October 17, 2000
"A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." ------ U.S. Constitution, Amendment Two
Like the Bible, the U.S. Constitution is constantly exalted, yet seldom read in full. Consider the Bill of Rights, written largely in the context of the American Revolution: It restores the rights that British colonial rulers denied the American colonials. Do they make sense in 21st-century America? Yes, for the most part, but with some concessions to more then two hundred years of change.
Take the Second Amendment: For many Americans it establishes the right of citizens to arm themselves with any weapon they see fit. Not so. According to the Constitution, the right to bear arms is predicated on citizen participation in "a well-regulated militia." So what exactly is a militia? In the colonial period, a militia was a local voluntary self-defense force that kept the peace. Most colonial Americans lived in isolated frontier settlements devoid of law and order. Colonial America was a violent and disorderly place where marauding Indians, rebellious slaves, and bands of highwaymen frequently threatened public safety. Finally, the militia constituted a local defense against foreign occupation. It was British attempts to disarm the colonial militia at Lexington and Concord in 1775 that set off the American Revolution.
Now that more than two centuries have passed, do we still need armed citizens for a well-regulated militia? First, the U.S. population has grown nearly a hundred-fold and is concentrated in towns and cities. Second, the militia's protective role has been taken over by a myriad of law-enforcement agencies at all levels of government. Some suggest that the National Guard serves as the modern equivalent of a militia. Our federal armed forces protect the nation from foreign enemies. So what threats do we face at home? If you pay attention to conspiracy mongers on the Internet or listen to late-night talk radio, you know there is a very dark side to this question. It's about those black helicopters fluttering over isolated regions of Arkansas, part of a United
Nations plot to take over the country. And then there are fascist goons who have taken the name of "militia" to describe their paramilitary camps in Idaho and other Rocky Mountain States. These misfits, who like to compare themselves to the minutemen at Concord, view government as a hostile occupying power. Naturally, they need a lot of firepower to protect themselves from the rest of us.
The colonial militias referred to in the Second Amendment were organized by community leaders; there is no place for do-it-yourself armies in 21st-century America. So do citizens still have the right to keep and bear arms? Yes, within limits. While not universally popular, hunting and marksmanship sports are legitimate parts of our national traditions. Law-enforcement authorities need to be armed. But it is time to impose strict controls over those military assault weapons and other guns whose only purpose is to kill people at short range. The Second Amendment is about a militia, not guns.
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I think it was more of a Freudian slip than truth-in-advertising behind the statement in a recent campaign commercial for George W. Bush that has been on heavy rotation in the local affiliates of network TV in the past three to four weeks. In this commercial, Governor Bush declared that no family should send more than one-third of their income to Washington.
In reality, how many working folks pay one-third of their income in taxes to Uncle Sam? Not me, nor many of my friends and acquaintances, many of whom are professionals. Nor are the great majority of Americans, unless you are the super rich. Of course, when you total up the federal, state, and local taxes (which include the highly regressive sales tax of nine percent here in Mobile, Alabama), many of us take home less than two-thirds of our pay.
Critics of the Republican presidential candidate charge that he is a pawn for the super rich, especially in his tax-cut proposal. At least George W. isn’t lying about his sentiments towards the super rich -- they shouldn’t have to send more than one-third of their income to Washington to help sustain the nation.
People may call Vice-President Al Gore and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman hypocrites for lambasting Hollywood producers who profit by producing movies, records, and videos that expose children and youth people to inappropriate violence and sex during the day time, and then rubbing shoulders with them at fundraisers at night. That I do not mind, because for all I know they could be using the money they raise from these polluters of culture to help parents with a campaign to educate children and young people to distinguish the good and bad uses of these various mediums by asking whether they enhance or debase human beings.
My problem with Vice-President Gore and Senator Lieberman is that they don't go far enough. In my mind, there are broader issues, because Hollywood is not the only purveyor of cultural pollution. Children are exposed to a continuous steam of messages from Madison Avenue that promote a consumer culture that I believe is the real cause of the current uneasiness of many Americans about where this country is heading regarding our children and youth people. After all, consumer culture is one of the reasons why many children and teenagers live in households with two working parents, because both parents think they have to work to support a consumer lifestyle. I know first-hand as a parent the pressures created by Madison Avenue on children and young people, and through them on their parents, about distinguishing needs and wants. To feed this Madison Avenue-created consumer lifestyle, it is inadvertent that parents in the U.S. have less quality time with their children and that events take place in developing countries that are not in the interests of the majority of people there because of lax policies regarding the environment and workers. Just think of all the junk toys that are tie-ins with TV cartoons or movies in the U.S. that are produced in China and other developing countries, where workers are paid low wages (even by those countries' standards) and concerns and awareness for the environment are non-existent.
Now, I wish the presidential candidates from both parties and their running mates would say a word about the corroding values created by Madison Avenue.
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