I was fortunate. I grew up in the era of newspapers – which means I read the comic page – which means I read Pogo, the classic satirical works of Walt Kelly.
Pogo influenced my perception of the world around us, as any great cartoon should.
Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle. There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us. Forward!
— Walt Kelly, June 1953
I was reminded of this famous quote – and took it as the title of this piece – because I was thinking about the most recent death by firearms incident, another spectacular, headline-gripping, soul-crushing destruction of innocents and innocence. You would almost think we’d be blasé about it by now. We get these mass shootings at a rate of nearly one per day – about 350 mass shootings each year – enough to relegate the “everyday” death by firearms to the back pages, if they make the news at all. 13,000 homicide deaths by firearms. 20,000 suicide deaths by firearms.
Reflexively, the headline-grabbing deaths by firearms start the shouting match between those who want to reduce the availability of firearms and those who cling to their firearms, and to their 2nd Amendment right to bear firearms. We’ve had these shout-matches for decades. Hundreds of people, young, old, children, parents, leaders have been buried while we shout at each other. And then we stop shouting, until the next mass shooting – which, sadly, is not a long time coming.
The most defiant voices defending their right to bear arms will frequently cite the need for the public to defend themselves against a tyrannical government. They envision themselves, holed up in their homes, armed to the teeth with their military-style weapons, as a real military force marches against them, sent by the government to drive them into submission, strip them of their freedoms, and cast them into a slavish condition.
No, I’m not making this up. You will find these writings on the internet (which, of course, means nearly nothing), but you will also hear these voices in the halls of the Congress of that very same government!
I spent my formative years learning about government – not just our US government, but also governments over history and governments that existed only in theory, in the writings of political philosophers like Marx, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Kant, and our progenitors, Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes and other pre-1776 European philosophers.
A favorite quotation from American founding documents is this partial quote: “We, the people.” Taken from the Preamble (and thus the first words) of the U.S. Constitution, “We, the people” is meant to illustrate the primacy of the people of the United States over other powers, especially the powers of the government formed by that same Constitution.
But this reading misses the mark. I take those opening words to reflect that the people and the government are one and the same.
This seems like an important point in the discussion of 2nd Amendment rights. It is also an important point in many other aspects of how the people and the government relate to one another. And understanding that point drives many of the policies we operate under and advocate for or against, today.
If we hold that “the government” is some entity that exists outside of, separate from, and in enmity against, the people, then many of the policies of the Republican party follow quite naturally.
- The government is taking our hard-earned dollars in the form of taxes.
- The government is indoctrinating our children by imposing its Common Core curriculum on them.
- The government is allowing foreigners – aliens – to overrun our borders and steal our jobs.
- The government is coming to take our guns so that we cannot fight back against … the government.
This separation of “We, the people” and “the government” is not new or modern. The very same Constitution was, soon after adoption, amended with 10 articles that placed limits on what the government could do to the people. Rights could not be abridged or infringed or denied. “Congress shall make no law…” was the watchword of those early days.
But over our history, the power of the federal government was exercised in extraordinary ways to resolve extraordinary and critical problems – problems that threatened the very existence of the nation itself. Invasion by a foreign power, secession by several states that rent the union, a revolutionary shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy, a crushing failure of economic markets and the financial industry, world-wide wars – these all demanded that the nation act as a singular, unified nation, and not as a loose federation of sovereignties or as a disorganized band of individuals. We had to act as one people, and that was the role that a strong, singular federal government took on.
Our modern return to the separation of the people and the government, in my view, traces back to another famous quotation. A newly sworn-in president declared: “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” In those few words, he gave legitimacy to the idea that the government is a thing outside of us, separate from the people. And that separation has influence our public policy since that date.
That separation brings us back to our 2nd Amendment debate. Many cling to their right to bear arms out of a genuine fear that the government – this extraordinarily large and powerful entity – will bear down upon them. Their firearms will be their last hope of protecting themselves, their families, their society against this intruder.
This idea abandons the original notion that “We, the people” are the government. When the government acts, it is because We, the people, have chosen for it to act that way. We may individually disagree with that action, but as a people, we have agreed to allow the government to proceed.
This is the choice that has lain before us for 240 years. Do we choose to accept “the people” as the authority … even when the people disagree with us? Or do we fight against the people and against the government that is made up of those people? Do we believe that the United States is our nation, the one we sing about, the one we pledge our allegiance to?