52 Poems, Week 9: Deus, Ego Amo Te (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
52 Poems, Week 10: Le Roi S'amuse (C.S. Lewis)

Sunday Night Journal, March 4, 2018

The world is changing. Those words recur several times in The Lord of the Rings, and they keep recurring to me about these times and this country, and in particular over the past few weeks about the gun control debate. It seems to me that a slow transformation in the way Americans think about their country, especially about its political system, is under way. I tend to think the change is overall for the worse, but perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps when the new order stabilizes it will prove to be, on the whole, an improvement. But it will be different. It may preserve the forms of the Constitution, but the document will in effect no longer mean what it was intended to mean. 

Somewhere in something of Chesterton's there's an observation about the prudent approach to ancient structures. I have no idea which book or essay or newspaper column it's in, so I can only paraphrase the general idea, which is this: The impulse of many people when they come upon something--a fence, for instance--that seems to have no purpose is to say "I don't see the purpose of this. Let's tear it down." But the wiser response is to say "I don't see the purpose of this. We'd better leave it alone until we figure out why it's here." 

After Donald Trump won the electoral college, and therefore the presidency, a lot of people started demanding that we get rid of the electoral college. Most of them seemed to have no idea why the system was designed that way, that it's meant to distribute power more widely and prevent a situation where a few highly populated areas exercise complete control of the federal government. They also seem to have almost no idea at all that the state governments are not simply branch offices of the national government. They seem to see the country as being organized like a huge corporation, with its main office in Washington and every aspect of government, all the way down to your county courthouse, existing to implement the will of corporate HQ. This is not explicit, but it's the picture of the way a large organization works that they carry in their minds. But it's not what the Constitution prescribes.

Moreover, and worse, they tend to see the president as the equivalent of a corporate CEO, whose word, for all practical purposes, is law for as long as he holds the job: in short, as a king. This view has been growing for a long time and it seems to get worse every four years, which is why presidential elections are now so bitter; there is more at stake than there really should be. I think some of these people are genuinely surprised that the president cannot simply order the removal of all guns from private hands. Or, if they do realize that he doesn't have the power, they think he (or she) ought to--which is pretty odd considering that for the most part those who think this would be a good state of affairs also think Donald Trump is a fascist. 

I don't think many people under the age of forty or so really have a lot of knowledge of or sympathy with the old constitutional vision. I get the impression that they are not educated in that way, as earlier generations were. When they speak of democracy they mean an extremely crude version of it--that a numerical majority of citizens, counted nation-wide, should determine every question of policy. They don't mean the careful balancing of powers and interests that the Founding Fathers explicitly intended to prevent the likely result of pure democracy: the tyranny of the majority. 

The Constitution implies, more or less presupposes, and is meant to foster the development of a nation of free citizens: farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, and mechanics who are free to manage their own affairs within very broad limits, and can be trusted to do it in a reasonably responsible way. The existence of slavery, the many crimes against the Indians, and all the other ways in which this vision was denied do not negate the intention. 

What I see developing now is an entirely different conception of what the nation should be. Instead of the ideal of free and responsible citizenry governed by representatives chosen from among themselves, the new paradigm sees two sorts of people: sheep and shepherds. The vast majority of us are the sheep, of course. We are stupid, ignorant, irresponsible, not knowing what is in our own best interests, at the mercy of the herd instinct--and worse, unlike sheep, always ready to do violence and other sorts of evil if the hand of the state isn't there to stop us. For the good of each of us and of all the other sheep, we need to be guided and protected by the strong hand and sound judgment of shepherds, who are few in number but great in wisdom and power. Many of the sheep class themselves see it this way, which is why democratic means are being used to transfer more and more power to the shepherding class. No one would put it that way, of course; no one wants to think of himself as being of the sheep, and no one who wants to be one of the shepherds would dare to use those words. 

The 2nd amendment makes a good deal of sense in the context of the old vision. Even setting aside the amendment's strong implication that private ownership of firearms is first of all meant to provide a ready defensive militia, its presumption is "Why should a citizen not be allowed to own a gun?" But in the sheep-and-shepherd context the question is "Why should anyone except the shepherds and their agents  be allowed to have a gun?"

I think this accounts for some of the mutual incomprehension of the two sides in the gun control debate. The shepherding party says "You don't need that gun." The free-citizen party says "That's not for you to decide." The shepherding party sees anyone with a gun as being likely to commit murder at any moment for little or no reason. The free-citizen party sees most people as responsible and murderers as being rare anomalies.

The gun-owning citizen also wonders why, given all the other menaces to life and health in this country, he and the tens of millions like him should be held morally responsible and have their traditional rights nullified when one person runs amuck with a firearm. And why this one terrible but rare problem should get more attention and generate far more emotion than other ills. According to Charles Cooke, whom I'm inclined to trust to get the numbers right (he provides a link for the second): 

By the time the clock strikes midnight, an average of 21 Americans will have been killed by drivers aged between 16 and 20. Tomorrow, on average, eleven teenagers will die because they were texting while driving

So if we raised the legal driving age to 21, thousands of young lives might be saved, vastly more than will be killed by lunatics attacking schools. The people who die in this manner are just as dead, and their families just as bereaved, as those murdered in Parkland, Florida. But there is no general public emotion, no journalistic outcry, and few or no calls for government action. Obviously deliberate killing creates more shock and outrage than accidents, but if the accidents are killing far more people, and are (in theory at least) preventable, something else is at work in the disproportionate demand for action against guns. I think what I've said here is part of that something else. 

The change in our conception of the commonwealth, if it is as big and lasting as I suspect, is ultimately a change in the people. The Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means, and in the long run that will be determined by the people. It almost seems inevitable, since the whole drift of the past fifty years and more in our culture has been toward the loosening of all self-restraint. And it's an iron law of human nature that people who cannot control themselves will be and must be, for everyone's sake, controlled by others. 

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Apropos of nothing in particular, but before I forget it, here's the funniest thing I've heard anyone say about the president:

Everything Trump says makes sense when you just preface it with, "Donald from Queens, you’re on the air."

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Here, via a link at Dappled Things, is an interesting conversation about mystery novels from two Catholic writers of same. One of them, T.M. Doran, I've heard of, and I have to admit it was not an enthusiastic recommendation, but still, it's interesting.

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Sorry it's out of focus, but new cypress needles are one of my favorite spring colors, especially when they catch the sunlight.

CypressBranch

Comments

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“So if we raised the legal driving age to 21, thousands of young lives might be saved, vastly more than will be killed by lunatics attacking schools. The people who die in this manner are just as dead, and their families just as bereaved, as those murdered in Parkland, Florida. But there is no general public emotion, no journalistic outcry, and few or no calls for government action.”

I find it hard to understand how a comparison with cars helps your case. On the contrary, you don't hear constitutional conservatives calling for rolling back all the "sheep/shepherd" rules around car manufacture and and use. Car deaths aren't as sensational because they are on a huge decline…which in turn is thanks to a truly massive regulatory framework around design safety, licensing, ownership and operation. There also isn't a huge yawning gap between car deaths in the US and in other developed nations, as there is with gun deaths.

The car industry in the past behaved very much like the gun industry today: when cars first came on the scene, there was a huge public outcry against them. They were called the Modern Moloch. Car makers saw this as bad for business so they set about lobbying and campaigning to give cars first place on the streets, to oppose speed limits, to blame auto-related deaths on the individual pedestrians involved, and to invent a national "love affair with cars" for PR purposes.

Only in the case of the car industry, the "sheep and shepherd" people as you call them fought back and implemented a huge amount of regulation on car manufacture and use at every level of government.

Maybe there is some benefit to having more freedom to be killed as a result of other people's bad decisions, but ultimately with cars we are taking a somewhat different approach. I and my kids are alive today because of that regulation. More and more people are seeing how literally every other developed country in the world achieves much lower gun deaths while still allowing gun ownership — by basically implementing similar common-sense rules to those surrounding vehicle use.

Joel is of course 100% correct. Guns are made to shoot and kill, cars are to drive someplace. One is allowed all sorts of regulation, the other is completely hands-off thanks to an antiquated piece of our constitution.

Hang on! My intention here is not to argue for or against gun control (whatever one might mean by that). It's about the difference between the two mind-sets, the one that says "I'm not hurting anybody, leave me alone" and the one that says "Well, other people are, and you might, so hand over the gun." And the sources of the two mind-sets. And the implications.

My point about car deaths is simply that we are not in what Charles Cooke calls a "moral panic" about those deaths, though the body count is far higher and more easily preventable. Assuming you could actually enforce a 21-year-old minimum for driving. Texting while driving is already illegal in many places.

For the record, I'm not a gun enthusiast and have no objection in principle to some regulation of guns. Depends completely on the proposals. I had a bit in the post to that effect, actually, but cut it out because the post was getting too long and that wasn't directly relevant.

Also for the record I think the world would be a better place without the automobile and am sorry it ever came to dominate our lives the way it does.

Hear, hear, Mac!

I don't own a gun and never have, and I think that there are far too many of them around. But Puritanical do-goodism is not the answer, because the problem runs far deeper than just "guns."

"for the record I think the world would be a better place without the automobile and am sorry it ever came to dominate our lives the way it does."

Ditto. Booth Tarkington wrote about this very thing in one of his novels 100 years ago!

'the problem runs far deeper than just "guns."'

Yep. Way, way deeper. As I'm always saying, in the time and place where I grew up, everybody--including boys from about 12 on up--had guns, and nobody got shot.

By the way, Joel: "Car deaths aren't as sensational because they are on a huge decline" Actually I think gun deaths are, too. Don't have time to look for the stats right now but definitely homicides and violent crime in general are way down from a peak 20 or 30 years ago. As far as I know no one has a good explanation for it. But a lot of people seem to have the idea that's it's still on the steady rise that was the case starting sometime in the '60s.

I have read two books by T. M. Doran, Toward the Gleam, and Iota.

I don't think I would ever have read TtG, but one day I was looking for something to listen to while I did some work, and it was on Formed, so out of curiosity I listened to it. It was not particularly well-written and some of it was preposterous, but it wasn't totally uninteresting. Still, I probably wouldn't recommend it.

Iota, I would definitely recommend.

AMDG

It was your "not an enthusiastic recommendation" that I was referring to.

This one has a chart since 1981. Gun homicides have gone down. This is from someone who clearly is in favor of stricter gun laws.

Pew Research

Thanks. I dug up stats of that sort a while back, so I was pretty sure that was the case, but of course I didn't save any of it.

I asked my 12-year of soon what the relationship between the states an the federal government was. He did,"to federal government puts some limits on the states. Within those limits the state makes any laws it wants.' not bad for a kid who had never had any formal civics.

I hate auto correct. My 12-year old son.

I think he knows this because of our pro life activism.

That's a 50% drop in gun homicides.

I'm ready to raise the driving age to 21. ;-)

AMDG

Yes, the 50% drop is kind of stunning, and as far as I know there's no generally accepted explanation for it. It's a drop in crime in general. Whereas from sometime in the early or mid '70s and well into the '80s we all had the feeling that violent crime was just going to keep rising and rising and there was no way to stop it. That's when and why the Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood movies got so popular.

Yes, that is very good for a 12-year-old, Robert. My congratulations to you both.

Gun homicide deaths, down by 50% yes. Gun suicides are on the rise. Of course, mass shootings, particularly school shootings, are also on the rise. Total gun deaths, including accidental deaths or not, are still way out of line with the rest of the developed world.

On the other hand, vehicle deaths (per mile driven) are down 96% from their peak.

So I still say it should be kind of obvious why there is a bigger public outcry over gun deaths than against car deaths.

Also, however it was envisioned, this post definitely doesn't come off as some detached neutral comparison of two mindsets. Setting one side up as "sheep-and-shepherd" people, ignorant of our country's constitutional vision and founding principles of personal responsibility, is a little too loaded for that. Besides which, the same language applies to proponents of any law or legal limitation you don't like. (It's pretty easy to fill in the blanks on an argument like this against bans on gay marriage or pornography, for example, or against tax laws that favor huge accumulations of wealth.) In other words, "sheep/shepherd" vs "free citizenry" is not a neutral or accurate way to frame people, and it doesn't actually parse anything real or meaningful out of our history. It's really just a caricature people (on both sides) use against people they disagree with.

Joel,

It doesn't come off that way to you, but it seems to me that is because you bring a lot of stuff of your own to the post that is not there.

AMDG

"Gun homicide deaths, down by 50% yes. Gun suicides are on the rise."

To paraphrase Archie Bunker, would it make you feel better if they jumped out of windows?

"Total gun deaths, including accidental deaths or not, are still way out of line with the rest of the developed world."

Right, even in places like Canada where there are also a lot of guns. Which implies that the problem in America runs far deeper than just "guns." Rod Dreher said on his blog yesterday that where he grew up in Louisiana everyone had guns, but yet there were few if any shootings. Same with me -- I grew up (and still live) in SW Pa., which is big deer hunting country. Lots of guns around, but shootings weren't all that common and if a hunter was killed accidentally it was big news. The shootings that did occur tended to be associated with other crimes, i.e., drugs and robbery.

Sorry, I've been tied up today, and still am. I should have time to respond sometime later.

We've had some unexpected company and I still don't have time to do an extensive reply. I'll try to come up with a quick one.

It is in some ways understandable that gun deaths would create more of a sense of crisis than auto deaths, mainly because they are acts of deliberate violence vs accidents. But it would not be difficult, if enough of the right people chose to do so, to ratchet up the emotion about the latter and engender a sense of crisis. It's not hard to imagine the rhetoric at all. I could write it myself.

But, again, the main point there is that many more lives would be saved with one or two straightforward changes in our laws than would be saved by any gun control measure short of total confiscation, which is just not going to happen anytime in the next couple of decades. Beyond that time, maybe. Yet as far as I know nobody is advocating it (except Janet).

And, again again, the point of this post is not that attempts at gun control are bad or futile, but that those who are most fervent about it, who really would like to outlaw private possession of firearms altogether, are looking at the whole situation in a very different way from the average gun-owner, and a way that signifies a shift in attitudes about the kind of nation we are. Now that last point is debatable, but so far no one has said anything to make me think I'm wrong about it.

I don't make any pretense of neutrality on the question of regard for the constitution. I could be wrong about the general deterioration of same, but it sure looks that way to me. However, I don't think the sheep-shepherd analogy is necessarily all that negative. I knew it would come across that way, but it was all I could come up with on the spur of the moment (these posts are not carefully composed essays). After all, it's at the heart of Christianity, and very positive there. Maybe this whole self-governance thing is just something unnatural and was destined for a fairly short life. Maybe the palpable desire of many Americans for a king is simply nature kicking in again. However, I personally think very highly of many aspects of the American system and, being a pessimist, expect anything that would succeed it will be worse, at least for some time. That's partly because I think it's extremely obvious that we are in a severe cultural decline. To say the least.

Well, as Charles Cooke says in the next to last paragraph of the article you included in your original post, "we should, of course, address this problem, not ignore it". School shootings, that is. With "thoughts and prayers" for so many years, and "it's too early to address this", politicians have decided to ignore the problem. On both sides of the aisle, but the Republicans are much more complicit because they seem to have sold their souls to the evil MFs at the NRA.

Politicians tend to shy away from it for very good *political* reasons, just like they tend to shy away from many difficult issues. Some people will support them avidly, others will un-support them at least as avidly. So they tend to avoid taking a stand. It's political suicide in a lot of places to support the kind of measures a lot of gun-controllers would like to see.

It's a mistake to focus blame on the NRA for that situation, even if you think their cause is evil. They're just another lobbying group, and are way way down the list of biggest donors.

I meant to say earlier that after the election when people were complaining about the electoral college, I tried to explain why the electoral college was important to a few people. I got no response--no disagreement--just no response. It was as if I hadn't said anything.

AMDG

I'm not surprised. Maybe if you showed them this?

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/266038556504494082

"I tried to explain why the electoral college was important to a few people."

That's ironic, I hope! It's important to everyone -- everyone, that is, who doesn't want the government to be even more in the control of the urban elites than it already is.

Ha. Poorly written sentence. I tried to explain it to a few people. It is important to everyone.

AMDG

Whew! Thanks. ;-)

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