In the Middle of It

Horace first used the term in media res (“into the middle of things”) in his Ars poetica – a nifty term to describe how Homer, or any epic poet who knows what he’s doing, tells a story everyone already knows. Start in the middle of things and use flashbacks and revealing secondary stories, because the linear sequential flow of events really doesn’t mean that much at all. People want to hear of heroism and tragedy, and tragedy overcome. How people react to challenges, cravenly or bravely or stupidly, is the real subject matter of all stories, realistic or preposterous – and there’s nothing more preposterous than Poseidon being pissed off at Odysseus for a decade because Odysseus put out the eye of his son, Cyclops, who was a jerk anyway, while Athena argues Odysseus’ case to Zeus, who doesn’t give a damn either way. Who cares? The point is to come to know the wiliest and bravest of men, Odysseus – the man who knows how to make things come out right – eventually – no matter what mistakes he’s made. This is how one should live life. Poseidon’s grudge is just an arbitrary hook to hang that on – and it’s fine to start the tale in the middle too. Everyone knows the story, such as it is, anyway. That’s not what they came for. Think of one of the most successful movies ever made, James Cameron’s sappy and extravagant film about the Titanic. Everyone already knew the big boat sank like a rock. That wasn’t the point. The whole point is how people react to challenges. That reveals their true character, for better or worse. That’s what people want to understand.

Political stories can be told this way too, where everyone already knows the sequence of events. In Arizona, a young and pretty congresswoman is gunned down by a madman with a semiautomatic assault rifle, who blows a chunk of her brain away and kills many others. At a movie theater in Colorado, a madman with a semiautomatic assault rifle, or several, pops out of the dark and guns down men and women and children, killing many and wounding many more. In Michigan, a madman with a semiautomatic assault rifle shoots up a Sikh Temple, killing many. Out here on the West Coast, a madman with a semiautomatic assault rifle pops out of nowhere and randomly shoots Christmas shoppers at a mall, while Santa dives for cover. Then in Connecticut, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, a madman with a semiautomatic assault rifle that he borrowed from his mother’s arsenal of many semiautomatic assault rifles, after he shot her dead, walks into that school and shoots twenty first-graders and six teachers, over and over and over, making sure they’re all real dead. Everyone knows the story. Everyone also knows about Virginia Tech and Columbine before that, and the DC Sniper and the Texas Tower Massacre long ago. We all know the story here.

We also know what was revealed about character. Until the Sandy Hook event, everyone, even Obama and Democrats, was saying it wasn’t the right time to talk about gun control – one must be careful and deliberate about such things. Sandy Hook changed that. After a week of silence, the head of the NRA held a defiant press conference and said the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, so teachers should all be heavily armed – although he stopped short of saying every schoolchild in America should be packing serious heat. In short, the answer to all this was more guns, easily available with no questions asked – and better psychiatrists – and Obama went the other way, saying this gun stuff was nuts. People had the right to a gun, for hunting or self-protection or target-shooting or whatever, but high-powered semiautomatic assault rifles, with massive magazines, available to anyone with few or no questions asked, seemed problematic. Yeah, there was a mental health issue, and violent video games to consider and so on, but enough is enough. Obama tasked his vice president, Joe Biden, to come up with a plan to curb gun violence, at least as much as possible given the Second Amendment and the political landscape. Polling shows a clear majority of the public wants stricter gun regulation – and the Republicans, who control the House, don’t, and the House can stop any gun control stuff. The party that controls the House decides what comes to the floor for discussion, and what never will.

That’s where things stand. Obama has to shame the House Republicans, making them seem like brutal and murderous thugs for not even considering doing anything about what everyone knows is happening – which the public might be inclined to believe, given the most recent polling – while the House Republicans, and the NRA which finances them, must portray Obama as a tyrant who wants to take away your guns, which you have a right to own, leaving you defenseless and emasculated and whatnot. Their base is likely to believe that, so the House Republicans must choose between seeking the approval of their base or the approval of the nation. They’ve been having a problem with that. Like Poseidon, their base can carry a grudge for years.

So it’s time to jump into the middle of things:

President Barack Obama unveiled sweeping new policies Wednesday aimed at limiting gun violence, teeing up a political showdown that will pit the broad public popularity for many gun control measures against Congress’s tepid appetite for approving the most stringent restrictions on gun ownership.

“While there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil,” Obama said at a mid-day announcement at the White House, “if there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try it.”

Acknowledging the difficulty of the Congressional fight ahead, Obama appealed for public support, slamming – as he did in a press conference earlier this week – conservative commentators and the most vocal pro-gun activists for “ginning up” opposition to gun reforms for political reasons.

“I will put everything I’ve got into this and so will Joe [Biden], but I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it,” he said.

He does intend to shame them, and asking them to do four things: 1) pass legislation requiring criminal background checks on all gun sales, including private sales, 2) pass legislation banning “military-style” assault weapons, 3) pass legislation limiting ammunition magazines to ten rounds, and 4) pass legislation strengthening penalties for gun trafficking.

That’s it. He’ll do the rest himself:

The president also signed a series of 23 executive actions – free from a Congressional blockade – intended to strengthen existing laws, augment mental health measures and promote federal research on gun crime through the Centers for Disease Control.

The executive actions announced included stricter prosecution of would-be gun buyers who fail background checks as well as new requirements for federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.

The president’s recommendations also direct administration officials to “clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes” and to “release a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities.”

That’s just enforcing what’s on the books, although Congress has in the past expressly forbidden the Centers for Disease Control from ever doing any research at all on gun crime.

That’s an issue, but Obama had his ace in the hole:

Obama and Biden were joined at the White House event by families of the Newtown school shooting victims as well as by four children who wrote the president after the tragedy that left 20 young students dead.

“This is our first task as a society: keeping our children safe,” Obama said at the beginning of his remarks. “This is how we will be judged, and their voices should compel us to change.”

That hardly seemed fair to the folks saying everyone should have a gun, right now, and Kevin Drum is not impressed with these guys:

Will it be possible to pass significant new gun legislation? The odds are long, but one thing that might help it along is the fact that the NRA has become so batshit crazy over the past couple of decades. Every time Wayne LaPierre’s spittle-flecked ranting shows up on your television screen, I’d guess the gun control movement picks up another percentage point of support. Ditto for every time some nutball decides to sling an AR-15 over his shoulder and wander through a mall “just to show that he can.” And ditto again when some backbench member of Congress gets a bit of airtime for fulminating against the UN’s black helicopters.

Yes, these guys are good at stepping in it:

The National Rifle Association on Tuesday released a controversial new ad that makes reference to President Barack Obama’s daughters – sparking outrage from critics who charged that the spot is over the line.

“Most Americans agree that a president’s children should not be used as pawns in a political fight,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “But to go so far as to make the safety of the president’s children the subject of an attack ad is repugnant and cowardly.”

The video calls Obama an “elitist hypocrite” for not embracing armed guards in schools even as his daughters enjoy armed protection at their schools.

“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the ad’s narrator asks. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their schools? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he’s just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

That was a bad idea:

Former White House press secretary and Obama adviser Robert Gibbs slammed the ad on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday morning.

“I mean, it is disgusting on many levels,” Gibbs said. “It’s also just stupid.”

He added, “This reminds me of an ad that somebody made about 2:00 in the morning after one too many drinks, and no one stopped it in the morning.”

“What’s wrong with these people, Mika? What’s wrong with these people?” Joe Scarborough, host of “Morning Joe,” asked co-host Mika Brzezinski in disbelief.

“They are out of step, out of the mainstream, totally out of sync with what’s going on in our society, and quite frankly after seeing that, I think some of the people who run that thing are sick,” Brzezinski said. “I really do. I think they are sick in the head.

“And I’m serious,” she continued. “I am embarrassed right now.”

Later, replaying the ad, Brzezinski added, “It may disgust you. It terrifies me.”

Joe is a conservative. Joe Scarborough was a proud member of Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in the nineties, a Republican congressman from Florida. The NRA spent the day saying the ad wasn’t about Obama’s kids at all – just about doing the right thing and flooding all schools with heavily armed men, just to be safe about such things.

Michael Tomasky throws up his hands:

Let’s start with the ad’s broken logic. A, the Obama family has Secret Service protection; B, other American families do not; C, because of this, Obama is an elitist and a hypocrite. It’s pretty ludicrous. Malia and Sasha Obama get lots of things because their father won the presidency. They also have a chauffeur; get to ride on a big fancy airplane free of charge and don’t have to endure any TSA-related indignities; live in a beautiful big house rent-free; and so on. By the ad’s logic, all of these are instances of hypocrisy.

David Frum adds this:

Even if the idea [of armed guards in school] were a good idea, the NRA’s sneering references to the president’s family are beyond the pale. As the makers of the NRA ad should know, and probably do know, the First Family has come under years of racially coded attack for their “uppityism,” as Rush Limbaugh phrased it. This latest attack ad looks to many like only one more attempt to enflame an ancient American wound.

Paul Waldman notes here that this argument depends on fanning Obama-hatred mixed with a good bit of paranoia:

What an elitist, that Barack Obama, thinking he’s somehow above ordinary people, like he has some particularly critical job or something, and he and his family might be unique targets for violence requiring special protection! It’s almost like he thinks he’s the president!

This does actually reveal an important aspect of the NRA’s world view. As far as they’re concerned, all of us should act as though we exist in the same security situation as the president of the United States. You may think you’re just the assistant regional manager of a widget company, but in fact, a terrorist commando strike force could be coming to lay siege to your home at any moment. Which is why you need to be prepared not just with a gun, but with enough weaponry to hold your own in the two-hour firefight that’s just inevitable.

Ed Kilgore adds this:

Paul omits, however, the implicit argument: you need all that weaponry to protect your rights – preeminently the right to all that weaponry – from the elitist hypocrite Barack Obama.

Kilgore thinks that there’s something else going on here:

To Second Amendment absolutists, no restrictions on firearms possession are ever constitutional. And that particularly applies to military weaponry because the whole idea of the Second Amendment is the right to undertake a violent revolution against the United States government when “patriots” deem it necessary or convenient.

He cites Erick Erickson as the latest conservative to make this explicit:

The 2nd Amendment, contrary to much of today’s conversation, has just as much to do with the people protecting themselves from tyranny as it does burglars. That is why there is so little common ground about assault rifles – even charitably ignoring the fact that there really is no such thing. If the 2nd Amendment is to protect the citizenry from even their own government, then the citizenry should be able to be armed.

Kilgore:

Let’s be clear what this means. To “protect the citizenry from even their own government” may sound reasonable as an abstraction. But what it means is that Erick wants Americans to be able to keep an assault rifle at home in order someday to use it to shoot police officers dead if the laws they seek to enforce represent “tyranny.”

But who decides when a tyranny is present? The people with assault rifles in their closets, apparently. With a few easy clicks, I can find people publicly describing Obamacare, progressive taxes, and even Keynesian economics as “tyrannical.” “Tyranny” has become an extraordinarily common term on the Right for describing the Obama administration generally.

No good will come of this:

Maybe we aren’t quite to the point where a sufficiently large number of “patriots” have decided it’s time to start shooting cops in order to protect their property and their liberties. There is some risk of the cops shooting back, of course. But Second Amendment absolutists want to give notice it’s always a possibility if us “socialists” overreach – again, according to their somewhat eccentric standards. And it’s all part of an ideology that maintains that all the democratic majorities, legislative decisions and court decisions in the world cannot modify the unconditional and eternal rights “patriots” find in the Declaration of Independence, such as absolute property rights and the right of men to intervene in the reproductive decisions of women to defend zygotes.

In the Wild West, guns were often called “equalizers.” To many Second Amendment Absolutists, they are in effect “unequalizers,” the constant reminder that their rights are superior to yours, and that you may have votes but they have guns.

It is obviously impossible to have a rational discussion of gun regulation with people who think they may need to shoot you at some point to defend such fundamental liberties as their right not to subsidize health insurance for “takers” and “looters.” But it is important to remind them and everyone else now and then that their eminently respectable-sounding ideology is based on blood and fire and the implicit threat of violence.

Yep, how people react to challenges reveals their true nature. The Plum Line’s Greg Sargent explains that:

GOP officials are greeting President Obama’s announcement of 23 executive actions on guns today as if they constitute an abuse of presidential power not seen since the dark days of Watergate. RNC chair Reince Priebus is decrying Obama’s “executive power grab.” Others have called the move reminiscent of a “dictator” or a “tyrant,” and Marco Rubio slammed Obama’s rule by “executive fiat.” Still other Republicans have floated impeachment.

Click on the links and be amazed, but Sargent sits down with former Solicitor General Charles Fried, who served during Ronald Reagan’s second term. Fried laughs at the idea that Obama’s executive orders, which essentially make specific adjustments to federal policies related to gun violence represent some sort of unconstitutional “gun grab” or reflect a growing “tyranny” or any such thing:

“These are either standard exercises of presidential power, or even more benignly, standard examples of the power of the president to exhort the public or state officials to be aware of certain problems and to address them,” Charles Fried, who was Reagan’s solicitor general during his second term, told me today.

Fried noted that some of the provisions are merely “use of the bully pulpit.” What he means is that provisions such as “launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign” and “challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies” to promote gun safety merely constitute the use of presidential stature to advocate. “If that’s an impeachable offense, then the president has just lost his first amendment rights,” Fried said.

Referring to provision number 11, Fried joked: “Is it an impeachable offense to nominate an ATF director?”

This is ordinary stuff:

Fried noted that other – such as directing the Attorney General to review categories of people prohibited from gun ownership, and addressing “unnecessary legal barriers” that prevent states from sharing info with the background check system – merely constitute a vow to review existing laws with an eye towards improving them. “How can there be anything offensive about the Attorney General reviewing existing legislation to see if there are any loopholes?” Fried asked.

There’s much more, and Kilgore adds this:

But no one should expect Fried to make many converts among the tyranny-shouters. He is, after all, talking about current constitutional interpretations of presidential powers, and is limiting himself to the subject at hand. Those crying “tyranny,” however, are typically doing neither.

The case against Obama’s right to do or propose what he is doing or proposing is not based on Supreme Court precedents or any careful analysis of presidential powers. It’s based on a radical belief in the Second Amendment as unconditional, and as the supreme constitutional guarantee that ensures all the others. So any gun regulations, existing or potential, are suspect as “tyrannical” in that they limit the ability of “law-abiding Americans” to stockpile weapons against the day when “patriots” decide being law-abiding is no longer acceptable.

This isn’t even about gun issues:

Many have been claiming from practically the day of his inauguration that his policy agenda (even, perhaps especially, elements recently embraced by Republicans like a health insurance purchasing mandate) represent gross and intolerable violations of American liberties. They are prisoners of their anti-Obama rhetoric, and/or champions of the radical ideology of “constitutional conservatism,” which defends as permanent and inalienable rights to all sorts of things like unlimited exploitation of natural resources, “fair” (i.e., low and regressive) taxes, freedom from non-discrimination laws…

To those so ideologically afflicted, nothing this particular president could propose, especially on this subject so close to their self-proclaimed right of armed resistance to policies they dislike, could be less than “tyrannical.” It’s kind of important to recognize that distinction between people arguing against gun control from the perspective of the Constitution and political system we have, and those claiming authority for the very different Constitution and political system they want.

Dire challenges do reveal character. They show what’s really going on. As Horace was saying in 37 BC or so, a narration of sequential events, one right after the other, doesn’t tell the story at all. And here we have the brutal Cyclops, with his one eye put out, screaming that he’s being blinded and wants justice – which would be the Republicans in this case. If you remember your Homer, Odysseus had told Cyclops that his name was “Nobody” – so Cyclops is screaming out in rage and pain that nobody put his eye out. His fellow monsters, who can still see, laugh at him. That works too, but there’s one more thing. Odysseus was a fool, as he sailed away, to shout back that his name was really Odysseus. Obama needs to be careful there. Bigger powers can hold a grudge.

But all this is only the middle of the story, with flashbacks. All of us eagerly anticipate the satisfying ending, because we know what it will be.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to In the Middle of It

  1. Rick says:

    Idea for a bumper sticker:

    “If Mary Todd Lincoln had only been packing heat, Abe Lincoln would be alive today!”

    (The truth is, of course, if John Wilkes Booth had been prevented from getting his hands on a gun, Lincoln would probably not have died that day.)

    The problem I see with the arguments put forth against laws banning semiautomatic assault rifles — that these laws would have made no difference in all these massacres like Sandy Hook — is that, if they’re correct, then we have no alternative but to ban guns altogether. In other words, if going after the small stuff won’t solve the problem, you might as well go big.

    And this assumes — correctly, I’d argue — that we must, one way or another, solve the problem of way too many law-abiding citizens in this country being killed by guns. After all, if we continue to allow people to own guns, we’re trading off the lives of thousands of innocents every year merely to allow hobbyists to shoot deer and paper targets.

    The same goes for the Second Amendment: I do not believe the Supreme Court’s interpretation — that it defends an individual right to own guns, rather than a nation’s right to be protected from those who would do it harm — is correct. But if it is, than we have no alternative but to repeal the amendment, since in truth, there is no good reason for individuals to own guns in this day and age, while there are many compelling reasons that they not be allowed to.

    When you think about it, the pro-regulation crowd is really not asking much: just regulate the most ridiculous weapons and ammo, the stuff no legitimate gun hobbyist should really care about. And yet, the pushback on these minor — maybe even to the point of being pointless — measures is incredible.

    And the fact is, if these people are so unwilling to compromise on these benign regulations, maybe America should just say, okay, that’s it! Enough is enough. Let’s just go ahead and ban all guns.

    The NRA crowd thinks reasonable regulation is a “slippery slope”? It’s not. It’s a cliff. If they keep pushing back on the tiny stuff, they may eventually just find themselves losing everything.

    And it’s a shame that we have to keep reassuring gun owners that “Nobody’s going to come take away your guns”, because in fact, someday, if we decide once and for all to become a sane nation, like so many other nations on the planet, we may have to do just that. And when we do, we will have given all these slightly-unbalanced posturing loud-mouthed minuteman-wannabes the opportunity to say, “See? We told you so!”

    And yes, I do know the chances of this ever happening soon are the same as everybody in America being given a pony. But in fact, over time, the country actually does improve itself, if only bit by bit — an example being desegregation, which sixty years ago, most Americans thought was never going to happen in their lifetimes.

    Rick

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