Friday, December 6, 2013

Long walk ended

I am sorry to have to inform you, but the world is a complex place, full of contradiction and nuance, populated by human beings who are the corporeal embodiment of that complexity

Those vilifying Nelson Mandela in these days following his death – and there are plenty of them – ignore certain essential facts about his later life, of which I will mention only a salient two: He more or less singlehandedly averted a national convulsion of bloodletting and racial war by embracing the notion that even those who participated in decades of brutal oppression ought to have a place and a voice in South Africa, and that even those who opposed that oppression ought to answer in truth for their own crimes. And – in the public act for which he ought to be most highly praised – having attained more or less complete power, and being positioned to keep and wield it so long as ever he wished, Mandela instead relinquished it – soon, peaceably and willingly. Compare that to nearly any other post-colonial revolutionary leader on that continent.

Those lionizing Mandela – and there are many more of them – do no better. He was in younger years a proponent of systemic violence, and when he was arrested his house was filled with tens of thousands of weapons designed to wield that violence in the most indiscriminate fashion. To ignore that is to ignore conduct that he himself later repudiated, not only in others, but in himself. And while he may not have chosen himself to become a dictator, he supported and embraced brutal dictators – quite literally so – along with leftist policies that almost no American of any political stripe would endorse upon close examination.

This duality – plurality, really – in a single man is the furthest thing from being unique. It is our essential nature. Whitman said it best: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Mandela the man contained just these multitudes. The evolving legacy of a post-apartheid South Africa is more complex still. (And, by all present indications, not headed toward a future Mandela would have wanted to see.) It is easier and more comfortable to feed our confirmation bias and assuage our cognitive dissonance by imagining that he or it was or is all one thing or all another. Easier, more comfortable, but false.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Hold these truths

Everybody knows this part:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Ah, but its the the next bit that makes the difference. It's the next bit that justified a bloody war that had already been raging for 14 months by the time it was written and would drag on for nearly eight and a half years. It's the next bit that sanctified the 50,000 American casualties -- a quarter of the rebels who took up arms. It's the next brilliant sentence by which a band of highly educated traitors justified their treason. And it's the next bit that tyrants and their willing subjects are so apt to forget:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Most folks today -- certainly nearly all the folks actually in the government -- somehow imagine that, having been true throughout human history, this stopped being true after the late 18th Century. Or they believe that the rules were magically changed on this continent, or don't apply in countries where people appear to vote, or have been superseded by technology. But some things -- like the rights God gives man -- do not change. Not ever. Not anywhere.

I really want to ask those smug, sanctimonious fellows, "just what part of 'alter or abolish' don't you understand?" King George and his ministers never imagined they could be altered or abolished, either, and look how that worked out for them. You cannot really be as arrogant as someone who thought his reign was ordained by God. Can you?

Alter or abolish. Shove that through your Prism. Feed that to your Carnivore. Crunch that in your algorithm.

As for you, as you celebrate Independence Day, I want to encourage you to post or tweet or email that third sentence of the Declaration of Independence. Maybe read it during a cellphone call -- an international call would be best. If you are travelling, perhaps you can share it with your companion while you wait in line at the TSA checkpoint.

Because let's face it: You can grill all the hot dogs, bake all the apple pie, light all the fireworks and wave all the flags you want to. But if you're not on somebody's watch list, you can hardly count yourself a patriot these days.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Down on the shop floor that Monday lunchtime, most of the company, including Dad’s three best friends, listened to the speech on the radio on the foreman’s desk. At 21, with a two-year business degree, Dad was the most junior of junior executives. So he and a dozen others upstairs listened in boss’s office. Later that same afternoon, Dad and his buddies were together in that office. They told the boss they’d be back again when it was over. 

The boss pulled a bottle from a drawer, shared glasses all around, and promised them their jobs would be waiting. Dad was grateful for the drink. Grateful, too, he told me once, that the boss – a crusty old Marine –  skipped his oft-told stories about the Marne and Belleau Wood. “If I had to listen to those stories that day,” Dad  said, “I’m not sure I’d have kept my nerve.”

By midday Wednesday the four friends were at the recruiting station. By early in the new year they were on a train headed south for basic. Dad had never been outside of Ohio, and rarely far from Cleveland. Biloxi seemed a world away, but it was warm, and Dad always liked the heat. Before long, though, he was headed a real world away. When we think of the war in the Pacific – those of us who think of it at all anymore – we mostly think of the Marines.  But the Army Air Force was there in numbers, too, and if they were spared abattoirs like Peleliu and Iwo Jima, where the Marines traded so many lives for coral rock and glory, that’s not to say the the Army Air Force was spared.

Dad’s troop ship stopped at Colon, Panama. He was one of hundreds of seasick young men in holds converted to barracks, waiting their turn to lock up through the Canal on the way to the South Pacific. Word came that a headquarters clerk at the major Canal Zone air base was down with appendicitis. (In fact it killed him.) Well, even the most junior of junior executives had a skill crucial to a mid-Twentieth Century army – he could type. Dad was pulled off the ship, and sent to France Field, where he would spend the war.

Calm, organized, steady, determined and unafraid of the menial or the unpleasant, by the end Dad was a First Sergeant and the post sergeant major – the highest ranking non-com. Forty years later, when I was a newsman covering the Air Force, I asked Dad how it was possible for a guy to go from boot to Top Kick in less than four years. “Robbie,” he explained, “the only thing we never ran out of was rank.”

The mission at France Field was simplicity itself: keep the Canal open; keep the ships moving. Planes from the field would hunt down and kill the German U-boat wolf packs and the lesser known, but larger, fleet of Italian subs that operated in the region throughout the war.  (Just because you've never heard of the Battle of the Caribbean, doesn't mean they didn't fight it.)

Dad would say that he spent the war filing paper, fighting off yellow fever, placating officers, disciplining drunken airmen, and playing a lot of softball. A quiet, contented man, Dad often said he had had an “easy war.” He meant that especially when compared to his three friends, who fought the war from inside B-17s over Europe. One of those guys spent years confined in, then escaping from, a series of increasingly brutal German POW camps. One of them rode his plane into a smoking hole in the Dutch countryside and never made it back to claim the job waiting for him, as promised, at W.S. Tyler Company.* If not for some poor guy’s infected appendix, Dad’s war would have been anything but easy. And who can say if three and half years in the Solomons and New Guinea and the Philippines would have sent home the man I was blessed to know as my father or, instead, someone less whole, less gentle.

Dad never regretted the way things happened, never felt deprived of some sort of martial adventure.** He knew he’d been blessed. “I did what I was called on to do,” is how he would put it. “That's war. I did my job; other guys were just called to give more.”

I didn't argue the point with him; never would have, never could have. But as I've grown, and especially in the 15 years since he’s been gone, I've come to understand that he was wrong.

I think of that skinny Cleveland kid, just a few years out of service as an altar boy, standing around the boss’s desk with a drink in his hand, silently praying the old Marine would forego his war stories, lest will and determination fail. I think of a kid for whom the Gulf Coast was far country, signing up to go wherever they sent him. I think of a kid who, as smart as he was with the accounts, could never have figured the value of the note he was signing, but who signed it anyway – and stood ready to pay whatever the tally man demanded.

And I think, Dad, that you couldn't have given more than that.

* Which isn't to suggest Dad was entirely immune to pride. “The bastards never shut us down, Robbie. They never did.”

** He did have at least one adventure he liked to describe: There was a fire at a remote observation post and Dad was sent to investigate. The Jeep could only go so far before he had to travel by small boat, then hike a day up a jungle mountain. (Faulty generator  not sabotage, as it turned out.) Typical of my Dad was his perspective on that story: “I got back in about three days. Got a shower and hot chow. I thought a lot about those guys in the Pacific who had to stay out in that jungle all the time.”

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Holding out for a hero

Let’s start with this: I love me some Charles Ramsey. The fellow is a master of the language, equally skilled in long- and short-form story-telling. In a media landscape where every sinkhole victim, scandal participant and “other woman” manages to secure a publicist and the legal services of the loathsome Gloria Allred by the time the evening news is aired, Ramsey – instantly and all by himself – oozes concentrated authenticity. I can only hope that McDonalds Corporation has noted Ramsey’s frequent and earnest product placements on its behalf and has dispatched a multi-million-dollar endorsement contract via corporate jet.

Not just that. I trust that Jimmy and David and Jay will put Ramsey up in the finest hotels when they fly him first class to come and speak to them. I pray the auto-tune guys are kind in their treatment. Ramsey has already “trended” and will soon deservedly become a “meme.” Indeed, there’s every likelihood that Ramsey is about to become, however briefly, a cultural icon. To all of this I say, “Good on you, Charles Ramsey.” As is demonstrated every time the Kardashians steal another hour of airtime, this nation could do a lot worse.

What may keep him in the limelight for more than the standard number of news cycles is the fact that this guy seems to have nearly perfect comedic timing, an unflinching regard for the truth, a perceptive understanding of the impact of race in American society, and a moral compass capable of finding North.* But for all that Charles Ramsey is, for all that the star-maker machinery of popular culture is about to make him, there’s one thing Charles Ramsey is not, one thing that neither the glittering Chryons under his image, nor the nattering news anchors** can make him.

Charles Ramsey is not a hero.

I trouble to point this out not because I oppose Ramsey’s fleeting or superficial glory, or merely out of general cussedness. No. I think the matter is far graver than that.

I’ve written before about narratives, about how no event is reported or discussed in its own context anymore. Instead, it is seized upon by commentators and politicians and other scoundrels to support whatever narrative that serves their ends. Any fact or event not capable of such manipulation – and few are the facts composed of sturdy enough stuff to hold their shape under such a hammering – is ignored. Any proponent of such information is similarly dismissed or, more usually, demonized.

So a fellow who did what Ramsey did is unrelentingly called a hero in service to a narrative that I have labeled the Unified Field Theory of Dependency. It is the notion that the average man or woman lacks the wherewithal to defend himself, or to save herself in an emergency, or to help those around them in similar circumstances. It is the insidious, statist contention that defense of life or the deterrence of evil are skills so esoteric and so generally unattainable that they belong only to an elite praetorian class. And – conveniently for would-be rulers of other men – since no one can manage these daunting tasks on his own, no one has need of the tools or liberty or autonomy with which to accomplish them.

Only in that narrative, only in the reductionist world of the lord and the peasant is the act of answering the door to a screaming woman and then dialing 911 heroic.

The UFToD is the narrative of a world view in which the state is entitled to a monopoly on violence and where a federal officer is the only one in the room “professional enough” to handle a simple firearm – even if he does manage to shoot himself in the process.*** That narrative is the tool of tyrants, because a people convinced of its truth need not be made to submit to oppression. They will willingly, even happily submit, since they have been made to believe not just that they are trading liberty for security, but that they haven't any other choice.

COOPER:  Has the FBI said anything about a reward or anything?  Because there was that - there was a reward for finding her.
RAMSEY:  I tell you what you do, give it to them.  Because if folks been following this case since last night, you been following me since last night, you know I got a job anyway.  Just went picked it up, paycheck.  What that address say?  That say?
COOPER:  I don't have my glasses.  I'm blind as a bat.
RAMSEY:  2203 Seymour [Ramsey’s address]. Where are them girls living?  Right next door to this paycheck.  So yes, take that reward and give it to - that little girl came out the house and she was crying.  
** Besides not being able to afford spectacle for Cooper, has CNN lost the lease on its studios? I have to ask, because its anchors seem to spend every minute of airtime standing outside these days. I get it – evidently having an a talking head stand on a street in the same city as, but five blocks away from, the police line demarcating the crime scene is supposed to convey to us the overwhelming sense verisimilitude and urgency. I just hope these poor “news” people are being supplied with comfy shoes, or maybe those cushy rubber mats restaurants have for their line chefs.

 *** I confess it: I will never get tired of watching that.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Obstructing justice

Democracy makes for a fearsome tyrant. This should come as no surprise, since we each of us bear a tyrant inside ourselves and democracy – colloquially known as mob rule – is nothing more or less than the imposition of the will of a group of collective selves over a slightly smaller group. From schoolyard to sorority house to workplace to the Place de la Révolution, we see the human impulse to rule other humans played out in every petty and terrible way. 

Happily for us, even before they had witnessed French monarchical tyranny deposed by French democratic tyranny in a bloody paroxysm of retributive horror, our Founders knew that democracy was a dangerous and unreliable guardian of liberty. This was precisely why they rejected any such regime for their new nation, and settled instead on a Constitutional Republic, a system not only different from a democracy but, blessedly, antithetical to it.*
Of course, the blessings of liberty which the Founders sought to secure for themselves andtheir posterity were never meant to include the unfettered right to do anything one pleased, at any time, in any place, to any effect. Liberty does not equal lawlessness. If your college buddy turns out to be an amateur terrorist, and you decide after the fact to give him a hand by getting rid of some of that pesky incriminating evidence, then -- even in the freest society on Earth -- you ought to expect to be arrested for obstruction of justice.
But in truth it’s not the lawbreakers nor the bombers – nor even the terrorists   whom we ought really to fear. Their potential for tyranny is limited to the blast radius of whatever device they can assemble once Williams and Sonoma lifts the pressure cooker ban. Instead, the existential threat to liberty comes from those unreconstructed statist thugs who never learned to “work and play well others” in kindergarten, those “great men” whom Bastiat says desire to rule over others.**
By way of sterling example, New York Mayor and anti-Mountain Dew® activist Michael Bloomberg recently suggested that while:
. . .the people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry,   . . .  we live in a complex world where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.
Bloomberg’s chief enforcer, police commissioner Ray Kelly, on the other hand, is not about to follow his Bloomberg's lead and go all squishy in the middle where terrorists are concerned. Officer Stop and Frisk, without actually invoking the Latin legal aphorism of privacy schmivacy, Kelley made it clear that he thinks his boss needs to stiffen his spine:
The privacy issue has really been taken off the table. I don’t think people are concerned about it. I think people accept it in a post-9/11 world.  . . . The people who complain about it, I would say, are a relatively small number of folks, because the genie is out of the bottle.
Give that a moment to sink in. The contention is that the bombs detonated in Boston were so powerful as to shake the very foundations upon which the Republic has rested lo these two and a third centuries. Usually it takes a civil war*** or a world war**** for statists so comfortably and brazenly to reveal themselves. Now all that's needed to drag them into the light and before a bank of microphones is weaponized kitchen utensils.

Most of the time, most of what these sorts of villains do to advance their tyranny is done as subtlety and deceptively as they are able, and as quietly as they can. Every now and then, though, we get the chance to hear what’s really on their minds. When that happens, we really do need to pay attention. Thomas Jefferson, when he observed that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” had in mind an entirely different sort of vigilance than do Bloomberg and Kelly and their ilk.
Jefferson understood, as we should, that men like these are not meant to be the practitioners of that vigilance, but its objects. *****

* Because I hold my few and gentle readers in such high esteem, I can only presume that the broad distinctions between the two systems are known full well to you. If, however, you are called on to explain the concepts to others, less-well-informed than you – as anyone must be if not among my few and gentle readers – I recommend this essay, “An Important Distinction: Democracy versus Republic,” which thoroughly and succinctly explains the issue.
This must be said: There are too many "great" men in the world — legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it. . . .My attitude toward [such] persons is well illustrated by this story from a celebrated traveler: He arrived one day in the midst of a tribe of savages, where a child had just been born. A crowd of soothsayers, magicians, and quacks — armed with rings, hooks, and cords — surrounded it. One said: "This child will never smell the perfume of a peace-pipe unless I stretch his nostrils." Another said: "He will never be able to hear unless I draw his ear-lobes down to his shoulders." A third said: "He will never see the sunshine unless I slant his eyes." Another said: "He will never stand upright unless I bend his legs." A fifth said: "He will never learn to think unless I flatten his skull.""Stop," cried the traveler. "What God does is well done. Do not claim to know more than He. God has given organs to this frail creature; let them develop and grow strong by exercise, use, experience, and liberty."
Frédéric Bastiat, The Law
*** President Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and wholesale sedition arrests mean he is hardly regarded in unalloyed reverence.
 **** Executive action to intern Japanese-American citizens evidently being insufficiently shameful, the Supreme Court got in on the act in Korematsu.
***** The provenance of this quote is well-documented and fascinating and some of it can be found here. So when I suggest what Jefferson meant by it, and what he’d mean if had the chance to say it today, I do so with good reason.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

So costly a sacrifice

I grieve for Officer Sean Collier. One can hardly imagine a more dedicated, a more stalwart, more Boston cop. Human beings are made to feel the loss of the young most keenly, and this was a young man – not yet a husband or father. He died his mother’s baby, as only an Irish mother’s son can be. Though my grief for Officer Collier cannot approximate the grief of his family, my grief is not abstract; by no means of the character of some news anchor "sending out" his obligatory “thoughts and prayers.”  I know this pain precisely. I know it well; have known it nearly all my life.

But of course I did not know Officer Collier. I’ll almost certainly never meet anyone who did. Likewise the little boy too like my own to bear much thinking about; nor the vivacious waitress who was her grandmother’s unreserved favorite; nor the promising and pretty young student who traveled half a world to study where she died. I do know that none of them began that day knowing it would be the last day.

I do believe my prayers for their families and for the scores of the maimed and shattered are efficacious. But I am too poor a Christian – I confess it, Lord – to let it end there.  I do not want my sentiments, however deep, to be “weak and fruitless.” I have no wish to beguile anyone from this grief.* Instead – and I sense I am not alone in this – I long to know what I can do that will honor these lost and broken lives, this costly sacrifice.

Here’s what I've come up with so far:

I can seek the truth, demand the truth, and face the truth about how these lives were sundered, and I can see that truth told in every corner.

I can resist anyone and anything that would shape these lives into a fulcrum upon which to lever an agenda of repression, or that would reduce them to a “crisis not to be wasted.”

I can be ready and trained and able and – most important – willing to be the man in the cowboy hat.

I can rededicate to vigilance and scorn complacency, so that insofar as I can be, I am an effective sheepdog to the flock I love.

I can make my last words before parting from family each day so sweet that if they should ever turn out to be my last words altogether, neither I nor they will ever have a moment’s regret for them.

I can rejoice at the end of each day that finds us under the same roof, whole and hopeful and together, recognizing that routine miracle for the daily gift that it is.

I can cast out fear, I can refuse to bow to terror, and I can oppose the oppression of any man, while at the same time I find the floor with my knees, surrendering to the only One who deserves my submission, embracing His sovereignty.

That – at least that – I can do.

* In what my particular friend has called “the greatest specimen epistolary prose ever written on the American continent,” Abraham Lincoln wrote the following letter to a grieving mother:

Executive Mansion, Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
Dear Madam,
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
A. Lincoln

Controversies about who wrote the Bixby Letter are of no interest to me here. Whoever wrote the letter, it stands.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Boston narrative

A good and intelligent friend, a person with a fine education, good judgment and a kind heart, sent me this article in the wake of the Boston bombings this week. The tl;dr for the article is that we are predisposed to view and process terroristic acts committed by white folks differently from the way we view and process such acts when committed by people of color. It's a good article that makes a fair point.*

Author Tim Wise supported his article with a long list of white terrorists, illustrating his position that any narrative that paints such folks as anomalies is flawed. But Mr. Wise, it would appear, isn't entirely immune from the power of narrative himself. Because Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Howie Macthinger, Ted Klonsky, Terry Robbins, Karen Ashley, John Jacobs, David Gilbert, Ted Gold, etc etc etc are conspicuously absent from his “pantheon of white people who engage in (or have plotted) politically motivated violence meant to terrorize and kill." **

Perhaps these left-wing*** violent radicals aren't on the list because they don't quite fit another narrative – I might better call it a slander – presently so popular in the press.  “We should not, must not, cannot speculate,” the sanctimonious pundit always begins. “But it sure seems possible (or reasonable or likely or evident) that this vile act was committed by someone opposed to the current gun control proposals." Who knew that so many television and radio talking heads were so fit and nimble, so able to leap to far distant conclusions at a single bound? And yet, in the past two days I have heard those words, or similar ones, on NPR, CNN, ABC and NBC with my own ears. 

Now, we all understand that we cannot suggest Islam is inherently dangerous or evil despite the fact that radical Islamists have – motivated by their religion – committed serial acts of terror.  We all, I trust, know that we cannot lump all Muslims together and blame or fear them as a group or individually, simply because they are Muslims and so were those who bombed  the USS Cole, the World Trade Center, embassies in Africa, the Khobar Towers, the London Underground, the Spanish trains and the Bali nightclub, and perpetrated the 9-11 attacks. Even though we know that these attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, we do not hold Muslims collectively responsible for the acts of their misguided or deranged or simply evil coreligionists.

We should not, must not, cannot do this not only because it is wrong – I might better call it a sin – but also because it is not useful. It does us no good. It provides no basis for a policy. It cannot usefully guide our future behavior. It cannot make us safer. So why is it I feel certain that if the Boston bomber does turns out to have ties to any current, so-called "right wing" issue, that same understanding won't apply?

Maybe it’s because the Rahm Emanuel Doctrine ("You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste.")  has been so thoroughly embraced in this country, from the president on down, from MSNBC to Fox News, from the Democrats to the GOP. Maybe it’s because the blood on the streets of Boston had not dried – and I mean that literally – before that act of terror was being hammered into shape so that it would fit into this agenda or that one. No one, it seems, has the least interest in finding out actual facts and then rationally assessing how they might actually inform us.****

It is a shitty, stupid – and ultimately doomed – way to run a society.

* The point isn't a theoretical one – early reporting on the bombing stated that a “Saudi national” was in custody – and although the hapless fellow proved to have nothing to do with the bombing, that story certainly fit comfortably into a lot of preconceived notions and was widely repeated. (The grinning Facebook photo with the golden gun may not have helped.) 

** As Wise proudly notes, Cornell West has described Wise as a “vanilla brother in the tradition of John Brown.” John Brown – considered by plenty of folks to have been a terrorist, however righteous his cause – was also absent from Wise’s list.

*** Interesting, too that, that Ted Kacynski is always included in a list of right wing domestic terrorists – merely because he was white? – when he was actually part of the pantheon of left wing "white people who engage in (or have plotted) politically motivated violence meant to terrorize and kill."

**** For what it is worth, I’ll take the opportunity to point out that everywhere I go, I have a blowout kit with me in the bag I carry and I know how to use everything in it. Traumatic injuries cannot be predicted, but what you do in the first few minutes – particularly with respect to controlling blood loss – can make a real difference even in the most devastating events. People who otherwise would have died this week survived because others on the scene – paramedics and just plain folks – knew how to stop their bleeding. These folks sell an excellent kit, or you can assemble one that meets your particular needs.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Never, never, never, never

Although the Gray Lady may disagree, my problem with the anonymous nature of so much internet commentary is not that it encourages hateful, cowardly statements, but rather that there is just no pride of authorship. Take this recent anonymous accusation posted as a comment to this very blog: “Pathetic. Your savior preached love and nonviolence. You want to be able to kill people with guns so you twist his words.”* The syntax is such a jumble that I cannot tell if I am being charged with wanting to employ firearms to kill others, or of wanting to kill those bearing firearms. Either way, the anonymous interlocutor gave me to understand that he considers the Suburban Sheepdog a bloodthirsty fellow, eager to do violence.

Well, no  . . . and yes.

We've explored before the idea that when the time for violence comes, one key is to act violently enough, fast enough. No half measures, no delay. But Robert’s (even more fundamental) Rule is simplicity itself: Keep fighting.

In October of 1941 Great Britain was on its heels – an improvement only when considered in light of the fact that ten months before it had been on its back. Having endured the great air battle of the prior year, invasion of the island finally seemed less likely – or, at least, less imminent – than it had. But by any measure, the war was going poorly and expanding broadly. The Third Reich was sufficiently comfortable astride its European occupation to turn toward Russia. The African war belonged to Rommel. The Mediterranean was a German millpond. America was disinclined to participate beyond the provision of materiel.

Defeat seemed less inevitable, but victory was hard to imagine. Instead, there was every reason to believe that widening and worsening war would be the way of things for the foreseeable future. The young men to whom Winston Churchill delivered the Harrow School commencement address that autumn could expect nothing more promising than soon to find a place in war that was killing their fathers and brothers with the efficiency of a well-run abattoir. Churchill gave a speech that rang with notes not of optimism, but rather with grim satisfaction that despite the efforts of a vicious and determined enemy, Britain still stood. He credited that survival not to courage – which it has to be said had abounded – but to determination. In the best words ever spoken at a commencement address, he exhorted the Harrow boys to embrace that determination:

Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.**

What Churchill knew, what schoolboys couldn't be expected to understand, is that Britain hadn't defeated Germany – nor would it, nor could it until America entered the war. What Britain had done was endure. It had simply continued to exist. 

When those of us who hold our liberty dear tell the ugly truth about the purpose of the Second Amendment, that it exists as a hedge against tyranny, as insurance against a day we pray not to see, those inclined to comfort in their servility will make the argument that no mere citizen can realistically hope to prevail, should a government turn its full might on its people. Whenever I hear this argument – and I hear it a lot these days – I wonder at how those who make it can so facilely ignore our own history. It is a history that began with a Colonial rabble that did not, could not, hope to defeat King George militarily, but that could and did keep fighting, even so. Our forbears didn't defeat their oppressors, they simply continued to exist until the cost and trouble and pain of beating them became too great for the oppressor to bear. Just so, time and again throughout history, have lesser forces prevailed against more mighty ones – in Indo-China, for just one, painful example.

It isn't only history these willing slaves ignore; it’s also the nightly news. The men and women and children of the Free Syrian Army cannot hope militarily to defeat Bashar al-Assad, his Iranian patrons and his Hezbollah henchmen. But with their trebuchets and catapults and Mad Max creations, they continue to exist, even as Assad kills them in their tens of thousands. They keep fighting. And so long as they do, the days will keep coming, time will keep piling up and bearing its inexorable weight down upon their would-be masters.

Sometimes the task is to keep fighting, to keep on existing, for years on end.  Few remember that the American Revolutionary War lasted eight-and-half years -- 3060 days from Lexington to the Treaty of Paris. Sometimes the task is to keep fighting, to continue to exist, for just a few seconds more, until your rapist or robber is killed or concedes. But year to year, moment to moment, the strategy is the same: Keep fighting.

As a man of partly Irish descent, my feelings about Winston Churchill are more than mixed. But what was admirable in him was greatly admirable and not least of all this: You can hear in his speech to the Harrow boys that, while he would certainly have wished that war had passed his nation by, he is not sorry to be among those alive when it did come. In fact, he closes the speech in gratitude to God that when the fight came, he was on hand to fight it. So no, a good sheepdog isn't bloodthirsty, and it's little use to the flock if it is. But neither will it turn its face, or trouble to spit out the blood when there’s a wolf to defeat.

*The comment utterly missed the central purpose of the post, which was to have an opportunity to make a vague historical allusion while sharing that lovely, classic image of Betty Grable’s adorable bottom and naughty smile.

** In a quote with a less certain provenance than the Harrow speech, Churchill expressed the same sentiment in a simpler, more canine fashion: The nose of the bulldog has been slanted backwards, Churchill said, so that he can breathe without letting go.

Monday, February 18, 2013


As the rising sun pierced the billowing gun smoke that April morning, I suspect the British regulars were thinking something along the lines of “Well, that’s for them.” The truth is that the “Shot Heard Round the World” echoed over an inauspicious field abandoned by a beaten militia in full flight. The only would-be rebels who remained on the Green did so because they were dead or dying. So British Colonel Francis Smith might well have thought that, with one lot of traitors shown conclusively who was master, well begun was half done and the day portended well for King George III. It must have been with more than a little confidence that Smith turned his troops down the road toward Concord, where Tories and spies had reported the nascent rebellion had a large cache of weapons.

But neither Smith nor his executive officer, Major John Pitcairn – much less King George – had heard American Captain John Parker addressing his militiamen just before dawn. The rebels had waited through the night to see if the British foray into the countryside was just another reconnoiter in force, or something more sinister. Paul Revere and his fellow riders assured them the regulars were on their way intent on disarming the budding rebellion.  As the British entered the green, the militiamen assembled from Buckman Tavern and elsewhere to face them. Parker reminded them that while their foremost purpose was to merely demonstrate their resolve, more than that might well be demanded of them. 

“Stand your ground and do not fire unless fired upon,” Parker ordered. “But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”*

Faced off across a space no larger than a football field, Parker and Pitcairn each commanded their respective forces not to fire. Pitcairn had every reason to expect to be obeyed; British regulars did as they were ordered and Pitcairn’s force of elite light infantry were some of the best troops of the best professional army in the world. Parker, commanding farmers, merchants – and a slave named Prince Estabrook – likewise expected to be obeyed, if for no other reason than because his men had families close at hand, some watching from just off the field.  Greek governmental theories, philosophical abstractions and offenses such as the Intolerable Acts may have driven rabble-rousers like Sam Adams and his Sons of Liberty. But for the militiamen on Lexington Green, their homes and farms and livelihoods were all too tangible realities, all too close at hand.

So no one was meant to fire a shot, but as it as has time and again throughout the years, the shot nevertheless was fired** and then everyone on the field let loose. It was over in minutes and the outcome, with many rebels killed or wounded, and only one of his own men hurt, couldn't have surprised Pitcairn, who couldn't have had much doubt about how the rest of the day would go.

But it was only dawn. And he hadn't heard Parker.

Pitcairn couldn't have understood at that moment that he hadn't just been a part of a police action or some noisy civil disturbance. Because he hadn't heard Parker, because he didn't know who these Patriots really were, Pitcairn didn't know then that he’d really been a participant in the first skirmish of a remorseless war. But he was soon to learn.

By the end of that very day, after the desperate running fight down the Battle Road, as the blood ran from the North Bridge to stain the Concord River, Pitcairn could not help but to have had a better understanding of what war with real Americans would mean: All told the rebels had lost 88 men killed and wounded. The butcher’s bill for the most feared and powerful military force in the world was nearly twice that, at 147. By the very next morning – without the aid of Facebook or a single cell phone –  15,000 men of what would eventually become a victorious Continental Army were outside of Boston.  

Governor Cuomo can be forgiven, I suppose, if he’s sitting cozy in Albany thinking “Well, that’s for them.” So might his servile New YorkLegislature. Likewise statist assemblymen in Colorado or Missouri or Connecticut. Just so, the President himself. No surprise if, looking back at the last six weeks or so – especially if they look through the lens of corporate national media only too happy to serve their agenda – they think they've won the day over their upstart inferiors.

But it’s only dawn. And they've set off down the Battle Road.

* Indeed, many of the militiamen may not have heard Parker, either. Her suffered from tuberculosis and had trouble mustering enough breath barely to speak.

**Theories vary wildly about who fired first. The best evidence, I think, suggests that it was one of the spectators, townsmen arrayed around the green, but not under Parker’s command.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rules of Engagement

Col. John Dean “Jeff” Cooper was a genius. Even if you are a shooter, if you’re not the sort of shooter who dedicates himself to shooting as a martial art, you may never have heard of Col. Cooper. That’s a shame, and you ought to do something about that. But greater by far than the offense of a shooting neophyte who hasn't heard of Cooper, is the sin of the lifetime shootist or gunfighter who thinks Cooper’s genius was confined to shooting alone.

Lots of people have made a difference in how we shoot today, and, more importantly, on how we employ firearms as weapons. Jordan, Applegate, Fairbairn, Weaver and many others played their parts, Cooper’s Modern Technique owes something to all of them. But the aspect of Cooper’s genius that is often missed – that a lawyer especially appreciates – was his ability to distill the English language to concentrations of highest potency. With the possible exception of those twice delivered downhill by Moses, you would be hard pressed to find any set of laws, drafted by any legislature in the whole history of lawmaking, that accomplishes its goal as completely, in as few words, and with less susceptibility to misapplication or mischief than Cooper’s Four Rules:

1. All guns are always loaded.
2. Never let the muzzle cover anything which you are not willing to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
4. Always be sure of your target.

There it is, in 37 words, the perfect gun safety system. Barring spontaneous combustion, you cannot inadvertently hurt yourself, or anyone else, with your firearm unless you violate more than one of these rules at the same time. If you have foolishly put your finger on the trigger without a target in sight – and even if you pull that trigger – if you haven’t also simultaneously violated Rule 2, the only consequence will be embarrassment. If, in violation Rule 1, you have treated the weapon as empty when in fact it is loaded, unless you violate both Rules 2 and 3, no harm will ensue.

Through the years, quibblers have quibbled about the Four Rules* and come-lately gun gurus often try to make a name by “improving” them. But the genius of the Four Rules, as anyone who has ever tried to draft a law or craft a contract can tell you, is their extreme economy and their seamless interconnection.

These rules work everywhere and always. Employ these rules and no one and nothing you don’t mean to shoot will get shot. They are equally as effective at the county shooting range with your 10-year-old when he first learns to shoot a pistol** as they are when you’re stacked up with rest of your team of Tier One bad asses, ready to kick in some HVT’s door. Which is not the same thing as saying that every rule has equal application in every situation. For example, lawmen routinely draw down on suspects, allowing their muzzles to cover people they aren't at least immediately willing to destroy.*** But at such moments, even as they knowingly violate Rule 2, they had best be scrupulous in their fidelity to Rule 3.

The consequences of violating the Four Rules can be extreme. And while it’s bad enough when the one who violates the Rule suffers the consequence, I’d suggest that it is the violation of Rule 4 that has the greatest potential for tragedy. That “home invader” hammering at your door at 3 a.m. just might be a drunken cousin looking for place to sleep. You may have every reason to kill that bad guy. But being “sure of your target” means knowing in that instant and yet to a certainty where each and every bullet is going to come to rest – a fact that exists within the dynamic framework of your ability to hit the target, the ballistic realities of your target and the round you’re firing, what’s next to and behind the target, and what might pass between you and the target in the time it takes you to break the shot.

We have seen more or less wholesale violation of Rule 4 in the past few days by lawmen on the west coast. Although, admittedly, it will be a long time before all the facts are known, it seems likely they  let an understandable but unaccustomed atmosphere of fear degrade their adherence to the rule. This kind of result is not unheard of, even without the looming threat of a manifesto spewing cop killer on the loose. The police are merely men (and women, of course) and men are massively fallible creatures. But that truth will prove little comfort to the cops who took those shots and now may face career discipline, civil liability, vilification and dark nights of the soul. Less comfort, still, to the wounded and the families of the dead.

No one can doubt my allegiance to, admiration of and love for the beleaguered, endangered cop on the beat, individually and as a species. But the lesson is there for the taking this week and heaven help us – especially those of us who vindicate our responsibility for self protection by exercising our right to go armed – if we do not stop to learn it afresh.

* Rule 1 comes under fire from time to time, since it appears to be a fiction. Not every gun really is always loaded, the cavil goes. But the sense of Cooper’s rule is evident to anyone who has ever been handed an unloaded firearm by a friend, or removed one from its case, only to find out that it wasn't. Treating empty firearms like loaded ones cannot get you hurt; the same cannot be said for the inverse.

**  . . . after, of course, learning, memorizing and understanding the Four Rules.

*** This is bad practice for the non-lawman armed citizen. Your weapon ought not depart the holster unless you plan imminently to shoot someone. But that’s another post.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Spoiler alert*

I enjoy “Downton Abbey.” But if you enjoy "Downton Abbey," I'll bet we don't enjoy it for the same reasons. You probably like watching lushly-produced tales of manners, romance, ambition, sex and revenge played out among a wealthy, titled family and its cadre of servants. On the other hand, I, unlike most of the program's anglophilic devotees, really get a kick out of seeing Englishmen in prison.

Because make no mistake, “Downton Abbey” is a prison drama, and equally so for all the characters as for the hapless valet now languishing in an actual prison, after being framed for his wife’s well-deserved demise. [You see. . .  If the second Mrs. Bates (sainted housemaid Anna) can prove that the first and late Mrs. Bates (spiteful and vindictive Vera) baked the arsenic-laden pie that killed her only after her husband (noble and selfless valet John Bates) left London to rush home to Downton Abbey in time to dress Lord Grantham for dinner, then Mr. Bates may someday see the outside of His Majesty’s prison, where he is now condemned to languish.]**

But while Bates may rest in hope of release, none of the other residents of Downton Abbey are likely ever to escape. Their fetters were forged in centuries-old class and social conventions that are supposed tell each of them precisely who they are and predict everything that may ever happen to them. The War to End All Wars barely put a chink in their chains; it will take a global depression and another world war even to deepen the scratch.

This sounds horrible to those raised to believe that “anyone can grow up to be president.” But upstairs and downstairs, from the big house to the village shops, Downton’s denizens operate in (mostly contented) subservience to this stratified and stultifying order. If it is a prison, it is a comforting one that is most ardently defended by those who have inhabited it the longest. We regularly see the imperious Dowager Countess and implacable Carson the Butler affirm their allegiance to this world, by exchanging a furtive glance, a restrained nod or a discreetly rolled eye from their distant perches atop its respective poles.

And well they might. For theirs is a world that doles out swift punishment to anyone who presumes to challenge its orthodoxy. When randy housemaid Ethel dares to lay with even randier aristocratic Major Bryant, she winds up with a nameless son she cannot keep and nearly fatal employment in the oldest service profession of all. Sloe-eyed debutante Sybil is all hoyden, defiantly taking work as a nurse and marrying the chauffeur – the Irish, Catholic, vaguely Republican chauffeur  no less. But soon enough she meets her death, when her father’s hidebound confidence in class over competence puts her in the hands of an inept society doctor who misses a diagnosis so obvious it had PBS viewers screaming “pre-eclampsia!” at the telly ten minutes into the episode.

For all the secure predictability this demimonde is supposed to provide, we watch as a host of thoroughly entertaining, utterly avoidable woes befall Downton's inhabitants, while none of them ever seems to see disaster looming. Instead, thanks to their faith in their precisely ordered world, they are blind to and surprised by the mayhem we all can see lurking around each architecturally important corner. For while the Crawleys and their servants know Burke’s Peerage front to back, their education in Robert’s Rules is sadly deficient. Otherwise, they’d have known that you must never let who you are blind you to where you stand, nor let where you stand blind you to what's coming your way.

Not for nothing is this blog entitled "Suburban Sheepdog." It may not be a quaint Yorkshire village, but I live in a prototypically “nice neighborhood.” I’ll bet you do, too. For the most part I work, recreate, shop, pray and even travel through a world that appears quite as safe and certain as an English country estate. The overwhelming likelihood is that violent trouble will never come my way.*** So why do I burden myself with a firearm and other assorted kit? Why do I take time to train and practice? Why do I care about esoterica like mindset?

Because there are no spoiler alerts in real life. Because there is nowhere I can go on the Web to read that “in tonight’s episode, Suburban Sheepdog faces an armed assault.” Because unlike those inhabiting Downton – be they entitled or indentured – I know there is no position of privilege that can protect me,  no social construct that will keep my family safe. That task falls to me, each day, come what may. And I had better be ready, because not only are there no spoiler alerts, there is no rewind.

*Seriously. Spoiler alert. If you are not up to date on “Downton Abbey” and you care, read no further.

** I swear I’m not making this up.

*** Let's ignore, just for now, that it already has on a few occasions. I really don't want facts getting the way of the point I'm making.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The way they should go*

Fifteen children, just a couple more boys than girls, white and black and Latino and Asian. The rifles were all different colors, too, including pink. The youngest child was five or so; the oldest 14. Likewise the rifles, some brand new, some much-loved heirlooms. Moms and dads at their shoulders, some children fired their first shots ever; others comfortably showed mom and dad a thing or two. From morning to afternoon – with time out for lunch and a raffle and the potty and probably too many sodas – these junior marksmen sent easily more than 1,200 rounds down range.

I cannot say the exercise passed entirely without incident; there was some trouble. Two young sisters had a brief but heated spat over which of them was next entitled to shoot the pink rifle. A stern range officer sorted it out, with a thumbs up from mom, and the day progressed. But even with all those guns firing all those bullets, no one got hurt.** No crime was committed. No one had violence done to them or was for even a moment afraid. (Unless you were a soda can or swinging steel target, in which case you had every reason to fear.) All this even though some of the rifles in use were black and looked “tactical,” even though magazines holding as many as 30 rounds were widely employed.

I’ll tell you what the “gun culture” looked like down at the .22 bay of my IDPA club’s  annual picnic. It looked like a lot of children getting along (we can’t be blamed for a sibling squabble). It looked like a bunch of smiling, slightly sunburned kids learning safety and patience and concentration and mastering a skill. It looked like goofy t-shirts, untied sneakers and hair ribbons. The sound was the sound of a lot of self-esteem resulting from actual accomplishment. It sounded like “Dad look at that!” and “Mom I did it!” – sprinkled liberally with “yes, sir” and “no ma’am.”

The numbers for the adults aren't too shabby, either. Last year, more than 1,300 shooters attended 34 pistol, carbine, shotgun or combined arms matches and events put on by my club, and fired well in excess of 100,000 rounds of ammunition while incurring zero injuries. These shooters, of every ethnicity, race and creed,  were  doctors and drivers; judges and journeymen; nurses and night clerks; students and senior citizens; teachers and technicians; lawyers and laborers; city cops, county sheriffs, state police, customs officers, and Secret Service agents. They regulated and supervised themselves with a cadre of safety officers raised from their own ranks. They trained and tested and challenged and encouraged one another. They raised money for charities. They regularly performed shooting feats that would daunt those would-be government overlords who consider themselves the only ones professional enough to be armedSome of them took home the occasional trophy. They teased each other in at least three languages and they laughed – they laughed a lot. 

The firearms with which all these people did all these harmless things – Glock and Sig and Colt pistols; AR-15s and AK clones; pump and semi-automatic shotguns – are precisely the firearms that are, in pronouncements of cynical and gratuitous slander, denounced from behind Washington DC podiums as being of "no sporting use," and having as their only purpose "to kill as many people as possible."  

You're invited, you know. We are one of the the first International Defensive Pistol Association clubs ever founded and we pride ourselves on being a teaching club. We've constituted ourselves especially to safely welcome, train, supervise, encourage and advance new shooters. So you're welcome to join us, any time. The picnic match is the third Saturday of January every year, and we'd love for you to bring your kids. 

Unless you'd rather not.

Unless you'd rather your child prepared for a pageant, or played baseball, or practiced her violin, or worked on his chess game, or watched some "Phineas and Ferb," or got his pinewood derby car ready for the Cub Scout races, or did her chores.*** Unless you'd rather have nothing whatsoever to do with firearms, ever. You're welcome to join us, but you certainly don't have to if you'd rather not. Here's the only thing, though. We promise to let you spend your Saturday with your kids any way you please and that you think is good for them. We promise not to interfere.

All we ask, if you don't want to join us, is that you promise the same.  

* Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. Prov. 22:6

** Alright, I confess it. The day was not entirely injury-free: One little boy did develop an ouchie red blister on his thumb from loading so many magazines.

*** Of course, our kids all do that stuff, too. The two sisters, for example, appeared agreeably disposed by the time they had to leave with their parents to dress up for the cheerleading awards banquet.