A Grand Compromise

Last Wednesday, a 19-year-old lunatic opened fire at a Florida high school, killing 17 students and teachers and wounding several others.  This Valentine’s Day massacre was the 30th mass shooting in the United States so far this year, and the most deadly.

As our fellow citizens raced into their predicable opinion bubbles, ruminating on how to properly react to yet another instance of pointless American carnage, one sentiment struck me with particular force:  “If you oppose gun control, you can’t call yourself pro-life.”

On the one hand, an assertion like that speaks for itself.  Guns equal death; therefore, to foster life, eliminate the guns.  Surely the “pro-life” movement, whose entire platform is based on protecting the young and vulnerable, can appreciate this as well as anyone.

And yet, unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that, if only because of the apparently intractable politics that have enabled America to become the most trigger-happy advanced nation on Earth.  Even when overwhelming majorities of the public support certain basic changes to who gets to own deadly weapons in this country—and who doesn’t—the financial tyranny of the NRA over our elected officials guarantees a bloody status quo on guns for many years to come.

Into this breach, I offer a modest proposal:  Repeal the Second Amendment once and for all, and in exchange, allow the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

That’s right:  I’m suggesting a good old-fashioned trade-off whereby two groups claiming the mantle of “pro-life” can put their money where their mouth is, and two major issues can be addressed in one fell swoop.

Obtuse as it may sound, there is a certain symmetry in tethering gun rights to abortion rights.  After all, both are rooted in core constitutional principles—the former in the aforementioned Second Amendment; the latter in the Fourteenth.  Both involve the direct, deliberate taking of human life, sometimes for morally dubious reasons.  Both provoke deep, painful and ultimately irresolvable debates about what it means to be a free American.  Finally, both hinge on the question of federalism and what it would mean, practically-speaking, if we were to radically decentralize certain rights we have heretofore regarded as (to coin a phrase) inalienable.

Of course, we’ll never find out the exact answer to that question, since neither the Second Amendment nor Roe v. Wade will be disappearing any time in the foreseeable future—a fact that leaves me half-relieved and half-depressed (not necessarily in that order).

All the same, having witnessed lawmakers’ shameful abdication of leadership in the teeth of one heinous—and utterly preventable—mass shooting after another, I have reached the dispiriting conclusion that our national epidemic of gun violence will never abate unless and until we decide, as a people, that there shouldn’t be a right to bear arms in the first place.  While such seemingly obvious fixes as an assault weapons ban or robust background checks would undoubtedly save countless lives, neither addresses the fundamental collective psychosis that is Americans’ fetishization of hand-held killing machines, for which the Second Amendment provides both legal and cultural cover.

Were I to become king, I would gut the Second Amendment tomorrow and hurl every firearm into a volcano.  However, since I am not king and we live in a republic, I recognize that, one way or another, effecting truly transformational gun reform will come at a price—and a painful one at that.  In a country with such wildly divergent views of liberty and freedom and right and wrong, no major ideological settlement can be made cleanly or simply:  There must be a fight, and both sides must be prepared to give at least as much as they are hoping to take.

It’s hard to believe today, but this was something that America used to be able to accomplish.  Indeed, look closely enough and you’ll notice a large chunk of modern American life came about through incongruous—if not outright ludicrous—grand compromises, many of them sealed in proverbial smoke-filled rooms or around dinner tables in between bottles of Port.  Think Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton agreeing to establish a national bank in exchange for moving the capital from New York to Virginia.  Or the Compromise of 1850, which gave us the horrid Fugitive Slave Act, but also California.  (The former was eventually repealed.  The latter, not yet.)  Or the fact that the Constitutional Convention itself gifted us a bicameral legislature, with one house favoring small states and the other favoring large ones.

That was then.  Now, of course, we are represented by a Congress that can’t seem to pass laws everyone likes, let alone ones that divide America straight down the middle.  Because our body politic has become so irretrievably tribal—so blindingly partisan, so stubbornly zero-sum—the very notion of compromise has increasingly been conflated with weakness, capitulation and ideological selling-out, rather than for what it actually is:  the only known way to run a goddamned country.

Hence the rank impossibility of a comprehensive immigration deal—something that could be resolved in an hour if Democrats merely agreed to fund a wall along the Mexican border.  Hence the absence of a plan to strengthen Obamacare, which the GOP prefers to cripple out of spite than make work for its own constituents.

Our leaders would rather get nothing than give their opponents anything, and we are all living with the consequences.  It would be a terribly unfair quandary for this great country to find itself in, except for the pesky fact that every one of those representatives was democratically elected by us, the people.  This is what we wanted, folks, and the madness will continue until we choose—say, on November 6—to make it stop.

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The Skater and the Veep

Poor Mike Pence.  He says something mean about gay people one time, and now he has to hear about it for the rest of his life.

Did I say “one time”?  Sorry, I meant “for his entire political career.”

How anti-gay is the vice president of the United States?  Well, anti-gay enough as Indiana governor to sign and promote that state’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which licensed businesses to deny service to LGBT customers.  Anti-gay enough as a member of Congress to vote against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Matthew Shepard Hates Crimes Act.  Anti-gay enough to proclaim that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” and that federal HIV funding should be re-routed to organizations that “provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” whatever the hell that means.  Anti-gay enough, in any case, to compel his current boss, Donald Trump, to joke in a private meeting, “He wants to hang them all!”

To be fair, when Pence first ran for office in the year 2000, it was de rigueur for a Republican to hold aggressively negative views about homosexuality without worrying about political blowback down the line.  This was an epoch, after all, when same-sex marriage was illegal in all 50 states and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was considered a net plus for gay civil rights.

Here in 2018?  Not so much.  Now that marriage equality is the law of the land and LGBT folk have a visible presence in virtually every facet of society (including the armed forces), Pence as vice president has become increasingly reticent to make his true feelings on this matter known.  Indeed, there may be no greater illustration of the LGBT movement’s success than the general squeamishness with which many cultural conservatives broach the subject—if they bother broaching it at all.

Unfortunately for Pence—a man who, as Andy Borowitz once quipped, “really thought he’d be president by now”—the internet has an uncanny ability to record and retain one’s every last public utterance, and gay people know an unreconstructed bigot when they see one.

So it was that Pence recently found himself in an unexpected virtual skirmish with Adam Rippon, a sassy figure skater from Scranton competing at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  Asked last month about possibly meeting the vice president as a member of Team USA, the openly gay Rippon tartly responded, “You mean the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?”

“If it were before my event,” Rippon continued, “I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who […] has gone out of their way to not only show they aren’t a friend of a gay person but that they think they’re sick.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to meet somebody like that.”

Rippon is hardly the first to publicly chastise Pence for his abysmal civil rights record since he rose to become one Big Mac away from the presidency.  Shortly after the 2016 election, the entire cast of Hamilton famously implored the then-VP-elect, who was sitting mere feet away, to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us,” implying a profound worry that he would not.  As well, in the days before the inauguration, the streets outside Pence’s temporary D.C. residence were transformed into a raucous, glittering gay block party organized by a group called WERK for Peace—an act of trolling that, if not particularly effective, at least had a nice rhythm to it.

In the teeth of all this cultural pushback—and his own odious history—Pence has opted to seemingly take the high road as of late, either by remaining silent or affecting an air of congenial magnanimity toward his would-be antagonists.  Following the Hamilton incident, for instance, Pence assured an interviewer, “I wasn’t offended by what was said,” adding, “When we arrived we heard a few boos, and we heard some cheers.  I nudged my kids and reminded them that is what freedom sounds like.”

It was in that same spirit of ecumenicalism that Pence last week tweeted to Rippon, “I want you to know we are FOR YOU.  Don’t let fake news distract you.  I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes and my only hope for you and all of #TeamUSA is to bring home the gold.  Go get ’em!”  Around this time, USA Today reported—and a Pence spokesperson oddly denied—that the vice president had attempted to arrange a meeting with Rippon to try to work out their differences, and that Rippon had rebuffed the invitation, at least until after the Olympics conclude on February 25.

Here, then, is the $64,000 question:  Should Rippon take Pence up on his (apparent) offer?  For Rippon and every other social liberal in America, is it wise to scorn the man who is second-in-line to the presidency, rather than engaging with him in good faith when the opportunity presents itself?

Bearing in mind the only truly relevant fact about Pence—that he could become the 46th chief executive at a moment’s notice—might it be strategically advantageous to call the vice president’s bluff that he values all his fellow Americans equally and—by implication—is willing to have his mind changed?

Is it possible, in other words, that some kind of summit between Pence and members of the LGBT community might eventually persuade the former—as it has already persuaded 62 percent of the public and five-ninths of the Supreme Court—that the latter is a group worthy of the rights, privileges and basic dignity afforded every other American citizen?  And might such outreach result in more favorable legislation in the years to come?

I know:  Probably not.  Surely anyone who would willingly tether himself to Donald Trump is morally suspect at best and irredeemable at worst—an assumption tragically reinforced by such disgraces as Pence’s staged walkout from an NFL game last October after several black players kneeled during the national anthem.  He may not have fully drunk the Trump Kool-Aid yet, but he certainly knows how to toe the party line.

The real question, though, is how this weird mixture of stoicism and prissiness will manifest itself if and when Pence graduates from understudy to leading man.  From the Oval Office—without a vain, impulsive man-child to answer to 24 hours a day—will he resume his former life as a crass culture warrior—Trump with a Bible and a Midwestern accent, more or less—or will he transmogrify into the restrained, even-tempered statesman he has occasionally portrayed to the world since January 2017?

We may never find out the answer to that question.  (At least not until Robert Mueller has finished his work.)  All we can reasonably hope is that his overtures of goodwill are genuine and, if so, that we will be able to summon the nerve and generosity to meet him halfway.

A Nation of Hypocrites

“I watched the Super Bowl again this year.  Why?  ’Cause I’m an idiot.”

That was Lewis Black in 2001, and the sentiment has held up well in the intervening 17 years for both America and yours truly.

As a native New Englander, I haven’t fully invested myself in a professional sporting event since the 2007 World Series—the Red Sox’s second championship in four years—and haven’t given much of a damn about the Vince Lombardi Trophy since the Patriots effectively leased the thing at the beginning of the previous decade.  To coin a phrase:  I got tired of all the winning.

All the same, I have faithfully tuned in to every minute of every Super Bowl since discovering football in the late 1990s and will probably continue tuning in for the rest of my natural life.  To be sure, like every halfway-ethical American, I have been appalled by the NFL’s ongoing complicity in the epidemic of brain damage and suicide among current, former and (presumably) future players.  Intellectually, I know full well that by watching even one NFL game per year (my current average), I make myself complicit in this monstrous conspiracy and thereby become Part of the Problem.

Yet I watch the Big Game anyway, happily and without apology.  Why?  Easy:  Because I’m a hypocrite.

Yes, I suppose I could attempt to reconcile my shameful viewing habits by whipping up some half-baked rationalization—say, about how the NFL is finally taking the concussion issue seriously, or how supporting the Super Bowl is a way to support the economy and/or the troops.

But who am I kidding?  I relish the Super Bowl because I enjoy football and all manner of grand spectacle, and if the game’s continued existence shaves a few decades off the lives of its main participants, well, who ever thought running full speed into another human being was a risk-free endeavor in the first place?

 “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  While there is nothing especially intelligent about watching professional football players pummel each other for three-and-a-half hours, the glaring contradiction of endorsing an activity you know to be despicable is perfectly emblematic of Donald Trump’s America—a culture in which no double standard is too flagrant and moral shamelessness knows no bounds.

In the age of Trump, hypocrisy is the new black.

That’s not to say that Donald Trump is necessarily to blame for this sorry state of affairs.  As with most other American flaws, the 45th president is less a cause than a symptom.  Trump may well be the single greatest hypocrite on planet Earth, but he is ultimately a mere reflection of the people who voted for him—and, equally, of those who didn’t.

Case in point:  While it’s true—as a cheeky Twitter parlor game has shown—that President Trump has said and done virtually everything he previously deplored in President Obama, who amongst us has not engaged in similarly disingenuous moral recalibrating during this abrupt shift in political leadership?

How many of us ding the president for his excessive golf habit but never gave it a second thought during the previous administration?  How many of us applaud congressional Democrats for refusing to compromise with Trump, despite spending eight years criticizing Republicans for refusing to compromise with Obama?  How many of us have condemned Trump’s history of philandering and sexual assault after excusing Bill Clinton’s for 20 years running?  How many of us were driven mad by the FBI’s investigation into Bill and Hillary’s business dealings but are delighted by its investigation into Donald’s?

Such is the corrosive effect of allowing raw political partisanship to inform one’s entire worldview—a fact Americans seem never to learn for more than a few minutes at a time.

The truth is that we are all guilty of practicing what we do not preach when it becomes convenient, and this goes far beyond party politics:  It’s also the smug environmentalists who luxuriate in 60 degree temperatures in December, or the self-proclaimed feminists who continue to patronize the work of sexually malignant artists and entrepreneurs.  It’s the health freaks who scarf burgers and brownies when no one’s looking, or the bleeding heart Robin Hoods who never seem to have spare change when they pass by a homeless person on the street.

Speaking as all of the above, I would never begrudge my fellow citizens the little duplicities that get them through their day.  When it comes to hypocrisy in 2018, the point isn’t to eradicate all of one’s moral inconsistencies.  Rather, it is to admit that those inconsistencies exist and not presume to be purer than one’s fellow man and woman.

Let him who is without hypocrisy cast the first stone.  Everyone else can watch the Super Bowl.