Taking Shots At History: The Gun Lobby’s Fantastical Past

The best protection against tyranny is not a populace armed to the teeth with military-grade weapons; it is a robust democracy controlled by an informed and engaged electorate participating in a process not owned lock, stock and barrel by corporate interests.

I agree that the founders did not envision of a nation full of sheep–Jefferson spoke several times of the importance of “the spirit of resistance,” though he did not say “armed resistance,”–but this has been blown far out of proportion by some of our more paranoid and militant fellow citizens who seem to believe that the founders of this country intended a citizenry constantly capable of violently overthrowing their own government.

The Constitution does speak of militias, and not just in the second amendment. In Article II, it gives the president the power to call up the militia to suppress insurrections, not start them, and the Constitution is clear that a citizen who takes up arms against the United States is guilty of treason and thus subject to execution.

And this wasn’t just an abstract idea. In 1791, in our own neck of the woods, farmers objected strenuously to Alexander Hamilton’s new excise tax on whiskey–a substance that doubled as currency west of the Alleghenies–and started a little armed rebellion. They beat up some tax collectors, burned some houses, and threatened to march on and torch Pittsburgh (for a great, fun read (tangentially, at least) about this event, pick up David Liss’ historical novel, The Whiskey Rebels. I know: you think you don’t like historical fiction. You’ll like this). President Washington (I don’t think there’s anybody more founder-ish than this guy) promptly called up the army and sent 13,000 men to Pittsburgh. Washington, himself, led the troops to Carlisle. The rebellion was snuffed out and two men were brought to Philadelphia and tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. George pardoned them both, but his point was made: In a representative democracy, you may not always get what you want, but you get a say, and you’re not invited to overthrow the people’s government anytime you get in a snit.

Of course, I’m sure the Tea-Partiers, birthers, preppers, gun-nuts and other assorted wannabe revolutionaries will tell me this is different: This government is a tyranny–it doesn’t represent them. Oh yeah? Well, my party won a 1.5 million vote majority in House races, but somehow your party still has a stranglehold on that chamber. Whose government doesn’t represent him now? But you don’t see me oiling up my AR-15 now, do ya?

Finally, there’s this notion that tyrants are always brought down by the gun. Well, they’re not. The most successful revolutions I can think of–the ones that brought down dictatorships so entrenched we simply came to see them as intractable parts of the global reality–have, at least in my lifetime, been brought down by peaceful refusal of masses of people filled with righteousness and awesome courage who refused to cooperate with tyranny one day longer.

Think of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Think of Yeltsin and thousands of Muscovites stopping tanks from unseating Gorbachev before he could change the world forever. Think of Havel and the Velvet Revolution. Think of Cory Aquino and People Power. Think of Gandhi. And while we don’t know where it’s headed and things look dark, perhaps someday we’ll look back and say, “think of Tahrir.”

Of course violence sometimes brings down tyrants and sometimes peaceful revolutions end up with dictatorships (think of Iran and, for a while, France), but those violent revolutions often end up the same way–perhaps more often: Fulgencio Batista was a dictator. Do you prefer Fidel Castro, who followed him? Some do, but many do not. Historical examples abound.

Yes, Hitler disarmed the Germans, but as with most Hitler comparisons, this is facile–oversimplified. First, no one is proposing to ban all guns in the US, or at least no one with a chance of succeeding. Second, what evidence do we have, really, that we are facing Hitler or that our system will produce him? It has produced some poor leaders and there are dark marks on our past, but in well over 200 years, no one has come close. I retain much faith in that. Third, if you invoke the tyrants in history who disarmed their people, you must acknowledge the times people have had their gun rights limited and not found themselves crushed by dictatorships. Australia, Japan and England are examples, and their own democratic governments–governments that represented them–passed laws limiting gun ownership. They are safer for it. Safer than they were and, as we’ve been pointedly reminded lately, much safer than we are.

There is a lot of scary talk about guns and rights these days, and it does, indeed, scare me, but what scares me even more is the ignorance that sometimes informs it. This country was not founded by evangelical Christians who wanted every citizen to be able to overthrow the government. The Old West was a place of rugged individualism, but it was also one with a stratospheric murder rate in which many towns required that men check their guns at the sheriff’s office. Gun control does not always lead to tyranny and over the past century or so, the only way to defeat a bad guy with an army has not been everyone with a machine gun but, rather, the non-violent courage of determined citizens.

I think the only way to defeat people with bad gun ideas is with knowledge, organization and good ideas.

I’m going to arm myself with as many of these as I can. I encourage everyone to do the same.

How to Win Elections Without Really Winning!

By now a lot of Americans (I would estimate at least 35 of us–maybe even more!) are aware that the Republicans wound up controlling the House of Representatives despite losing the overall vote for House seats by about a million and a half votes, or 1.4%.  This is largely the result of aggressively gerrymandered House districts after the 2010 elections (and I’ll acknowledge in advance that the Democrats would likely have done exactly the same thing given a similar opportunity, but that seems largely beside the point–this isn’t really about Republican skullduggery, it’s about a threat to true representation and democracy).

For people in my home state, Pennsylvania, this translates into a sort of bizarro-world legislature in which Republicans control 13 of the 18 state legislative districts in a state that went fairly decisively for Barack Obama.  This is true in other swing states. Ohio, for instance, voted for Obama but Democrats control only 4 of 16 state legislative districts.

It’s possible that most Americans think that state and US Congressional districts are determined by some sort of impartial, logical, automatic system, but that is far from the case and it never has been the case.  The term Gerrymandering, which we all learn about in high school, is actually named for revolutionary-era Massachusetts politician Elbridge Gerry who, as governor, created a legislative district map so odd in its shape that critics said it resembled a salamander, giving birth to one of the more enduring and colorful terms in US politics.

The current situation is a little like hurricane Sandy–a confluence of conditions that combined to create a sort of superstorm of legislative manipulation:  first came the GOP midterm landslide in 2010, which happened to be a census year.  After a census, US congressional districts have to be redrawn to reflect the redistribution of our population.  Add to this ever-more deft computer programs that can slice votes by street and create incumbent-safe districts more effectively than even the cleverest back-room dealers and you have a Republican House majority that is basically secure from the voters for a decade.  In fact, as Dana Milbank points out in the Washington Post, the Democrats would have had to have won the House elections by a total of over 7% just to earn a slim majority in the House.  Somethin’ don’t smell right.

The same thing is true at the state level. In almost all of the “purple” or swing states that went for Obama (and all but NC did), Republicans enjoy a solid majority in the state legislatures, and the implications for all of this are potentially alarming.

First, it’s going to be very difficult, given the current intransigence of a large portion of the GOP House caucus, to get things done in Congress at a time when the country urgently needs things to get done.  The tired refrain from some pundits that the voters chose divided government doesn’t hold up:  they chose Democrats, and this choice was reflected in the results in the presidential and senatorial elections, but not the house elections.

Second, Republicans have not been dissuaded by the failure of their voter-suppression efforts in 2010.  They are still looking for alternate routes to the White House that don’t involve winning a majority, which looks for the moment, apparently, like just too steep a hill to climb, so bills have been put forward in all of the swing states controlled by Republicans to change the way these states assign their electoral votes.  Instead of giving all of their votes to the winner of the popular election in their state (which is what everybody but Maine and Nebraska now do), the idea would be to assign a vote for each congressional district a candidate won.  Had this been the case in the last election, Mitt Romney would have lost PA, VA, OH, WI and MI, but he would have won a clear majority of those states’ electoral votes and he would have won the election.

Like the voter ID laws that passed in so many states, this proposal seems reasonable to some people on its surface, and I think this starts with another case of voter ignorance.  Just as Americans don’t know how their congressional districts are drawn, I think many assume the winner-take-all method is mandated by the Constitution.  It isn’t.  States can apportion their electoral votes however they want to.  Technically, they can have their state legislatures vote for the president directly (that’s how we used to pick senators, by the way).  Nothing in the Constitution even says they have to hold an election, though it seems likely to me that failing to do so would be in violation of the voters’ 14th amendment rights).

So not knowing how it’s done in the first place leaves a voter, I think, more vulnerable to greasily reasonable-sounding arguments.  This fall in discussing the voter ID laws, I had many otherwise liberal friends say to me, echoing GOP talking points, “but you need an ID for everything these days.  What’s the big deal?”  The fact that a) buying liquor or renting a car is not a constitutional right at the bedrock of our democracy and b) that studies consistently showed that the voter ID movement was a solution in search of a problem–that essentially NO in-person voter fraud existed in US presidential elections–made very little impact.  To a reasonable person without a full understanding of the system and how it works (or doesn’t), this sounds like a reasonable proposal.

I worry that the same will be true of these measures to change the way electoral votes are awarded.  The message fits with the overall GOP message:  government that is closer to home is better.  Why have your votes thrown into a big pot with everyone else in your state when you could have the fairer and more precise system of awarding the votes by Congressional districts?  Even typing it, it sounds okay to me.

And it might be if Congressional districts were like states:  shaped largely by historical and geographic forces and somewhat organic in their composition.  Indiana, to chose an example, was not created for the benefit of any political party, and even if it had been, it was created more than 150 years ago.  Indianans today are likely to vote Republican, but that is not because a Republican consultant wielding a powerful computer program carved Indiana out of the map to guarantee that only Republicans could win there, but that is precisely what almost all of our Congressional districts now are.  They currently almost guarantee that the will of the electorate will not be represented in many states’ house delegations, and with a little legislative used-car salesmanship, they could do the same for the White House.

The lesson here?  Well, I think there are several.  First, it’s not okay not to know how these things work.  It’s more than just depressing that most Americans lack even a fundamental understanding of the workings of their government (a Newsweek survey here is both amusing and distressing in what it reveals about our collective civic ignorance); it’s actually dangerous. Second, much of what matters is decided at a lower level than most voters perceive.  In other words, the current battles in the House over fiscal matters were largely set in 2010 when Congressional districts were drawn.  Now that the representatives are there, most of the action is a foregone conclusion.

What to do, then?  First and foremost, I think, is to keep our eye on your legislature.  If you live in one of those purple states mentioned above, it’s not unlikely that you’re a Democrat represented by a Republican.  Make sure you let him/her know that you’re paying attention and will raise holy hell if the GOP messes with the winner-take-all system in your state.  Make sure you talk to your friends about this.  I believe that most voters in all the states, regardless of their political leanings, want elections to be fair and represent the will of the people.  While it may seem hopeless to try to influence locked-in GOP majorities in these purple state legislatures, they need to be reminded that many of the people who voted for them might lean Republican, but identify as independent, and part of the pride of that identification lies in a disdain for partisan game-playing and a desire for honest and fair politics.  Piss enough of them off and you’ll find out your safe seat is more wobbly than you thought.  It’s important to remember, too, that tidal shifts happen in politics and can happen quickly.  It would have taken a 7% overall margin for Democrats to flip the house, but that’s about the margin they had in 2006 and 2008.  A couple of elections like that and your representative could be back to working for a living (unlikely–he’ll just become a coal or gas lobbyist, but you get the idea), and eventually these districts will be redrawn.

Speaking of which, there are other ways that legislative districts can be shaped, and the Governator, Arnold Scwarzenegger, of all people, proposed a plan in California when he was first elected that would have mandated that districts be created by an impartial, bi-partisan panel of retired judges.  Of course, the Democrats blocked that idea in the Golden State, but that doesn’t make it a bad one.  Writing letters to your governor and state representative encouraging them to come up with a better, more fair and less partisan way of determining your representation is a good idea.

Finally, the whole messy business of electoral votes could be done away with entirely with a national popular vote.  This is another subject for another post, and it’s a controversial one.  There are cassandras who predict all sorts of political disaster if we were to do away with the electoral college, but I think the acid test for its worth comes from this question:  if we were starting this country tomorrow and had never heard of the electoral college, would anyone ever invent it?  I don’t think so.  The problem with getting rid of it isn’t in the consequences, I think, but in the actual doing of it.  It would require changing the Constitution, and that is hard, and it’s tough to foresee a circumstance when the many small states who benefit disproportionally from the system would give up their advantage.

But there’s a way around that.  There’s another route, and while it seems complicated, it’s actually pretty elegant:  As I said before, it’s up to the states how they apportion their votes.  Short of a coin-flip, the Constitution gives them lots of latitude, and several states have passed laws that would, if adopted by enough states, give the election to the winner of the national popular vote regardless of which candidate won their stateIt essentially amounts to a pact among states.  So far eight states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that will award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, but these laws will only take effect when states with electoral votes totalling 270 (a majority) have passed similar laws.  Right now, they’re at almost half the electoral votes they need.  Unlike an amendment, which would require 3/4 of the states (or 38 total), this pact could be passed by about a dozen and a half and the electoral college would, essentially, make itself irrelevant.

So, there are things we can do, and as much of a pain in the ass as it is, we have to pay attention, and not just every four years when the two sides will spend a couple billion to convince thirteen people in Ohio to vote for one guy or another for President.  We have to pay attention all the time because everybody has skin in the game, and the people trying to manipulate this system don’t wait for leap years to do their work.  They’re at it constantly, and if we’re not paying attention, they’ll steal our voices before we have a chance to open our mouths.

Here Goes

For a few years now, my favorite means of self-expression, at least to people I can’t talk to directly, has been the Facebook status update.  The dividing line between FB addicts and FB haters seems to run right through my generation, with a roughly equal number of my friends either unable to stay away from it or trying to figure out what it is and why anybody would want to “do” it (with a small group apparently unable to decide).

For me, it was a natural fit from the start.  My wife, Marie, who is an anthropologist, read an article that likened Facebook to a virtual village a person can wander through, or a street in a city neighborhood.  Some folks are on the porch, some are hanging out their laundry–some of it dirty–and others are inside their houses.  You can wander over to chat, eavesdrop and enjoy the show, knock on a door or walk on by.  I like people and like talking to them–in my job as a high school history teacher, I might have a hundred conversations in any given day, and they energize me.  The chance to talk with people from all the different parts and periods of my life is too much to resist, and since I’m often reading the news in another tab when I’m on FB, and since the news riles me up, it’s not uncommon for me to post something about it.

Or about anything else, and over the years, friends have asked me to start a blog.  Some have suggested it because they say they like what I have to say and how I say it.  This is gratifying.  Some, I suspect, would just like me to stop blowing up their news feeds, filling their smartphone screens with thousands of words when they’d prefer I keep it to something more tweetish.  Either way, there have been enough requests that I figure it’s about time to get blogging, and this is it.

Unfortunately for my impatient friends, some of these posts will simply duplicate what I share on FB:  I’m not going to stop spouting off there; it’s just too much fun.  I’ll link this blog to my Facebook page, but I hope those of you who like reading what I write will subscribe.  You’ll get these posts automatically.

Here’s what you can expect to find:

Political commentary that I hope will be passionate, thoughtful, provocative, sometimes funny but always respectful.  Even when I’m pissed off.  Which happens.

Reflections on life as they come to me.  I hope they’ll be all of the above, but maybe will shed a bit more light and less heat.

Links to good stuff I’ve read, either embedded in my own posts or posted directly.  One of the beauties of the internet is that ideas fly around like leaves in an autumn wind.  I’ll try to grab the ones I like best and show them to you.

Older writing I’ve done, including my “greatest hits” from Facebook and work going all the way back to when I was in college.  I’m a lousy filer, and there are a number of op-eds, essays, letters and a few poems I’ve written that are stuffed in boxes, trapped on ancient floppies and hard drives, or stored in the archives of newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia Daily News.  Part of my goal here is to finally create an archive where this writing can live, and I’ll post it as I remember it and dig it up.  I hope you’ll like it, even if it’s way past the sell-by date.

Your writing. I have smart and thoughtful friends, I think, and some of them wield a sharp pen.  If you’d like to post something here, send it my way.  If I think it fits, you’ll see it here.

The title of this blog is a nod to eighteenth-century Pennsylvania statesman, politician and author John Dickinson, the namesake of Dickinson college.  His essays during the time leading up to the American Revolution, Letters From A Farmer in Pennsylvania, earned him the title “Penman of the Revolution,” and that’s really something, because he had plenty of competition.

In a traditional sense, the greatest battles of the Revolutionary War were not fought in the state where I’ve lived my life–a state famously described by political operative and human-catfish hybrid James Carville as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh [my two hometowns] with Alabama in the middle”, but in the way that matters, I think Pennsylvania was the site of the most important battles in that epic struggle.  They were the battles over ideas fought in the pages of pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, written and first published in Philadelphia, where I was born.  They were the battles that raged in debates in the Continental Congress and at the Constitutional Convention, and they were fought with words.  They were heated battles, but they were often constructive.  In fact, they were necessary, and I think, if we’re to fulfill the trust the founders passed onto us to make this a more perfect union, they still are.

I’ll make my stand here.