary to maintain a militia. But we don’t have militias anymore. There are groups of people who think that the government is restricting their rights, for example, to polygamy. Does the Second Amendment give them the right to have arms to resist the federal government from enforcing laws against polygamy? Could not Warren Jeffs claim that the Second Amendment gives his followers the right to armed resistance? Would this be an example of a militia? And, if so, his followers could most certainly use machine guns and cannons and nuclear weapons to defend their compounds, since the Second Amendment does not prohibit them from doing so. I am sure this is not LaPierre’s interpretation. But he has told us that it is not a matter of interpretation. It is a matter of absolute truth.

LaPierre, and many NRA extremists (a term LaPierre rejects), are using absolutist terminology that is usually associated with religion. Conservative religious leaders consider all of their beliefs to be absolute, and that God has given them the right to enforce their religious beliefs on others. This is why religion has been such a successful component of human evolution (this blog is about evolution, remember): it is an adaptation (genetic and memetic) that allows some people to subdue others and to gain evolutionary fitness at their expense. The NRA is promoting a new religion: the absolute right to bear arms, as absolute as God Himself. The absolute right to bear arms is not found in the Bible, by the way. Jesus said, “Put away your sword, Peter; for those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” But the NRA is promoting a new religion in place of Christianity. And, like many other religions, the NRA religion sways people to adhere to its claims with visceral emotion rather than with facts. I am not saying that gun-rights advocates have no facts; I am just saying that whatever facts they may have are irrelevant when LaPierre talks about “absolutes.”

The talk of “absolutes” has made reasonable dialogue impossible. From the NRA viewpoint, there are only two choices: unrestricted ownership of weapons vs. total helplessness. The NRA has not permitted any discussion of intermediate possibilities. For example, what about stun guns? Could those be used as an intermediate form of school protection? I know that stun guns have a very limited range. But at least they provide some protection without actually killing people. At close range, a teacher’s stun gun could incapacitate a school shooter and allow his gun to be confiscated and for him to be subdued. What would be the strengths and weaknesses of a school stun gun policy? I would be interested in hearing this. But there can be no such discussion so long as the NRA divides the issue into helplessness vs. a full armor of assault weapons. I might want to hear a discussion of some intermediate possibilities regarding gun ownership and restriction; but I do not believe I shall ever hear such a discussion.

This is exactly the same approach used by creationists. They claim that if you do not accept a young Earth then you are an atheist. The NRA says you either accept unrestricted availability of weapons or else total defenselessness. Nothing in between. They have insisted on absolutes: an absolute dividing line between darkness and light, as between sun and shadow on the Moon. But this is Earth, with twilights and dawns.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

How Not to be an Alpha Male (or Female)

 As several recent books have shown, humans have behavior patterns similar to those of other apes, although we dress it up and use the power and complexity of language to perpetuate them. These patterns can be good (as described in de Waal’s Age of Empathy) or bad (see parts of Conniff’s Ape in the Corner Office). There are two ways in which alpha males get to the top of their societies, and in nearly all cases the alpha males use a combination of the two. The first is sheer bluster and violence. The second is altruism (in this case, acquiring the friendship of supporters). Gorillas use more of the former, chimps more of the latter. Different human societies throughout history have used more of one or more of the other. The spread of freedom and democracy supposedly entails the growth of the latter and diminishment of the former.

Democracy is the formalized requirement that leaders attain power by the consent of the governed. This would make it appear that our leaders would want to do things that would make us support, or at least approve of, them. Why is it, then, that our leaders do things that make themselves objects of ridicule? In sociobiological terms, the behavior of America’s leaders is dysfunctional.

So it is not surprising that Congress has, as of this past week, an approval rating of 9 percent. This is the first time that Congress has had a single-digit rating since approval ratings began to be monitored decades ago. UPI listed ten things that have been more popular than Congress now is:

·         President Obama has a 46% approval rating.
·         The Internal Revenue Service has a 40% approval rating.
·         Lawyers have a 29% approval rating.
·         The airline industry has a 29% approval rating.
·         At the nadir of his scandals, Richard Nixon still had a 24% approval rating.
·         Banks, even at the worst of the financial scandals, had a 23% approval rating.
·         The oil and gas industry has a 20% approval rating.
·         Even during the Deepwater Horizon blowout, BP had a 16% approval rating.
·         Paris Hilton has a 15% approval rating.
·         Even the idea that America should become a communist nation has an 11% approval rating.

Other sources report that colonoscopies have a higher approval rating than Congress, although gonorrhea is still less popular. That is, the antics of Congress (which columnist Jack Anderson used to call the Washington Merry-Go-Round) are obliterating the one and only thing from which they can obtain their social power: the goodwill of the citizens.

As a progressive, I attribute most of this to the Repuglicans. They could defend a truly conservative viewpoint, but instead they are just the Party of No. They will oppose anything Democrats want. The worst example of this was when Senator McConnell filibustered his own bill. It was the Repuglicans who took us not just up to but over the fiscal cliff. And now they promise to do so again, with the debt ceiling argument scheduled for a few weeks hence. They took the federal government to the brink of default before, in the summer of 2011, by refusing to allow payment for projects they had already approved. This is the exact equivalent of refusing to pay bills for items you have already purchased and used. To do this would cause the credit rating of the federal government to decline, perhaps causing the government to have to pay millions of dollars more on debt interest. It is principally because of the Repuglicans that America sneers its own Congress.

But the solution is not to give our allegiance to the Dismal-crats. For it is from their Treasury Department that a breathtakingly stupid idea has come. Or, it would be stupid if they actually intended to do it. But if they think it is a funny joke, they might want to reconsider. I refer to the idea of the trillion-dollar platinum coin. Apparently it is entirely legal for the Treasury Department to mint a commemorative coin of whatever denomination they choose. They would then deposit such a coin (or two of them) and use that “money” to pay bills, even if Congress votes to authorize no payment on programs they have already approved.

Inside the Beltway is a world that is total fantasy, as far as most Americans are concerned. They do not have the power to force us to be their friends, as an alpha male gorilla might, nor have they any inclination to earn our approval, as an alpha chimp might. Even Genghis Khan tried to gain some measure of approval among his victims. He allowed a measure of autonomous rule and religious and cultural freedom to conquered territories, so long as they paid their ransom. If our romper-room Congrass (oops) is the flower of democracy, then what faith can we have in the future? There is no species of animal that has this kind of social leadership. And if there ever was such a species, it is now extinct.

This essay is also posted on my evolution blog.