Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Mystery of Iniquity: Mysterious Still

My intention for “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche” is amusement decorated, in an occasional lucky week, with a thin gloss of edification. I do not favor large and much commented upon current events, especially when—as is true of the mass murders in Tucson—so little of the commentary seems to me to be well considered or helpful. Yet some events so oppress the spirit that not to talk about them would be mere cowardice or evasion. They may need to be talked about rather carefully, however.

Every American of Medicare Age is likely to remember precisely where he or she was at the moment of hearing about the Kennedy assassination. It was in the first months of my teaching career; I was walking on Observatory Drive on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It was one of the midday class breaks, and the walkways were busy with pedestrians. I overheard rather than heard the terrible news, learning from snatches of the conversation of passersby who the shooters were before I knew who had been shot. The shooters, according to one loud and confident graduate student just ahead of me, were “obviously John Birchers. Texas is crawling with ‘em.” Even that wasn’t enough of a clue for me at first. I was unaware the President was in Texas, where within the hour he had been shot and killed by perhaps the lone militant Communist in the Lone Star State.

Our minds recoil before the spectacle of gratuitous, motiveless evil. We desperately try to contain it by “explaining” it. But having abandoned the useful concept of radical human imperfection once called sinfulness, we have lost also the Pauline sense of the mystery of iniquity. We are left to clutch after the straws of pop psychology and weak montage political “scenarios.” Too many of our journalistic pundits have been rash in doing so. The murders in Tucson were unspeakable, and since it couldn’t have been the Devil that made him do it, it must be the next best thing, Sarah Palin or talk radio. I never cease to be amazed at the alacrity with which our “opinion makers” can rush to the periphery of an important issue.

It is very easy to do, as was demonstrated to me by another overhead conversation. As young parents my wife and I thought we would improve the world along with the moral character of our offspring by forbidding them to play aggressive games or to possess martial toys. Then one day I heard my elder son, aged about six, sadly explaining to a playmate of roughly the same age why he was forbidden the use of a water pistol. “It’s because,” he said, “my Daddy can’t tell the difference between a toy gun and a real gun.”

Actually, I can, and could even then. I grew up in a rural hinterland, in a world in many ways more like the America of 1789 than that of 1989. For that kind of world the legislators had decreed for its citizens a constitutional right to bear arms. We all had guns and used them. To this day I own my grandfather’s forty-five caliber Colt revolver—perhaps the most famous handgun of history, as the Glock 19 now bids fair to become the most infamous.

My neighbors regularly got wounded or maimed by pickup trucks, automobiles, tractors, hay bailers, brush-hog attachments, wire-stretchers, rattlesnakes, rabid raccoons, buzz saws, live wires, and timber axes. I cannot recall a single gun injury. But the late twentieth century eventually caught up with that old world, which now exists only in memory and carefully cultivated myth. Now it’s time for us to do some catching up too. For centuries the moral leaders of the West have stood aghast, if impotent, at every technological increment in the machinery of death. Pope Innocent II in the twelfth century regarded the “improved” longbow of the English archers, which could easily propel a metal-tipped arrow through chain mail, and even a finely smithed steel cuirass, as a diabolical invention. Its use would be unthinkable among Christians. The widespread introduction of gunpowder, and especially its use for large-bore artillery, scandalized the philosophers of a continent, but it couldn’t be stopped. In the wonderful letter Rabelais imagines that Gangantua wrote to his son Pantagruel, away at college, he speaks of the recent and “divinely inspired” invention of the printing press, but has to add, sadly “just as on the contrary artillery has been invented through diabolical suggestion”. (The Devil was still available in those days).

It is inconceivable to me that “the Founders” envisaged a society in which private citizens, even sane and sober ones, would be toting semi-automatic Glock pistols with extended magazines as they walked about the streets of large cities, through suburban shopping malls, among baby-buggies, schoolchildren, and doddering pensioners. But even if it could somehow be proved that they were so wicked or myopic as to have done so, we need only invoke another of their ideas, one concerning which there is no textual doubt whatsoever, the idea that the Constitution could be and should be changed and improved when evolving circumstances proved it needed to be (Article V). Surely if you are prepared to consider tweaking the fourteenth amendment to address the danger posed by “anchor babies”, you are willing to consider tweaking the second amendment to address the danger posed to all babies, not to mention nine-year-old girls?

We have some really serious problems in this country. That’s the bad news. In a spirit of national unity most of them could be solved with good will, intelligence, and common sense. That’s the good news. We may lack sufficient reservoirs of good will, intelligence, and common sense, however, and that’s the scary news.

A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT more cheerful of burden

My friend, colleague, and fellow Princeton retiree Elaine Showalter, has recently launched a blog devoted to American Women Writers—a subject on which she is one of the world’s leading authorities. A public intellectual whose work will undoubtedly already be known to some in the GLGT audience, she is in every sense a capital woman, dividing her time between Washington and London. If you value American literature, and if you like good writing about good writers, you will certainly want to visit American Women Writers.

Which of the following statements unites these two women? (You are allowed only three votes).

(a) both were great writers

(b) both had a name beginning with “W”

(c) both were lay leaders in the Episcopal Church