Monday, November 02, 2015

Charles Thomson to Jefferson: Slavery "is a cancer that we must get rid of."

Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, to Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 2, 1785: “I have received your several favours of Feb y 8 June 21 and July 14 and also a copy of your Notes by M r Houdon, for which I am much obliged. It grieves me to the soul that there should be such just grounds for your apprehensions respecting the irritation that will be produced in the southern states by what you have said of slavery. However I would not have you discouraged. This is a cancer that we must get rid of. It is a blot in our character that must be wiped out. If it cannot be done by religion reason & philosophy, confident I am that it will one day be by blood. I confess I am more afraid of this than of the Algerine piracies or the jealousy entertained of us by European powers of which we hear so much of late. However I have the satisfaction to find that philosophy is gaining ground of selfishness in this respect: If this can be rooted out, & our land filled with freemen, union preserved & the spirit of liberty maintained and cherished I think in 25 or 30 years we shall have nothing to fear from the rest of the world . . .” [Papers of Thomas Jefferson 9:9]

Friday, October 16, 2015

Lost poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper discovered

Congratulations to Johanna Ortner, Ph.D. candidate at UMass-Amherst, for rediscovering the first collection of poetry of the 19th-century activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. (By the way, Johanna, I think it's acceptable to scream when making a find of this magnitude.)

Friday, August 28, 2015

America's deadliest, longest war

It's time to put US gun deaths in perspective.

  • The attacks of 9/11/01 killed 2,996 people. Guns do that every 4.8 weeks.
  • Syria had 76,000 deaths in 2014. We do that every 30 months.
  • The  US has 6000 more gun deaths per year than ALL THE ISRAELI-PALESTINE DEATHS SINCE 1948.
  • Two months of gun deaths in US top the total conflict deaths in the Ukraine.
  • As many people are killed by guns in US in 26 months as in 11 years of the Salvadoran civil war (70,000).
  • The Kashmir conflict has  been going since 1947, with 47,000 killed. We do that with gun deaths in less than 19 months.
  • Japan has experienced less than half the number of gun related crimes in the 70 years since World War II than the US experiences gun-related deaths in an average year.
Make of this what you will. What I make of it is:

By far the deadliest conflict in the world today is the U.S. Gun War. More people have died by guns since 1968 (1.5 million) than from all other U.S. wars combined (1.4 million) (Politifact.)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Florida forebear

The Churchman's Year Book, with Kalendar for the Year of Grace 1870. Hartford, 1870.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The One-Amendment Constitution

According to many Second Amendment devotees, all other rights ultimately derive from "the right of the people to keep and bear arms." As columnist Sandy Froman puts it, "The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is a civil right. And what’s more, it’s the right that protects all the others."

Implicitly, then--and sometimes explicitly--they believe that it is the right and responsibility of the individual to provide for his own defense, and to employ the credible threat of lethal force to secure the right to free speech, religion, property, security from unreasonable search and seizure, etc. Second Amendment extremists are refreshingly frank about the basic reason they need guns, especially military-grade weapons with high-capacity magazines and other ultra-lethal arms: to defend their liberty against their government. 

Just so we're clear: According to classical political theory, people give up some liberty to "put on the bonds of civil society" and "unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another." A society in which the individual has to defend every basic right with arms is not a society; it is Locke's state of nature, or Hobbes' "war of all against all."

Does anyone see the inconsistency here? If the RKBA folk are so convinced that the American social compact is so attenuated that it can only be protected by violence or the threat of violence, how hypocritical and disingenuous it is to invoke the Constitution in defense of their disdain for government! It is a contemptuous self-contradiction that exploits the larger society's respect for law to cordon off their own lawless domain.

This state-of-nature theory of "government" fits perfectly with those interests who view society as an obstacle to their ability to impose their will without restraint. It's not really about guns; those are just a potent symbol for the exercise of unchecked power. Yeats described our situation: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." Society needs to assert itself, or we will start to slip backwards from Stephen Pinsker's apogee of decreasing violence.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Obama Presidency (so far)

With age comes perspective and a certain realism, so I knew--even on that unforgettable November night in 2008--that I would be disappointed in Obama. Indeed, I was elated to have the opportunity to be disappointed.

And of course, I was: just like Clinton, Obama inaugurated his presidency by making a pledge he couldn't keep (closing Guantanamo; Clinton's was opening the military to gays). The billions doled out to banks may have saved the economy, but they corroded the democracy. Viewed by Rahm Emanuel's formula, the president failed to convert a once-in-a-century crisis into an FDR-style opportunity. As I wrote here at the time, Obama made a bold attempt to form essentially a coalition government with the GOP, and reached out effusively to Republicans in Congress, not realizing until after almost everyone else in the country that the Republicans had no higher goal than to make him fail. In defense and civil liberties, it was difficult to see any daylight between the Obama administration and his execrable predecessor. All very disappointing.

However, I never despaired. After all, on his worst day, Obama as President beat his predecessor. And outweighing the disappointments were real accomplishments, many of them under-reported or barely noted by the press at all. Most important, he had an agenda, a long-term vision, and would not be knocked off his game. He kept his eye on the ball, and was willing to trade the inessential, even when painful, to hold onto the core goals. He has been playing the long game.

And now here we are. Seemingly defying the laws of physics, the lame-duck president, with decisive majorities against him in both houses of Congress and a majority-Republican Supreme Court, is picking up steam rather than running out of gas. One can already see the outlines of a long-term evaluation of his presidency, and it stacks up well with any in the last half-century.

Above all, this president is comfortable in his own skin, not stalked by inner demons. This comes across clearly in his interview with Marc Maron (itself a sign of confidence and nonchalance). He knows what he's doing, and he does it well. He's a good fit for the job. The backlash will continue, but we will come out of the Obama years a better country than when we went into it.