Monday, May 6, 2013

The Weird Thing About Mother's Day

The Weird Thing About Mother’s Day

For most of the life that I shared with my mother (that would be from my birth until eight years ago, when she died), Mom made fun of Mother’s Day.  Or at least was cynical about it. 

--Mother’s Day:  a trumped up ‘holiday’ first promoted by Philadelphia merchants and continually pushed by the greeting card industry. 
--Mother’s Day: a ‘holiday’ passed into official national status as a feel-good, cost-nothing (to the government, anyway) measure right before World War I. 
--Mother’s Day:  an occasion for children to get their aesthetically challenged creations praised by a parent.  (To be fair, this is an adult-me surmise not based on anything Mom ever said but on the fact that, despite having daughters who were relatively talented artistically, she was not one to stick random scribbles on refrigerators or ugly child-made ornaments on Christmas trees.)

In other words, when I was a child, we never celebrated Mother’s Day.  My sister and I may have dragged home a card or another clumsy craft we made in school, but I can’t recall ever giving such lame efforts to my mom.  In fact, I remember dumping some of them in the trash.  We didn’t have a special dinner, engineered by my dad.  And God forbid that Daddy would get her anything.  I think that happened once, and the result was a high-snifferoony “What are you thinking?  I’m not your mother.”

Same thing with Father’s Day.  Perhaps it was Mom’s attitude toward these commercial holidays, or perhaps it was Dad’s independent judgment.  In any event, we didn’t celebrate Father’s Day either.

This is not to imply that I grew up in a joyless, ultra-rational household.  Far from it.  We celebrated ‘real’ holidays to the max:  birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, May Day.  Even April Fool’s Day:  my mother would pack my lunch box with oddities – either with icky surprises (mayonnaise and pickle sandwiches, both ingredients that I loathed) or with unexpected treats (a candy bar, a frosting-drenched cupcake) – and a somewhat enigmatic note reading:  ‘April Fool’s.  I love you!’

 Really, it wasn’t that enigmatic.  I never doubted my parents’ unconditional love, and I hope my sister didn’t either.  Mom and Dad, for the most part, filled our home with happiness and acceptance – but not acceptance of second-rate efforts that fell far short of what they, and we, knew we could accomplish.  And not acceptance of rote gestures that meant little or nothing.   I suspect that my brilliant, critical, artistic, and frustrated maternal grandmother might have something to do with all this (and with my mother’s tendency, at least as a younger woman, to guard her emotions), but that’s another matter.

Even when my sister and I were grown, with children of our own and living far from our parents, we continued the ban on Mother’s Day (at least with our mother – I like to think that we welcomed our own kids’ school-inspired offerings with more enthusiasm).  But then a weird change started to happen.  Maybe in response to our own enjoyment of our children’s Mother’s Day efforts, we started at least calling Mom on Mother’s Day (this was back when long-distance calls were still a semi-big deal).  And Dad on Father’s Day.  Our parents seemed to like these fake-holiday-inspired calls, much to our initial surprise. 

So the Mother’s and Father’s Day boycott crumbled.  My parents retired and moved closer to my sister and very close to me.  Mother’s Day and Father’s Day became occasions to make a nice dinner for them, or take them out, or for a visit from my sister.  My parents got older, and more feeble.  Mother’s Day and Father’s Day soon included little presents as well as get-togethers.

In their last years, our parents accepted my sister’s and my attempts to celebrate what had once been ridiculed holidays with an almost heartbreaking gratitude.  Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – marked by cards, gifts, dinners – had now become signifiers of family solidarity and affection. 

The weird thing about these manufactured holidays is that their meanings change profoundly over time, for children as well as for parents.  After our parents die, we still define ourselves as their children and think of our being-on-earth as, in part, measured by how well we have loved them . . . thoughts that can come to the forefront on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  If this happens, we are the lucky ones:  we’ve been blessed with families on whom we’ve relied, from whom we’ve drawn emotional sustenance, and whom we miss dearly because they were so very, very important to us.

My point today is simple:  even if it’s a commercially driven event like Mother’s Day, make the effort to let your parents know you care about them, and that they are truly important to you.  If needed, you can acknowledge a family history of downplaying artificial occasions (“Remember when we all laughed about how Aunt Alice would go on and on about the Mother’s Day card she received from her son, whom she hasn’t seen in years?”) and still do something to make your parents feel cherished.  And feel that they accomplished an important task: raising thoughtful, loving children who will be their most lasting, maybe their only, legacy.

The older our parents get, the more important such beliefs, reified by the small ceremonies surrounding Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, are to them.  And, with somewhat different valences, to us – as our time together, as parents and children, is growing inescapably shorter with every holiday. 

And then it’s gone.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Identifying Terrorists and the Ghost of Cesare Lombroso

Identifying Terrorists and the Ghost of Cesare Lombroso

The criminal [is] an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.  Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek-bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages, and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies, and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim but to mutilate the corpse[.]
            --Cesare Lombroso

So, it’s some time between last Thursday late afternoon and early Friday morning, last week.  My sister and I are riveted by the coverage of the Boston Bombing manhunt.  Separated by 200 miles, we’re in contact via email and telephone.  One of our conversations occurred after the suspects’ photos were released, but our discussion focused on cable network coverage – particularly CNN’s.

On Wednesday last, CNN’s John King had not only erroneously reported that a suspect was in custody but had added that the suspect was “a dark-skinned man.”  Considering that King’s sources were shaky, his gratuitous quasi-racial call-out was troubling.  More troubling, I think, than his erroneous reporting about a suspect in custody . . . because of Boston’s uncomfortable history of racial bias and, even more importantly, because of this country’s uncomfortable history of racialized scapegoating.

But my sister and I were not being politically correct (after all, we were sleep-deprived and caught up in the drama).  Instead, we started guessing the ethnicity of the suspects – after dissing the very ‘white’ John King and his maladroit reporting and suppositioning.  Our conversation occurred before the suspects were identified by name.

Me:  Hell, I lived in Boston for over four years.  If you showed my their photos, and labeled them simply as part of the Marathon crowd, and asked me about their ethnic background, I’d probably say . . . Italian?  Greek?  Lebanese?  Albanian?  Persian?

Sister:  Irish.  One of them looks like a former relative-in-law.

Me:  (With a shrug, and an ensuing conversation about which low-life relative she was referring to.)  Whatever, all I could feel comfortable saying is that they’re not Scandinavian, Central African, or Asian.

Sister:  Actually, I thought maybe they were Asian.

Me:  You’ve got to be kidding (I was thinking of epicanthic folds).

Sister:  No – really, look at the flat facial planes.

Turns out she was right.  The brothers are ethnic Chechens, a segment of peoples from the Caucasus region of what’s now Southern Russia and what was one of the furthest reaches of Mongol hegemony hundreds of years ago.  Mongol, Tatar, etc. . . . all were marauders/conquerors from the east who not only secured political dominance for a while but also marked what is now the Eastern European gene pool (not that such marking is always, or sometimes,  or even at all readily apparent).

Timur the Lame / Tamerlane, conqueror of much of the Ottoman empire, 
Central Asian and Caucasus region hero (after whom the elder Tsarnaev brother was named)

Point of all this?  Here were two well-educated, progressive/liberal women chatting blithely about race/ethnicity.  Considering the circumstances, we were skating on the very thin ice of racial profiling:  what was left unsaid was the assumption that the suspects’ genetic heritage might give clues as to why they did what they did and maybe even to their propensity for ‘terrorism.’  The ghost of Cesare Lombroso haunts our culture still.

Cesare Lombroso, Sir Francis Galton, Louis Agassiz

Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909) was a father of anthropological criminology – the belief that there are ‘born criminals’ recognizable through distinctive physical traits.  With the classificatory zeal that typified much 19th-century positivistic science, Lombroso took multiple measurements of criminals and the insane, of the imprisoned and the dead, assembling this data into elaborate taxonomies of ‘avatism,’ regressions in the evolutionary scale.  He accompanied his published findings with weirdly compelling photo arrays ‘proving’ how criminals and ‘lunatics’ are distinguished by specific physical marks, marks readable as ‘facts’ thanks to what he believed to be the camera’s impartial truth-telling. 

A photo array by Cesare Lombroso

Lombroso is just one of many 19th-century scientists fascinated with the intersection of criminality, ‘deviance,’ and photography.  Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), cousin of Charles Darwin, produced work similar to Lombroso’s; Galton’s studies flirted with a eugenically influenced Social Darwinism and seem to have been motivated in part by fears that Britain’s upper class was being threatened by the lower classes and by undesirable immigrants.  In the meantime, squads of anthropometrists and photographers were busy throughout the British Empire, measuring and ‘shooting’ indigenous peoples so they could be identified, classified, and more easily ruled.

A photo array by Sir Francis Galton

Both Galton and Lombroso were influenced by predecessors like the Swiss physiognomist Johann Lavater, the Austrian phrenologist Franz Josef Gall, and the French criminal photographer Alphonse Bertillon, who invented the mug shot.  But it was in the United States that this composite discipline really took off . . . and has stayed put, as the open-source multi-media photo array produced last week attests.

In the States, the first systematic student of what photography could reveal about ‘types’ was the famed naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807 – 1873).  He collected daguerrotypes of slaves in the late 1840s, supplementing them with pictures of Chinese and Native American people.  These collections reinforced Agassiz’ belief in ‘special creationism’:  that different races were created separately, at different times, a belief easily enlisted as support for slavery due to inherent racial inequality.  At about the same time, Matthew Brady was commissioned to photograph prisoners in New York City, as authorities hoped that correctly reading people’s features could disclose their authentic character and their suitability for rehabilitation. 

One of Agassiz' daguerrotypes:  “Guinea” Jack

By the 1850s, police departments were keeping photographic records (“rogues’ galleries”) of all sorts of criminals, from vagrants to murderers.  After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the photographer Alexander Gardener was tasked with recording the crime scene, evidence, and suspects; he produced one of the first photograph-based Most Wanted posters, featuring the as-yet unapprehended conspirators. 

Gardner’s Wanted Poster

Although new scientific methods – like fingerprinting and DNA testing – have replaced the photo array as ways to solve crimes or to predict potential criminal behavior, photo arrays have not disappeared.  They remain a tool for eyewitness identification, and Most Wanted posters still decorate post office walls.  With the explosion of media technologies, digital Most Wanted posters also can decorate (not to say invade, flood, overwhelm) our televisions, computers, tablets, and smart phones.  From Thursday evening to Saturday morning last week, it was impossible to turn on any electronic gadget, with the possible exception of the microwave, and not be bombarded by images of the Tsarnaev brothers.

Once they were identified, speculation turned to their ethnicity and what it might mean.  Were they militant Chechen separatists?  Were they radical Dagestani Islamicists?  Were they controlled by a mysterious Caucasian branch of Al-Qaeda?

A Russian raid on a village in Dagestan

A rural mosque in Chechnya

A speculation not prompted by their photographs was the possibility that they were mentally troubled (or sociopathic) young men who sought some sort of solution via an explosion of random violence.  In other words, the sort of speculation surrounding other young men who’ve recently committed mass murder in the United States.  No one suggested that the Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, or Virginia Tech murderers were foreign-connected terrorists.  Or the Columbine killers.  Or the Washington D.C. snipers, one of whom was seventeen years old. 

I fear that the spurious connections between appearance, race, and criminality forged over a hundred years ago by men like Lombroso, Galton, and Agassiz have not disappeared.  On a Federal level, the fact that the brothers are labeled as terrorists and charged with use of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is a bit puzzling.  Didn’t the Newtown massacre create terror, and didn’t the semi-automatic weapons used cause more mass destruction than the Boston bombs, at least in terms of fatalities?  On a sadly predictable political level, some Senators and Congressmen have called for a halt to Immigration Reform efforts in light of last week’s events, using the convoluted logic that since the Tsarnaevs were immigrants, then regulating immigration in a more orderly manner would lead to more acts of terrorism.  Say what? 

FBI’s first ’10 Most Wanted’ Poster, 1950

All this calls to mind J. Edgar Hoover’s comments at the beginning of his career, when he led the World-War-One-era ‘Palmer Raids’ against ‘communists’ and ‘anarchists.’

Most of the individuals involved [. . .] are aliens or foreign-born citizens. [. . .] Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type.

Hoover is dead.  Lombroso and his like-minded 19th-century scientist confreres are long dead.  The ‘atavistic’ urge to equate criminality with ethnicity, an urge that assumed monstrous proportions in the 20th century, deserves to be dead as well.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Duk Dynasties: Kim Jong Un, the Duck Commander Robertsons, and Park Chung Hee's Daughter

Duk Dynasties: Kim Jong Un, 
the Duck Commander Robertsons,
and Park Chung Hee’s Daughter

“Money.  Family.  Ducks.”
--A&E promotional tagline for Duck Dynasty

The Korean language radical “duk” (also transliterated deok, tok, teok, but pretty much pronounced like the English word ‘duck’) connotes benevolence and virtue.  No doubt, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s official media, party rhetoric, educational programs, and public spectacles have welded these qualities onto the ruling family, creating a duk dynasty now entrusted to the bizarre man-child Kim Jong Un. 

In light of the latest round of DPRK threats, which have escalated to intimations of nuclear annihilation (of what is not clear:  The Republic of Korea [ROK]? Japan? Guam? Alaska? The uninhabited middle of the Pacific Ocean?), we in the United States (and elsewhere) correctly lament our ignorance about what makes Kim Jong Un tick.  Or quack. 

Our attempts to do so tend to fall into two camps.  On the one hand, we characterize Kim Jong Un as an untested leader in over his head, desperate to prove his bona fides, his toughness . . . an almost pitiable victim of the anxiety of influence, battling for his own identity against the covering cherubs of dictator father and dictator grandfather.  On the other hand, we see him as an uncanny clone, repeating patterns established by his forbears.  The long-term pattern is simply to squeeze the country’s people, to the point of starvation if necessary, in order to build up an oversized, unneeded military and a complementary arsenal of oversized, unneeded [but sellable] weapons. The short–term pattern involves undertaking a provocative action, threatening even more dire actions, making expensive demands, agreeing to terms, then breaking the agreement.  It’s a pattern of extortion, wherein money and, perhaps to a lesser extent, international ‘respect’ are paramount.

The problem with these camps is that they are at best simply descriptive and at worst misleading.  They certainly don’t indicate what we (or any country in the DPRK’s sights) should do – not just to defuse any particular nuke-rattling episode but more importantly to change the patterns completely.  Thinking of Kim Jong Un as a symbolic patricidal castrato or as a robotic enactor of a family script, frankly, isn’t very helpful.  Because no country seems to have reliable human intelligence on DPRK ground (if one doesn’t count Dennis Rodman), I here suggest another lens or two through which to contemplate the unpredictable and potentially dangerous cipher that is Kim Jung Un. 

Duk Dynasty (North) and Duck Dynasty

“There are two kinds of people who don’t have beards.
 Women and children.  I am neither.”
  -- Phil Robertson

Devotees of United States reality TV are familiar with the show Duck Dynasty, a wildly popular series chronicling the mild misadventures of the proudly “redneck” Robertson family from Louisiana, a family that’s made lots of money crafting duck calls but stays true to its rural roots.  Like Kim Jung Un’s family, the Robertsons deal in weapons of war (Robertsons:  humans vs. ducks [and occasionally beavers and frogs]; Kim Jong Un and ancestors:  humans vs. the galaxy).  Like Kim Jung Un’s family, the Robertsons are deeply patriarchal; what’s more, the wives are more attractive than the husbands. 

Top: Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Soi Ju, identified as a former ‘entertainer’
Bottom: Various Duck Dynasty husbands and wives

Like Kim Jong Un’s family, the Robertsons span three generations, and the younger generations respect their elders and hope to follow in their footsteps.  [A variant may be Kim Jong Un’s family tradition of enforcing ‘three generations of punishment,” according to which an offender is sent to a prison work camp along with his/her parents and children, there to languish forever until the entire family line is erased. The Robertsons seem satisfied with tricking teenagers into doing chores around the family homestead.]

Comparing Kim Jong Un, his father Kim Jong Il (DPRK leader: 1994 – 2011), and his grandfather Kim Il Sung (DPRK leader: 1948 – 1994) to the Duck Dynasty Robertsons discloses a few more differences that may help intelligence agencies in East Asia and Euro-America gain additional insight into the current Korean impasse.

Patriarch Phil Robertson’s quote about beards, which heads this section, indicates one potentially important difference.  The Robertson men know they are men, even if they are hen- (duck-) pecked while hunting or forced to shop for a daughter’s prom dress. Kim Jong Un is parodied, usually outside of the DPRK but sometimes even within its restrictive borders, as an asexual baby, which might be a problem, dynastically speaking.  Furthermore, Kim Jong Un’s reputed wife reputedly just had a baby that reputedly is a girl (thus, reputedly, why the birth was not trumpeted from the Diamond Mountains to the Yalu River).  Indeed, in the uncompromisingly masculinist culture of the DPRK, having a first child be a girl is more or less disastrous, and could make the new-daddy dictator even more bellicose than usual, for obvious Freudian and continuation-of-the-dynasty reasons.  In contrast, the Robertson children/grandchildren include a muscular phalanx of male children.

Duk Dynasty (North) and Duck Dynasty, Holiday Version

We got elves that are ten foot tall, and bulletproof.
--Uncle Si Roberson

These pictures give rise to some interesting speculations.  First, both Kim Jong Un and Uncle Si Robertson are publically depicted with elf ears, the former image being a recent hack into DPRK official media, and the latter being from a Duck Dynasty holiday special.  Elves are considered to be helpful, industrious, and cute, descriptors that don’t apply to Kim Jong Un or Uncle Si and thus suggest that the truth is exactly the converse.  A difference is that Kim Jong Un did not sign on to his elfin-Mickey Mouse-Buddha image, whereas Uncle Si was a willing participant.  This picture reminds us (as if the non-ironic embrace of The Worm did not) that Kim Jong Un has no sense of humor, particularly when it comes to himself.  Apparently, he’s fully bought into his civic deification, which makes diplomacy highly problematic.  How do you negotiate with a god?

Second, both Kim Jong Un and Uncle Si dream of a superhero army.  The difference is that Uncle Si’s regiment of bullet-proof elves is fun-fantasy militarism; Kim Jong Un’s is distressingly real but also may partake of elements of fantasy (get real:  If the DPRK actually does launch a nuclear weapon, what do you think the consequences will be?  Let’s start with a huge smoking sink hole just north of the DMZ, goosestepping and accordion-playing troops notwithstanding).  What does this tell us?  Kim Jong Un both depends on the military – the spine of the whole family Duk Dynasty – and fears losing control over it.  Without military backing, Kim Jong Un is yesterday’s kimchi.  And he knows it.  If the elves revolt, where does that leave (Santa?

Kim Jong Un’s Aunt Kim Hyong Hui, Kim Jong Un, and his Uncle Jang Song Taek

Third, there’s the matter of uncles.  Uncle Silas Robertson – brother of patriarch Phil, uncle of Willie (CEO of the family business), Jase (loveable slacker brother of Willie),  and other brothers who sometimes appear on the series– is a relatively renegade family member, a Vietnam Vet (we won’t even go there: to the mercenary help provided by the ROK to this United States’ Asian fiasco) who speaks his mind and insinuates himself into most family matters yet who is lovingly tolerated by his relatives.  Kim Jong Un also has an influential uncle:  Jang Song Taek, husband of his aunt Kim Hyong Hui, a woman said to be extremely influential and also reported to be extremely sick.  In any event, Jang is the main DPRK liaison to China, the country without which North Korea would have no food, no fuel, and no allies.  Thus Kim Jong Un’s dependence on his uncle-in-law is, to say the least, major.  It’s rather like the younger generations of Robertsons’ dependence on Uncle Si, whose wacked-out star power is obviously the main reason that the A&E network keeps making and airing Duck Dynasty.

But back to holidays:  tomorrow (as I write, on April 14, 2013) is the mega DPRK holiday, the anniversary of patriarch Kim Il Sung’s birth (and life and legacy).  If anything scary were to happen, it might happen tomorrow, on April 15.  Prediction:  it won’t . . . beyond, perhaps, another missile test.  (Yawn – old news.  The real issue on the table is whether the DPRK has developed ‘deliverable’ missiles, in which nuclear warheads are successfully size-calibrated to the missiles themselves and made effective by up-to-date satellite guidance technology.)

Duk Dynasty (North), Duck Dynasty (South and Southeast),
 Duk Dynasty (South)

Boys, I will hurt you physically and meta-physically.
--Uncle Si Robertson

Even though it’s a reality TV show, and therefore exists in an unreal space between actual and scripted life, Duck Dynasty also exists in a real media space, one occupied by other semi-similar shows.  Therefore, its popularity and (dare we say) impact are in part a function of its difference from other such programs.  One ‘competitor’ is Swamp People, which chronicles families of alligator hunters but frankly isn’t very compelling: there are fathers and sons, hunted beasts, family dinners . . . but none of it really connects, in the way that Duck Dynasty channels an earlier TV family drama  sweetness in which paterfamiliases, even if clueless, always show that they have their families’ best interests at heart, particularly when they say grace that asks blessings for all family members, no matter what imbecilities may have ensued before dinner.  Good night, Uncle Si.  Good night, Brother Willie.  Good Night, Mother Kay.  Walton Mountain has migrated to the Louisiana bayous. 

Honey Boo-Boo and Kim Jong Un:  separated at birth?

But another Duck Dynasty media rival is Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, a reality TV show about fairly disgusting Georgia rednecks.  Whereas DD actually does promulgate ‘traditional’ family values, HCHBB flaunts their inversion.  Its family members are crass and grotesque, and there’re no traces of self-respect or grace to confer some sort of likeability.  The star of this non-duk-dynasty is a pudgy elementary school-age would-be-child-beauty-pageant-star.  Stranded as she is among truly icky family members, Honey Boo-Boo has no chance (at least on reality TV) to become a reasonable human being.  This would be as opposed to the Duck Dynasty youngsters, who seem relatively normal and remarkably well-behaved.

My point is fairly simple:  perceptions (even self-perceptions) do not exist in a vacuum.  Just as the Duck Dynasty younger generation is seen against the scrim of other ‘redneck’ reality TV show families, so is Kim Jong Un seen against the scrim of other Korean peninsula duk dynasties. 
Until recently, that scrim would have been fairly singular: that of Kim Jong Un’s own family – his father Kim Jong Il and his grandfather Kim Il Sung.  But last year, the scrim has expanded.  It now includes Park Geun Hye, the new president of South Korea.

Park Geun Hye is the daughter of Park Chung Hee, the long-term ruler/dictator/president of South Korea (1961 -1979) . . . in other words, the banner-carrier of a duk dynasty of his own.  As opposed to Kim Il Sung’s dynasty in DPRK, however, Park’s dynasty in ROK had been a dynasty of one.  When he was assassinated, no heir ascended.  Thus South Korea kept lurching toward mega-prosperous modernity, on a course started by Park Chung Hee, but managed by a succession of leaders not directly related to Park.

After decades of varyingly efficient and/or corrupt regimes, Park Chun Hee’s daughter was elected president of the Republic of Korea just a few months ago, an event that must present a chilling dilemma to Kim Jong Un. Seventy years of Korean history, embodied in larger-than-life [and dead] fathers and grandfathers, have come back to haunt him in the person of the new south-of-the-border president.  Even more galling, she’s a woman, a “venomous swish of skirt” according to official DPRK sources.

Duk Dynasty (North) and Duk Dynasty (South)

“Now we’re talking, he’s fixing to blow something up.”
--Uncle Si Robertson

Today, the two twentieth-century Korean duk dynasties again confront each other. 

Grandfather Kim Il Sung balked the Japanese occupation of Korea, joined Mao’s Chinese Resistance during World War II, and then tried to lead his country to non-imperialist independence.  He also led his country into the costly and ultimately useless Korean War; he was president of the DPRK for almost five decades.  He is widely seen as a Korean patriot, nation builder and freedom-fighter.  In at least part of the Korean peninsula.

Father Park Chung Hee was an officer in the occupying Japanese army during World War II.  He rose in the military (in the U.S.-backed forces) during the Korean War; later, through a military coup, he became president of the Republic of Korea, a post he held for almost two decades.  He is widely seen as a Korean patriot, nation-builder, and freedom-fighter.  In at least part of the Korean peninsula.

These two leaders’ rules overlapped by almost twenty years, spanning the 1960s and 1970s.  Since this period was the height of the Cold War, not to mention the time of the Viet Nam war, the contrasting Korean strongmen gained a perhaps inflated geopolitical importance as conveniently adjacent proxies for Soviet and Euro-American rivalry.  Almost the same age, Kim Il Sung (born 1912) and Park Chung Hee (born 1917) also carried out a vicious personal game of Spy-vs.-Spy, each trying to have the other assassinated, adding personal animus to ideological and political conflict.  [Note:  it seems that Park Chung Hee died at the hands of a dissident South Korean faction opposed to his dictatorial rule, not of a faction allied with North Korea, although the historical record is not completely clear.]

Obviously, both Kim Jong Un and Park Geung Hye are burdened by ancestral peninsular history.  Both current leaders would want to preserve and enhance the duk virtues of their political inheritance and show themselves worthy of their present positions, of course, but there are also old – and personal – scores to settle.  Park Geung Hye was elected on a fairly conservative platform, with the exception that she pledged to strengthen peaceful relations with her neighbor to the North, apparently to gain dominance through economic means.  (It’s not coincidental that one of the DPRK’s first moves in the current crisis was to shut down the joint Kaesong economic zone, funded by the South and staffed b the North.)  In contrast, Kim Jong Il has tried to gain dominance through military means, or at least the hyperbolic threats of such. 

The entry to the Kaeson complex last week

The countries’ most powerful allies are relatively paralyzed:  China because it definitely does not want regional destabilization accompanied by a massive influx of impoverished refugees; the United States because it definitely does not want to participate in another war, anywhere, and its ally South Korea does not want a massive influx of impoverished refugees.

Thus, the present fate of the Korean peninsula lies in the hands of political neophytes who, at the same time, bear almost unimaginably heavy, and lethal, legacies.  How they extract themselves from this suffocating historical box is yet to be seen.  To the extent that other countries can be helpful, we/they should recognize the disturbingly parallel personal histories of these new leaders and understand that their decisions will be as influenced as much by the past as by the needs of the present and by visions for the future. 

I never realized that death could occur, but I ain’t a quitter.
--Willie Robertson

Photo:  dead dictators in state -- 
top left, Park Chung Hee;  top right:  
Kim Il Sung;  bottom:  Kim Jung Il

[Note:  The Korean language is notoriously slippery in transliteration.  Although its phonetics have been ‘in place’ since the 14th century, when King Sejong commissioned a remarkably sophisticated and linguistically accurate indigenous syllabary, Western ways of representing the language have fluctuated and continue to do so.  For example, the large city of Busan used to be written, in English, as Pusan; the common Korean family name of ”‘Ri“ is also commonly written as ‘Ree,” “Rhee,” “Li,” or ‘Yi.”  Further, given names (which follwo the family name) are variously presented as two names (as in Anglo-American first- and middle- names), or as hyphenated names, or as one composite name (as in Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jongun).  In this article, I’ve tried to conform with the most common current transliterations without much regard to consistency, as there actually isn’t much consistency yet in the way that the Roman alphabet deals with the Korean language.]

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Blahging, or the Wonders of Nigerian Ferry Literature

Blahging, or the Wonders of Nigerian Ferry Literature

I’ve been feeling rather blah about blogging.  Last year, with the crazy adrenaline that the presidential race mainlined into the clogged arteries of the U.S. body politic, it was easy to find things to write about.  In fact, the daily doses of mendaciousness and sheer insanity made it impossible NOT to respond – for me, to respond via writing a blog. 

But then the elections were over.  Holiday season, with its happy bustle, ensued.  College basketball entered full-court press mode.  The seriatim financial crises were either depressing or boring.  I received a Kindle for Christmas and discovered the treasury of free books available, so it seemed a good idea to laze in front of a fire and read obscure out-of-real-print works like “The Cannibal Queen of West Africa” (disappointingly, a Victorian missionary tract), “Confessions of a Thug” (a pretty interesting but impossibly prolix fictionalized account of Thugee during the Raj) or “A Taxonomy of Indian Religions” (a stellar example of the impenetrable ‘scientific’ prose generated during the high colonial period). 

Earlier this year, I was chatting about my blogging hiatus with my sister. 

            “I’m tired of politics,” I said.  “So I have nothing to write about.” 
            “That’s not true.”  I could hear her measure her words over the phone; she always prefers being supportive to being critical.  “You know about many things.  Why not write about other issues that interest you?”
            I lit a cigarette and scowled at the phone.  “Like what?  And so what?” 
            My sister is a woman of remarkable patience.  “Well, you’ve already written about art.  And Africa.  And sports.  And religion.  Why not write more about these subjects?”
            “I could,” I grudged.  “But who’d care?”
            My sister’s patience is remarkable, but not infinite.  “Why do you think anyone cared about what you wrote concerning politics?  You write because you like to write, you’ve spent your life writing, and it’s just part of who you are.”

Hmmm.  I’ve spent my life writing, liking to write, and making my living by doing it.  One of my first jobs, at sixteen, was writing ad copy for a hometown radio station.  As a young adult, I wrote for local magazines and city newspapers and advertising agencies of various sizes.  As an academic, I wrote books and articles and scholarly papers.  As I retired academic, I’ve written for the North Carolina Museum of Art and continue to write for a web development firm.

Nevertheless, acknowledging that writing is what one has always done, and is thus an important part of one’s identity, is not the same as rediscovering and re-embracing writing’s peculiar joys and seductions.  That happened, or started to happen, a little while ago when I was cruising about for a non-Kindle book that I could actually go to bed with without fearing it would fall to the floor and break.  I settled on a book I’ve owned for over forty years, “Africa in Prose,” an early collection of stories and essays from the African continent.  At one time, I’m sure, I read everything in it, but that time was decades ago.  Maybe its yellowed pages and fragile paperback binding would offer something newly interesting:  my subsequent study of postcolonial literature, if nothing else, would urge me to look at these pieces  (from the 1960s and earlier) in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I was in college.

And there it was.  I’d like to quote the whole thing, but here are some excerpts from ‘Rosemary and the Taxi Driver’ (date unspecified, but apparently mid 1960s) by the Nigerian writer Miller O. Albert.  From the initial descriptions of the heroine:

            The sun flickered over her canon-ball head, with the hairs on her forehead, heightened like onboard type of shaving.  She resoluted to follow the train at the earliest declining hour of the day. [. . .] She had got all the zests of the West and mettled her sense, to bolster up alertly, to crack love, romance and joke, up to their highest mediocre of acme.  It was a day for love maniacs to some and a day for Rosemary to travel too.

About meeting her love object:

            The man she cloistered at first flush of her sight was a romantic virile odd, who introduced himself Okoro.  After they made a nice little smile, they raged a torrential down pour of speeches, each trying to exhaust the querulous tone God had suffered to give out, free of charge to every individual.  Soon they felt an impression of bigness in themselves, glaring at nature as super love maker.

It turns out that Rosemary is the femme fatale, with taxi-driver Okoro the dopey victim.  He pretends his brother’s house is his in order to impress his seductress.  Ultimately exposed as a poseur, he decides to cut his losses:

            He soon sighed and got depressed.  After many odd remarks, the full automobile of his spirit, compelled him to leave everything, threatening him with pretty tough smiles, of tremor.
            After his liberation, he trotted off with his craggy legs, jumping into the minor with a mad stampede, hoping to finish the speedometre, within an active time.

This is a stunningly splendid story.  One might think that it was written by a Nigerian James Joyce, exulting in the possibilities of recording and enhancing an aspiring working-class Nigerian English soon after the country’s independence, a time when people were caught between honoring the colonial language as a marker of class prestige and freeing themselves from its cultural hegemony, a task made overwhelmingly difficult by the country’s embarrassment of linguistic riches – more than 400 indigenous languages – and the attendant need to have some sort of common tongue in which to converse and do business with fellow citizens.

The Onitsha Ferry, 1960s

But it’s not a calculatedly daring linguistic experiment.  It’s a specimen of what’s called ‘Nigerian Ferry Literature’ – cheap pamphlets, usually centered on sex, violence, and redemption, produced for a specific market: workers who used the Onitsha ferry to commute from the countryside to the then-capital city, Lagos. (There’s now a bridge, and this mini-genre has disappeared.) 

Most ‘Ferry Literature’ was written in less baroque prose, although plots were similar, and more explicitly salacious and moral.  For example, ‘How Mabel Learnt,’ by the pseudonymous Speedy Eric, depicts the man/woman encounter and the woman’s ensnaring and duplicitous lustfulness this way:

            ‘Okay, juicy baby if you won’t allow me eat you, then give me some eba and meat stew,’ he dipped his hand in his pocket and brought out two shillings.  Privately Mabel was wishing to hold that young man in her arms.  That was the very man who had made her toss and twist in bed last night.

What’s missing in Speedy Eric’s story is the joyful linguistic chaos that, in Miller O. Albert’s narrative, transforms a predictable cautionary tale about excessive appetite into a mad celebration of unfettered language – a celebration that seems, at least in retrospect, corollary to the vertiginous hopes of a newly emancipated citizenry, hopes bound up in desire to occupy and reshape the language of power, hopes undaunted by lack of official mastery.  The astonishing contortions of Albert’s prose may have appealed to his readers not as critique but as evidence that even common people can appropriate ruling language regimes in newly empowering ways.  As these ways could be worthy of respect  (what an impressive vocabulary!) or, at least, worthy of paying for, they theoretically could open channels for ordinary folk to enter yet-uncharted seas of postcolonial capitalism.

I doubt whether Miller O. Albert was trying to explore – or explode -- the boundaries of Nigerian linguistic expression.  That would fall to more sophisticated and subtle Nigerian writers like Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinke.  Or, perhaps most pointedly, to the oil wars martyr Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose “Sozaboy:  A Novel in Rotten English” mapped the landmines of post-independence Nigeria by creating a literary pidgen (1986) bent to political protest and artistic display. (Nor do such tour-de-forces need be written by ‘third-world’ authors:  I recommend the U.S. writer Chuck Palahniuk’s “Pygmy (2009),” for example, to those interested in radical language experimentation.)

Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1941 – 1995
Writer and activist, summarily executed  for ‘inceitement by a Nigerian military tribunal

I’ve gone into such detail here, apart from my long interest in African literature, because the English language – particularly (to me) in its written forms – is a truly wondrous thing, a thing that re-reading Miller O. Albert’s story brought back to mind, in full force, cracking my canon-ball head with pretty tough smiles, of tremor.  English’s uncommonly rich vocabulary and global dissemination make it a marvelous instrument for expressing cultural and historical nuances that transcend its narrative, expository, or argumentative capacities.  It’s a language always and ever in transit.

Which is why I love writing. About just about anything.  In English. And why I think I’ll resume writing blogs.  It’s a privilege to muck around with such amazing, and sometimes troubling, raw materials as are provided by this (first-, co-, second-, third-) language that so many of us share.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Martin Luther King Day, 2013: Two Takes

Martin Luther King Day, 2013:  Two Takes

Take One
It’s obvious that President Obama’s second inauguration will occur tomorrow on the Martin Luther King Federal Holiday.  And it’s obvious that Barack Obama is well aware of it.  The re-elected president will be taking his oath on two Bibles:  Abraham Lincoln’s and Martin Luther King’s.  Myrlie Evers – widow of one of the first well-known martyrs of the U.S. Civil Rights struggle, of which the Reverend King became the leader – is giving an invocation.  And there’s a new official Presidential portrait, one that shows a smiling Chief Executive with noticeably gray hair. 

The point of mentioning the last factoid?  It’s that President Obama is now twelve years older than Martin Luther King at the time of his death.  We tend to forget how young King was when he was assassinated:  he was only 39, and his hair had not grayed.  When Barack Obama was first elected, he was 47 years old (and looked considerably younger) and to many U.S. citizens, he embodied the promise of the Civil Rights’ Movement.  There was a lot of talk about a post-racial politics. This country congratulated itself on its ability to move beyond the significant parts of its history that are tragically race-riven and instead, to embrace a more enlightened, 21st-century present and future. 

Alas, such a transition has not been accomplished easily, and perhaps hardly at all.  Barack Obama’s presidency has been assaulted by overt and covert racial attacks:  on his birth, his religion, his family, his political legitimacy, his intelligence, his understanding of what it is to be American.  And not just by crazy far-rightists – also by the ‘responsible’ leaders of the opposition, who convened on his first inauguration to plot how to ruin Obama’s presidency.  Kind of like the FBI attempts to discredit Martin Luther King.

So why is this (now gray-haired) man smiling in his new official portrait?  It may be because he’s survived, literally and politically.  He’s been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land of a better United States.  And it appears that he believes he’ll get there.  This is the Martin Luther King mantle that, I believe, Barack Obama has claimed. 

King (and certainly not only King) prepared the road.  Obama has had the confidence and the political smarts to walk it.  His first term was about securing legitimacy and politically managed change, most notably with the Health Care bill, an heretofore unreachable goal for Presidents reaching back to Theodore Roosevelt.  His second term may be about fighting – fighting really hard, yet fighting with liberated and righteous joy – for racial and economic fairness in this country and for a more ethical yet efficacious role in the world.  These are the sorts of fights that Martin Luther King, if his life had not been so tragically cut short, would have endorsed . . . and joined. 

Such may be reasons why President Obama’s new portrait shows a self-assured, smiling middle-aged man in contrast to the Reverend King’s photographs, which suggest a contemplative, even sad person who is already looking beyond real-world mountains.  Maybe Martin Luther King foresaw his own untimely death and thought a next generation (or generations) would be the necessary embodiments of his hopes and ideals. Maybe Barack Obama realizes that he has crossed an age divide – that he can now be seen as a fully initiated elder instead of as a newcomer who’s not yet earned his chops.  Maybe our President believes he can actually accomplish some, or many, of King’s legacy missions, plus new missions time and circumstance and personal convictions have mandated . . . given a second term with its severing of re-election fetters and its baseline of carefully built popular (minus the crazies) goodwill.

And maybe he can.

Take Two
[Few people will be interested in my own ‘journey’ with Martin Luther King.  Thus, let me suggest that non-family and non-close-friend readers now go back to more useful pursuits.  But for those who might want to know how Dr. King influenced me (and by analogy, people like me), read on.]

I grew up in what might have been the most UN-diverse communities in the United State: Marinette WI; Menominee MI; Appleton WI: (short diversion, due to polio epidemic) Yorkville IL; back to Appleton WI.  What did these northern Great Lakes state towns have in common, back when I was young? No African-American citizens.  No Latinos.  No Asian-Americans. Almost no American Indians.  Heck, almost no Jews or Italians, and certainly no Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or anyone else who wasn’t Roman Catholic or Lutheran  (except for a scattering of other mainstream Protestants ). In other words, I grew up in totally ‘white’ environments.

Somehow, I got hooked on ‘Africa’ when I was about ten years old.  (The ‘somehow’ is probably not too mysterious – I was a contrarian kid, so I found something to be different about.  To my parents’ great credit, they rolled with their older daughter’s tide and even supported it.)  My first-ever date was with a Kenyan exchange student from nearby Oshkosh.  My folks accompanied this young man and me (then thirteen) into our church and up to communion, staring down the shocked looks and then going farther, hosting a brunch for him and his Episcopalian church sponsors at our house.  Not many of our church’s regular congregants came.

Fast forward to college.  Wellesley College, to be specific.  Hillary Rodham (later Clinton, whom I knew only in passing) was in my Freshman class, which included, as far as I can remember, only one African American student.  I did what I believed I wanted and needed to do – get engaged to an eligible Harvard man, which happened when I was still seventeen and he was a Senior. Unfortunately, my fiancée went down to Duke Law School, in North Carolina, after his graduation, which left me  stranded, at eighteen and a Sophomore, at Wellesley.

What to do?  Raise my GPA [which was woeful, as my Freshman efforts had been directed toward areas that had nothing to do with academics] and bolster my general serious-girl record so I could transfer to Duke and join my fiancé.  And find other things to keep me from going crazy. 

(Yes, Martin Luther King is coming . . . )

Since I really didn’t want to go crazy, I rediscovered the happiness that can attend hours in the library and research-empowered eureka moments. But, needing and having time for more contact with my classmates, I started attending a small discussion group in my dorm, a group ostensibly focused on African issues.  Which turned out to be African American issues.  About which I knew virtually nothing.

These few young women were completely different from any (including Hillary Rodham) that I’d so far met at Wellesley.  They were . . . ACTIVISTS!  In other words, they thought it wasn’t enough to sit on heirloom oriental carpets in our common rooms and talk about economic and racial inequity.  Some were planning to help on voter registration drives during summer vacation, and many volunteered in various area programs.  It was with through these women that I first became aware of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Shamefully, I had not really heard of him until then; even more shamefully, I pretended that I had.  Thank goodness I had reacquainted myself with the wonders of libraries, so I was able to read some of King’s writings and to find out what he actually was trying to do.  My ignoble motivation was to not appear stupid to my new, worldly older friends.

With this group’s encouragement, I did do mentoring in Roxbury (a then disadvantaged section of Boston), although I never felt very good at this job, as I was younger than many of the young women I was supposed to be helping. Mainly, I supplied them with cigarettes so they would talk to me.  I suppose that smoking together on the steps of their high school did something useful , but don’t ask me what it was.  I did try bringing up Dr. King, but they hadn’t heard of him. 

Fast forward: I’ve successfully transferred to Duke University, I’m a Junior, and my wedding is two months away.  I’m studying in my dorm, when news trickled in that Dr. King had been assassinated.  Soon, more news – that Durham NC was in flames.  (Which it was – almost all of Ninth Street was burning.)  My fiancé picked me up around midnight, and we drove through smoke-filled streets and out to the highway, heading to his parents’ home in Greensboro where we thought it would be safer.  I had not yet adjusted to the South (there was still a huge ‘Welcome to Smithfield’ sign sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan looming over the only route to the beach) and, frankly, I was terrified that night.  By what or whom, I wasn’t even sure.  But this furious, confused, smoldering world was not one I knew.

Fast forward to a few years later:  I entered graduate school (once our daughter was pre-school age).   Back then, graduate students in English could be ‘qualified’ to teach Freshman classes one week after their own matriculation into the program.  I was, so I did.  The prescribed ‘reader’ for Freshman English was a collection of essays (almost none of which I’d read previously, as I’d taken no literature classes in college), so for that pre-class week, I poured over the textbook, trying to get ideas about how to use the materials to help young people write more effectively.

One of the essays was Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  I may have read it earlier, with my Wellesley study group, but certainly not with extraordinary attention.  I can still remember the excitement of finding such a huge variety of argumentative strategies, logical syllogisms, and rhetorical appeals in this relatively short document.  And I remember how these masterfully orchestrated words affected me then, as I was about to embark on a teaching career that ultimately lasted decades. 

The point was not the beautiful craft of the letter.  The point was that Dr. King had something extremely important, and extremely urgent, to say – and that he had the skill, patience, and wisdom to use the craft of writing in order to get his ideas across and move his audience to action.

This seemed to me then – and now – a wonderful and ethical baseline upon which to teach writing and literature.  It’s how, to the best of my ability, I structured those first classes.  It’s how I structured subsequent classes, from literature surveys to graduate seminars.  It’s what I asked from my students’ writing . . . that they have something real and true to communicate and that they respect that position enough to take the care to write it very, very well. 

That’s the biggest gift that Martin Luther King gave me and, I hope, many students over the years after his death.

There are myriad  ways to effect change in this world.  Dr. King embraced most of them, from speaking and preaching and writing to organizing and marching and, ultimately, dying.  Most of us do not have such courage and greatness of spirit.  But if we can learn something from even one aspect of King’s works and life – and try honestly to put it into practice – we are honoring his memory by attempting to make our shared earth, insofar as our spheres of influence and our individual talents allow, a little bit better.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gun Legislation: A Senator-Constituent Exchange

Gun Legislation:  A Senator-Constituent Exchange

After the Newtown school massacre, I wrote to my two U.S. Senators and to my U.S. Congressional Member urging them to support sensible gun legislation measures.  This was the first time I’ve ever directly contacted my political representatives.  About anything.  (I have signed some petitions over the years, but the emails I speak of were individually composed letters, written in the same sort of anguish that so many of us felt after December 14th.)  I never heard back from Senator Richard Burr (Republican – North Carolina).  I received a pro-forma ‘thank you for your concern about this important issue’ response from Democratic Senator Kay Hagan and from Democratic Congressman David Price. 

No surprise.  And more or less I forgot about my small venture into communicate-with-your-political-representative land, although I didn’t forget about the issue of gun legislation. 

Today, however, a few things happened to remind me.  One, Vice President Biden talked about his upcoming gun/violence-related recommendations.  They sounded smart to me, and I wondered how my state’s elected folks would react. Two, I saw my Congressional Representative, David Price, appearing for the first time that I know of, on any network news program, saying vaguely supportive things about gun-related legislation.  I mean, I’ve voted for this man for decades:  hasn’t he ever attended the Chuck Schumer school of media relations?  He’s got to have major seniority by now;  shouldn’t he be on the Dem-Pol talking head circuit?  And if he’s finally cracked the face-time code, shouldn’t he have something memorable to say?  Guess not . . .  

But then there was thing number three.  Arriving in my inbox was an email from North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan.  Wowzer!  Her office had already sent a rote response (which is more than her Republican counterpart ever did), so was this something new?  A more policy/legislative-specific update?  A personal reply to my specific email?  Interested, I opened the message, and this is what it said:

     January 10, 2013
Dear Friend,
Thank you for contacting me regarding the horrific tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this issue, and my thoughts and prayers remain with the victims and families of this senseless and appalling act of violence.
In the wake of the shooting in Newtown, which left twenty-six innocent members of the community dead, many of them young children, Americans across the country are searching for answers on how we can prevent such tragic events from happening in the future. I believe we must do all we can to put laws and policies in place to prevent future tragedies such as this one. Doing that will require a common-sense debate on a comprehensive approach that examines all relevant issues, including access to firearms, mental healthcare, and the prevalence of violence in video games and media. As always, it is important that we not unnecessarily infringe on the legitimate Second Amendment rights of responsible gun owners.
Like you, I have always been an advocate for Second Amendment rights. My family, like the great state of North Carolina, has a long tradition of hunting and gun ownership, and I take great pride in that heritage. During my tenure in the North Carolina Senate I continuously supported the responsible use of firearms. As your United States Senator, I will always be committed to protecting these fundamental, constitutional rights.
Again, thank you for contacting my office. It is truly an honor to represent North Carolina in the United States Senate, and I hope you will not hesitate to contact me in the future should you have any further questions or concerns. If you would like to stay informed on my work in the Senate, you can sign up for my e-newsletter, follow me on Twitter at @SenatorHagan, or visit my Facebook page.
Senator Kay R. Hagan
Well.  What prompted this email on this particular day?  It certainly didn’t say much, except that Senator Hagan’s staff is more energetic than Senator Burr’s (which doesn’t find it necessary to reply to anything) or than Congressman Price’s (which, so far, is content to send a thanx-4-riting message at the get-go and then to leave it alone).  Perhaps, and I hope this is true, it indicates that Senator Hagan is trying to keep her ear to the ground about the issues surrounding mass murder via gun, and maybe even gun violence in general, or (less helpfully) violence in general.  I praise her and her office for at least attempting to maintain a dialogue.  And I suspect that Vice President Biden’s remarks today may have prompted this still-on-the-fence effort.
It’s not fair to say so, considering Burr’s silence and Price’s half-hearted and summarily abandoned response, but I found this communication somewhat irritating.   So here’s my response to Senator Hagan, for what it’s worth . . . which is probably not much (I sent it to her office before including it in this blog).  But I’d like to think that individual citizens reaching out to our elected representatives could be worth something, eventually.  At least Senator Hagan is trying, however tepidly, to keep communications open.  If I hear anything more, I’ll keep you posted.
Dear Senator Hagan,

Thank you for your continuing contact with North Carolinians concerned about gun violence and gun safety issues. I realize that your office sends mass replies to people who've weighed in on specific matters.  Nevertheless, I am disappointed by your letter.  I don't imagine that anyone will read my response beyond being able to file it in an appropriate 'constituent concern' category, but if someone does:

(1) The reply makes assumptions about the North Carolina electorate that are not necessarily true.  Not everyone is an "advocate for Second Amendment rights" because -- frankly -- being such an advocate is not necessary (not to mention that many of us do not choose to own guns, do not have a gun-centric family heritage, and do not vote on the fabricated need to protect Second Amendment rights . . . although I understand why a form letter would make such blanket assertions).  The Second Amendment exists. The Heller decision narrows it (a-historically, in my opinion) to relatively unassailable rights of individual citizens to own guns.  There is no movement to repeal the Second Amendment, nor is there any significant current challenge to Heller.  Nor, certainly, to confiscate guns.  Today, saying that one is an 'advocate' of the Second Amendment is often code for supporting everyone's 'right' to own every kind of weapon and ammunition, in unlimited numbers, including mass-kill military assault weapons and ammunition.  In some circles, such 'advocacy' is also code for belief in imminent governmental totalitarianism (see today's Drudge report).  In contrast, even Justice Scalia has said that unusual and dangerous weapons do not fall within Second Amendment protections.  After all, individual citizens cannot lawfully possess rocket launchers or pocket nuclear bombs.  Why then should the Constitution protect the 'right' to own assault rifles and mega-round ammunition cartridges?  They are not needed for hunting, personal protection, or recreational shooting.  The fact that they’re technologically cool and may be fun to discharge at targets is not sufficient justification:  it's also fun to drive drunk at 100 miles per hour in a Lamborghini.  It may even be fun to yell fire in a crowded theater.

(2)  It obscures your own response to fairly clear-cut issues -- or worse, suggests that you will not have any distinct responses until 'public opinion' has been sampled conclusively (in a way that points toward future voting patterns) or until the NRA threatens you directly.  Nonetheless, consensus (or, at least, serious discussion) is coalescing around a few actionable issues: banning the sale of high-ammunition clips and, perhaps, reinstating a tighter version of the expired assault weapons ban; instituting universal background checks, which would in the process close the 'gun show loophole';  increasing funding for mental health services, particularly for young adults.  Where do you stand on these specific proposals?  To say that we need a "comprehensive approach that examines all relevant issues" is to say more or less nothing.  It's also a carton of apples and oranges.  The federal government can pass some laws regulating guns and ammunition, and it can provide funding for various law-enforcement measures (many of which are already on the books) and mental health services.  It cannot legislate a reversal of a culture of violence (which is arguably no more pronounced now than it was fifty or a hundred years ago).  As many have said in the past month, the fact that we can't do/solve everything should not be an excuse for doing nothing.

(3) It represents a missed opportunity to stand for current Democratic Party principles, principles that have just been endorsed nation-wide in the November elections.  In the old days, after Nixon's Southern Strategy had taken hold, there was a saying in North Carolina that you couldn't 'out-seg the Republicans.'  In other words, Democrats could not win by outflanking their opponents' right wing.  I don't think Democrats now can win in our state by 'out-conservatism-ing' the Republicans . . . or by being wishy-washy about key issues such as common-sense gun legislation. North Carolina Democrats cannot regain parity, not to mention ascendency, by kowtowing to what may seem at this fleeting moment to be the most popular (state-wide) stances on social and cultural issues.  Society and culture -- and demographics -- are changing rapidly in this state as well as throughout the country.  I truly believe that staying silent, or moving backwards, in regard to crucial matters is at best counter-productive and at worst self-annihilating for North Carolina Democrats.


Dr. Deborah Wyrick