San Bernardino, Selective Surveillance, And The Paralyzed Gun ‘Debate’

Here are two related thoughts running around in my head since the San Bernardino massacre.

On past occasions, whenever one of these quintessentially American mass shootings would be carried out, I would wonder about what could happen to jolt the gun-control ‘debate’ in this country out of its well-worn grooves. (The scare quotes are necessary because there really isn’t a debate: some anguished wails and a stony silence don’t amount to one.) After some casting about, I thought perhaps a mass shooting carried out by ‘Islamic terrorists’ would do so. Surely, even the NRA and its Republican minions would agree then that guns had gotten into the wrong hands, and agree for stronger forms of gun control and regulation. After all, guns for Americans is all very fine, but surely not guns for Muslims?

But even as I thought this, it would seem to me that there was no way that a Muslim (or ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’) person would be able to buy the kinds of weapons and munitions needed to carry out such a deadly assault. Given the heightened surveillance of Muslims in America by its law enforcement agencies, and the paranoid response to even innocent activities like schoolboys building electronic devices, it seemed inconceivable a ‘brown Middle-Eastern looking foreigner’ would be able to walk into a store and buy armaments like the ones described below:

two .223-caliber semi-automatic rifles, two 9mm semi-automatic handguns, and an explosive device…The rifles used were variants of the AR-15: one was a DPMS Panther Arms A15, the other was a Smith & Wesson M&P15. One of the handguns was manufactured by Llama and the other is a Springfield HS2000. All four of the guns were purchased legally in California four years before the attack….the DPMS weapon used a high-capacity magazine, which is not legal in California. The couple had 1,400 rounds for the rifles and 200 for the handguns with them at the time of the shootout. 2,000 9-millimeter handgun rounds, 2,500 .223 caliber rounds, and twelve pipe bombs, along with a cache of tools that could be used to make improvised explosive devices. [From Wikipedia entry on the shootings]

Surely, even if such a sale was made, a phone call to the FBI or local law-enforcement agencies would follow? “Hello, FBI? I just want to let you know that an Ay-rab just boughta whole lotta guns and ammo. Something’s fishy, know what I mean?” I considered the possibility of electronic, online purchases and ruled those out as well. That would be even easier to track and investigate with the fancy profiling algorithms used to slot Americans into No-Fly lists. “Our program indicates a non-trivial probability that this purchase warrants investigation by G-men“. Right?

I was wrong on all counts. ‘Suspicious’ people can buy guns and ammo and materials for making explosives easily. It’s only when they try to live their lives as normal people that they are flagged as such. Moreover, when an ‘Islamist’ or ‘jihadist’ mass shooting will take place in America, it will provide the perfect cover for gun fans: guns don’t kill people, Muslims do. Even worse, it would spark the kinds of fascist fantasies passing for normal thought these days.

This American nightmare isn’t going away anytime soon.

Samuel Bagenstos On The Mistaken Decision To Jail Kim Davis

Over at The New Republic Samuel Bagenstos offers some spot-on analysis of the decision to jail Kim Davis, ” the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who defied a U.S. Federal Court order requiring that she issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples” and concludes:

To many observers…the drama is the point. By making a prominent example of those who obstinately refuse to comply with federal-court orders, they believe, we send a strong message that no individual is above the law. But what is the lesson courts are teaching in these cases: that the constitutional principle of equal citizenship is a basic commitment, or simply that judges are powerful people who, like parents, are not to be messed with? Sometimes, basic constitutional principles cannot be enforced without drama; without the 101st Airborne, the Little Rock schools would not have been desegregated. But federal judges should always be focused on vindicating the rights of those who invoke their jurisdiction. If the judges can vindicate those rights without demanding an ostentatious show of submission to their authority, they should do so.

I agree with Bagenstos: the real issue here is not Davis’ stance, it is the denial of legal rights to same-sex couples. Theirs is the story worth covering; Davis is merely fodder for mockery. (And sadly, too much of it is about her looks, her multiple marriages, and her adulterous life. The hypocrisy of the publicly religious is an old and well-worn joke; the marriage of that brand of humor with sexism and misogyny ensures a deeply unedifying discourse around this issue that only serves to obscure its relevant details.)

Judges cannot be expected to think too deeply about their participation in political theater and how their rulings and orders can be made to perform on its stage. Some, of course, are more self-aware about this possibility for co-optation than others. The judge who jailed Kim Davis was, presumably, not a member of the Left or the Right in his capacity as a judge, and thus cannot be castigated for having handed the Religious Right its latest hobby horse, ridden by its latest hero. But there is a great deal of wisdom in Bagenstos’ claim that from a jurisprudential perspective, one committed to revealing in each ruling the sinews of the legal, political, and pragmatic principles at play, the right thing to do in this case was to affirm constitutional principles of equal citizenship and not the power of the courts to compel obedience.

The former kind of ruling immediately forces a conversation about the rights and claims of citizenship, about the basic promise of a republic–remember, ‘res publica’, a nation of laws, equality before the law, the greatest political and moral deliverance of the modern, post-empire era; the latter merely brings us to face with the oldest, crudest forms of legal positivism, that the law serves as a cloak for the supreme power of a sovereign entity, which can enforce its decrees by crude force, handcuffs, and detainment. A conversation about the former would have shone the spotlight of bigotry and hypocrisy on Davis; the latter let her claim it as her due for heroism.  A tour of the talk-show circuit, and perhaps even a book contract await her.

Thank God, Caitlyn Jenner ‘Looks Great’

The first transgender public figure whom I ‘encountered’ was Renée Richards–thanks to her landmark legal victory in the New York Supreme Court over the United States Tennis Association, which had denied her entry into the 1976 US Open, on the grounds of  their supposed ‘women-born-women’ policy. (Richards–formerly Richard Raskind–had undergone sex reassignment surgery in 1975.) Shortly after I read about her in a sports magazine, I heard what would become a seemingly constant refrain in most of the superficial responses to transgender persons: “I feel sorry for him. He was a sissy man, now he’s an ugly woman.” Later, in conversations about transgender men, it would be slightly modified to, “I feel sorry for her. She was an ugly, manly woman, and now she’s a sissy man.”

Part of the problem, it seemed, with transgender persons was that they were ‘just plain ugly.’ They weren’t ‘attractive men’; they weren’t ‘attractive women.’ That was the biggest sin of all. If only they could be more ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome,’ then all would be good. If only they could somehow be made to cleave to conventional notions of beauty and attractiveness, if only they could so dramatically transform themselves that no traces of their older self would survive, into thin, sexy women or perhaps brawny, hunky men, the stuff of pin-ups, then perhaps the rest of the world would be able to bring themselves to pardon their otherwise unpardonable attempt to determine their chosen identity for themselves.

Caitlyn Jenner has–thanks to her  elevated public profile–struck an important blow for transgender rights; she has sparked a broad, diverse, conversation about transgender persons and their place in our society. She seems to have been ‘accepted’ by many, though, of course, there were those too, who wrote refrains that were almost exact reprises of the reactions I had heard directed at Richards all those years ago.

But Caitlyn Jenner ‘entered’ our lives on a Vanity Fair cover. Shot by Anne Leibovitz. She looks glamorous and sexy; she has benefited from the attentions of an expert photographer, backed up by a small army of make-up persons, lighting assistants, and perhaps even personal trainers. We might imagine that someone, on not knowing anything at all about Bruce Jenner, might say, “Hey, that’s a mighty attractive sixty-six year old woman.” And a common reaction, indeed, to Caitlyn was that “she looks great!”

Phew. What a relief. Imagine if she didn’t ‘look great.’ Would the ‘freakshow’ conversation start all over again? Of course, it would. We are obsessed with appearances.

There are many, many transgender people who will not be able to ‘transform’ themselves in the way Caitlyn has. (I have no idea what Caitlyn looks like away from the camera lens.) They will not be offered good lighting, touch-ups, a glamorous outfit, and the attentions of those who know how to make us look good. They’ll just look like any ordinary person might. They won’t have public relations help; they won’t have access to sympathetic writers who can help them bring their stories to life. Hopefully, some of the kindness and tolerance on display in the reactions to Caitlyn’s ‘debut’ will be sent their way too.

Marriage: It Ain’t a Religious Thing

Last year, I wrote a post on same-sex marriage, or rather, on Barack Obama’s evolving views on it. In that post, I handed out some unsolicited advice to the President, suggesting he view marriage in its social and economic context, and noting that there were too many similarities between the explicitly institutionalized racism of the past and the current strains of homophobic opposition to same-sex marriage to permit any vacillation on his part when it came to affirming support for it.

This week, as the Supreme Court debates the constitutionality of same-sex marriage I won’t repeat that same argument. (Besides, it seems to me, from my biased perspective, that the cases at hand are easy ones; the rulings are only a matter of suspense because the present Supreme Court contains ideologues like Scalia.)  Rather, I want to briefly note that marriage as a social institution opened itself up to the kind of abuse we see perpetrated by opponents to same-sex marriage the moment it sought divine sanction. Or rather, once a pair of human beings decided that the best way to signal to society that they were in a committed, enduring, sexual relationship, entailing extensive companionship, home-building and the rearing of children was to seek permission from a religious body, book, and ritual, the game was up. The path had been cleared for abuse of that social institution, and the means prepared for its ideological distortion.

Once marriage became a religious ritual, once marriages were made in heaven, much of the nonsense that has underwritten opposition to same-sex marriage became possible. But not just that; it also allowed the abuse perpetrated on women in ‘traditional marriage’–much of which was the target of feminists’ ire in days gone by (and today). Once marriage ceased to be a human, social institution, it ceased to find its grounding in particular social, economic and romantic contexts and became associated with things not of this earth, with transcendent realities. Those unsurprisingly, provided ample, powerful, cover for marriage’s utilization in a host of repressive political strategies: that the divinely ordained roles for women were procreation, child-bearing and housekeeping or that only certain kinds of people could marry.

The proper place for marriage is the secular; the religious sanctification so beloved of many should have been a supererogatory choice; those that were religious and were not reassured by the promises of the here and now, who didn’t feel their own emotional, financial and temporal commitment was enough, who doubted the resilience of human pacts which depend only on the profane, could have sought a religious ritual if they wanted one. The separation we have now, so that those who want to marry have the choice between a religious ceremony and one that is exclusively secular should always have been possible, should always have been built into the notion of a marriage. The move to make marriage into an institution requiring sanction by the state was a partially correct, albeit problematic move; it injects the state into the personal and institutionalizes marriage as the only kind of social signal for the commitments mentioned above. But it did move marriage out of an exclusively religious sphere.

The legal recognition of same-sex marriage is correct for moral reasons; it also moves marriage closer to its true secular place.

About Time, Mr. President

The following was intended as today’s post. It has been pre-empted by Obama’s endorsement, today, of same-sex marriage.

Barack Obama will soon sit down for an interview in which he will, in all probability, attempt to explain his ‘evolving’ views on gay marriage. Perhaps he will come out strongly in favor of gay marriage. Or perhaps he will equivocate a bit, and attempt to triangulate his desire to be re-elected–and thus the need to placate those segments of the electorate that thinks the president should take a stronger moral stance on this subject, whether it be condemnatory or laudatory–, his actual personal views on the subject, and his evident talent for backing away from the ‘soaring’ campaign rhetoric that so enthralled so many (and still continues to captivate many every time he deigns to address the nation on a matter of grave importance, or to offer clarification for some mysteriously weak-kneed response to his political opponents).

I have a suggestion for the President, a pointer to a course of action that might help his views ‘evolve.’ He should go to the Library of Congress, which I believe is located in Washington DC, contact a good reference librarian (after first getting a patron card filled out appropriately), and ask him or her for some help in locating some good historical material on the social institution of marriage. He should also ask for some historical material on institutionalized racism. The President could also put out an open call to academics the nation over, and ask them for book recommendations on these subjects. Then, he should sit down and read a couple of these books. (Only if he has time to spare from the relentless electioneering that will soon be his primary occupation; after all, elections are the most important part of a democracy, aren’t they?)

I think President Obama might be interested in what he will find in the course of these historical investigations. (I’m presuming here that he will read with an open mind, that he will deploy his intelligence, which I’m presuming has not been warped excessively or deformed by the extensive contact it has had with organized religion and its vile prejudices.)  In his readings on marriage, he will find that marriage has a history, that it has cultural variations, that it has served very particular functions in the past, many of them grounded in the preservation and promotion of very particular economic states of affairs. He will find that far from being a divinely exalted and sanctified expression of the love of man for woman (or vice-versa), marriage is infected with the profane, through and through. And when President Obama reads a history or two of institutionalized racism, he will be struck by the similarity of the language deployed as apologia for racism to the language used to delay and deny gay marriage today.

Mr. President: The denial of gay marriage, and its writing into state constitutions, are acts of bigotry. Get with the program, and use your bully pulpit to condemn it.  As I wrote today on Twitter: President Obama: If your views are “evolving” on gay marriage, please hurry the fuck up – that timescale is a little sluggish.

The Decline and Fall of Christopher Hitchens

I have no talents to speak of; all I can do is read and write. Thus, it would make eminent sense for me to admire those that read a great deal, and write really well. Christopher Hitchens evidently read a lot, and he wielded his pen and keyboard with great flair. He was also a stylish rhetorical pugilist, and I would not have wanted to have ever had him in an audience after I had given a talk whose central points he disputed. But sadly for my desire to admire the well-read epistolary genius as a human archetype, Hitchens botched his record, and in spectacular style. Amongst other things, he aggressively and unapologetically cheered on an illegal war and the gruesome troika of mass-murdering criminals–George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld–who prosecuted it, and later, descended into unvarnished bigotry directed at Muslims under the guise of keeping the world free from ‘Islamofascism.’

Once Hitchens had placed himself in the company of those that could be fawned over by the unspeakably vile Michelle Malkin and her ilk, I knew I was done with my incipient admiration. Hitchens was keen, as many newly-minted Americans are, to show his allegiance to his newly-found country and political faith, and he thought he would do this best, I think, by throwing his not-inconsiderable physical and intellectual weight behind what he thought were its considered responses to the violent external assault of the World Trade Center catastrophe. But he did so by cheering on those who did their best to eviscerate this nation’s Constitution and the rule of law it entailed. In doing so, he seemed not to have figured out that those whose side he had gone over to were doing their best to make the America he thought he was signing on to unrecognizable.

If Hitchens had ever attained a self-consciousness of the irony implicit in the self-proclaimed resister of religious fundamentalism turning into a fundamentalist of sorts himself, he never revealed it publicly. Did he never hold his nose when he received praise from the same bigots who he might have fancied himself eviscerating in his older days? Did he ever realize that his older self would have chuckled with delight at the easy target that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld presented for his poison pen? It does not seem so. He seemed so caught up in his desire to place himself on what he thought would be a position vindicated by history–the lone, courageous voice of reason urging a insufficiently muscular polity and culture to defend itself against external threat–that he never stopped to consider that he might be undermining that very culture’s proudest achievements.

I own more than one book by Hitchens and I don’t intend to get rid of them. But their status in my library has morphed into being exhibits of how a great talent can be diverted to the wrong ends. I still aspire to the kind of ravenous appetite he showed for the printed word and its production. But I also hope never, ever, in a fit of sustained insanity, to join the company of those whose principles stand in such direct contradiction to my own.