The Miracle of Whitney

Fifty years ago today, just a few weeks before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington, a miracle happened: a baby girl was born. She would grow up to become a global superstar, but most importantly, she would be faithful, even in the midst of inner battles, to the mission God gave her: to bring love and joy to this world through the gift of song. The baby girl’s name was Whitney Elizabeth Houston. Her family would call her, simply, Nippy.

Over a year has gone by since Whitney passed away at 48 years of age. For many of us, the sorrow will really never go away. And yet, for me anyway, the more that time passes, the more that sorrow swims alongside a flowing, gushing, and unadulterated gratitude: gratitude for Whitney, and gratitude for God for giving our world such a miracle.

Down below is a link to one of Whitney’s 1991 hits, Miracle. This line from the song resonates with me now as it did back then:

Nothing should matter
Not when love grows inside you
A voice of love is crying out
Don’t throw love away
There’s a miracle in store…

Ironically, on this day, August 9, we also remember the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945. As Whitney sang in Miracle, we all have love – individual talents from the Creator – growing inside each and every one of us. It is always we human beings who throw away that love, who throw away the “miracle in store,” when we use our talents for war and other destructive purposes, or perhaps countenance or, quite commonly, live in fear of, those who do.

It is never, ever God who is throwing away the love that was put inside of us from the moment we were conceived.

It may sound like a stretch, but perhaps God decided that baby Whitney should be delivered into the world on August 9, simply to get us to stop throwing our hands up in the air when war and injustice take place, asking – and indeed shouting – “Why God why!”

God is always, always doing his part: giving us miracles of love inside each of us to work with, every single day. Miracle upon beautiful miracle.

Despite her battle with the dreadful disease of addiction, Whitney never threw away her miracle. Even in the last few years of her life, when her voice was wearing down, she still was faithful to her call – singing from the depths of her soul the best she could. She gave, and gave, and gave.

Generations yet to come will be blessed by God’s generosity that came in the form of this beautiful person, just as we have been so blessed.

Happy 50th Birthday, and rest in peace, Whitney Elizabeth Houston. Yes, we will always love you.

Here is Whitney’s video for the classic song, Miracle:

The Second Amendment and Stockholm Syndrome

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has a revealing article, How the Gun Control Movement Got Smart, about the gun control lobby’s rather seismic strategic shift over the past decade or so. According to the article, the lobby no longer uses the term “gun control” as it sounds too big-government-esque, and now favors the softer-sounding “preventing gun violence” instead. It’s all part of the lobby’s strategy to change their message to one that is “more appealing to Middle America and moderate voters.” Yet as Ball notes, whether these changes in strategy and tone will actually result in meaningful legislation getting passed remains to be seen. Whether such legislation would actually make a dent in the roughly 30,000 U.S. deaths by firearms is an even bigger crapshoot. And that’s the core problem.

I’ve often wondered why the interests of non-gun owners – by definition, we don’t have an interest in retaining the Second Amendment – get such short shrift from the “gun violence prevention” lobby. After all, 66 percent is not chopped liver. Why not work on expanding the base of post-Second Amendment Americans and build a domestic culture of peace and nonviolence, rather than allow gun worshippers to chart the nation’s course? Unfortunately, the “preventing gun violence” lobby does not have any interest whatsoever in acknowledging the fact that a majority of Americans reject gun ownership.

As Walter Shapiro wrote in a 2007 Salon article arguing for Second Amendment repeal, “Frustrated by the constraints imposed by the right-to-bear-arms language in the Second Amendment, proponents of gun-control legislation have always worked on the margins.” The question must be asked: Why work on the margins when non-gun owners are the majority, and therefore, by definition, not marginal? Shapiro helpfully explains why the piecemeal “work on the margins” legislation fails to yield results anyway:

Close the gun-show loophole” is not likely to be remembered as one of the most stirring slogans in political history. The result has been a blunt form of cost-benefit analysis among politicians. If federal gun-control efforts mandating background checks and waiting periods do not solve the larger problem of too many unstable Americans shooting first and asking questions later why risk political defeat to uphold and expand these modest laws?”

The guns used in both the Aurora and Newtown massacres were legally purchased, from the shooter in the former case, and the shooter’s mother in the latter case. The deaths of those killed in these massacres are well within the margins of the “preventing gun violence” lobby’s vision for America, and here’s why: Even if an assault weapons ban were passed, the Aurora and Newtown shooters would still have had access to legally-obtained handguns*. Supposing that the Newtown shooter shot dead the principal and teacher first with handguns – those possibly able to tackle him – he would then have been able to shoot at the children using however many handguns he could have fit on his person.

Are we really having a national political discourse that places the onus of responsibility on six-year-olds to tackle madmen with legally-purchased handguns in order to save themselves?

Yes, we are. Hence the real issue at hand is not how the gun control lobby got smart, but how they got so dumb.

I’d be open to all theories on that score, but given the level of personal tragedy on the part of so many involved in the “preventing gun violence” lobby, I’m quite hardpressed to ascribe the dumbness – yes, expecting a classroom of six year-olds to tackle mad men with handguns and calling it a moral vision for America is indeed dumb – to nothing more than poor political calculation. I think something more is going on here with the men and women who have become so involved with this issue to the point that they’ve actually turned it into their profession.

Imagine, for example, that you’ve been taken hostage at gunpoint in a bank. The hostage standoff lasts for a week. Then two weeks. Then a month. During that month, the hostage-taker decides when you eat, what you eat, when you sleep, when you go to the bathroom. He is in total control of your life. Who will you turn to when you are hungry? The police? They have no control over your physical situation. Eventually, just to survive, just to provide yourself with enough food and liquids, you start ingratiating yourself to the hostage-taker. You listen to his life story. You begin to empathize with his plight. After all, if you empathize with him, and can prove you are not his enemy, but are really on his side, won’t he be more likely to give you a ham and cheese sandwich to eat rather than just crackers? Once he gives you that ham and cheese sandwich, perhaps you can convince yourself of an alternate reality: he’s not really your hostage-taker, but your friend. And now that he’s your friend, he no longer has power of you. At least in your imagination…

After every one of this country’s mass shootings, the members of the “preventing gun violence” lobby pop up on television calling for “sensible” gun control laws. As Molly Ball documents in her Atlantic article, they go to great lengths to assure gun owners of their Second Amendment rights. “Nobody is trying to take away anybody’s Second Amendment rights” is a mantra that, like the double term “first responder,” has become a staple of national discourse ever since our nation fell victim to the tyranny of these private sector tyrants with guns.

Inherent in the advocates’ mantra is a level of personal understanding, even compassion, for the gun owners in this country. They know the N.R.A. and other gun-worshippers control the legislative agenda on guns in Washington and state capitols around the country. They are the masters, the hostage-takers. If you want to survive, you had better start empathizing with them, understanding their needs, understanding the nuances of their character. Otherwise, they will give you nothing in return; more mass shootings and chaos will continue.

Also inherent in the advocates’ discourse is an aversion to a broader philosophical engagement on the Second Amendment’s role in shaping our social fabric. On an issue brimming with far broader philosophical significance – the morality of investing the decision to simply end our government in the hands of those with the most firepower at the time of their choosig – the discourse of the “preventing gun violence” advocates is studiously technical.

Most of them, at least the one’s who appear on television – Sarah Brady, Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, Brady Campaign president Dan Gross, Colin Goddard – have all had their lives severely disrupted by gun violence. Moreover, professionally speaking, they eat, sleep and breathe in the same orbit as the N.R.A. and other gun groups.They are coping with their personal tragedies the best they can, trying to survive and help everyone else to survive, and knowing every step of the way who their ultimate political masters are.The reality is this: for the “preventing gun violence” advocates, their masters at the N.R.A. have far more in common with the shooters who wreaked havoc in their lives than with Americans who eschew guns. It’s no wonder why the interests of non-gun owners in this country – the 66 percent majority – are so completely irrelevant to the political strategies of the gun control lobby; non-gun owners aren’t holding them hostage like the N.R.A.

The net effect is this: Americans who believe the Second Amendment is a relic of a time gone by, and who are deeply offended by the very idea that force or arms could ever be a solution to protecting ourselves from tyrannical government, are being told – day in and day out – by “preventing gun violence” representatives that we have an actual stake in keeping the Second Amendment in the United States Constitution.

Logically, we know these advocates are good people who want a more peaceful society. Therefore what they have to say is by no means a pack of lies. Yet the 66 percent majority of Americans who are not gun-owners, along with hunters who only want gun access for hunting and not for future insurrection, have no political stake whatsoever in retaining the Second Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. For “preventing gun violence” advocates, no matter their personal goodness, to teach otherwise is a profound untruth.

I believe it is a profound untruth that has emerged, not from a bad political calculus couched as domestic realpolitik, but something deeper: a variant of Stockholm Syndrome that causes gun violence victims to empathize and identify with those who have fueled this country’s gun culture, rather than with the majority of Americans who reject gun ownership outright.

This is a democracy, and all should have a place at the table of discourse on national issues. But it’s long past time for Americans who reject the fundamental philosophical premise behind the Second Amendment – namely that self-annointed gun worshippers can overthrow our government when it no longer suits them – to stop taking our political marching orders from men and women who live in fear of the latter, but aren’t very likely to ever admit it…

Probably because they can’t.

*Senator Dianne Feinstein’s proposed assault weapons ban would grandfather in assault weapons already in circulation, like the ones used in the Newtown and Aurora massacres.

The Petraeus Illusion Is Our Own

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton famously wrote about his spiritual awakening at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville’s shopping district. Away from the monks and bucolic rhythms of Gethsemani Abbey, Merton described his reaction to seeing all the city people bustling about: “It was like waking from a dream, a spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or my monastic life: but the conception of ‘separation from the world’ that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, ‘spiritual men,’ men of interior life, what have you.” Merton goes on to explain that though he and his fellow monks live their spiritual lives“out of the world,” they are every bit as much a part of the same violent, tormented physical world as everyone else. Merton writes, “We just happen to be conscious of it [the world’s problems] and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better [his emphasis], than others? The whole idea is preposterous.”

Though not referring to his theretofore monastic experience as a brainwashing, Merton nonetheless described his awakening experience at the corner of Fourth and Walnut as a kind of ecstatic deprogramming: “And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: ‘Thank God, thank God that I am only a man among others. To think for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.”

In the wake of the Petraeus scandal, much has already been said about journalistic failure, not only of the broken boundary between the former general and his biographer, but about the media’s largely uncritical reporting on Petraeus and his rise to power. Yet it seems that for some years now the American people have been drinking the same strange brew as the media when it comes to things Petraeus: opposing the military quagmire in Afghanistan, yet standing foursquare behind the military general who principally conceived it.  This strange brew, it seems, leaves our critical capacities fully intact – handing out teddy bears to Afghan children to win “hearts and minds” while dismissing those same children as “collateral damage” when they and their parents are killed by U.S. bombs is both immoral and nonsensical – yet simultaneously renders We the Drinkers utterly incapacitated to actually do anything to stem the aforementioned bombs-and-teddy bear schizophrenia. What gives?

The Dixie Chicks, American musicians.

Is it simply a matter of old-fashioned moral inertia?  After all, we are still just a decade from the time when the Dixie Chicks –who spoke truth to power about the Iraq War – were turned into fiddle-playing pariahs. We are just a decade from the time when Congressman Walter Jones, who now regrets the Iraq war, attempted to turn the family trip to McDonald’s into a litmus test on one’s personal patriotism. (Remember, call em’ freedom fries, or don’t bother calling yourself an American!)

Indeed, though the jingoism of the immediate post-9/11 period may have receded into memory, the military jingles surely have not: If you want to be considered an acceptable member of society, you must sing the praises of the military prior to giving your policy critique.

Yet moral inertia alone simply fails to account for why the American people continue to fund a multi-billion dollar a year colossus – the Afghanistan war – even though they long ago rejected and discarded its moral and strategic rationale. Something else must be in play. Arguably, that something is a failure to have a Merton-like “Fourth and Walnut” awakening, and to realize that other people’s lives are just as sacred as our own.  In others words, Americans have yet to come to grips with the fact that we’ve been brainwashed by some – and a certain former general comes to mind –  who put extraordinary elbow grease into portraying themselves as more patriotic than the rest of us.

Imagine if David Petraeus, who stopped wearing his general’s uniform upon his military retirement in 2011, never wore the uniform in the first place. Imagine if, to borrow a line from director Oliver Stone, there was no “fruit salad” of medals on his chest. Imagine if the U.S. Senate respected the right of Americans – like the group Moveon.org – to publicly criticize military leaders, instead of using the Senate to censure citizens as the Senate did in 2007 when Moveon.org took out an ad criticizing Petraeus. Would We the People give much credence to the claims of a mere bureaucrat in a civilian suit trying to sell a multi-billion dollar war with an intrinsically flawed premise, namely that Afghan “hearts and minds” can be won with the proper balance of teddy-bear tenderness and hellfire missile destruction? It’s doubtful.

But once that uniform goes on, once the “fruit salad” is donned, once the official censuring of First Amendment-protected speech commences, once the multitudes are cowed into submission, it’s no longer We the People anyway – it’s We the Drinkers of that strange brew so necessary for mass brainwashing.

The hardest part of realizing that you’ve been brainwashed is dealing with the humiliation. Just ask the millions of women who’ve been betrayed by their husbands and boyfriends. Most people simply don’t want to admit that they’ve been so gullible, even stupid.  Thus the illusion can carry on for some time. But if one has developed the spiritual and psychological tools to realize that all of us are susceptible to brainwashing, it’s really not so bad.

Clearly, Thomas Merton developed those tools, and as result was able to free himself from the illusion that he lived in a state of higher holiness and was therefore better than other people, simply because he was a monk. Hopefully, the American people will, sooner rather than later, free ourselves from the utter illusion that military generals are more devoted to our country and our freedom than the rest of us.  It’s simply not true.

If we did free ourselves, we might also free our foreign brothers and sisters in this human family from the wretched violence and indignity that our illusion unleashes upon them.

Filling Up Our Senses With Senselessness

In his classic 1974 single Annie’s Song, the late John Denver drew vivid portraits of nature to describe his love for his wife, Annie:

“You fill up my senses like a night in a forest

Like the mountains in spring time

Like a walk in the rain

Like a storm in the desert

Like a sleepy blue ocean”

The poetry reaches its climax with “Come let me love you, Come love me again.” If ever there was ever an American song to make you appreciate love and senses in life’s sadder moments, it’s Annie’s Song.

Reflecting upon First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention, memories of Annie’s Song came flooding back, precisely because the “American spirit” the First Lady was describing went in the polar opposite direction of the spirit of Annie’s Song.

Speaking about the American spirit of “service and sacrifice” Michelle Obama told the convention, “I’ve seen it in our men and women in uniform and our proud military families…in wounded warriors who tell me they’re not just going to walk again, they’re going to run, and they’re going to run marathons.”

All right, so maybe her husband did not turn out to be the peacemaker many Americans had hoped he would be, but certainly, using her platform before the nation to give praise to paralyzed soldiers confident they will walk again, one could set aside the disappointments and simply appreciate the indomitable American spirits of the wounded soldiers Michelle Obama spoke of. Then came the stunner, sordid and twisted as it was revelatory about our times.

Mrs. Obama said she found the American spirit, “in the young man blinded by a bomb in Afghanistan who said, simply, ‘…I’d give my eyes 100 times again to have the chance to do what I have done and what I can still do.’

How did one’s sacrifice of one of their senses, in this case sight, for a war that most Americans want absolutely nothing to do with, come to define the “American spirit” itself, at least according to the First Lady of the United States?

The senses, like rights themselves, come from the Creator, however one chooses to define the Creator. The senses are sacred, a choreography designed by God not only to guide our way in the world, but to enable us to witness the majesty of creation – mountains in springtime, deep blue oceans, John Denver’s voice and guitar.

That any grown man or woman, a political figure or not, would characterize a young man’s loss of one of his senses through violence, in this case war, as anything other than a profound tragedy is deeply disturbing.

Helen Keller as a young woman.

We have all known or know of people who have been dealt the horrible blow of losing one of their senses, from natural occurrences, accidents, or through violence, and who then manage, both practically and psychologically, to triumph over the loss. The life story of Helen Keller epitomizes that triumph.

The young soldier Michelle Obama referenced in her convention speech certainly has every right to conclude that the war in Afghanistan was worth the loss of his sight, and still is worth that loss – a hundred times over. It ought to go without saying that neither that soldier, nor Michelle Obama, has any right to actually foist that formulation onto the rest of us and our lives, be we soldiers or not. But unfortunately, in these twisted times, from a cultural standpoint, it is no longer so clear-cut.

While not deliberately foisting the sight-for-war spirit onto us, without question, Michelle Obama, as First Lady of the United States, intended to give her imprimatur to that very spirit, and by extension the president’s as well.

Americans would do well to think more deeply before applauding, let alone embracing, this kind of imprimatur.

The question must be asked: Is the very definition of what we call the American spirit undergoing a major transformation right before our eyes, owing precisely to the hemorrhaging violence at home and abroad? It certainly seems that way, and it certainly seems that intrinsic to this new American spirit is the idea that Creator-given senses are a fair trade for personal and national pride.

In the last century, one American legend, John Denver, utilized his senses to the fullest, and in so doing elevated the consciousness of all who heard him bearing witness to the profundity of creation and the human experience. Another American legend, Helen Keller, stripped of her senses by nature, overcame her obstacles and bore witness to the profundity of creation and the human experience by becoming a peace and human rights activist.

The American spirit that defined those two American legends of the last century is, frankly, being replaced by a spirit of belligerence and pride, even stupidity.

Shifts in cultural trends, or spirits, take time. Here’s a good test for whether you have adopted the new American spirit:

Are you more emotionally moved by the tears of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ congressional colleagues as they talk about her progress after the Tucson massacre than you are frustrated with their constant kowtowing to the N.R.A. and its followers? If so, chances are you have already adopted the new American spirit articulated by Michelle Obama: namely, looking for valor in the violence suffered by others, all while accepting the same legal, constitutional, and cultural frameworks that led to the violence in the first place.

The new American spirit is, in a word, senseless. Indeed, it takes an awful lot of senselessness to valorize the needless death of the senses.

Time for Democrats to Ditch Gun Owners

Based on the barely audible applause that Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer received for his tip of the hat to the gun lobby during his DNC convention speech, Democratic delegates and activists are not big on guns. About former Massachusetts governor Romney, Schweitzer told the convention, “And here’s the one that got a burr under my saddle: he quadrupled the fee for a gun license!” It was a good thing that the Montana governor limited his blatant appeal to gun owners in swing states to the matter of registration fees. As governor Schweitzer himself might say, among Democratic activists at least, gun-worshipping talk is simply “a dog that won’t hunt.”

And yet, the Democratic Party continues to effectively coddle gun owners in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Nevada who otherwise align themselves more with Democratic than Republican values. At some point Democrats– like the ones who kept their hands to their sides during Schweitzer’s nod to the N.R.A. – ought to ask what is gained by adopting such milquetoast stances in response to the Great American Gun Plague.

Not only was discussion of the gun plague left out of the prime time speeches at the DNC convention, the proliferation of guns is not even listed in the “issues” section of the DNC Web site.

While most Democrats I know have no desire to descend to the mentality of people who find it entertaining to shoot cutouts of human beings at firing ranges, that is precisely what the establishment gun control lobby and the Democratic Party bigwigs want us to: So long as they are law-abiding, and never break the wall between cutouts of human beings and real human beings, we must respect and acknowledge gun owners’ basic instinct to shoot as some kind of sacred right – if we want their votes.

According to the commonly accepted statistics on guns, 40 percent of Americans are gun-owners, and there are roughly 88 guns in America for every 100 people. Those of us who are not gun owners – the 60 percent majority – are wasting crucial time on a Second Amendment –centered discourse; a discourse that solidifies the dangerous notion that an armed citizenry is the last bulwark against government tyranny.

An informed citizenry and a rigorous system of checks and balances are the last bulwarks against government tyranny, not glocks.

Those of us who want Second Amendment repeal should hold no illusions. It will take several decades, if not longer, to confiscate and dispose of the civilian firearms in this country, and to create a measured way for law enforcement to wean itself off the use of guns; a measured way that would protect law enforcement during a transition to a post-Second Amendment society.

No doubt, for every one of us alive now, even little babies, we will live in a gun-saturated society. It’s the lot we’ve been given from previous generations, and they ought not to brag about it.

Yet if the 60 percent majority of us who do not desire guns have the wherewithal to “just say no” to those who’ve made guns central to their identity – whether they live in swing states or not – we can start now to roll back the Second Amendment, and at least for our posterity, generations down the line, leave them with a society where men resolve their disputes through peace, due process, and dialogue – not guns.  Indeed, notwithstanding a minority of women gun owners, it ought to be obvious by now that guns are the male equivalent of make-up: external devices used to shore up insecurities in a person’s gender identity.  Just as some women can’t go outside the house without make-up on, so too some men can’t go outside their house without their guns – hence the proliferation of conceal and carry laws.

If we are ever to be carried into a time free of the tyranny of guns, a time when children can go to school, parents can go to work, the faithful can go to their places of worship, and moviegoers to the movies, without the threat of gun violence, it will be the liberal tradition that will bring us there.

It will never be the tradition of compromising with gun-worshipers that will bring us to that point, for it is precisely that tradition that has blanketed our entire nation in blood and tears for decades.

It’s time for Democrats to abandon gun-owners as a constituency; a constituency that, go figure, is holding political hostage the advancement of a domestic peace and disarmament agenda.

It’s time for Democrats to start identifying constituencies that can see the nexus between the violence-based philosophy underlying the Second Amendment and the realized violence of the Great American Gun Plague.