Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Minor Musing About Devolution And The Gun Debate

Every year I sit down with young Lincoln-Douglas debaters, and we discuss two views of the social contract. The debaters only have thirteen minutes to present their position and refute their opponent's position on any issue, so we flatten some deep ideas a bit more than we should, but the debaters are at least exposed to texts and ideas that are foundations of America's political discourse.

We discuss Locke's view that humans left the state of nature and created society to preserve the products of their labor and that Locke wanted individuals to preserve as much liberty as possible. I usually throw out Ben Franklin's famous statement: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

We also discuss Hobbes's premise that the state of nature was a time when humanity lived "without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man." In the state of nature, Hobbes contends the"life of man, [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes then goes on to advocate a much larger state than Locke.

Both believed that society had moved beyond the state nature. Yet, the current gun debate in United States seems predicated on the idea that America is the devolving or soon will devolve back to the state of nature. Last week, on ABC's This Week, Peggy Noonan asserted:
Yes, two things I'd like to say, one is that people are buying guns like crazy now. Not because they're nutty, not enough because they're angry, but because I really think they fear their country is falling apart.
It's defensive and it's something that I think we all have to be talking about. There's so much anxiety out in America. And they also fear their government.
I find the idea that banning guns will keep me safer confusing. I have the same risk of dying in an automobile accident as I do dying as a result of gun violence, and no one is talking about banning cars.

I also find the idea of arming teachers or expanding exponentially the number licences to carry concealed weapons confusing.  I doubt that stocking my house with guns will make me safer. First, the government has drones and tanks.  I have neither.  Second, a lot of private citizens can afford more guns and ammunition than I can. I will certainly lose nearly every arms race

Third, and most importantly, I also teach a unit on the Trojan War. Now that I'm closer to age 60 than I am to age 50, this passage resonates:
And maybe you ask, what was Priam’s fate.
When he saw the end of the captive city, the palace doors
wrenched away, and the enemy among the inner rooms,
the aged man clasped his long-neglected armour
on his old, trembling shoulders, and fastened on his useless sword,
and hurried into the thick of the enemy seeking death
In the centre of the halls, and under the sky’s naked arch,
was a large altar, with an ancient laurel nearby, that leant
on the altar, and clothed the household gods with shade.
Here Hecuba, and her daughters, like doves driven
by a dark storm, crouched uselessly by the shrines,
huddled together, clutching at the statues of the gods. . . .
So the old man spoke, and threw his ineffectual spear
without strength, which immediately spun from the clanging bronze
and hung uselessly from the centre of the shield’s boss.
Pyrrhus spoke to him: “Then you can be messenger, carry
\the news to my father, to Peleus’s son: remember to tell him
of degenerate Pyrrhus, and of my sad actions:
now die.” Saying this he dragged him, trembling,
and slithering in the pool of his son’s blood, to the very altar,
and twined his left hand in his hair, raised the glittering sword
in his right, and buried it to the hilt in his side.
This was the end of Priam’s life: this was the death that fell to him
by lot, seeing Troy ablaze and its citadel toppled, he who was
once the magnificent ruler of so many Asian lands and peoples.
A once mighty body lies on the shore, the head
shorn from its shoulders, a corpse without a name.
I will never be "a magnificent ruler," but in any armed struggle, I am much more likely to wind up like Priam than I am to survive.

I have long thought that Constitution was written by men blessed with genius. They understood that Hobbes may have correctly analyzed what happens when humans live without limits or controls, but they believed that humans had God-given reason and should be allowed to preserve as much liberty as possible just as Locke advocated.  Hence, the Bill of Rights expresses the goal that people should be secure in "their persons, houses, papers, and effects." The people were recognized as having reason, a tool necessary to live their faith in the public sphere, express their opinions, gather together peaceably, and petition the government for redress of grievances, acts that do not rely on brute force.

The current gun debate seems to illustrate that the founders were wrong; humans, at least those with the loudest voices in the gun debate have lost all sense of reason. In fact, both sides seem to wish to submit to fear, an emotion devoid of reason. If these loud voices have their way, the devolution into a world in which lives are nasty, brutish, and short can't be far behind

No comments: