Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mr. Murphy über alles.

As we have discussed here before, Robert’s Rule holds that simplicity is Murphy’s only natural enemy.

Consider last night’s carbine match. The stage was a monster: About 30 targets strung along the entire width of the range. Targets at 50 yards, targets at arm’s length. Reactive targets, steel targets, paper targets, bowling pins. Doors to go through. Hallways to clear. No-shoot targets to avoid. Multiple magazine changes. Rifle-to-pistol transition. All to be shot in one long string of fire.

But I was ready, steady, geared up and good to go. I was dressed warmly but lightly. My boots were snugged up just enough. I was wearing my very cool Bravo Company cap. I’d function-checked the optic. Each pistol and rifle magazine had been loaded with love. The AR 15 had gotten an extra sip of lube, in favor of the cold evening. My strength was as the strength of ten, because my heart was pure.

I came to the firing line, intent on laying waste to the evil cardboard, steel and bowling pins arrayed before me. At the safety officer’s word, I loaded, press checked and holstered my pistol. I powered up the carbine optic and loaded the long gun.* I nodded with grim and steely-eyed determination to tell the safety officer “ready.”

“Stand by,” said the SO.

I stood by.

“BUZZ!” sounded the buzzer.

Smartly bringing the carbine up to a perfect cheek weld, I aimed through one of the odd-shaped firing ports in the VTAC barricade, the bright red dot of the optic centered on the small steel silhouette 50 yards away. My finger went to the trigger and  . . . the bright red dot disappeared.

Of course it did.

So I flipped up the rear backup iron sight and shot the stage with iron sights . . . at night  . . .  without the eyeglasses I prefer to use to moderate my miserable presbyopia, but which do not work with the optic and so were left in my range bag. Let us just say my performance on the stage was less than distinguished.

And thus we see demonstrated another of Robert’s Rules: “The rules apply to you, even if you make the rules.”

*Note position of top round in magazine, insert magazine, pull charging handle fully to the rear and release, remove magazine, confirm top round is now on the other side, re-insert magazine, push-pull to confirm the magazine is seated.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Some folks like a triad. You will also hear lots of discussion about three-legged stools. Others prefer to slice a pie into four pieces.  Some would rather disassemble the device into components. Whatever your favored metaphor, the simple notion of “self defense” implicates many considerations.

 You have to have tools that work, every time, and are suited to you. You have to be able to use those tools effectively, so that means adequate marksmanship and competent, reflexive gun-handling. To achieve those, you have to train, and the training has to be realistic and relevant. Then you have to practice often and effectually – recognizing that training and practice are not the same thing. Your ancillary gear has to be suited to your particular use of it, and as reliable as your primary tools.

But while all of these are necessary, none of them is sufficient. All of these considerations matter, but there is one thing that is lord of them all: Mindset.

Robert's Rule is that "Mindset Matters Most." Fighting mindset determines outcomes. Mindset implicates the largest questions: How do you believe you came to occupy the universe? Mindset invades the smallest of moments: Will you keep fighting for this next second?

Not only will the better mindset prevail “all things being equal,” but the man with the better mindset can prevail over an adversary who is better equipped or trained or both, while a poor mindset renders expertise irrelevant. This is not a new notion. Sun Tzu* said 2500 years ago that every battle is won or lost before it is fought.

Proper mindset drives you toward the satisfaction of all the other necessary elements: You are determined to expend the time and sweat and money to train realistically and practice effectively. You have done the research and trials necessary to know what weapons and gear will work best for you, and you have not stinted on buying the best you can afford.  But mindset stands apart from and above all these other factors.

Proper mindset means that you have decided that you are a human being and that human beings have the right to defend their lives and wellbeing, and the lives and wellbeing of those in their care or charge. You have decided that you concur with the Founders' belief that your right to life is natural and inalienable. You have decided that the image of an armed woman standing over the bleeding body of a would-be rapist is morally superior to the image of a battered woman lying on the ground, watching as her rapist flees. 

To have a proper mindset is to be utterly ready for that which you earnestly pray will not occur. Proper mindset means that you can walk away from any insult or offense that does not warrant a fight, no matter the injury to your ego. But proper mindset means that you are ready to fight when it is time to fight, because you have decided you will fight long before the fight. Proper mindset is what spares you the paralysis of “this can’t be happening,” so that you can get into the fight when it will do you the most good. It is proper mindset that will keep you in the fight – when you are afraid or exhausted or shot – until you prevail or die.

Proper mindset means you have thought about what this kind of fight really looks like, even if you have never engaged in or witnessed one. You know that you are willing to do great harm to a determined assailant, to wet your hands with his blood, if that’s what it takes to end his aggression. More than this, you know if you are capable of ending the life of another human being if need be. Proper mindset means that you have examined your heart of hearts with unflinching honesty. If you are a person of faith, proper mindset means you have reconciled these issues with that faith before the moment arises.
Mindset is not magic; it is not an incantation or a prayer or a mantra. It is neither esoteric nor theoretical; it is, instead, the most practical thing there is. Mindset is a set of decisions, considered with greatest care, resolved to a moral certainty and then followed through, come what may. Proper fighting mindset may come easy or hard for you, but the having or lack of it is not a matter of luck or heredity, nor is it the exclusive province of any particular profession. Mindset can be learned.

I respectfully submit that's something worth considering when you formulate your New Year’s resolutions this week.

* I will leave it for others to debate the question of whether Sun Tzu actually existed as a single historical figure.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Let it snow.

Across Europe and the United Kingdom this week, travel has been disrupted, delayed, complicated and – in some cases – utterly stymied by an event that no one could ever have predicted, and for which no one could ever have prepared: It snowed in the wintertime.

One simply cannot expect airports to function in extreme weather conditions, and in London they faced snowfalls of as much as 8 cm! Given this massive snowfall, officials – er – wait a second. Let’s see here. Google search: “online metric conversion.” Click on “length.” Select centimeters-to-inches. Input “8.” That comes to  . . . wait for it . . .  3.15 inches. That can’t be right. Let’s check our work. Try inches-to-centimeters. . . .  Well I’ll be.

Now, I love to heckle the English as much as the next guy – so long as the next guy is, say, Gerry Adams  or William Wallace. But fair is fair. I’m compelled to say that, while it’s cold comfort to stranded travelers trying to survive off of gift-shop Toblerones and macadamia nuts, the Heathrow delays are, in a sense, just as they should be. The simple fact is that Heathrow wasn’t ready, shouldn’t be ready, for a large snowfall for a very good reason: it almost never snows in there.*

Chicago’s O’Hare Airport has vast battalions of de-icing and snow removal equipment (it starts at 1:30 in the video) and well it should. The folks in charge there know that the skies are likely to dump great thumping piles of snow ten months out of the year. (Alright, that’s not fair, either. Chicago's June and September snowfalls are seldom more than a dusting.)  In any case, O’Hare probably would have handled the three puny inches of snow that paralyzed London by asking the baggage handlers to carry brooms and tidy up as they went about their other duties.

This differing level of snow-handling capacity is the product of a little thing called risk assessment, and it’s not peculiar to London or Chicago. Examine airports around the world and a pattern will soon emerge: Cleveland, Reykjavik and Moscow, lots of snow gear; Cairo, Bangkok and Mexico City, not so much. The clever, efficient, profit-minded folks who run, fund and plan airport operations know not to treat every airport alike, as if every location presented an equal threat of snow delays. Because that would be silly. And ineffective. And waste finite resources.

Which makes it all the sadder that these airport officials and their government overseers are willing to treat every person – including every infant, soldier, and grandma – as if each presented an equal threat of terrorist attack. That’s simple stupidity, dressed up as egalitarianism.

The International Air Transport Association, the industry group that represents airline interests worldwide, recently made an announcement  that may be cause for a flicker of hope. (Hope because, while our government shows no inclination to listen to ordinary citizens on this issue, lobbyists for enormous industries can usually get someone’s ear.) The IATA is calling on governments, including ours, to begin to change the focus of air travel security away from “dangerous” things, such as nail clippers and water bottles, and on to dangerous people. IATA would like to see a three-tiered system that recognizes that some folks are more likely to pose a threat than others, then subjects those more likely to pose a threat to a greater level of scrutiny.** The IATA proposal is nothing new.  The basic idea has been well developed for a long time and the Israelis famously and effectively classify and assess travelers beginning with the same kind of process.

At bottom, it comes down to recognizing a distinction between, on the one hand, a 60-year-old US citizen making his fifth round trip of the year between Akron (where he owns a shop called “Cool Indian Stuff”) and Flagstaff  (where he buys cool Indian stuff to sell in the shop), and, on the other hand, a 21-year-old Yemeni student with no prior travel history in the U.S. and a one-way ticket from New York to Kansas City. Then, having recognized a difference, allocating resources accordingly.

It’s not that no 60-year-old citizen shop owner has ever been a threat. And it’s not that all Yemeni students with indeterminate travel plans are always a threat.

It’s just that it hardly ever snows at Heathrow, whereas it more or less always snows at O’Hare.

* I admit that, fooled perhaps by those Dickensian images we all love, I was surprised by how rare even an inch of snow is at Heathrow. If you like, you can access monthly weather records for airport going back to 1948 to see for yourself.

** We are not talking about racial or ethnic profiling – that’s pointless. This kind of profiling is based on markers, behavior and habits particular to a person. Does he travel often? Does he travel here often? Did he go to school at The U, or a madrassa? Did he buy his ticket on his Gold AMEX, or with a funds transfer from his uncle in Gaza City?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

You've got to be carefully taught.

UPDATED below.

Clay Duke has lessons to teach us. He didn't come to school to teach. Instead he came to die, and quite possibly to kill. But that only makes the lessons more important.

Here is Clay Duke's instructional video. An alternative view can be found here.

Clay Duke, a paroled felon with mental health issues and angry over his wife’s termination, left a suicide note on Facebook on Wednesday and went to a meeting of the Bay County School Board toting a can of spray paint and a pistol and planning violence. Stepping to the public comment podium he sprayed a symbol from the graphic novel “V for Vendetta” on the wall, shooed the audience out of the room, drew the pistol and held the board members hostage for about six minutes.

Here are just three lessons from an incident brimming with them.

Lesson One: Act violently enough, soon enough, for long enough to end the threat. This incident turned out as well as it was ever going to – bad guy dead, no one else hurt. The security officer who took the shooter down is of course to be commended. But it’s only thanks to the Clay Duke’s lousy shooting that innocent people didn’t die before he did. Because the security officer waited until after the gunman had fired a shot to begin shooting himself. That was far too long to wait.

The time to shoot Clay Duke was when he first produced the handgun. Or when he first started ordering people around with it. Or when he first told the board members to stay put at point of the gun. Or when he raised the weapon and pointed it at a board member for several seconds before pulling the trigger. Or any time before he started shooting.

Lesson Two: Gun free zones aren’t. Anywhere in the U.S., it’s illegal for a felon to possess a firearm. In Florida, it’s illegal to bring a gun onto school board property. It’s illegal to bring a gun to a government meeting. It’s illegal to conceal a weapon without a permit. Not for nothing, it’s illegal to threaten people with a gun, to hold them hostage or to shoot at them, too. Little surprise, though, that Clay Duke – mentally ill, despondent and intent upon his own death – did not heed these laws. I don't know, but will presume he walked right past a "no guns" sign on his way into the meeting hall.

The “gun free zone” in which the school board met was, like all gun free zones (including those the size of a city), only free of lawfully possessed guns in the hands of law abiding citizens, who were thus deprived of the ablity to defend themselves.

No prohibition or statute or sign or board policy was going to discourage Clay Duke or protect those board members.* What might have protected them, however, was the wherewithal to lay down a cross fire of sufficient volume.

Consider the little old lady with the enormous purse who takes a swing at Clay Duke early in the incident. Her actions – while admirable in a sort of vaguely comical way – were utterly and inevitably futile. But imagine if that enormous bag had held a pistol. She had the drop on Clay Duke, who clearly didn't see her. Suffice to say a bullet in Clay Duke’s brainstem would have made for a shorter video.** Even if you are squeamish about engaging in this exercise, you still have to answer this question: Which do you consider the morally superior picture – Ginger Littleton (the little old lady) standing over the dead body of Clay Duke, a smoking pistol in her hand; or Clay Duke standing over the dead body of Bill Husfelt (the superintendent who bravely offered himself if the gunman would let his colleagues go)?

Lesson Three: Handguns are lousy man-stoppers. Watch the video closely. You can see Clay Duke fire his first shot, then he lowers the pistol and unintentionally discharges another round, obviously inadvertently,*** into the floor. He’s then hit from behind with the officer’s first two shots. Nevertheless he is able to advance on the dais and fire two more shots at close range, before he is hit a third time as he goes to the ground. Although shot to the ground, Clay Duke is still able to fire his weapon. In a portion of the video obscured by CNN, he shoots himself in the head. He might just as easily have rolled toward the security officer and sent rounds that way.

Handguns are not magical talismans; they do shoot a death beam like a Star Trek phaser. Hollywood may have you convinced that the impact of a handgun round will blow the bad guy off of his feet and  through the conveniently placed plate glass window. Certainly no television news report ever refers to any handgun used in a crime as anything but “powerful” or "large-caliber."  But the truth is that the only time handgun rounds are terminally effective is when they are placed very well. You can only count on a handgun to end a bad guy’s aggression by either disconnecting his central nervous system, or by breaking apart the structures that hold him up and allow him to act, or by causing him enough blood loss that he loses consciousness.

So, be prepared to act. Be equipped to act (not only with a weapon, but with the knowledge and will to use it). And keep shooting until the threat is neutralized.

UPDATE: From an interview with security officer Mike Jones, we learn that he had to go to his car to retrieve the weapon he used (sigh) and he hesitated to shoot Clay Duke, because his shots were going to hit the gunman in the back and he was worried about being charged with a crime (double sigh). So we have these additional lessons: There is no use in good intentions or wishful thinking. The only firearm you can use to protect yourself and others is  one you actually have. And: Life is not a 1950s movie Western. If you are justified in using lethal force, then you are justified in using lethal force. Trying to ensure a fair fight is a good way to die or get others killed.

*Which it makes it nearly certain, in the aftermath of this incident, that some politician somewhere will propose a new law to "prevent this from happening again." As if any law could.

** She’d have needed to watch her angle of fire to ensure she didn’t endanger the other board members. “Know your target and what’s beyond it,” as Col. Cooper taught us. That was likely the challenge for the security officer as well, who appears to have had the school board members directly in line with his target as well.

 *** Col. Cooper also taught "Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Μολὼν λαβέ

The truth is that I don’t love guns. I appreciate guns. I am pleased to discuss guns. I enjoy competing and training with guns. Guns have a crucial place in my defense of myself and my family. But the gun qua gun, the gun as an object, doesn’t much move me.

I am no kind of collector. Plenty of fellows have safes full of interesting specimens. Me? I own one each of two kinds of rifle, a single shotgun and several handguns, nearly all of which look more or less like this object of beauty:

But you protest that this is no beauty? You say you see a brute, industrial hunk of black plastic and metal? When I said beautiful, you had something else in mind? This perhaps:

 Or this:

Sorry, no.

What makes a firearm beautiful to me, what I admire above all other qualities, is reliability – the weapon's ability to function as it is supposed to function tens of thousands of times in a row without a single failure. Certainly a firearm ought to fire a caliber useful to the task; and of course I need to be able to shoot that firearm accurately enough to put rounds into a useful part of the target. But if a gun will only do that 999 times out of thousand, it’s of no use to me. That weapon might belong in some collection, but it doesn’t belong in my holster.

Thus, my relationship to firearms is a utilitarian one. Their possession serves an essential, but narrow purpose. They exist to accomplish a task. They are the necessary tool for a job I hope not to have to do. One might as well speak of a pretty life insurance policy. For me, collecting guns would make the same sense as collecting hammers, or circular saws, or snow tires.  Like some hoplophilic disciple of Louis Henry Sullivan, I demand that, and am pleased when, a gun’s form follows its function to the essential exclusion of all other aesthetics.

The function at issue is defense of life in gravest extreme. If such defense of your life and the lives of others is a God-given natural right -- and it is -- then your choice of the tools you employ in that exercise is necessarily a matter of great moment. To be clear, it's not even slightly as important as having the right mindset or sufficient training. But tools do matter, and among the tools I choose is the ugly black pistol pictured above, a Glock 19.

The Glock 19 is a slightly more compact version of Austrian gunmaker Gaston Glock’s genius innovation, the Glock 17. The Glock 19 fires a 9mm round, which means the bullet that leaves the barrel is, near as makes no difference, 9 millimeters in diameter.* In usual practice, those bullets weigh from 115 to 124 grains** (with heavier weights available for special purposes).

The Glock 19 is a semi-automatic pistol: After the user loads and cocks it by inserting a magazine and racking the slide (pulling the slide back and releasing it) the pistol will fire one round each time the trigger is pulled. Instead of an external hammer, the Glock 19 has an internal striker to impact the primer in the base of the cartridge.*** The recoil from each fired round operates the slide, strips the next cartridge off of the magazine stack, loads the round into the chamber and cocks the striker, so that the next pull of the trigger will release the striker, ignite the chambered round and start the cycle all over again. Here is a nifty video animation of what this all looks like.

I have a Glock 19 from the year they were released in the United States, a so-called “first generation” version. With the occasional replacement of springs over the past 21 years, this pistol has undergone the described firing sequence in excess of 40,000 times without a single failure. I don’t love guns, but you have to love a machine that has worked just as it should 40,000 times in a row. The newer Glock 19 that I carry every day is a later generation, and so far only has 10,000 or so rounds through it without a failure. But I have ultimate confidence that the next time I pull the trigger, it will do exactly what it is supposed to do.

Robert’s Rule states that “Simplicity is Murphy’s only natural enemy.” At the core of what makes this pistol reliable (which is to say beautiful) is that it is about as simple as a pistol can be.  It takes perhaps two minutes to learn how to “field strip” the Glock 19 – that is, to disassemble it into its major components for cleaning and maintenance. Each time after that initial tutorial, field stripping and reassembly take about 12 seconds each. No tool is necessary to accomplish this. Beyond that, the pistol can be completely disassembled into its only 35 parts with a simple punch in perhaps a minute.That's kind of lovable, too.

Another of Robert’s Rules holds that “Only a fool tries to say better what has already been said perfectly.” Better, like  a good reporter, to quote with full attribution: 

"I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend" J.R.R. Tolkien, via Faramir, in The Two Towers.

* Most handgun rounds are described first by diameter, either by “caliber,” as in .38 caliber, which is the diameter in decimal inches; or by millimeters, as in the 9mm. This can get a little arcane as the 9mm is close to .38 caliber, there is another round called the .380, which is the same diameter as the 9mm but, shorter – and called the 9mm kurz in Germany, and so on. Common calibers in modern defensive handguns include:  .38 Special, .357 Magnum (actually the same diameter as the .38), 9mm,  357Sig, .40 S&W, and .45ACP.

** Grains are units that measure the weight of the bullet – the projectile – only. There are 438 grains in an ounce; 7,000 grains in a pound.

*** A cartridge is an assembled “round” of ammunition, with a case containing gunpowder, holding a bullet (the projectile which leaves the barrel) at the front and a primer (a small, pressure sensitive disc that ignites when struck).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Don't need a weatherman.

By noon the day after Thanksgiving, our Christmas tree was up. By the end of that weekend, every surface in the house was covered in some sort of Christmas decoration (including three complete Nativities within sight of each other). Early Monday morning, we had a semi from Publix back up to the front door to unload pallets of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. A low-flying Cessna kicked out kilos of red and green sprinkles.

Christmas in our house is by no means a single day – in fact, it can hardly be contained in a single month.

And yet, even with all of this open and notorious holiday cheer under way, we have been left in peace. Not one single protester has picketed in our driveway. No socialist apparatchik in a Mao jacket has served us with papers demanding that we desist. I have gotten no nasty letters from Christopher Hitchens or Stephen Jay Gould. Neither Muslim nor Jewish nor Hindu advocacy groups have stopped round to demand that we give equal observance to any other holiday.

Indeed, when we hold our Christmas open house later this month, there will be Muslims, Jews and perhaps even a stray Hindu or two in attendance. I fully expect everyone present will – each according to his own tastes and relevant dietary constraints – enjoy the hot chocolate and Irish coffee, marvel at the talent of the singers, and enthusiastically devour some of the one hundred dozen or so cookies Herself will have baked by then.

None of these folks, it turns out, are bothered by my keeping Christmas, any more than I am angered by the fact that they don’t. (And they all know I’m always up for an invitation to Eid, Chanukah or Diwali.) This is so because we live in a nation of tremendous religious tolerance. Not to suggest there aren’t rare people of ill will, driven by religious zealotry to do evil.* That happens, even among Americans. But as these things are measured in the world, the various faiths get along pretty well here. Compare our occasional minor disruptions with the endless, seething to-and-fro of sectarian violence in places like the Indian subcontinent, swathes of the Middle East, much of Africa, and – in the not too distant past – Northern Ireland.

Now, Lord knows, I love to be outraged as much as the next guy – so long as the next guy is seriously peeved. Certainly, without a ready supply of dudgeon, this blog – like most – would be less fun to read and far less entertaining to write. But if you want me to be exorcised about “The War on Christmas,” you’re going to have to do two things:

First, you’re going to have to show me that it actually exists. Not with second- or third-hand anecdotes about how you heard from someone that they know someone whose boss made them doff their jingle bell suspenders. And anything related to you by Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter** is hereby deemed inadmissible. (I may have lost the damned election, but I can still set the rules of evidence on my own blog, by golly.) If there’s really a war going on, then you ought to have assaults of your very own to relate.

Second, even if you can show me that anyone is trying to make war on Christmas, you’re going to have to then prove to me that it makes a lick of difference in your life. Because it’s nothing to me if the city puts up a menorah next to the crèche – or bans the crèche altogether. I don’t give a rip if the public high school includes a Kwanza song in the “Winter Pageant.” My mail box can overflow with insipid greeting cards wishing me a “Happy Holiday Season.” None of that touches or can touch Christmas where I keep it: in my heart, in my home, in my church, with my family.

Robert’s Rule clearly states: Anyone can be surprised by the weather; only a fool is surprised by the climate. The corollary to that Rule is this: The weather doesn’t change the climate.

The fundamental cultural climate in this nation is still a tradition of broadest religious tolerance, not just on an institutional level, but also person-to-person. This individual religious tolerance is one of the most salient features of our American identity. While I might very well evangelize to you if you'll let me, I'll have no trouble being your friend or colleague – or party guest – even if you remain unconvinced, and, needless to say, vice-versa. Not only does this distinctly American characteristic remains intact, let's tell the truth here -- the American climate has been, is and will continue to be especially favorable to Christians such as I.

There are plenty of threats to individual rights that warrant our attention (viz. the right to travel; the right to be free from unreasonable searches). But there’s no war on Christmas until someone tries to jeopardize your right to celebrate the holiday. And no one has.

Finally, what’s most galling about all this is that there is plenty of real persecution of Christians around the world and all this whining about a fictional “war on Christmas” in a land still highly favorable to us belittles the struggle of those millions of Christians who really cannot worship in freedom and safety. It cheapens the sacrifice of Christian populations upon whom actual war is made. It dishonors today’s actual Christian martyrs – of whom there are still many being made.

There’s no question about the true meaning of Christmas. If it weren’t clear enough, Linus and Luke make it awfully plain. I’m at a loss to see how misplaced militancy and ginned up outrage over a non-existent “war on Christmas” do anything at all to spread that message.

*And the 9/11 attacks don’t count for this discussion. Although indisputably acts of religious terrorism (we’ll discuss Lawrence Wright’s seminal book on the subject soon) those attackers were not Americans, raised in the culture of broad and abiding religious tolerance that characterizes Americans. The Fort Hood shooting and the averted bombing of the tree lighting ceremony in Portland are more dicey propositions on those terms. But even the latter incident is not what folks mean by the “war on Christmas.”

** No more plausible than the threat of alien abduction, I think their blathering about a war on Christmas is nothing more than about the most knowing and cynical gambit for ratings and relevance I’ve ever heard.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Las cosas cambian.

What once seemed the fruit of perfect reason, is later seen for rank folly. What was virtue yesterday, is anathema today. What you knew for certain then, you know for nonsense now. Like the King of Siam, you find confusion in conclusion you concluded long ago.  

Nothing wrong with a certain limberness of mind, since so often our certainty was a huge mistake in the first place. It’s not just that we adapt our understanding to new-learned facts, or that our view changes as we scale previously unclimbed vantage points. Even some core values and fundamental standards are subject to review and revision, and should be.

So things – including our minds – can change. And that's a good.

Except when it isn’t. Except when we're not actually assimilating new facts or evolving our mores, but instead simply letting our cognitive dissonance run wild. 

Consider the recently reported results of two polls, one take in 2006, in the middle of George W. Bush’s second administration, and a similar one taken this year, in the middle of Barrack Obama’s first. In both polls, Gallup asked if respondents considered their own government “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” In both polls, just about  45% of the respondents said they did. If you’re a regualar visitor here, or are ever subjected to my in-person bloviations, you’ll know I find that number too low for common sense. If you love this country as I do, that number cannot make you happy.

But what’s far more striking about the two polls is this: in each poll, just 21% of respondents who belonged to the party in power considered government a threat to their freedoms, while large majorities of those out of power (57% of Democrats in 2006,  66% of the Republicans in 2010) said they perceived the threat. In simple terms: respondents’ disposition toward the threat posed by government was overwhelmingly tied to whether their party sat in the White House or not.

In even simpler terms: people are idiots.

I’ll grant you that the president of the United States is a powerful fellow. But he is NOT the government. Neither are the 15 people in his Cabinet. Nor the 535 folks in the House and Senate. The government is the bureaucracy and the millions of bureaucrats who populate it.* While I can’t find precise numbers for the amount of turnover, across the bureaucracy writ large, attributable to a change from one administration to the next, I’d be stunned if it approached one percent.

Let’s be clear: I don’t use “bureaucrat” as a pejorative as so many do. My dad spent 25 years as a government bureaucrat, and the people of Cleveland were better for it. They were better because his decisions about what the city ought to buy, for how much, from whom, had a steadying constancy largely unaffected by the whims of ever-changing mayors and council members. (Although no one ever really liked the chartreuse police cars.) Bureaucrats like Dad are what keep the machinery moving, and the inertia of their influence is what keeps the air traffic control radar running on Inauguration Day. It’s not just that they know which forms need filling out. They know in which drawer the forms are kept; they know how to order more forms.

But we’ve talked here before about the nature of the State, and how its natural tendency to grow and assume greater powers necessarily comes at the expense of each individual’s God-given rights – that stuff Jefferson said was unalienable. If you only say you are worried about that dynamic when the party you oppose is in the White House, then you are an intellectually dishonest scoundrel. If you really only believe in that dynamic when the party you oppose is in the White House, that’s even worse – your intellectual dishonesty is so complete, you’ve managed to delude even yourself.

But at least you’ve got plenty of company. There are droves of people who have reduced themselves from citizen participants in a republic to spectators at an arena, mindlessly rooting on one team in favor of another, cheering the referees as geniuses when they call the visitors for interference, damning them when they call the home team.  That’s OK for football.  But if this nation, conceived in and dedicated to personal liberty, is going to long endure, we have to dig deeper. We have to see more clearly, act more honorably.  We have to be willing to apply a rigorous intellectual honesty to the actions our representatives take, to the policies they pursue.

If you celebrated Charlie Rangel’s shaming on the floor of the House last week, were you similarly gleeful at Tom Delay’s criminal conviction? If you were incensed about warrantless wiretapping under Bush, do you know it has continued, unabated, under Obama? If you think ACORN was a front for an Astroturf conspiracy, were you equally unhappy with where the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth got their money? If you think Obama is dishonest for declaring Iraq a victory while 50,000 Americans remain there under arms and in harm’s way, please tell me you remember “Mission Accomplished.” Think Camp X-Ray was an outpost in “Bush’s Gulag”? OK. Can you agree with me that, as the Dormouse might have said, it’s much of a muchness to the 174 prisoners still in Guantanamo two years into Obama’s administration,?

So things change. Except when they don’t. The least you owe yourself is to recognize the difference.

* How many is that? Good luck finding a reliable figure. Excluding the military and some security services, the best numbers for direct federal employees seem to hover around 2.75 million. If you want to add 1.5 million for the members of the armed services, I won’t quibble.

The Ugliest of Things: Chapters Seven and Eight

Note to the reader: COMING SOON TO AMAZON

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ignorance is.

C.J. Chivers’ new book, The Gun, is topflight history and great journalism. Here, the definite article is the Avtomat Kalashnikova 47, the assault rifle* credited (somewhat unfairly, Chivers demonstrates) to Soviet soldier turned designer Mikhail Kalashnikov.

(Chivers also wrote one of the finest pieces of journalism I’ve ever read: “The School,” in the May 2007 Esquire Magazine, a dissection and analysis of the Chechen terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia. You can read it here here and you should.)

In The Gun, Chivers puts the object into its longitudinal historical context. We see how the world around it shaped the AK-47 and how the AK-47 shaped – and shapes – its world. He does more or less the same thing for the AK-47 that Mark Kurlansky did for salt.

As a former Marine Corps officer and a senior foreign correspondent for The New York Times, Chivers comes to the project honestly, and well prepared and – like all of us – with a context of his own. He writes about weapons of war, and one in particular, in a comprehensively authoritative way that leaves little room for cavil by less-well disposed analysts. The book is strongest when Chivers is writing about technical development, the human stories behind it, and the strategic and tactical impact of fully automatic small arms on the battlefield. I think he does a little less well when treating the object as an icon or a social force of its own. But this is a tremendously commendable book.

Trouble is, the folks who ought to read it won’t.

Because when it comes to guns, to paraphrase Chris Rock, people love to not know. Really, it’s worse than that. In contemporary American discourse, people pride themselves on knowing nearly nothing about firearms while holding the most ardent opinions, making the most impassioned arguments – and setting the most ridiculous policy. The emotional argument reigns supreme and facts are held in frank contempt.

It’s a case of ignorance not only as bliss, but as virtue.

Chivers book isn't about self-defense or tending the flock. But it's a good and important book that will be important, among other reasons, for the list of those who won't read it.

*The AK-47 is a true assault rifle in that it fires a rifle caliber in full automatic. (That is, one pull of the trigger results in continuous fire until one lets off on the trigger or the magazine empties out.) About 90 percent of the time anyone in American public life uses the phrase “assault rifle” they are referring to something that cosmetically resembles, but is not really, an assault rifle.