JANUARY 11, 2001. I like the Bill of Rights. I like all of it, especially the part about the press, and not excluding the part about guns. But the gun people and free speech people don't seem to like each other. Come, let us reason together...
THE CORNER OF FIRST AND SECOND
We all know that some people's copies of the U.S. Constitution lack a First Amendment, and that most of these people are conservatives. (Yes, I know all about the claims of David Horowitz and others that right-wingers are great 1A fans, but a quick survey of the evidence trail, from Anthony Comstock to Joe McCarthy to Jesse Helms to David Lowenthal, shows this to be untrue, Judgmental Joe Lieberman notwithstanding. For a partial listing of active enemies of 1A, check this Electronic Frontier Foundation page.)
On the other hand, when conservatives move their fingers down one space on the list of Constitutional Amendments, they stop clawing angrily and start caressing tenderly. Despite the occasional demurral of a George F. Will, the Second Amendment is sacred among righties. They become ardent, rhapsodic, and (the clearest sign of true believers in anything) slightly paranoid. Must be something about the mechanical precision of firearms -- so reliable! so uncomplaining! so capable of blowing a hole in an intruder! Ask our incoming president: guns are a whole lot less troublesome than words.
On the other hand, liberals cream over the First Amendment, and defend practically any expression of same. (Spare me the PC citations -- speech-code supporters like Andrea Dworkin get read out of the movement real fast. As for college speakers getting booed, please; I've played in punk rock bands for years, and if there's a First Amendment right to NOT get booed, I wish you'd tell my audiences about it.) The dearest secular saints of liberalism are 1A martyrs like Galileo, Oscar Wilde, Lenny Bruce and, apparently, the Marquis de Sade. In fact, everything seems to come down to 1A issues for these people (okay, us), because modern liberalism is about the dissemination of information that leads to the dissemination of rights -- you can't get contraception and desegregation, after all, without manning a few picket lines first.
Guns are not language, however, and liberals are much less naturally sympathetic to 2A than we are to 1A. We treat the legal possession of a licensed service revolver like a Columbine waiting to happen: an occasion for awe and righteous indignation. Most of the libs I know were, in high school, at least passably good at English Composition, but very few were in the Gun Club. It shows in our adult lives. Some of us get off a little at the "transgressive" quality of weapons possession in controlled situations (Eek, Harvey! A ruffneck!), but generally we picture guns as fetish objects for the slopebrowed oafs who would burn our erotica and make us read the Bible.
People (okay, not people -- pundits) talk about the chasm between the "Blue States" and the "Red States." The starker fault line, I believe, lies between 1A and 2A. Scratch a liberal and you'll find someone who hates Bill Bennett; scratch a conservative and you'll find someone who hates Rosie O'Donnell.
I use those comparative terms advisedly, because in the final analysis our divisions are all about hate. Conservatives by and large look at us liberals and see evil libertines who create and consume filthy, degenerate art while having tantric sex and listening to Marilyn Manson. (Yeah, I know, that's why I became a liberal, too.) We see conservatives as chaw-drooling, heavily-armed Cletuses who, when not dragging black men to their deaths behind pickup trucks, lasciviously stroke the muzzles of their numerous semi-automatic weapons.
We both have a point; but perhaps, just perhaps, we can get along anyway.
One of my filthier habits is surfing freerepublic.com, an extremely right-wing web bulletin board. By and large the posters are God-and-country nuts who will not consider America truly free until the last feminist is strangled with the entrails of the last Clinton. They make George W. look like Hubert Humphery.
But here's the thing: as is usual wherever two or more are gathered in the name of Ronald Reagan, freerepublic.com has a small libertarian contingent. And I have been surprised to see how much respect these brave souls manage to get from the blood-and-thunder types on the issue of free speech.
For example, in a recent freeper discussion on Eminem, the overtly libertarian posts ("ever heard of first ammendment???you have the right to turn the radio off or the tv for that matter") were few, but influential in that they observably altered the tenor of the discussion. Sure, most of the other responses consisted of howls of outrage against Our Sick Society, but surprisingly few took the sort of anti-first-amendment tack that we have learned to expect from more prominent conservatives. Some, of course, were only giving Slim Shady a pass because of his anti-gay lyrics ("we should at least give him some credit for that"), but I really think most freepers were aware that a constitutional issue was present, and though they spoke harshly of the infamous rapper, they were disposed to tread lightly on the foundations of liberty.
At the same time, I hear some crusty old liberals have been rethinking their stand on 2A. Constitutional scholar Lawrence Tribe has admitted that the "militia" part of the Amendment doesn't necessarily trump the "right to bear arms" part. Even Alan Dershowitz, who wants 2A out of the Constitution, thinks that as long as it's there we should take it seriously: "Foolish liberals," he said in 1995, "who are trying to read the Second Amendment out of the Constitution by claiming it's not an individual right or that it's too much of a public safety hazard don't see the danger in the big picture. They're courting disaster by encouraging others to use the same means to eliminate portions of the Constitution they don't like."
I've been thinking about the situation, and I conclude that it may be time to consider a parley.
How about we let them have their guns, and they let us have our free speech? Or, more to the point, what say we all get what's Constitutionally coming to us? (I mean that in both the positive and the negative sense.)
Liberals would want a few guns for ourselves, of course, so as to better defend our free speech. And the righties can continue to yap about the black helicopters, the evil ATF troopers, and anything else that brightens their black little hearts. But you get my drift: we wish to print, paint, record etc. what we choose, and they wish to collect AK-47s, German lugers, and the makings of pipe bombs. How about we construct a win-win scenario for our nation's good?
Do my leftist colleagues worry that gun violence will increase? On that issue I am reminded of the old James Thurber cartoon, in which an obviously wearied milquetoast observes his wife preparing to throw a bowling ball overhand. "Alright," he mutters resignedly, "go ahead and try it that way." Gun violence is out of control as it is. It may well be that things can't get any worse, and they might even get better. (We have to consider the possibility that the other guy is right.) If not, well, then Charlton Heston will finally have to shut up, and that would be nice, wouldn't it? (Also, since gun-fueled mass murders generally take place in Republican strongholds, we might get a few more Democratic Senate seats out of the whole thing.)
Do my rightist colleagues worry that seas of filth will flood the Republic? Look, you guys have been calling America the new Sodom and Gomorrah for years now; I think your outrage has about reached a ceiling. Now might be a good time for you to relax and consider the benefits of free speech. Just think: you'll be able to put up billboards of aborted fetuses right outside the Holland Tunnel. Doesn't that give you a warm, gooey feeling? I thought it might.
It will be messy, and neither of us will achieve the Valhalla we envision. But since the alternative, sooner or later, is a suspension of one or the other of those rights our Founders considered important enough to put at the very top of the Bill of Rights (and who knows how close 2A was to 1A in the final countdown? They didn't have Soundscan in those days), maybe we should let the string out all the way and see what happens.
Perhaps Americans will be outraged at the result, call a Constitutional Convention, and get rid of 1A and 2A entirely. At least then there'll be no more argument. (By then, hopefully, we'll have colonized the moon, and those of us who care enough about it can go there and start over, carrying the frayed old Founders' parchment in an airtight capsule)
Or perhaps we will all look up, astonished, and see that the Bill of Rights actually works just the way it was meant to. Wouldn't that be a kick in the pants. .