The Assault on our Republic

With my fellow citizens I have struggled with the anger and projected grief that arises in the wake of yet another mass shooting that tears open the raw wounds of our history and our present derangement. As with the other singular atrocities, this event leads us to wider questions about the fragility and peril of our country’s public life. My own peculiar mourning has led me to study the famous Supreme Court case D.C. v. Heller (2008) that stands at the legal core of our resistance to protecting ourselves and our public order from the destruction we see around us. I want to share my reflections with you today.

Not only are our fellow citizens dying in mass shootings. Our Republic itself is under assault. The integrity of the public arenas that constitute the lifeblood of our republican order is imperiled by the threat and fear of violence, while the fog of lies and a flood of political dark money pollute the reasonable debate at the heart of republican self-governance. The failure of governance through informed and reasonable argument creates a vicious circle of violent speech and violent acts. The freedom of self-governance cannot survive under conditions of violence and the threat of violence. Our freedom as citizens rests not in our possession of guns but in our capacity to engage in a public life of reasonable debate about the common good. Throughout history the collapse of the public life underlying republican governance has created the conditions for despotism, tyranny, and dictatorship. Despots arise who campaign on collective fear and govern by personal greed.

The founders of our constitutional order wanted to avert this degeneration into tyranny in earlier republics by distributing authority through a federal order, creating a system of checks and balances within the national government, and adopting provisions protecting the rights of individuals from state action. While they could not have foreseen the combination of widespread gun violence and media distortions that leave us in a state of fear and confusion today, they did know very well the power of demagogues to rise to despotic control over democracies fractured by ignorance and economic misery.

The problem of gun violence in our republic is not only the 33,000 deaths and many thousands of people permanently scarred by gun violence every year. Of equal importance is the fear it casts over every public event, whether it is a concert in Las Vegas, a night club party, a church service, or a town hall meeting.

When people cry out for stricter control of the guns used in these terrorizing actions, some people appeal to “Second Amendment Rights” as a barrier to legislative action. However, the Supreme Court sees no such barrier to wide-spread regulation of guns in its understanding of the Second Amendment. In its 5 to 4 ruling in District of Columbia v. Dick Anthony Heller (2008), the Court simply held that the Second Amendment defended the rights of individuals to possess and keep a loaded handgun in the home for self-defense. It did not even overturn the District’s requirement for the licensing of such weapons. (Read the Majority and Dissenting opinions at http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/554/570.html.)

As the minority vigorously pointed out, this opinion overturned the long-standing interpretation in US v. Miller (1939) that the Second Amendment pertains to the maintenance of state militias. While the Heller decision opened the door to an endless series of lawsuits to determine which laws may violate this self-defense interpretation, it does not limit states or the federal government from regulating firearms outside the home in the interests of public safety. Indeed, as Justice Scalia said in speaking for the majority in Heller: “…we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation…” in addition, he writes: “…nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

In the Heller decision the Court expanded the Second Amendment to include a certain range of weapons used for self-defense, namely handguns. I think it did so wrongly and unwisely, as the minority opinions of Justice Stevens and Breyer strongly argue. However, if the purpose of the Constitution is to preserve a republican form of government based in rational debate among its citizens, the Second Amendment cannot be a political suicide pact in which armed citizens form militias, carry weapons in public, intimidate the general public, or possess arms and munitions that threaten law enforcement officials and drive people from their public assemblies into the privacy of their gated communities and armed homes. Finally, it is not weapons that make communities and republics safe and free, it is the dense web of trust and mutual obligation cultivated in families, churches, voluntary associations, and civic groups that gives us the security and freedom envisioned by our Constitution.

To return to our long journey toward an ever more perfect union, we need to recommit ourselves to the public life of our towns, cities, states, and nation, refusing to be cowed by the domestic terrorism and violence around us. To find effective responses to gun violence we need wide-ranging research into the reasons why our nation has a far greater toll of gun death than any other comparable nation. We then have to insist that our representatives pursue vigorous measures to reduce gun violence. We also need to find ways to talk with each other about our fears and our hopes as well as the practices, customs, and laws that might enable our public life and our constitutional republic to flourish anew.

[Subsequently published in the Smoky Mountain News, October 18-24, p. 28.)

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Appalachian Melancholy

I am preparing to participate in a gathering commemorating the life and work of Kathryn Stripling Byer, whose teaching, poems, and spirit will resonate in these hills for many decades to come. I was able to be in a workshop she led for about a dozen of us in early May. In early June she slipped away to the Greater Life. In her teaching at Western Carolina University and her tenure as Poet Laureate of North Carolina she touched many, many people with her delight in and commitment to what they could bring forth in those words we call poetry. She encouraged and guided me as well as I turned from academic prose to poetry in these later years. We will miss her deeply.

At this gathering of friends and admirers I will read her poem “Kitchen Sink,” from her collection The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest. Kay, who grew up in south Georgia but claimed these mountains as a young teacher, was able to capture the deep, brooding melancholy that wreaths these hills as well as the unshakeable life and strength of the people who have wrested food, shelter and community from them for centuries. Her words can haunt as well as inspire. They can be as spindly and sharp as the greenbrier but with roots that go deep below the rocks of our inner life.

As I read through some of her collections—Black Shawl, Descent, The Vishnu Bird, and others—I was struck with the melancholy that lingers in their shadows as well as the beauty they draw out from ordinary things. Out of that reading and reflection emerged this poem, which I share with you today.

 

There is an intractable melancholy in these mountains.

Here mists rise up to mourn a heavy storm,

           lie grieving on the valley floors

           embracing graves and broken barns

           where settlers carved a living from the stones.

Some say it is the cries of immigrants

           who sang in strange and haunting keys.

Some say it is the ghosts of persecution driving them

            to hidden coves suspicious of the light.

Others say it is the sighs of ancient Cherokee they drove off on a trail of tears.

Still others say it is the loneliness of cussed independence.

But a melody still sings within the melancholy.

In the shroud of morning dews

            small flowers struggle underneath the darkened canopy

                        of oak and cherry, walnut and beech,

            declaring victory in the spring

                        before they die in summer’s arms.

Furtive salamanders ooze into the humus

            by the ceaseless trickling streams.

The leaves in clapping hush the dying katydids

            when fall begins to nip the trees.

The children squeal in delight when fiddles find a conversation with guitars.

Young lovers still find heaven in the pungent new mown hay.

Old lovers sit and rock and tell old tales

            holding hands long gnarled in the roots of care.

And neighbors always bring a casserole assuaging grief.

The beauty in these mountains is intractable.

Posted in Personal Events, Poetry and Songs | Tagged | 4 Comments

Victim

I am heartened by the massive outpouring of good will to push back against the violent forces of White racism in Charlottesville and to rescue and assist the many people suffering from the devastating hurricane in Texas and Louisiana. At the same time, I am painfully aware that our present crisis is fueled by the self-destructive sense of victimage and self-sabotage that Arlie Hochschild has portrayed in her important book Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. I am acutely aware of how Trump and his collaborators are manipulating this anger, injury, and ignorance to ravage our land, our skies, our civic souls, and our bonds with other people around the world, all for the sake of gilding their own towers and gated communities. Out of that pain arose this poem, which I share with you. I am not sure I know what it means. Maybe you do.

 

I’m so thirsty, haven’t had a drop of red or white for years.

            I’m bloody thirsty. Take away the cups they stole and give them back to me.

I’m so blue. In depression since the War. The wars. So many wars.

            Give me back my dreams again, let me have that trophy home.

And these floods. Please stop these floods.

            I need to find my car, fill it up, drive it to the oil fields.

I’m so angry, holding up the ladder, fingers hurting underneath the shoes above.

            Put me back on top again, let their fingers feel the pain.

I’m so scared, they’re coming in to take away my soul, take away my purity.

            Give me back security, give me back my history.

I’m so sick, my body filled with poisons, all those doctors killing me.

            Kill the doctors. They don’t know. Let my poisons be.

Please, I need a medication for my leprous, whitening skin.

            Please, just a cup of soup. I’ll give you anything.

            Please, a bullet for my pain.

 

Posted in Poetry and Songs, Public Life | Tagged | 3 Comments

Reconciling History and Hope

I grew up not far from Charlottesville and still remember visiting Monticello as a boy, fascinated by the gadgets of our third President. The decayed remnants of slavery and the monuments to its defense were silent backdrops to my emerging life. Almost all the wooden structures in northern Virginia had been burned in The War as Union and Confederate troops roiled back and forth in the Shenandoah. My great-grandfather was wounded at Antietam fighting with the 13th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteers. We regularly made a pilgrimage to the cornfield where he was shot. Visiting Civil War battlefields throughout the region was a regular feature of my boyhood. The ten volumes of The Photographic History of the Civil War provided bedtime reading and still occupies a place on my bookshelves. The stories of War and Republic hung in the air I breathed. In Charlottesville they clashed again like Mosby’s Grey Ghosts of Northern Virginia in my youth’s imagination.

The struggle for a flourishing Republic has always been fought out on the battlegrounds of slavery and racism. Even as Edward Everett orated for the preservation of the Union, he did so in defense of the great republican heritage of the Anglo-Saxon race. In his mind and in those of his compatriots, the defeat of the Confederacy was necessary to preserve the republican Union created by this race of men. The republican vision sailed into the twentieth century in the ship of Anglo-Saxon “progress.” Only grudgingly did it accept other Europeans and then other “white” people into a common hold. More arduous still has been the inclusion of non-Christians, Africans, and Asians. At each point the Republican vision had to strain at the scaffold of its Constitutional frameworks.

The 19th century theory of race was widely shared by all educated people. Only gradually did it begin to succumb to scientific critiques. In the mid-twentieth century people began to realize that all human beings shared a common ancestor in Africa. Adam and Eve were Africans. Slavery and racism have been the ongoing fratricide of the human family.

Now, the struggle for a social order formed by covenants, constitutions, public deliberation, and voluntary citizenship struggles to escape the wreckage of a foundering racist ship. On our entire human journey we have continually tried to anchor our political life in the biology of sex, skin, and strength. We do not yet believe fully that we can be human together through the grace of a shared public life rooted not in our biology but in our freedom, not only in our history but in our hopes.

The public life of our Republic is threatened once again by armed insurrection in the streets, the decay of truthfulness in our presiding leaders, the fear of “The Other,” and the ruthless despoliation of the earth that gave us birth. Overcoming the cries of “Blood and Soil,” as in Germany in the Nazi era, will require sacrifice anew, but in this sacrifice of former certainties of race, we may also have the possibility to claim the promise of a Republic that is truly a unity covenanted among a pluralism of peoples. We may yet reconcile our history and our hope.

 

Posted in Public Life, Restorative Justice | Tagged | 3 Comments