Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I never miss a game

Guns, guns, guns! C'mon, Sal! The Tigers are playing -- TO-night! I never miss a game.
-- Clarence Boddicker, gang boss of Old Detroit

As regards the recent Virginia Tech horror, noted libertarian blogger Jim Henley has (apparently) only this to say:

Grief Not Grievances

Could someone spend maybe five minutes being really sad that a bunch of people got killed before hopping on their preexisting hobbyhorses?

Henley is anything but reluctant to voice his opinions on any number of issues, and he's one of the first people I go to for perspicacious and always eloquent insights on complex matters. Why, then, the marked (in fact, pointedly underscored) silence on anything relating to the VTech shootings except his apparent disgust with everybody else in the blogosphere for orating at great and vehement length about it?

The human mind is complex, and only a fool attempts to objectively define the motivations of anyone else without an overwhelming preponderance of evidentiary indicators. Having said that, though, well, I'm my favorite fool, so I'm still willing to speculate, perhaps entirely groundlessly, that the reason Henley seems to be the only socio-political blogger not currently shooting his keyboard off about gun rights vs. gun control in the shadow of the VTech mass murders is that his views are as follows:

Last time I bothered to look into gun laws, mostly at Tim Lambert's critiques of John Lott and "the English John Lott" (I forget her name), Lambert printed enough statistics and charts from both sides of the Atlantic to convince me that gun laws make essentially no difference to crime rates - they are a small effect either way, utterly swamped by other factors, of which demographics and demobilizing from major wars are two of the biggest. Easing restrictions on gun ownership does not lead to the crime drops many of my fellow gun rights supporters expect; increasing them does not lead to the crime drops most gun rights opponents imagine. Jamaica appears to be an interesting edge case where a serious, nigh-military disarmament of the population seems to have led directly to vastly higher crime rates, but Jamaica went at it with a zeal that very few American gun controllers seriously contemplate.

Mark Kleiman came to pretty much the same conclusions about the practicalities and, last I checked, argued that, since gun prohibitions don't provide the social good of reduced crime and gun-ownership rights are important to a lot of the population, "we" should err on the side of permitting broad gun ownership. I would go further, saying that, in the absence of a demonstrable social need, gestural prohibitions worsen the character of the society; they are bad for liberty. Further yet, I consider the right to keep and bear arms a useful "canary in a coal mine" right: the government that doesn't trust its citizens to wield lethal force is a government the citizens should not trust. (Note that this is NOT the old "We need our guns so we can destroy the government if it becomes tyrannical" argument.

Mr. Henley posted those comments on March 12, 2007, and certainly, chirping cheerful aphorisms about how 'the right to keep and bear arms [is] a useful "canary in a coal mine" right' is a great deal easier to do with a straight face and quiet conscience when some nut hasn't recently walked into a public building and repeatedly emptied a Glock 9mm he bought legally for $500 at a local gun shop into 30 or so randomly chosen human targets. Still, simple embarrassment at the obvious real world consequences of the citizen's right to wield lethal force that Henley so blithely championed only a few weeks ago may not be the underlying factor in Henley's current conspicuous silence; it could just be a decent respect for those mourning their dearly (and senselessly) departed that has kept him from 'hopping on his pre-existing hobbyhorse'.

Or, it could be that his pre-existing hobbyhorse looks like a long shot if not a non-starter, in light of Monday's events. Compassion, chagrin, or calculation? Obviously, I can't know for sure. But Henley’s natural human decency shows through in nearly everything he posts, so I myself would believe it’s far more of the first than the latter two factors.

I do know this -- Henley has cogently and concisely summarized the pro gun point of view with his remarks. When he says "in the absence of a demonstrable social need, gestural prohibitions worsen the character of the society; they are bad for liberty", he is speaking for a great and growing number of Americans who honestly feel that their notional right to walk around in public armed to the teeth with lethal firearms is much more important to grand human values such as 'liberty' than any minor considerations of safety or security that might be garnered by intrusive government regulations that would intolerably interfere with said 'right'. And Henley's is a sane, rational, reasonable voice, compared to many riding in the same bus with him, whose own arguments may best be summed up by the following column:

So much for 'gun-free' safety

By Rod Rose


Guns don’t kill people, pro-gunners say. People kill people.

People with guns can kill people with guns who are using their gun to kill people.

If that reality had been in effect on the Virginia Tech University campus Monday, perhaps nearly three dozen people would not be dead today.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 33 people had died of gunshot wounds, including Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old South Korean who methodically slaughtered 32 people and then killed himself. Cho may have used two handguns — police found a 9mm semi-automatic and a .22-caliber handgun in the classroom building where Cho killed 30 people before taking the coward’s way out.

Indications are that Cho was legally armed, according to the Associated Press; the $571 receipt for a Glock 9mm pistol, model unknown, was found in his backpack. He had a U.S. Immigration Service green card, so he was eligible to buy a handgun. The gun store owner where Cho bought the Glock earlier this year was horrified.

Virginia Tech has a “zero tolerance” policy concerning handguns on campus. They are not permitted.

Cho apparently did not read that part of the VA student handbook.

According to The Roanoke Times, a law that would have allowed students to carry licensed handguns on campus didn’t get out of a Virginia General Assembly committee less than a year ago.

The Times quoted VA spokesman Larry Hincker as saying he was happy about the bill's defeat, “because this will help parents, students and visitors feel safe on our campus.”

Virginia Tech was proudly labeled a “gun-free zone.”

Monday, Cho Seung-Hui wasn’t in a “gun-free zone.” He was in a “target-rich environment.”

It was the equivalent of fishing with dynamite: Cho had absolute freedom to kill anyone opposing him, because his victims had no practical way of killing him first. They could only sit or cower or claw at the windows and doors in horror, hearing the methodical bang-bang-bang of a 9mm Glock creating craters in their classmates’ flesh, waiting for the impact in their own.

So, before we — again — hear the tormented wails of anti-self-defense reality deniers, let’s examine what could have happened at Virginia Tech University Monday.

The answer is not more restrictive gun laws. Virginia Tech had an absolute ban on handguns on campus.

The answer, Boone County Sheriff Ken Campbell told me Tuesday morning, was: “One armed citizen.”

One person, student, professor, custodian, who was trained in and had in his or her possession a firearm, may have been able to stop Cho before so many victims died. Certainly, one person — perhaps more — who had the training and mental conditioning to respond to a deadly threat would have improved the odds Cho would have been killed before he killed so many.

This is the gun owner's wet dream, of course, and that particularly macho, Wild West/Charles Bronson DEATH WISH "the solution to gun violence is BETTER gun violence, dammit" type scenario is amply buttressed by the following incident, as noted here:

In October of 1997, sixteen-year-old Luke Woodham stabbed his mother to death and then went to school with a rifle where he shot 9 students, killing 2 of them. Assistant Principal Joel Myrick raced to his car, retrieved a .45 caliber handgun, and used it to subdue Woodham until police arrived.

In the town of Pearl, Mississippi, this 'one armed citizen' scenario was, apparently, vindicated. However, as a general rule, when 'one armed citizen' decides to exchange gunfire with another armed citizen in a crowded public environment, the results are not usually so pretty:

A gunfight that broke out amid crowds of Boxing Day shoppers in downtown Toronto yesterday left one teenage girl dead and six other people injured.

Seven people were shot -- including an off-duty police officer out taking advantage of the sales -- after 5 p.m. in the Yonge and Elm streets area, north of the Eaton Centre.

"A number of suspects brandished firearms and there was an exchange of gunfire on the streets," Chief Bill Blair said last night, standing at the crime scene. "As a result, a number of innocent bystanders were struck. The information I have is that one young female, an innocent bystander on the street has lost her life."

What, if any, conclusions can be drawn from all three example incidents? Those who believe in an unrestricted right to keep and bear arms will say that the Pearl, MS incident clearly vindicates their position, since a single armed citizen did indeed bring a halt to a lunatic's shooting rampage and almost certainly saved lives. They will sadly shake their heads because no similar heroic gunfighter appeared at Virginia Tech to pre-emptively slaughter the insane pistolero there. As to the incident in Canada where innocent bystanders were wounded, one lethally, by the crossfire that erupted when several armed citizens began exchanging gunfire in a crowded public place, well, one presumes gun rights true believers like Henley, columnist Rose and Sheriff Campbell will disregard that incident as anomolous, or not at all the same thing as the sort of incident where a lone psychotic goes on a rampage with a weapon and a single stalwart successfully ends said psycho's reign of terror with a single well placed round.

Myself, I tend to see all of these things as being much of a much, which is to say, this is the sort of thing that will happen when we live in a society where any homicidal sonofabitch with several hundred dollars and a photo I.D. can walk into a corner shop and purchase the ability to mow others down by the dozen with a twitch of a finger.

The solution to the problem seems fairly simple -- make it impossible for the crazies and the criminally irresponsible to get hold of guns. A homicidal maniac might well rack up some damage if he or she goes berserk at a mall with a lacrosse racket, and two opposing gangs could feasibly cause some cuts and bruises to bystanders if they go at it on a crowded streetcorner with chains and knives, but the potential for collateral carnage when knuckleheads have at it seems to be enormously magnified by the presence of firearms. If we can somehow prevent maniacs and dumbasses from arming themselves, it would seem that would be the optimal solution. Even the most avid gun owner isn’t out there stumping for the rights of gangbangers and whackos to walk around packing heat, and in point of fact, if we could somehow keep the bad guys from easily accessing firearms, it would certainly minimize the need for ‘one armed citizen’ to intervene when shit jumps off.

However, reality, as always, intervenes – sometimes you can’t tell the crazies, like Cho Seung-Hui, from the sane-but-intermittently-grumpy. Gun shop owners aren’t, and shouldn’t, be expected to diagnose borderline homicidal frenzy in their customers, and it’s pretty much impossible to tell with any accuracy which purchaser of a handgun or rifle is planning to use it sanely and reasonably, and which is intent on climbing the nearest clock tower and picking off as many pedestrians as possible before the local SWAT team takes him down.

Since nobody can reliably predict how a particular firearms customer is going to use his or her purchase, it’s virtually impossible to filter the potential Starkweathers from the appropriately socialized small arms enthusiast, such as, I presume, Jim Henley, Bud Rose, and Sheriff Campbell. Those who fervently believe in the right to bear arms believe that a truly free society must always err on the side of liberty, and place few or no restrictions on the purchase and possession of firearms. Those who feel that public safety should be of paramount importance in any civil continuum, on the other hand, just as vehemently feel that ownership of and access to anything as inherently dangerous as firearms must be strictly regulated for the good of everyone.

I myself am deeply conflicted on this. I don’t like guns, in fact, they frankly scare the shit out of me. I don’t want to live in a society where everyone goes armed everywhere, at home and in public. I cannot help but distrust my fellow man; in a world where people seem to frequently come to blows over trivialities, I cannot help but fear what the consequences would be if these same idiots could throw lead upon losing their tempers instead of punches. In callous theory I don’t much mind the idea of short tempered dumbasses killing each other, but I don’t much like the idea of me or someone I care about catching a stray bullet out of sheer rotten luck.

Yet this is an argument based on fear, and as such, it is one I am instinctively distrustful of in the arena of social policy. Arguments based on fear have been used throughout human history, and throughout recent American history, to justify any uncountable number of government excesses and outrages against basic human rights, and while notional values such as ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ may not seem like much when thrown into relief with 32 murdered bystanders, still, it is exactly that juxtaposition in other contexts that has led to ‘free speech’ zones, covert government wiretapping, the justification of torture, and the endless ongoing international atrocity we euphemistically refer to as ‘the War on Terror’.

I myself have always felt a primal revulsion at the notion of criminalizing what is essentially non-criminal behavior. I dislike hate crimes laws because they criminalize not only the anti-social acts of a perpetrator, but the thoughts and feelings of that perpetrator at the time (and sometimes prior to the time) their offense was committed. This is deeply offensive to me; however much I may loathe the thoughts, feelings, viewpoints, and opinions of some people, when any one person takes unto him or herself the power to pass binding, punitive judgment on the mental processes of another person, we’re in a bad place. When we as a nation and a culture decide it is appropriate to do this, we have left some basic, essential notion of individual liberty far, far behind us.

Similarly, I dislike stalking laws, which essentially criminalize the behavior of being in the same public place as somebody else. Certainly, bad people do use public thoroughfares to follow and intimidate their intended victims through their simple presence, and it’s a highly obnoxious tactic, but, still, to say to someone who has not been convicted of any actual offense that they cannot utilize a public area simply because someone else is using that area already is a solution that infringes basic civil liberties to a degree that I feel is unacceptable.

In this vein, the act of purchasing a firearm is hardly anti-social…

Okay. You know, I typed that sentence, finishing it with “nor should it be criminal.” And I went on to type a few more sentences about how we shouldn’t criminalize a simple business transaction, nor the act of carrying an object on one’s person… and then I went back and re-read those nine words, and… well, I’m not sure I believe them.

However much those who favor completely unhindered access to firearms may dislike to discuss it, there is an essential, fundamental ugliness to hand guns, and to the impulse to carry one around with you. There are legitimate reasons why someone might want to own and even carry with them at all times an easily portable machine designed solely for the purpose of conveniently killing a fellow human being, but dress it up however we may wish to with terms like ‘defense of self and others’, still, it boils down to pretty much exactly that – when we find ourselves wanting a gun in our hands, it is because we find ourselves wanting to kill someone. If that isn’t an anti-social impulse, then nothing ever will be.

The very best reasons someone can have for carrying a weapon – again, that much mentioned ‘defense of self and others’ – is an essentially selfish, mean spirited motivation, rooted entirely in fear. Pragmatically, incidents like the Virginia Tech massacre seem to show that this fear is in some instances justified, and yet, at the same time, such incidents hardly happen every day… and when they do happen, they seem to me to argue just as clearly against easy access to firearms as the other way.

One of the reasons I have always been conflicted on gun control is that such laws strike me as being impractical; there are millions of guns already out there, and there is no pragmatic way for any centralized authority to get them all back out of circulation. Beyond that, I sympathize with Henley’s stated position as to distrusting a government that does not want its citizens to be able to arm themselves if necessary. There is real and valid truth in that argument, and if it seems callous when held up against the gory video footage of actual gunshot victims, well, sometimes something can remain valid regardless of how much it may offend or horrify us. If the past seven years have been anything, they have been an object lesson in the necessity for suspecting and distrusting any government, including and especially our own.

Yet, again, when a crazy man can buy the means for to go on a killing spree for five hundred bucks with no questions asked, it seems to me that, again, there needs to be some kind of balance struck between the right to walk around armed to the eyebrows just in case murderous lunatics go berserk in your immediate vicinity, and the right to feel reasonably secure in your person from such attacks as you go about your business. Yes, one armed citizen could well have dropped Cho Seung-Hui in his tracks before he racked up such an impressive body count, but Cho Seung-Hui couldn’t have killed 32 people if he hadn’t had such easy access to high powered shootin’ irons, either. And let’s be fair, that ‘one armed citizen’ might have just as easily have gotten into a running gun fight with Cho Seung-Hui which could have had as many or more casualties as Sueng-Hi’s unopposed rampage did.

How many human lives is individual human liberty worth? That more than anything else may be the essential defining question every thoughtful person needs to answer for themselves, before they can figure out how they feel about any other social or political issue.

My modest proposal, such as it is, for a solution to this specific issue is gun insurance.

By this I do not mean a policy that pays you replacement value on your firearms if some junkie breaks into your house and steals them. No, I mean insurance very much like the kind of mandatory policies we are all required to have on our personal automobiles; insurance without which we are not allowed to operate said automobiles legally on the streets. This insurance would be an indemnity against any damages done by our guns, and it would work exactly the same way as auto insurance does now – if your gun isn’t insured for a specific purpose, you cannot use it for that purpose, and if you cannot show proof of insurance when you go to purchase a gun, well, you cannot buy that weapon.

Gun insurance premiums should be rated similarly to auto insurance premiums, as well. A gun owner would have a different rate depending on the make and model of firearm he or she wanted to own and operate, and their rates would also be adjusted by the uses they wanted to put their gun to, and also by any past incidents of reckless behavior they might have on their record, as well. A .22 target pistol insured only for home use by someone who takes a firearms safety course every six months and who has never so much as brandished their weapon in a threatening manner would generate a very different premium than that of a .357 Magnum insured for home and street carry by someone who thinks gun courses are for sissies and who has been cited six times for drunk & disorderly.

Instead of creating a central database of known felons and those who have had mental health issues, derived entirely on reports from police and mental health authorities, insurance agencies would maintain a comprehensive database of gun owners, much as they currently do for licensed drivers. Gun dealers would run a potential buyer’s name and Social Security number through that database to verify his insurance status and make sure the new weapon is added to any existing policy, or if no policy exists, sell him one on the spot (getting trained to sell an insurance policy on a gun is a lot easier than going to medical school to learn to spot the signs of incipient violent psychosis).

I have no idea if this sort of policy would have kept Cho Seung-Hui from buying his Glock 9mm, but it would at least have been another impediment between him and a 32 entry body count.

I understand that the concept of creating yet another bureaucratic requirement for gun ownership is not going to sit well with supporters of the 2nd Amendment, but when I propose gun insurance, I also propose as an inherent part of the policy that being properly insured would be the only stricture on and stipulation for gun ownership and usage. All other Federal laws, state regulations, and local ordinances regarding keeping and bearing arms would be rendered null and void by the presence of gun insurance. If you can afford to pay your insurance premiums, you can own and use a gun – period. If you can’t find any one willing to insure your weapon for a rate you can afford, well, you can’t have that weapon… you can’t buy it, or have it, at least, not legally.

One pragmatic item worth noting here is that while laws restricting gun ownership invariably meet with enormous resistance from the extremely powerful gun lobby, as is generally well represented by the National Rifle Association, a legislative attempt to create and mandate this sort of universally required gun insurance would find an equally or even surpassingly powerful private ally in the insurance lobby. Practically, passing such legislation would be much, much easier than getting some kind of comprehensive ban on all hand guns through any local, state, or Federal legislature.

For myself, I simply don’t want to live in a world where everyone around me at all times is packing a magic boom stick they can point at me whenever they feel like and make me fall down dead, nor do I want to live in one where I feel like the only reasonable means of defending myself from the possibility of such an attack is to carry such a weapon myself. I dislike guns intensely, and am frankly afraid of them. Plus, I really just don’t trust my fellow man that much. That may make me a sad, miserable little human being, but, still, that’s how I feel.

Still, I need only contemplate the idea of an armed intruder breaking into my home some night while my family is present to realize that, ugly though the reality may be, there are certainly circumstances where I would want to have a gun to hand. I hate living in a world where I have to make fundamental life decisions on the basis of fear, but, well, this does seem to be the world we live in.

Government intrusion into personal liberties is always noxious, and should never be tolerated for anything less than absolutely urgent reasons. Beyond that, I’ve never been one to argue the inherent semantics of the 2nd Amendment, nor one who wants to pick and choose which parts of the Bill of Rights I find acceptable and which ones I’d rather just ignore. To me, the 2nd Amendment says very clearly that American citizens have the right to own and bear arms and the government has nothing to say about it. Having the government pass ordinances restricting that right seems to me to directly contravene the wording of the U.S. Constitution, a situation I myself always find deeply troubling.

Having a law requiring insurance for any and all guns owned and/or carried that is enforced by government authority may seem like a pointless and essentially futile distinction, but I am of the opinion that it is a vital one. Furthermore, where governments seem to be almost inherently inefficient (a fact that in general I think is more positive than otherwise), the market by necessity functions at a different level. Insurance companies will stand to make billions from mandatory gun insurance policies, and will have a strong economic motive for keeping their losses to a minimum. If that doesn’t result in some kind of comprehensive policy that will make it more difficult for the deranged and the untrustworthy to get hold of a gun, well, I pretty much give up.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Open source

What is a liberal? A conservative? A Democrat? A Republican?

And, assuming we can even begin to meaningfully answer those questions ("meaningfully" would be defined, in this case, as something more useful and sophisticated than "those who self describe this way, and/or register this way to vote in primaries", or, conversely, “a liberal/conservative/Democrat/Republican is whatever I’m pointing to when I say the word”, a definition that seems to have become more and more popular over the last several months in the blogosphere, but one that is less than useful in any kind of reasonable debate), this would lead to another -- if someone identifies themselves as one thing, but feels their participation in a political process will only be meaningful if they compromise the basic principles that they feel define their own values in order to cooperate with a larger group that will have more influence in that political process -- how accountable is that person, then, for the subsequent actions (and the values those actions reveal) of the larger group they have chosen to cooperate with, in order to maximize their own political influence?

Or, to put it another way, when my old buddy Opus gets in my shit for lumping all conservatives and Republicans into one big boat with undeniable asshats like Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, George W., Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter... does she have a valid issue?

Or do you have to at some point, assuming you've got an ounce of integrity to your name, say, well, I voted for the fucker (maybe twice), I wear the same party pin as he does, he's my man and I bear at least some responsibility for every single shitty decision he's made or not made, and that's the way that goes?

At what point do you have to admit that if you’re marching in the same parade with all the people who nod their heads like Bobblehead dolls at every single thing Limbaugh and Coulter say, with all the people who want to drag illegal immigrants out to the closest curb and shoot them out of hand, with all the people who have done their damnedest every year to illegally suppress voter turn out in predominantly Democratic districts, with all the people who hate the people who don’t have sex the way they do, who don’t go to the same church they do, who don’t speak with the same accent they do, who don’t look like they do… well, honestly, at what point does it occur to you that holding your nose and trying to march slightly to the side of these people isn’t going to cut it, and, in the end, if you’re voting the same way as all these people, then, well, you’re as responsible as any of these people are for what happens as a result of your vote?

Or, to give equal time, I suppose, at what point do you realize, if you’re a liberal, that when you continue to compromise your own principles by voting for the most liberal candidate you can who is likely to win (i.e., the Democrat) instead of the actual candidate who actually aligns most closely with your own values and beliefs (for liberals, this is generally, these days, some third party candidate, usually a Green), then you must, however much you may dislike the idea, take responsibility for things like the steady erosion of civil rights and the concomitant rise of covert government surveillance power under the Clinton Administration that almost certainly would never have occurred if, say, Ralph Nader had actually gotten the votes of everyone who actually wanted to vote for him? When do you realize that as you continue to march shoulder to shoulder with these people who take just as much money from corporate donors as Republicans, who believe just as strongly in the national security state as Republicans, and who seem to firmly believe in the entrenched power elite just as much as the Republicans, that it’s not enough to say, ‘well, they’re better than the Republicans on at least a few issues’? When do you realize that, when you march hand in hand with the Clintonistas long enough, it’s not enough to say you’re doing it to get the Democratic Party strong again, and to move the country back to the left, and you just know that in another four years, or eight at the most, a reborn FDR will come along and be the liberal champion you’ve been waiting for all your life?

At what point do you give up that dream?

Obviously, I have my opinions, but I try to be introspective about these things, and one fault I do not have is an unwillingness to admit my own faults. If I come out on the other end of this with the sudden realization that I've been wrong all along, well, so be it; I’ll say so and apologize. But let’s wait and see how this goes.

So… what is a liberal? Conversely, what is a conservative? Get these two nailed down, and the subsequent definition of Republican and Democrat should be pretty easy.

Politics, it seems to me, comes down to a series of basic questions. The first one it seems to me would be: “Is government a necessary institution for humanity?” Answer that one no, and, well, you’re an anarchist, go throw a bomb at something. Answer it ‘yes’, on the other hand, and… well, welcome to the world of adult political philosophy. And move on to the next question, which is:

“Given that government is necessary, how would you describe its essential function – to keep things from growing worse, or to make things better?”

If you think government should essentially maintain the status quo, you’re a conservative. If, on the other hand, you feel government should actively attempt to improve the lot of the governed, then you’re a liberal.

This is the essential dichotomy that yawns like an abyss between conservatives and liberals, and it is almost certainly an insurmountable one. Conservatives love to quote the statement “That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves." (They also love to misattribute it to Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson never said or wrote it, and given that Jefferson did say “"The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens", it seems unlikely that this exemplar of conservative/libertarian principle would have found a warm welcome from Monticello.)

Conservatives believe that, basically, things are fine the way they are, and while government is necessary to maintain society and civilization in their current state, government should do as little as it possibly can in order to maintain the current equilibrium. Thus it is that the answer to that basic question – government’s purpose is to keep things from getting worse -- evolves into what we think of in contemporary times as the typical conservative/Republican philosophy as regards “a government small enough to drown in a bathtub”. If things are fine the way they are, then there is actually very little for government to do. This means minimal taxes, minimal regulation, minimal oversight, minimal bureaucracy – conservatives inherently believe that the individual citizen should be trusted to make pretty much every decision as regards their own lives and their own families and their own communities, and that those individuals should be left alone to deal with the consequences of those decisions, too. Fiercely independent. We stand alone. We take care of our own. No government hand outs. These, and other similar phrases, are the words a true conservative lives by, and fine, proud words they are.

It’s also important to understand that conservatives basically distrust government. Conservatives believe in the worth of the individual; that each and every person is put here primarily to take care of themselves and their dependents – and those dependents should very much be limited to kids who cannot fend for themselves as yet, and tribal elders who have been pensioned off on the basis of past performance. Conservatives believe that the best social units are small ones; they instinctively distrust large, “soulless” groups. Conservatives pride themselves on their individuality, which is in and of itself a primary conservative value. Conservatives don’t mind the word ‘community’, but nearly any conjugation of that word – communal, commune, collective, or, God help us all, communism -- raises their hackles high.

One can certainly make an argument that this distrust of large, well organized groups, united to one particular purpose (and, therefore, probably more powerful than any individual or small family unit) is logical and valid, given the fact that human history is full of examples of such large groups coercing the behavior of non-affiliated individuals or smaller, less powerful organizations.

Liberals, on the other hand, have no truck with the idea that “That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves”. This notion of good government being small government is one that liberal thinkers dismiss rather derisively. Making the world a better place for all is hard work; you don’t get there by ‘governing least’, however attractive that notion may be to anyone who has ever had to pull a permit, get a license, register for the draft, or pay taxes. And while it’s wonderful to think that the people will discipline themselves, unless you’ve found a magical doorway to the enchanted non-kingdom described in John Lennon’s slacker anthem “Imagine”, you have to know that this simply has not, does not, and is not going to happen. Leave people to discipline themselves and they’ll end up sacrificing goats to the graven image of Paris Hilton… or, more likely, with a yoke on their necks plowing the fields for some guy bigger than they are, while said bigger guy fucks their good looking teenage daughter in his fortified enclave.

Man is a social animal and refuses to exist in a political vacuum; try to build a social system without a government and you’ll simply end up with the strongest guy at the top of the pyramid flailing holy hell out of everyone else… which, by the way, is why I answer that very first question – is government necessary? – with a sad but grimly realistic ‘yes’.

Liberals believe that making the world a better place requires great effort, and more than that, it has to be a mass effort. Everyone is going to have their own idea of what ‘better’ actually is; let any single individual, or small group, set out to make the world ‘better’ and you will inevitably end up with something that is better for that individual or small group, and almost certainly worse for everyone else. That’s how human nature works. To make things better for everyone, you need to get everyone involved. You need to have a participatory system, into which everyone has some input, in which everyone’s voice is heard… and in which everyone is held responsible for any individual excesses they may commit.

So, the first thing you need to make the world a ‘better’ place is a consensus on exactly what ‘better’ means. Once you’ve got everyone organized to create your vision statement, though, you need to put that organization to practical work. You don’t make the world a ‘better’ place by issuing position papers. You make the world a better place by (a) figuring out what makes it suck so profoundly and (b) finding a way to resolve that problem. This is a huge undertaking, because, essentially, what makes the world suck so profoundly is inequitable distribution of wealth.

Inequitable distribution of wealth has existed since the dawn of human history and seems to be a problem as eternal as rats; if you’re going to tackle it, you need a BIG organization.

And this, essentially, is what government does in every form it has ever had – it collects and redistributes wealth through taxation. Bad government collects and redistributes wealth towards actively anti-social ends (like war, or building a big temple to sacrifice slaves in) or just socially inert ends (like the endless cycle of meaningless, conspicuously consumptive and enormously wasteful ceremonials used only to liven up the otherwise intolerably tedious existence of France’s noble classes for centuries prior to the French Revolution), while good government spends its tax money on programs and projects that will, hopefully, in the end, help everyone… or at least, everyone that needs help. But either way, this is what governments have always done… take money from there and reapply it to here.

And, getting back to our muttons, conservatives want governments to collect and redistribute the smallest amount of wealth possible. Liberals, on the other hand, want to collect and redistribute a great deal of wealth… enough to, eventually, eliminate the difference between rich and poor and average out the entire human race into one big, reasonably comfortable and affluent ‘middle class’.

This is why that conceptual gulf between conservative and liberal is so unbridgeable. Conservatives intuitively distrust big government, liberals know big government is necessary to accomplish big goals. Conservatives think things are pretty much fine the way they are, and if any changes need to be made, such necessary changes will derive (slowly) from the output of creative individuals whose useful, worthwhile innovations will be met with approbation and adoption by the grateful masses. Liberals believe the world pretty much stinks the way it is, and that while individual inventions are great, in the end, real social progress comes from everybody pulling together towards a common goal.

Conservative ideas are powerful, persuasive, vastly appealing. Who among us doesn’t want to think of him or herself as a rugged individualist, a man or woman who thinks for themselves, who has their own ideas and their own values, who walks their own road, who did it their way? And who among us doesn’t get pissy when we’re faced with yet another apparently unnecessary and utterly aggravating government regulation about something that, honestly, really isn’t anybody’s business but ours, anyway? Who among us doesn’t think about just how much better our lives would be if we could actually spend that sixty, seventy, eighty, hundred dollars or so a week that gets chonked out of our paychecks before we ever see it? Who among us wouldn’t love to drown our government in a bathtub, especially if ‘our government’ was personified as whichever politician we dislike the most at any given moment?

Liberalism, by the same token, seems almost essentially a cheat, somehow. There is no inherent nobility in mass achievement or group success; ballads and poems may be written about the victories of entire armies, but only an individual can be a hero. Human beings are naturally afraid of losing their identity within the impersonal ranks of an organization or mass movement. We want to stand out, we want to be noticed, we want attention for ourselves and our achievements. We don’t much care if our department at work wins a free pizza party; we cherish, however, distinctions like ‘employee of the week’. An award won by an entire battalion is not as sweet to us as a ribbon, or a medal, or a citation denoting our distinctiveness and superiority over the rest of our unit.

Humans are social creatures, and beyond that, we are herd animals, and while we enjoy the sensation of belonging to something, of being an insider, at the same time, we want to be noticed individually when we excel, rather than simply having our work credited off to the department we’re assigned to.

And yet, in addition to the simple fact that the act of government is just too big for any one individual (even a strong arm boss needs thugs to keep the peons in line, after all), there is the even simpler fact that humanity has a predator class. Left to its own devices, this predator class will kill every single human being on the planet that it cannot enslave, including other members of that same predator class.

This predator class is made up of individuals who are physically more powerful, or more strong willed and ruthless, than most of us, and as individuals, we cannot successfully resist or oppose them. These are individuals who do not respond to civilized constraints and who take advantage of those of us who comply with such. Whether these people are outlaws, gangsters, political bosses, military leaders, members of the wealthy elite, elected representatives, or actual tyrants matters very little. At heart, they are all the same – they are largely sociopaths who do not feel empathy or sympathy to any meaningful or significant degree, who regard moral restraint, sentiment or physical inability in others as weaknesses to be exploited, and who will do whatever is necessary to coerce the kind of behavior they desire from their chosen victims.

It is only when ‘weaker’ (more civilized) folk organize together that such human predators can be curbed. Individuals and small groups generally cannot resist the dominance of such people, and, sadly, those who often speak up the most loudly against ‘government oppression’ are exactly such types of people, who prefer it when there is no powerful organization around to keep their depredations in check.

The simple fact of the matter is, if we want to live together in some measure of common comfort, with our basic social behavior governed by civil customs, we must have a government of some sort or another. Otherwise, we are either dominant or dominated – master or slave.

For me, it’s enough to understand that the underlying presumptions of conservatism, no matter how emotionally appealing they may seem, are essentially negative – selfishness, tribalism, xenophobia, distrust, fear. Liberalism, on the other hand, derives from the honest desire to help those who need it, to make the world a better place, not simply for those who are already doing well, but for everyone… in short, liberalism springs from that much abused word, ‘altruism’.

Despite the many, many attempts by conservatives and libertarians over the years to spin the word ‘selfishness’ into something noble, and ‘altruism’ into something detestable, I myself know full well that many people – I would venture to say even, most people – feel altruistic impulses quite often. Altruism does exist, regardless of how much those who prefer to embrace selfishness insist on sneering at it. We may not practice altruism as much as we should – but the impulse is real, and that impulse is largely what inspires the idea that we can actually make a difference in this world if we work together.

For myself, I’d rather be motivated by a desire to help others than by selfishness, distrust, and fear. Both sorts of motivation can, and have been, and are being, manipulated by those who merely seek power over us – which brings us back to that predator class I was discussing earlier. However, the fact that these emotions allow the ruthless to deceive us into working for their betterment and our own detriment, does not invalidate the motivations themselves. It just means we should be more careful how we listen, and who we vote for.

Which brings us back to, what is a Republican, or a Democrat – and if you identify with one group or another, or cooperate with one group or another even to the degree of casting your vote for that group or this group’s candidate, how responsible are you for the actions and decisions and behaviors of the candidate you voted for? How much moral responsibility does someone who voted for Bill Clinton twice have to take for the lack of character Clinton undeniably displayed with his marital infidelities, some of which were committed in the Oval Office itself? And, similarly, how much responsibility does someone who voted for George W. Bush have to take for the all but unbelievable levels of hubris, duplicity, mendacity, corruption, and the appalling, shocking, ruinous, near immeasurable extent of sheer, raw human waste that can, should, and must be laid directly at the feet of Bush and his cronies?

There are many reasons why someone might choose to vote Republican or Democratic today, and unless you’re simply a straight up old school party line hack, pretty much all of those reasons are going to involve some kind of compromise. Many voters end up following the classic Heinlein advice – even if there isn’t someone they want to vote for, there is nearly always someone they want to vote against. In fact, just as TV schedules were for a long time guided by the principle of ‘least objectionable programming’ (before an ever increasing multiplicity of cable channels gave viewers the option of generally seeking out something they actually wanted to watch at any given time, instead of simply setting the dial to whatever program they could find that didn’t drive them batshit insane), so too are most elections these days seemingly decided by negative campaigning designed to get voters to not so much vote FOR one candidate, as vote AGAINST his or her opponent. (The unfortunate effectiveness of this kind of campaigning is one of the many, many inherent flaws in an electoral system that basically limits its menu of choices to one of two major parties. But that’s another essay for another time.)

Whether you vote for someone because you like their stances, or vote against someone (by voting for his opponent) because you really intensely dislike his or her viewpoints and announced intentions, there is still always an element of compromise. No matter how carefully a campaign crafts its candidate’s image so as to avoid offending any potential voters at all, still, a candidate who managed to take no positions whatsoever would offend people simply by being noncommittal. Candidates are obligated to say what they believe in, what they are against, what they plan to do when they’re in office, what they certainly will not ever do… and whenever such a statement is made, it’s going to piss somebody off.

The informed voter has always had to pick and choose – “well, I may not like John Smith’s position on abortion much, but, on the other hand, he’s going to make the public education system a priority, and he’s promised to do something about the health care system”. Or, “okay, Lisa Jones wants to rename Main Street after an ethnic activist I can’t stand, but, on the other hand, she says she’s going to increase mandatory prison sentences for drug users AND do away with all gun control laws.” So we end up voting for the person we either like the most, despite some disagreements on issues that are less important to us, or the one we dislike the least, again, with some reservations.

And, so, people end up being Republican, or Democrat, for a wide range of reasons, and when one political organization or the other has been in power for a lengthy period, and been subject to intense media scrutiny, and been the source of what seems to be an unprecedented and apparently unending series of illegal acts, moral transgressions, and policy failures, it is only natural that some people who self identify with that political affiliation should become disgusted with all these goddam shenanigans and start loudly declaiming, to everyone within earshot, that they’re tired of being judged by the antics of THOSE Republicans/ conservatives/ Democrats/ liberals /whatevers, THOSE people aren’t true Republicans/conservatives/ Democrats/ liberals/ whatevers, those people are ward heelers and layabouts and reprobates and scoundrels, and they’re bringing shame to a party that has served America well for decades if not centuries, and it’s time for all true loyal Republicans/conservatives/Democrats/liberals/whatevers to rise up and take the party back in the name of the people who really believe in its essential values.

We are seeing this now, as the Republican Party is starting to reap the whirlwind of scandal, indictments, press inquiries, legal actions, and Congressional inquiries, from the wind of bribe taking, ho-chasin’, pageboy seducing, illegal surveilling, rancidly corrupt political manipulation, deliberate sabotage of American civil liberties, torture, embezzlement, invasion, and murder that it has sewn. ‘True conservatives’ are denouncing every suspect elected and appointed official as being ‘neoconservatives’ or outright ‘liberals’. Every registered Republican not currently under indictment is loudly clamoring that the latest man or woman to be investigated is ‘no true Republican’ or ‘no true conservative’.

A guy I used to know in college once said after Mondale lost the ’84 Presidential election, “Democrats are burning their uniforms on street corners”. Well, right now, effectively, Bush Republicans are burning their uniforms on street corners… or, at least, while they’re keeping the basic Republican uniform, they’re burning their Bush League membership cards, their BUSH/CHENEY campaign buttons, and they’re doing their best to scrape all those BUSH/CHENEY bumper stickers off their SUVs, too.

If you can be a Republican for a great many different reasons, and some of those reasons are certainly less noxious than others, is it fair, then, to lump all Republicans in together? Yes, the Republican Party forged a mighty voter’s coalition by deliberately going out and crafting a message of fear and hatred that resonated in every narrow minded pointy head in America, and they rode those fearful, hateful votes to vast political power for close to thirty years as of this writing, and then they abused that power to an extent unprecedented outside George Lucas movies about evil Empires.

But not everyone who has cast a Republican vote since 1980 was a hater. Some people may have simply felt their taxes were too high, that America’s global influence had been frittered away under a weak executive, that our social fabric was in tatters due to a lack of fundamental national values as regards basic moral issues like drug abuse, teen age sexuality, and abortion, and that the Democratic Party, with all its goddam liberal permissiveness and all those fucking free love hippies, could never possibly lead America out of the rotten cesspit of licentiousness that it had somehow fallen into.

These particular Republicans have nothing against the blacks (well, not against the quiet, clean, well behaved ones who dressed in decent clothes and spoke proper English, anyway) or the Hispanics (if they learned to speak our language and they had their green cards) or the women who wanted equal wages in the work place (although it should be noted that any woman in the work place at all was either too homely to land a man, or a lesbian, but still, hey, the Republicans have nothing against them, just telling it like it is, dude) or the atheists (although, you know what, America is one nation under God, and Republicans often have a great deal of difficulty understanding just how an atheist can even want to live in America, and feel they should probably all move to Sweden or something). And they have nothing against the gays, as long as the gays shut up about being so goddam gay and don’t make demands or act all fruity in public places when there are decent folk around, anyway, because God knows how it would warp your kid to have to see that kind of behavior, right?

No, these Republicans were economic conservatives. They were voting for lower taxes and smaller government. That’s what they were promised. All that other stuff – the War on Terror, Homeland Security, warrantless surveillance, CIA black sites, the abuses of prisoners, the roll back of basic civil liberties, ‘free speech zones’, the suborning of the Justice Department to rancid political purposes… no, no, just hold your nose and lift your chin above it all, that’s not what you voted for and it’s not the sort of conservative/Republican you are. And God forbid someone, anyone, lump you in with all those neo Nazi skinheads and crazy ass Christian Dominionists and border patrolling militias and fag hating rednecks, because that’s not you. It’s not. You vote the same as they do… but for different reasons.

You’ve never spent a dime on a book by Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, you think Bush and Cheney and Rove are the assholes of the Western World, you have nothing against non-whites or women or non-Christians… you don’t hate anyone, you just want, y’know, lower taxes and less government interference and a world where you don’t have to get a permit before you fire up your back yard barbecue, y’know what I mean? And, yes, the Republican Party has come to be synonymous with fear and hatred and military fascism and greed and corruption and hypocrisy, and you hate that, but you know what?

You hate the Democrats worse. You just can’t bring yourself to ever vote for a Democrat, you’d put your eyes out and swallow shellfish toxin that would turn your hands in grasping withered nublike claws before you’d ever pull a voting lever for a Democrat, because Democrats are the worst, Democrats tax and spend, Democrats are all about big government bureaucracy, Democrats want to build a permanent government welfare state that feeds you, houses you, provides you with medical treatment, and wipes your ass from cradle to grave, Democrats want everything to have a number and they live and die by their polling data and oh my God HILLARY CLINTON AAAAAUUUGGHHHHHH!

You’re not a hater, you’re not afraid, you don’t want to oppress anyone or deny anyone their civil rights, but, Jesus Christ, you just can’t stand the Democrats, you can’t EVER vote Democratic, the Democrats suck, the Democrats are trying to turn the United Nations into a New World Order, they’re selling out old fashioned American values of self reliance and independence and oh my GOD it’s a nightmare, and, and… that’s why you’re a Republican.

To me, this is what it comes down to. This is what I see everywhere. The conservative impulse is essentially a selfish one – “I got mine, now you get yours -- elsewhere”. The Republican Party is a big tent, and it’s got room in it for every one, as long as they hate someone else that isn’t likely to vote Republican. And, in the end, if you’re not a Republican because you hate the niggers, or the gooks, or the spics, or the wetbacks, or the fags or the lezbos or the goddam commie hippie pinko atheists… well, then you’re a Republican because you hate the Democrats, weak ass, silly, limp wristed, decadent, San Francisco values, tax and spend liberals that they are. Wanting to take ‘under God’ out of the Pledge of Allegiance, I mean, oh my GOD that’s so insane rashen freshen fricken fracken…

The conservative impulse is essentially a selfish one. It is deeply rooted in xenophobic tribalism. And the Republicans are the political organization that caters to this impulse.

I simply cannot see how anyone can take any pride in being a Republican. I mean, you can disavow all the scandals – that’s not you, YOU didn’t offer or take any bribes, YOU weren’t running a Republican program to protect children from child predators on the Internet while preying on 16 year olds on the Internet, you didn’t try to use the entire Justice Department to throw the next election your way, you didn’t blow the cover of countless American covert operatives in a fit of political pique, you didn’t shoot some guy in the face and then delete or alter official Secret Service logs to cover up why, you didn’t invade a country for spurious reasons, you didn’t murder several hundred thousand foreign nationals and torture a few thousand more, you didn’t build the secret CIA detention centers, you didn’t repeal habeus corpus, you didn’t think up the egregiously noxious concept of “free speech zones”, you haven’t spent the last several weeks desperately trying to come up with some line of bullshit that will keep the American public from understanding that seven U.S. Attorneys were fired from their jobs because they had too much integrity to be part of the normal, ongoing moral corruption that is the Bush Administration, you aren’t part of a government that routinely lies and hides behind spurious claims of national security and that refuses to take responsibility for its own mistakes and that frantically dodges all attempts to pin them down to the truth on anything. You didn’t put on a military uniform you have no moral right to wear and strut across an aircraft carrier you should never have been allowed to set foot on under an enormous painted lie. You didn’t do any of that, you’re a prince among men and a gift of the Magii, you are.

No, all you did was vote for the people who did all that. Probably more than once. Not because you really like them (although you used to kinda like Bush, back before, you know, everybody hated him) but because, well, you believe in small government and low taxes and you just can’t stand those goddam Democrats, I mean, Jesus, you got Bush and he’s so good looking and buffed up and he’s got a tan and he owns a ranch in Texas and he’s plain talking and trustworthy and, sure he’s an emotional moron who has failed spectacularly at everything he’s ever set his hand to, a coward who pulled strings to avoid duty in Vietnam and a slacker who didn’t even bother to report for the last year and a half of his Air National Guard service, and you know all that, too, but, what the hell, he looks good and you like him a lot better than that stiff Al Gore guy, who says he invented the Internet and who did… something, you don’t understand it, but Rush says it was corrupt so it must have been, involving raising money from Buddhist Temples or something, and the media just makes a lot of fun of him, how he’s in a suit one day and wearing jeans the next day and he can’t make up his mind!

And then four years later, there’s Kerry, and, well, he’s a flip-flopper. I mean, sure, Bush basically stole the last election and we all know that, and Bush presided over the worst terrorist atrocity on American soil in history, and then let the guy who was responsible for it get away, so he could invade some entirely different guy’s country, and the economy sucks, and there’s some guy in jail right now who hasn’t been charged and who can’t see anyone, not even a lawyer, and we have no idea what the government’s doing to him, and, hmmm, wow, we’re torturing prisoners in Iraq, but… no, Kerry’s a flip-flopper, can’t vote for him.

But still, goddamit, you’re a good Republican, a decent Republican, one of these salt of the Earth types, who just wants lower taxes and smaller government and no budget deficits and no taxing and spending our way out of messes that could have been avoided with a little bit of common sense. Let’s run this country like a business! Let’s get our schools back to teaching the basics! Let’s all pull together and win this thing! Let’s all be proud to be Americans again! That’s what you believe in, not all this… whatever, nonsense, bullshit… that these bad Republicans have done and are doing. That’s not you. And you’re tired of being lumped in with them. You are.

It’s not fair.

But here’s the thing… if I vote for a candidate that I think has a sensible economic agenda and who seems to be generally tolerant of stuff that grown ups are supposed to be tolerant of, and that candidate cheats on his wife with any decent looking (if emotionally imbalanced) head case that comes along, well, I feel upset and a little bit ashamed, because the guy I voted for made the Presidency of the United States a worldwide laughingstock.

I voted for that guy. He represents me. When he lets the country down (and he did), well, I take responsibility. I’m not a registered Democrat by any means, but, still… I voted for him. I take responsibility for his failures of character. (I reserve the right to believe that his failures of policy, which is to say, where’s my goddam universal health care coverage, Bill?, are more important than where he sticks his dick, but, still, I voted for him. He screws up, it’s at least partially on me.) Maybe I only did it because I couldn’t stand the other guy in the election, or maybe I did it because I honestly liked his positions on various issues that were important to me. Doesn’t matter; in the end, I registered to vote, drove to a polling place, walked into a voting booth, and pulled the lever with his name on it, and he won.

Similarly, if I vote for a guy who feels it is his God given mission to champion his religion over all others, keep the faggots in their place, and kick the living shit out of those goddam dirty foreigners with his gigantic cowboy boots on, and he ends up bombing one of the most technologically advanced countries in the Middle East into bloody chaos for no morally or ethically acceptable reason, and is gearing up to do the exact same thing to another Middle Eastern country much like the first, well, I’m responsible for that, too. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t vote for him because he was an insane bigot of monstrous proportions with delusions of messiah-hood who shouldn’t have been entrusted with the keys to a sports sedan, much less ICBM codes. It doesn’t matter why I ignored every blinding red light that flashed before my eyes during his first campaign, first term, and his second campaign as to his lack of intellectual capacity, integrity, moral courage, compassion, empathy, tolerance, civility, or even basic sanity and voted for him anyway. All that matters is, knowing full goddam well what a fucking head case that dumb ass posturing wannabe macho hick motherfucker was, I went ahead and voted for the bitch anyway, because, y’know, somebody told me that Kerry was a flip-flopper.

If I do that, guess what? The whole assload of sad, sorry baggage that follows is mine to carry. All of it. Because I voted for it. And I can scramble around frantically trying to wipe the slime of Karl Rove off my lapels all I want, screeching to the heavens that it’s not fair to lump EVERY conservative or Republican in with all those bad boys and girls who somehow, through no fault of mine, got into high office and then abused their authority, but, y’know, I’m gonna sound kind of lame when I do that.

In fact, I’m going to sound exactly like the current administration, and all its toadies, sound right now, as they frantically try to spin away from the various scandals that are threatening to engulf them. Well, we didn’t fire those U.S. Attorneys for political reasons, it was all performance related. Uh… okay, it wasn’t all performance related but we don’t know why the Justice Department fired them, ask Alberto Gonzales. Well, okay, so it looks like Karl Rove initiated the whole idea and Karl doesn’t do anything without our permission but, um, no, Karl can’t testify in public under oath about it, and talk to Alberto about it. And every President fires U.S. Attorneys! Clinton did it too! And there’s nothing wrong with firing U.S. Attorneys for political purposes, because it’s a political system! And Bush is the Commander in Chief and these people serve at the pleasure of the President and the White House didn’t have anything to do with it and we’re invoking executive privilege and taking the Fifth Amendment! So there!

So, here I am, back at the same place I started out, saying the same thing. If you want me to stop lumping you in with all the BAD Republicans... then, for the love of Christ, stop voting for them.