Sunday, June 29, 2008

Basic Grammar, Guns and the Supreme Court

In recent years colleges and employers have bemoaned the apparent decline in U.S. children’s ability to read and write. As a college professor who often teaches first year students and adults returning to college, I can attest to the often abysmal state of student writing these days. Experts attribute the decline in basic literacy to several causes: email/instant messaging, television, lower academic standards and the like. I would like to add another culprit to the list: The U.S. Supreme Court.

This past week the court ruled that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun. Now, while I admit to being a supporter of gun control laws and background checks, I have no problem with hunters, collectors and law enforcement personnel owning guns. While I don’t think it is particularly safe or wise to keep a gun in one’s home (since most murders are crimes of passion committed by people who know each other), I don’t even object to someone legally owning a gun.

But let’s be honest: the Supreme Court notwithstanding, a clear and simple reading of the 2nd amendment in no way gives a blanket right for anyone to own a gun. Here’s what the 2nd Amendment says:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

While the nature of the English language has changed somewhat in 232 years, there is a clear link between the phrase “the right of the People to keep and bear arms” and “a well regulated militia.” Grammatically speaking, the right to keep and bear arms is a dependent clause that relates to the presence of a well regulated militia. The plain sense of the sentence simply means that the right to own a gun only applies when the person is part of a local militia. If a student interpreted the sentence any other way, they would get it wrong on their English 101 test. I guess the five justices who voted for the majority need to take an English refresher course.

The 2nd Amendment has nothing to do with a blanket right to own a gun; rather it was established so that communities on the frontier could protect themselves from would-be invaders. Individuals kept guns around so as to be ready to answer the call, much like volunteers in the local volunteer fire department stand ready to respond when the fire alarm sounds. In other words, owning a gun had to do with civil defense not personal rights. An understanding of the basic rules of grammar and sentence structure makes that clear.

I would not be so concerned if this was not such a grave issue. First, the issue of guns and what to do with them is a major crisis in this country. Much like the gambling industry, the gun industry operates a shadow market beneath the legal market. The looser the laws are for legal gun owners, the easier it is for illegal gun sales to go on. The gun manufacturers and their political front, the National Rifle Association (NRA), know this, and so block any effort, however rational, to control or regulate the sales of firearms. The gun industry’s “growth market” are the straw buyers and illegal gun dealers whose products flood urban city streets. By enshrining the right to own a gun in the Constitution, the Court has now made it much more difficult to have a needed conversation on what to do about gun violence in this country. Laws alone will not stem the epidemic of gun violence in our cities, schools and elsewhere, but they can help.

Secondly, the Court made it that much more difficult for communities like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, who are trying to address their violence problems with stricter gun control laws. Such communities are decried for not addressing their problems while not being given the tools to do so. Justice Scalia writing for the majority said “gun violence is a serious problem” but “the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table;” in other words, we feel your pain (wink), but we are not going to help you.

We need to have a healthy dialogue about what to do about the violence in our cities and schools, but the court has just made dialogue that much more difficult by giving the NRA the cover of the Constitution. As long as the NRA is lining the pockets of politicians at local, state and federal levels, Democrat and Republican, we won’t be able to truly address this issue without becoming polarized. What we need is to have a sensible conversation that finds common ground between lawful gun owners and those who want to control the sales of guns. It can be done.

A couple years ago Hilary Clinton proposed common ground with pro-lifers by saying while we may disagree on abortion, let us agree on reducing the need for and instances of abortions. Some prolifers, including me, were willing to meet her at that point. We need that kind of dialogue on guns as well. The 2nd amendment no more guarantees one’s right to have a gun than the 1st amendment guarantees a woman’s right to abortion. Both are complex and deep moral issues where we need to have extensive dialogue in order to find some common ground.

The justices supporting this latest opinion need to review the basic rules of grammar. Otherwise, America’s children might get the idea that words even at the highest level mean nothing and you can make any sentence, even a sentence in the Constitution, say anything you damn well please. This week the justices not only made a mockery of the Constitution, they also perverted the English language, and in the process made it more difficult for the kind of rational conversation that needs to occur on the issue of guns and violence in our society.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Black and White Keys Together

Over the past month, I have been doing research and reading in preparation for a course I will be teaching in the fall on Race and Ethnic Relations. The purpose of the course is to provide an overview from both an historical and sociological perspective on the impact that racism and ethnic discrimination have had on contemporary North American society. In reading the history of racism (at least as it originated in Europe) it seems clear that the rise of racial discrimination coincided with the rise of capitalism and the expansion of Christianity into the “new world.” Racial superiority was used as a justification for many historical atrocities, starting with the persecution of Jews in Europe to the conquest of peoples in North and South America to the enslavement of black Africans. Often these actions were further justified by an appeal to expand the reach of European commerce, and a call to spread the gospel. This mixing of capitalism and mission led to the notion of “Christendom” the idea of a fully Christian society. Yet, by design this Christendom was only good for those who happen to be European and Christian.

Even those groups that escaped to North America because of religious persecution, such as the Puritans, often regarded the peoples they encountered there as “infidels” who needed to be eliminated or removed. As the new nation that became the United States continued to grow, that growth was most often achieved through exploitation of non-“white” groups: Native Americans, black slaves, Chinese railroad workers, Mexican farm workers, Irish refugees, East European coal workers and so on. While the motive might have been industrial expansion and economic greed, Christianity often was invoked to rationalize the exploitation by asserting that whites were genetically and socially superior to other racial and ethnic groups, and therefore they had the right to control and exploit the “others.” In recent decades various civil rights movements and a more critical perspective on history have revealed the immorality and injustice embedded in that rationale; even so the effects of that history are still evident today in the wide socioeconomic disparities between most whites and most people of color.

As a white middle class American, I am a beneficiary of this history. I come from a family of business people and professionals who originally came to this country largely from England, Scotland and Germany. I am also a Christian, having been raised in a Congregational Church that saw its historical connection to the Pilgrims and the Puritans. While I find little evidence that my ancestors owned slaves, we were part of the Western expansion that eliminated the Native Americans. Furthermore, historians widely acknowledge that the industrial expansion of the mid 1800’s in the North was directly tied to the slave trade in the South, and exploitation of immigrant workers in the urban centers. So in part my ancestry and historical identity have been built on this history of exploitation and degradation of the “other.”

At the same time I have come to realize that my history is intricately intertwined with those who have been oppressed. There was an African American news commentator I used to watch who had the last name of Boyd, who I kiddingly referred to as my long lost cousin. Obviously, his ancestors inherited that Scottish surname from a slave master and not from their African ancestors. We bear the same name because our histories are somehow linked.

Even more, our futures are intertwined. Increasingly, I find that in working for racial and economic justice, I must come to grips with the sordid history that has so long been glossed over and ignored. There is no way that history can be “redeemed” or rectified or explained away, but it can be named and acknowledged. The purpose of acknowledging the history is not to stir up guilt, as much as it is to recognize my indebtedness to those who suffered injustice. As I come to greater awareness, I become responsible to do what I can to make things right by redirecting resources, seeking to change laws, and working for policies that level the playing field for all people. On a personal level it also means opening myself to learn from others whose ancestors may have been exploited by mine and to gain a deeper appreciation for the durability of the human spirit and the ability of the power of God to help people overcome even the most oppressive circumstances.

I can not undo what has been done, but I can work to make sure injustice and racism do not continue, and I can learn. Moreover, I see that my future, and the future of my children and our society in general, is tied to our ability to rectify past and current injustices, and build a society built on respect and equity rather than exploitation.

The entry just before this one, “Only the Black Keys,” tells the story behind the melody of “Amazing Grace.” As Wintley Phipps explains in that video, the melody of Amazing Grace was a slave tune that John Newton, the converted slave ship captain, heard the slaves below deck singing as he transported them across the Atlantic Ocean. Just as English words and an African melody combined to create one of the most enduring hymns of our time, so too the histories of people of color and whites are intricately woven together. If people of color play the black keys, and whites play the white keys, perhaps together we can put together a melody that honors both and slights none. That at least is my dream.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Just the Black Keys

Rod Niner, a good friend, recently sent me the link to a YouTube video, entitled "Just the Black Keys". I heard this presentation nearly 12 years ago and I have never forgotten it. In this presentation on the history and background of the hymn "Amazing Grace," Rev. Wintley Phipps makes a clear link between the origin of the lyrics and the tune that rose up out of sufferring of the slaves of the Middle Passage from Africa to North America.

The message of this video for me is that the history and destiny of whites and blacks in this nation are more inextricably linked than we ever imagined.