Friday, May 18, 2018

Resting on Our Laurels: The Laurel-Yanni Debate as Emblematic of Our Highly Divisive Times

For those who are paying more attention to international news than social media—or those who are reading this long after the momentary hubbub has died down, and are searching through the cache of 24-hour media viruses like Chocolate Rain and Overly Dramatic Rodents, allow me to describe to you a seemingly trivial speck on the radar screen of cultural goings-on, which might actually have a hidden meaning and provide an explanation of our current cultural and political trajectory, and offer a solution to our present state of division. 

In mid-May, 2018, a young woman posted to her Instagram account (that’s a wildly popular social media platform, for the uninitiated) a short audio clip and a poll about people’s perception of that clip.  The short clip was on a repeating loop and bore one single word that was easy to hear, but inspired varying perceptions.  Some described a deep, male voice in the clip which clearly said “Laurel”, in his best radio announcer style. Others described a gravelly female voice in the clip which clearly said “Yanni” (pronounced YANN-knee) in her best imitation of your 80 year old great aunt who’s been a chain smoker most of her life. Reminiscent of the great gold dress / blue dress meme debate of 2015, when this first came across my desk, I initially scoffed at this, thinking to myself, “Could there possibly be two words more starkly different and still come from the same audio clip?” So I suspiciously opened the post and listened for myself. Immediately, I heard a hoarse-voiced, elderly lady croaking in a moderately low pitch the neologism, “YANN-knee”, with a seemingly Midwestern accent. I could not conceive of how anyone could ever hear this as “Laurel”.  So I read an article in The Atlantic by a linguist, which I found only marginally helpful in explicating how two entirely different words and pronunciations could come from the same audio clip.[1] I even asked my wife to listen as well.  She perceived neither pronunciation at first, hearing something in-between, but gradually agreeing with me on the Yanni interpretation, before losing interest in the discussion and returning to her e-book on noted philanderer and pioneering radio disk jockey, Richard Blade.  

The next day, I came across a newer article in The New York Times, that included an online tool which was developed whereby one could play the same, original clip repeatedly, but modulate the output through an on-screen, mouse manipulated slider, and hear, effectively, what the other party hears.[2]  I tried it, and immediately—without even changing the slider’s location—I heard “Laurel”, pronounced by a deep baritone male voice, like those who spent their lives in suits and ties, enjoying male privilege, and working as voice actors for advertising companies or educational outfits.  His deep, rich tones, reminded me of the voice over from elementary school film strips and 16 mm movies from the 1970s, telling me about the primary exports from the Amazon Rain Forest, and why capitalism will always win over Communism.  Remembering my statement of incredulity from the day prior, I couldn’t believe my ears!  “Where’d Aunt Margie go?!” I asked myself, proposing that she may have gone to the other room to retrieve her pack of cigarettes, or finding the pack empty, took a quick trip to the QuikTrip to pick up more Camels, or at least some Virginia Slims.  I continued to play with the slider, and Aunt Margie suddenly returned, now stronger than ever, freshly quaffed with gin and tonic, and enjoying a puff of her cancer sticks. As I moved the slider back and forth, adjusting the modulation as my curiosity moved me, I heard Don—the suave and confidently masculine voiceover actor—return from his trip to the Rainforest, only to share with Aunt Margie about his new mistress who lived on a street called “Laurel”. Aunt Margie retorted that she had been listening to that nice Greek musician who used to date her favorite evening soap opera actress, Linda Evans, but she butchered his name in the process, as if she were referring to a nanny goat.  Aunt Margie’s voice sounded a bit tinny the further to the right I moved the slider, but Yanni was still very clear. And as I moved the slider to the far left, Don’s voice was quite clear in all its traditionally masculine, martini-drinking glory, as fresh from a Madison Avenue ad agency, or a safari in Africa. But then something strange happened.  Don showed up on Aunt Margie’s side, and occasionally, Margie took a sip of Don’s martini and languished on his side of the room.  And I realized that both were always there, but depending upon which one I listened for, I heard one over the other.  If I shifted the slider to Margie’s side, irrespective of how far into her domain I was, I began to hear Don crooning, “Laurel” very clearly. And Margie’s raspy, gin-fueled and tobacco burnished “Yanni” was harder to discern.  But I listened very specifically for it, and even recited the word in my mind, I could hear it as Don’s Laurel took a momentary back seat.  

I’m no scientist, but I have spent decades in a university setting, and I do understand enough about shifting human perspective to see a pattern emerging here.  And with the help of both articles I had read on the topic, it became clear to me that both of these words were always and ever present amid the data and sound waves recorded.  Neither of them ever disappeared.  The sound waves were merely sound waves.  But depending upon how your mind deciphered them, and which pulses and frequencies you were attuned to, one word emerged in your consciousness while the other retreated.  Such is the case with radio waves.  They are always there.  Millions and millions of countless impulses travel through the air every day from various sources, such as radio stations, television stations, wireless transmitters and otherwise.  But only certain of these impulses or frequencies are our particular individual devices attuned to receive or decipher into comprehensible and understandable data to which we react.  And so it is with the original recording of what evidently started its life as an instructional vocabulary clip used by an educational company for pedagogical purposes, probably to demonstrate the proper pronunciation of the word, Laurel.  By tuning out background noise, we hear handsome Don crooning “Laurel” in his three piece suit; but by tuning out the foreground noise, and only listening to the background or other peripheral frequencies, we hear Aunt Margie croaking something akin to “Yanni”, between puffs from her Newport Lites. 

This discussion may seem trivial and insignificant in the midst of national and international turmoil in the form of school shootings nearly every month (even one in Texas as I write this), undeniable overfishing and plastic pollution of our oceans, innocent children and adults being murdered in Gaza alongside of protesters, and a shaky truce between North and South Korea, among many other truly important current events.  But this argument over Laurel or Yanni is more than a mere distraction, unlike the gustatory choices of socialite Kendall Jenner prior to her attendance of the Met Gala, or whether her half-sister Kim Kardashian’s semi-nude photo for an online magazine in 2015 actually “broke the internet” or not.  

The debate over whether the actual recording empirically presents the word Laurel or the neologistic Yanni is in fact emblematic of the divisions that the United States is suffering under—and perhaps the world at large.  It is somewhat reminiscent of a folk story from the Yoruba people of Western Africa, in which the archetypal trickster figure, Eshu, indicative of his playful and pranksterish nature, walks between two friends, while wearing a hat that is colored differently on either side—deliberately stirring up trouble by causing an argument over the actual color of the hat.  The friend who sees only the black side of the hat has a different perspective from the friend who walks on the other side and only sees the red side of the hat, a difference of opinion that needlessly causes both friends—obviously unwilling to entertain the validity of the other’s individual perspective—to become bitter enemies.[3]

For many years, I have witnessed a tendency for people to dismiss the opinions and life experiences of their political adversaries as being irrelevant or unimportant. This is a common tendency, invalidating the standpoints of “the other”.  But in the past few years, leading up to the 2016 election, and in the time since then, I have seen a worsening of this, and from both sides of the political spectrum.  In recognizing this sinfulness of “both sides”, I am not purposefully detracting from the gravity of, or dismissing the very real crimes and acts of hatred carried out by certain supporters of a major political party, which include running over protesters with cars, pointing semi-automatic weapons at Jewish synagogues, and all manner of bullying of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.  But the vast majority of people on either end of the political spectrum are not engaging in this kind of lawless and despicable behavior.  Yet, there are people on both sides who are in fact rejecting the validity of the life experiences and socio-political and economic realities of people who support either major party or platform, with the result being that the other side is demonized as if they have no right to their opinions and neither do they have any reason to exist.  

I do, however, see a lot that the proponents of these two sides of the larger discussion have in common.  And much of this they will never realize.  And so they fail to recognize the inherent humanity in the other, no less the validity of their lived experiences or the kernel of truth in their viewpoints, regardless of the shortcomings of their arguments.  And I often see each side twisting words of the other side, ignoring the central points and harping on minor points of verbiage or peripheral aspects of presentation, and dismissing anything helpful that could serve to unite or cause reconciliation.  

Of the many things that I see in common, is that people have a need to feel proud of their identities. People don’t want to feel as if their heritage or their identity, either chosen or inherited, is invalid or deprecated. And all too often they see in the arguments of the other, a pointed disregard for their need for pride.  LGBTQ+ folk often feel that social and religious conservatives do not honor their right to exist and to love those whom they choose to love.  And we see people of a more conservative mindset feeling reviled and bullied for holding more conservative social and moral standpoints, and choosing to teach their children a certain conservative theological doctrine.  People of Hispanic descent, or those immigrating from Latin American countries feel the need to preserve their heritage and celebrate and promote their culture.  People of Anglo descent, hailing from Southern regions of the United States feel as if their entire heritage is being equated with slavery and racism, and being personally and individually blamed for the historical plight of African Americans.[4]  Military veterans and active duty personnel alike want to feel as if they are valued for their service and their contributions to defending our nation; not to be labeled wholesale as baby-killers or murderers and tools of global imperialism.  Catholics, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, people from the Coasts, people from Middle America; people from larger, liberal, urban areas; and people from less populated and largely rural areas; people that own and live around guns and gun culture; people who have never held a gun and reject gun culture—all of these people have a need to affirm their identity and their choices and to feel pride in who they are, and to not have others seek to invalidate their lived experiences and cultural expressions.  

At the core of nearly every culture, we are taught to seek justice. We are taught to desire peace.  We are taught that equal treatment under the law is an individual human right and a just end.  And every one of us believes that we, individually, deserve these things; and we at least pay lip service to the fact that others deserve them, too.  Now, we may differ as to how to bring these things about.  We may have different feelings about amnesty and permissiveness in the face of legalism, about individualism versus collective identity, about authoritarianism versus libertarianism, but we all seek to be honored and respected and understood—and to have our voices heard.  We all seek to preserve the cultures and traditions we grew up with.  None of us likes when our long-held mores and values and icons are exposed to the vicissitudes of historical revisionism or deconstruction and reconsideration, leaving us in a limbo of cognitive dissonance.  None of us likes when our core values and identity are exposed to criticism, and it takes a very wise and self-aware person to be truly open to this kind of criticism. But it needs to be conveyed in a way that seeks growth, progress, and reconciliation; not the wholesale tearing down and deconstruction of a culture’s or a people’s identity. There needs to be a sensitivity to what is lost when we tear down an idol or an icon for their fatal flaws and human shortcomings.  When we criticize or tear down a Gandhi or a Mother Theresa or a Martin Luther King for their flawed and frail humanity, we need to put something up in their place, or at least come to grips with the fact that no “saint” is truly perfect.  

A spirit of division has come upon our nation and between us, as Americans. Whether it is Eshu, the Trickster of the Yoruba, or the Devil of the Abrahamic Faiths, that plagues us, I cannot tell.  But plaguing us it is, and it is making us combative and irascible and even seemingly irreconcilable in our cultivated arrogance that we are naturally correct.  We would do well to show gratitude toward those on the other side of the slider, showing us how to modulate the sound that comes into our ears, and how to understand it differently.  One of the key traditions shared by the Abrahamic Faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—as well as many other world religions—is that of repentance.  Even the I Ching, an ancient Chinese Confucian text, states that “the mind should be kept humble and free, so that it may remain receptive to good advice. People soon give up counseling a man who thinks that he knows everything better than anyone else.”[5]  It is this advice, from a non-Western culture, that serves as a testament to the ubiquity of such counsel.  We must all be open to revising our viewpoints and reconciling toward those who were our erstwhile adversaries.  We must be grateful to them for showing us that there is a different way to perceive or interpret the sounds that enter our earholes. 

We are all Americans, whether we are native-born Americans, indigenous Americans, naturalized Americans, or aspiring Americans of any sort (documented or not). We are here for a reason and most of us want to be here; and, as such, we have a responsibility, an obligation, to work for the common good.  We are the nation that was central in defeating Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini. We pulled together for that, and despite our differences—even amidst terrible prejudice and oppression of certain racial and ethnic groupings (namely Japanese-Americans and African-Americans begin with)—everyone gave selflessly and played their part.  That time, the enemy was an external one.  But this time, the enemy is within each of us, and it is much wilier.  It is very insidious and divisive.  The only way to defeat this enemy, this trickster, this devil, is to be willing to slide the modulator a little bit left or right and be willing to listen to what the other party hears.  Is it Laurel? Or is it Yanni?  It turns out that it is both.  Until we move that modulator a little bit, we are going to keep on fighting and denying each other’s personal truths and lived experiences out of our hubris, our overweening arrogance that we know everything.  And we will continue to argue over Laurel or Yanni, or whatever is the issue of the month. We can do better. We must do better.

[3] Ken Derry, in A Concise Introduction to World Religions, edited by Willard G. Oxtoby, Alan F. Segal, et al, Third Edition, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2015, p.49.
[4] Note that the cultures and economy of colonial Latin America and Caribbean as well as the Southern U.S. were built upon slavery and plantations and the subjugation of and disenfranchisement of indigenous populations.
[5] The I Ching, Translated by Richard Wilhelm, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977, Hexagram 31, pg. 123.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

I Believe in American Exceptionalism. But Wait, There's More....

I believe in American exceptionalism. Before you boo and hiss me—as my liberal listeners—or before you smugly enumerate my endorsement—as my conservative listeners—I want to clarify.  American exceptionalism has its substance, its truth, not in some divine mandate, irrevocable.  As it says in Luke’s Gospel: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Lk 3:8)  And the Apostle Paul says regarding the inclusion of gentiles into the New Israel that he envisions Christianity to be: “Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”

The substance of American exceptionalism lies in the sum total effect of our actions. Our ability to stick to our principles. In light of President Trump’s campaign slogans, to “Make America Great Again”, which was a stumbling block for liberals, a liberal friend of mine questioned if America was ever great.  To me, the statement, “Make America Great Again,” is fundamentally flawed.  We never stopped being great.  But in her defense, she is speaking as a woman of color, a child of immigrants, and a person of religious tradition and ethnic extraction that have been much slandered in recent years.  She is seeing the worst of what we are.  But I answered—and I answer now—that our greatness, our exceptionalism, has always lain within our desire—as a nation—to do better.  To strive harder and to be better than our forebears.  From the start of our nation, our forefathers and foremothers sought to have a better and more equitable government than the monarchies and tyrannies of Europe. They came here to seek religious freedom and economic opportunities that they did not have in Europe, in the Old World, which was dominated by hereditary aristocracies that had made themselves fat on the blood of the peasants whom they were supposedly entrusted to govern.  Now did our ancestors in this land immediately solve all problems and establish universal freedom and equality for all citizens and inhabitants of this land?  No, they did not.  For as humans, they were fallible, and they succumbed to many of the same faults as their ancestors did.  For many brought millions of slaves against their will from Africa to labor here under pain of death, the former telling themselves that it was the natural order of things, and soothing their seething souls from the burgeoning conscience that sought to peek through their hardened hearts, by reciting and mangling scripture that justified their usage and furtherance of their “peculiar institution”—that of slavery.  But in time, better natures prevailed and our founders and their descendants thought better of their actions and sought to abolish slavery.  And many people died, trying to defend their way of life, thinking that they were letting go of their freedom; many people died trying to establish freedom for all men and women and to ensure that the promise of liberty is extended to all people. And in another generation, many women and their male allies fought for universal suffrage, ensuring that women had the right to vote as well as men.  And in another generation, we as a nation pulled together to save the world from the tyranny of fascism in its numerous forms—and from Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini.  And in another generation, our people fought for civil rights, to close the deal that had been struck with the former slaves, inaugurated by the Emancipation Proclamation, and to reassert the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people, regardless of race, color, or creed.  Since that time, we have suffered from other expressions of tyranny, such as unbridled warfare that has served big moneyed special interests, putting oil and corporate profits before American lives; unrestricted government access to our personal information and our private lives; or forms of extremism from both ends of the spectrum, and so forth and so on.  Through each and every era, we have fought to make ourselves better.  Sometimes we have succeeded. Other times, we have strayed further from the path, thinking ourselves more free or more equitable.  But in every age, it has been these principles that have driven us to become better than we were before, and in my opinion, this is the source of American exceptionalism.

One of the marks of American liberalism has been to right the wrongs of former times, to seek justice for the downtrodden, and to repent for our iniquities as a nation.  A certain amount of shame has always accompanied the realization that we have done wrong.   Conversely, one of the marks of American conservatism has been a resistance to feeling shame about ourselves as a nation, but in some ways that pride has stood in the way of realizing one of the most important principles of the Judeo-Christian faith systems: repentance.  Long ago, during the Revolutionary War, patriotism meant willingness to die for one’s country, defending one’s freedom.    Modern patriotism has veered off course, attempting rather to defend one’s pride.  Modern patriotism has become synonymous with pride, rather than sacrifice.  And overweening pride can easily become a sin.  I do not seek to take away the source of anyone’s pride.  People want to feel good about themselves.  That’s their right.  We all need pride, as does any child being trained to walk or speak.  We all need a gold star on our homework. But how long do we have to be given gold stars in order to keep us moving forward?  After a while, we need to put away childish things and walk on our own. And a part of this is recognizing our mistake, taking responsibility for our iniquities, for repentance. 

We need a healthy dose of pride in who we are, as a people, as a nation.  But we need that pride to be tempered with humility and compassion, and indeed, repentance for our wrongdoings.  King David, the model of the Biblical king, modeled humility before God, and embodied repentance.  Are we claiming to be greater than David?  Have we surpassed him in perfection?  

So how do I feel about American exceptionalism?  I believe that our exceptionalism lies in our ability to embrace the diversity that made this nation, and through it to build unity.  In welcoming the immigrants of all classes, creeds, races, colors, and abilities, who were able to make this nation prosperous and industrious, and who can still do so if given the right opportunities.  Taking the best of all cultures and sharing and appreciating them.  And are we a melting pot or a salad bowl? I don’t care.  We’re both.  We’ll start our meal with salad and then we move on to the fondue.  And Guess what? After the meal, there is a delicious fruit salad for us all to enjoy! That diversity can make all of us stronger, individually and corporately.  And Our exceptionalism lies in our compassion toward other nations, neighbors or not, allies or not, being willing to lend a hand in the face of adversity and tragedy, being willing to build bridges where there were only chasms.  Our exceptionalism lies in our ability and our desire to make peace and to avoid war, not to thrive in it and get rich on it.  

I want us to feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments. But I want us to do better and to be better; to never stop trying to become what God wants us to be, what our better natures want us to be.  We have a lot to be proud of, but we also have a lot farther to go.  As with any promising teenager, we cannot let them rest on their laurels and be satisfied with a few A papers, a few perfect test scores, a few goals or touchdowns scored.  There is a whole life ahead of us, but we are going to have to graduate high school and go to college, or embark on a career.  No one is going to give us handouts just for being a good student. We have to keep working.  And if that requires a little humility, and a little repentance, and a few “I’m sorries”, then so be it, if it will ensure that we remain righteous and that we retain the greatness that our ancestors worked so hard for.  Be proud of our achievements, be humble about our natural abilities, and be quick to apologize, to police our own, to make amends, to build alliances and to move on.  And to embrace the greatness that I know we are capable of. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Trigger Warning: Alternate Viewpoints for a Bipartisan Discussion on Firearms

Trigger Warning: Alternate Viewpoints for a Bipartisan Discussion on Firearms
Accompanying this essay is a photo of me in 1998, firing a civilian version of the M14 rifle at the National Matches in Camp Perry, Ohio, where I was competing as a member of the California State Service Rifle Team.  The M14/M1A rifle, a civilian firearm based upon a 1950s-1960s era military issue service rifle, is now categorized as an assault weapon by many states that have passed assault weapon legislation, as well as under the now defunct Clinton-era federal ban on assault weapons.  This image is provided as proof that there is, in fact, a legitimate and peaceful usage for so-called assault weapons outside of a military context.  However, this essay is intended to inspire and spark deeper reflection and more conciliatory, bipartisan discussion on the topics of gun control, gun culture, and firearms regulation. 

A few days after the recent tragic Florida school shooting, an old grad school friend posted on her Facebook page:

F*cking enough, America.  Nobody needs bloody assault rifles outside of a military context. If you disagree, unfriend me now because you are a disgrace. [censorship mine]

Initially, I was deeply hurt by her sweeping generalizations and indictment of everyone who disagrees with her, but I chose not to respond directly or to engage her in a public debate on her page, but rather to write a collegial and reasoned response, sharing my own personal experience and knowledge as my contribution to the larger question of gun control, liberty, and making our society more peaceful and functional.  It is my wish, with this essay, to inspire people to critically engage their own viewpoints, while respecting those of others, as we figure out how to better our society and make our nation safer.  I want people to explore the viewpoints of their erstwhile opponents without resorting to divisive, dismissive, and uninformed generalizations. Rather, I encourage people to educate themselves fully on all matters and to seek compromise and understanding, rather than division. 

I was raised in a patently anti-gun family, and spent most of my childhood and early adulthood proudly proclaiming my liberal attitudes. Sometime in the mid-1990s, during grad school, I began to realize that life is rarely black and white, and during that time, as part of my work with military veterans’ groups, I was introduced to target shooting.  And I was good.  Very good, in fact.  But as an academic, this kind of pursuit is rarely accepted or lauded by the largely liberal academe.  And so I hid my other life from most of my friends and colleagues in the academy, knowing that they would not tolerate this and that I would likely be ostracized and marginalized for my pursuits.  Only a few close friends were invited to share my joy when I was awarded three medals for my performance in the 1997 and 1998 California State Service Rifle and High Power Rifle Championships.  In some ways, I felt as if I had to keep my true identity in the closet.  However, it was very beneficial to me, as a lifelong liberal who was for the first time seeing the other side of what I had assumed was a very cut and dry argument, to be able to hear first-hand the lived experiences of people far more conservative than I.  In many ways, it embodied what one of my Theology professors had taught us regarding the need to truly hear and engage the lived experiences and the reality of one’s conversation partners and even one’s opponents; to attempt to be in their shoes, to absorb their viewpoints in order to fully understand them and work with them toward building consensus and achieving compromise.  Without this, we can never expect any real progress, change, or collaboration, and in fact, true compromise would be impossible.  

And so in 1998, I traveled to Camp Perry, Ohio with the State Rifle team and competed in the National Matches, giving it my best, but putting up some relatively mediocre scores in the presence of 1300 of the nation’s best shooters, both civilian and military alike.  Yet it was a truly edifying experience and I cherish the friendships I garnered, and the viewpoints—political, social, personal, and athletic—that I was exposed to and had the opportunity to engage.  Since that time, I have retired my rifles and have never shot a match again, partly due to the increased firearms restrictions in the state of California, which by nature classify my M14/M1A as an assault weapon, due to certain components in its configuration, forcing me to register it with the CA Department of Justice as a “grandfathered” assault weapon.  The uninitiated viewer might look at this gun, with its wood stock and its classic lines—inspired by the old M1 Garand rifle that was used in WWII and helped defeat Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini—and assume that this rifle is an antiquated piece of history, more nostalgia than performance.  However, this rifle was a highly tuned match rifle that was very much the equal of the AR-15 rifle, which was only just then starting to displace the M14/M1A as the equipment of choice in the service rifle category of target shooting.  In some ways, it outperforms the AR-15 in terms of range and bullet trajectory, but the AR-15 is a lighter rifle with far less recoil, and is an ideal competition rifle for smaller or lighter competitors, including women, who are a rapidly growing demographic in target shooting.  In fact, the year I competed, there were several young women on the California junior team.  

The perceptive viewer will notice, at the extreme left side of the photograph, the muzzle of an AR-15 which was being fielded by the shooter to my left, and also about 70% of the shooters on the field in 1998.  At this time, twenty years later, the AR-15 has fully eclipsed the M14/M1A type rifle as competitive equipment of choice, on account of its light weight and low recoil, as well as recent advances in technology that allow it to compare with the naturally more accurate M14/M1A. With that said, this flies in the face of those who would uncritically claim that the AR-15—or any so-called assault rifle, for that matter—has no legitimate usage outside of warfare.  There are tens of thousands of competitive target shooters across the US who compete in local, state, regional, and national matches every year, as well as perhaps ten times that number who practice target shooting at private and public ranges on a regular, but non-competitive, basis.  Many of these competitors shoot in Service Rifle categories, which now almost exclusively utilize the AR-15.  The origin of this is that as of the early twentieth century, the U.S. realized that marksmanship is the core of all effective military training, and if we are going to have a strong military that can protect our nation, we are going to have to encourage marksmanship among all citizens, of all ages, so as to ease the burden of military marksmanship instructors upon induction into basic training. The Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP), originally formulated as a department of the U.S. Government, called the Department of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM), sought to support and promote individual marksmanship to further prepare people for military service and to anticipate and precede more advanced training.  Many baby boomers and those born well before 1970 will remember school programs promoting marksmanship, gun safety, and even school rifle teams, in an era when military training and service were considered propaedeutic to life, and not yet tainted by the stigma of mistrust of government that arose out of the Vietnam War.  While its functions are extremely limited compared to an earlier era, the CMP still exists to this day and is dovetailed with the many service rifle competitions held around the U.S.  And the rifles used in these matches are by nature military style rifles, or derive from the same family as past and present military “service” rifles, although stripped of the more dangerous and exclusively combat related functions, such as selective fire, or fully automatic capability.  Until the day arrives when world peace is established, until the time when we abolish all borders and the need for a military, the armed forces will continue to be one of the largest and most viable sources of stable employment and advancement for both the urban and the rural poor alike.  It has also become home to many women, and many people of the LGBTQ+ community, who proudly serve their country, despite the ambivalence of the current administration toward them.  Until that time, the concept of abolishing the military is simply a peacenik’s pipe dream, and the need for marksmanship training is still of utmost importance.  

And with white supremacists, such as those who marched on Charlottesville this past August, openly displaying firearms during purportedly “peaceful” protests—even pointing them at synagogues and threatening Jews and other minorities, as well as peacefully counter-protesting clergymembers, while local law enforcement in Charlottesville did nothing about it—these members of right wing extremist groups often carrying the very same AR type rifles that are now undergoing debate, then I am grateful that minorities and vulnerable demographics, especially people of color, can still take full advantage of their constitutional rights to defend themselves against the increasing waves of armed bigots coming out of the woodwork in the last two years.  Trust me, you are not going to have an easy time disarming these folks, no matter what sweeping legislation you pass.  But that is a separate issue from the one at hand in this essay. 

It is no small matter that we are seeing a dramatic and widening gap between the lifestyles and culture of the regions which are the most conservative, on one hand, and those of the coastal urban areas, on the other, most frequently representing a more liberal set of values.  Each side thinks that they are the entirety of America, when in fact they are not; the other side can make an equally valid claim to represent a good portion of America, and to deny the existence or validity of the other is a grave mistake—one which has led to our present predicament in which the liberal left and the conservative right are in open warfare with one another in the legislature, and in which our current president was elected as a reaction to—and an outgrowth of—that unwillingness of each side to truly recognize the humanity of the other.  There is enough blame to go around, but for the purposes of this piece, I highlight the fact that the liberal left, comfortable in its urban, coastal enclaves, seems to deny the very reality of the lifestyles of the so-called “fly-over states”, where agriculture, hunting, shooting sports of every kind, country music, and a more homogeneous cultural and ethnic demographic are still the norm, and represent the hegemony.  Just because it’s not your culture, or that you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean you have the right to disparage or discount it.  If we, in the cities, in our liberal ivory towers, see fit to ignore the realities of coal mining country and farm country, and the rural poor, then we are doomed to keep fanning the flames of division and we are partly responsible for fueling cultural warfare. And we will continue to see more outlandishly “populist” candidates being fielded by the Republican Party, and we are going to suffer from increasingly poor communication with their constituents. 

What are the solutions to this problem, which has most recently reared its ugly head in the form of the Florida school shooting?  I don’t have all the answers.  But there are many options that we must discuss, and many of us are going to have to entertain some compromise, and we will need to consider new and innovative ideas, rather than keep circling around each other like two exhausted pugilists fielding the same tired footwork, neither gaining an advantage over the other; or people pointlessly doing jumping jacks in order to appear busy, as if their exertion were equal to accomplishment.  The following changes must be on the table for consideration: (1) Expanded and universal background checks are an obvious start, which were supported by conservatives (and even the NRA) in former eras.  (2) We will have to implement increased prosecution of firearms offenders, something which is surprisingly lacking.  (3) Recently discussed have been so-called “red flag laws”, which target high risk persons who have repeatedly displayed violent behavior and may be demonstrably a danger to themselves and others.  (4) It is widely known that the 1990s era federal ban on assault weapons demonstrated no measurable improvement on gun-related violence and was therefore allowed to “sunset” by the federal government.  As such, rather than attempt to revive the obsolete and ineffectual plan for a universal ban on so-called “assault weapons” (which is a politically created legal terminology and not a widely accepted technical or meaningful military categorization of weaponry), perhaps we need to explore the licensing of controversial weapons such as the AR-15, in the same manner that we license automobiles, a model which has shown demonstrable success in diminishing vehicular deaths since the inception of the system.  (5) Additional remedies need to address the reasons why these perpetrators continue to act out in violent ways, considering that most have been previously identified as “at risk” or troubled youth and yet they have fallen through the cracks; and in fact the majority of most notorious culprits who have employed these weapons in mass shootings in recent times have been identified as young white males, and often operating under ultra-nationalist and racist ideologies.  Despite the historical prevalence of firearms in American culture, and the relatively recent decline in the ubiquity of firearms across all regions and multiple demographics, we have never before seen the unrelenting frequency of these mass-shootings at schools and public venues.  Something is happening in the mentality of our culture and is activating a sleeper effect in the most disturbed of our youth, inculcating in them a doomsday reaction in which they deem it acceptable to solve their problems in this manner.  This kind of reaction was not a widespread phenomenon in earlier eras, when gun safety and marksmanship were commonly taught and accepted in public schools in urban and rural areas alike.  (6) And we simply must begin preventing those who are deemed mentally ill from gaining access to firearms, for their own safety and that of others.  To urge the removal of mental illness from this debate, due to the specious claim that mentally ill people rarely commit violent crimes (as I have recently read from the ranks of self-proclaimed punditry) is to forget that most gun related deaths are in fact suicides.  It is also misguided to pretend that those who commit the most egregiously violent acts do not suffer from a form of mental illness.  This tack also serves to exempt the mentally ill from being screened before gaining access to firearms, based upon some stilted attempt to defend their privacy, while simultaneously perpetuating the myth that all gun owners are equally capable of committing heinous crimes and violent acts, simply on the basis of their firearms ownership—an argument which questionably shifts the blame from the user to the gun.  (7) Among the deeper issues, we may enumerate the issue of glorification of violence in entertainment and media, in which youth of a variety of demographics are subliminally and systemically taught that violence is acceptable and appropriate. From video games, to movies, to popular music, they are inundated with violence and as such build up a level of tolerance for increasing levels of brutality in their lexicons.  

The foregoing are merely a start, if we are to see real change. All of these will require bipartisan efforts, as well as careful, introspection among people of all political standpoints. It will not be easy, but to continue down the road we are on will be much harder.  But for gun-control activists and supporters to glibly and smugly claim that there is no legitimate usage for these firearms outside of warfare, and to aggressively challenge all comers, belligerently issuing ultimatums in the guise of social activism and moral outrage, sounds more like something that we have come to expect from the most martial of all warhawks, and not from the classic liberal peaceniks.  We certainly need to continue the discussion of how to make our streets and our homes safer.  But I cannot stand silently by while we pursue the same partisanship in our attempts to overrun and disable each other so that our side can win. I have seen too much partisanship over the last twenty years, and particularly in the last election, where people have put party before nation, and have made excuses for deeply flawed candidates and ideologies.  “My country, right or wrong, my country” has given way to “My party, right or wrong, my party”. And I see this divisiveness as destroying our nation.  

The kind of declamatory rhetoric I quoted at the start of this essay is intended to divide, not unite.  Rather than try to convince each other of the rightness of our logic, or make ultimatums that are intended as a precursor to overwhelming each other’s sides with superior force of will, I invite you to seek out people from the other camp and try to understand their viewpoints, ultimately with the intention of building consensus, seeking to find useful compromise that will unite rather than divide, that will find new and innovative collaborative solutions to this raging, endemic problem. 

In closing, this essay is not meant to minimize or trivialize the pain of those who have lost or have suffered during the recent shooting, or any previous tragedies—especially the students of Parkland, Florida who are now protesting with passionate purpose.  In fact, we as a nation are suffering, with no foreseeable respite.  It is a serious situation that needs to be taken seriously, and if we merely find scapegoats and react with only a thin veneer of meaningful action—without the support of both sides, as was the case with much of the previous gun control legislation—then we will continue to find ourselves in the situation we are in right now, with more and more school shootings and more and more mass murder. All of us are responsible to bring about these changes together.