Autonomy

Kevin K

In the New York Times this morning, I read an op-ed in which a woman, Wendy Button, who is prone to depression, says, “Please take away my Second Amendment right.” I am very reluctant to speak to this question because of the nature of my personal experience with it, and my small readership is unlikely to make much of a difference pitted against the overwhelming media power of the New York Times. But I feel that a commitment to the common good demands it.

Yesterday, I noticed that an old friend of mine (his name, like mine, is Kevin) hadn’t been posting on Facebook lately. Since I had been playing with my filtering and privacy settings off and on lately, primarily to avoid the incessant links to commentary on Newtown, the Second Amendment and gun control, I thought perhaps I had inadvertently hidden all his posts. So I went to his wall to see if there were posts that didn’t appear on mine, and instead I saw posts from his family that included the rhetorical “why,” descriptions of being sad and the like. It took me about two seconds, like the cliche scene in a movie where the character drives to somewhere only to see police cars already there: instantly you know. Like a punch in the gut I realized two things: my friend of twenty-seven years was dead, and that he had shot himself with his handgun. I honestly hadn’t given a single thought to our “national conversation” since, until I saw Ms. Button’s piece this morning.

The story of our friendship in brief is this. When I graduated from college in 1985, I moved to San Francisco and started working in the title insurance business, initially as a messenger. Eventually I was promoted to a customer service desk, and once I was indoors, I came to Kevin’s attention as someone perhaps too bright to be merely answering the phone; at one point during a lull I was seen at my desk reading Ogden’s Real Property out of sheer boredom. So he took me under his wing and started training me to be a title examiner, which involves searching public records, interpreting legal documents, and drafting title insurance policies. We quickly became friends, and in addition to mentoring me in the business he became one of those people you know who turns you on to obscure music and art. I would say that he was the original hipster except that he was completely unselfconscious and genuinely loved the things that he turned up and shared with me. He was the kind of guy that would save up his money to go on a road trip to hilariously bizarre tourist attractions like the Cabazon Dinosaurs (featured prominently in Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure). He was into the kind of 1960s pop music we now associate with Quentin Tarantino soundtracks. He revered Robyn Hitchcock, J. G. Ballard, early David Cronenberg films, and, unsurprisingly, Hunter S. Thompson. These things gave pleasure to a soul that obviously viewed the world through the lens of great intelligence, but also with a kind of quiet fear, sadness, and, I think, horror. Before we too quickly judge that such people are instances of pathology, we should turn our attention to the world itself and ask whether they are not peculiarly equipped to see aspects of it the rest of us fail to notice or avoid. I think of him as the only person I know who wouldn’t have been surprised by 9/11, because it was the kind of thing you’d expect from a world that increasingly resembled a J. G. Ballard novel.

After a few years I decided to go back to school in the Midwest, and we lost touch with each other for a long time. Our friendship was renewed in 2008 when my sixteen year old son committed suicide by hanging. Like shooting a distress flare into a darkened sky, I sent an email to literally every email address I knew, telling everyone that Tristan was gone. I received many kind responses, but Kevin and his wife were unique (among non-family members) in that they hit the road and drove all the way from Nevada City to Portland to be with us, and this after a long period of being out of touch. For the four years that followed, we were good friends again, and frequently interacted on Facebook.

Kevin owned a handgun. I had known this for awhile. I stupidly imagined that this was just something of a homage to Hunter S. Thompson’s lived, Dionysian madness. We talked about it a bit after Newtown: he was my only progressive friend who also insisted on his right to bear arms, and on the sophistry of many gun control arguments. Back in October, however, he had a close enough brush with nothingness to reach out to me, as if begging me to talk him down from the metaphorical ledge; I did the best I could, building on my own all-too-intimate understanding of the consequences of suicide for survivors that my son gave me. I stupidly forgot then that he owned a gun.

When my son died, it goes without saying that I made no attempt to ban belts. Nor did I think of his death as an expression of his autonomy; adolescence is the slow, often painful birthing of autonomy; the task of family and community is to guide a child towards it, not instantly to confer it. No part of me “respects” Tristan’s choice, and I tend to think of it as more akin to a terrible accident than anything else (there was no indication of depression, no warning whatsoever, and absolutely nothing that could’ve been done to prevent it). When he died, I faced a few days that were the darkest I have ever faced, and a part of that was asking myself whether I had anything to live for. I have tried many times to explain this to others (the experience subliminally colors almost everything written on this blog) but I will try again: I started to slip into a kind of self-pity long familiar to me, and sensed that it was a road downward, ultimately, to death. But now, instead of whatever fantasies had accompanied thoughts of my own death in the past, I instead had the image of my son’s body as a kind of testimony to the concrete reality of death: the radical destruction of the most precious thing, a living human being. I had an immediate understanding of the seemingly limitless agony suicides create in the survivors who love them. And for the first time, I realized that self-pity is the foreshadowing of that ultimate assault on all that is good, on life and joy. It was a rough epiphany: self-pity is an agent of death, and death is the ultimate enemy. And it is up to us to choose sides in that war: are you on the side of all that is good, or of the nothingness that surrounds, challenges and consumes it? I made my choice. This was in some ways not an easy choice to make, not because of a desire to die, but, ironically, because of a desire to keep Tristan alive in memory. This common human desire is itself ambiguous. If we feel no impulse to remember the dead, if we make no effort to preserve that memory, it shows that we ultimately do not care that they died, that we do not love their aliveness itself to want to perpetuate it in some fashion. But by the same token, if the yearning for the dead blends insensibly into self-pity, we end up turning our backs on the present and future, on the living, and so animate and perpetuate our pain that we become absolutely committed to remembrance of the dead to the exclusion of all else. This is ultimately to prefer a shadow to life, and to be pulled, horribly, to the dark side. In the end, the only consummation possible for that is to join them, and become memory oneself. That is the paradox of grief.

Had I been less prone to depression myself, I might not have seen with such clarity how dangerous all this was. But this is precisely the thing: I know how dangerous depression is. And that is why I choose not to own a gun. I do not ask that someone take away my autonomy; I don’t need to. And thus I protect my life every day, because that is my choice.

In retrospect, I know that Kevin kept a gun by his side for precisely the opposite reason. He wanted to make sure, when the time came, that the means of his awful deliverance would be available to him. That too was a decision he made, day after day, in moments bright and dark. As a society, we might have made it impossible for him to shoot himself, in which case, I imagine he would’ve hung himself as my son had. I have learned from these experiences and others that there is nothing in this world more powerful than a will committed to its course.

Ms. Button wants her rights taken away from her. This is, of course, absurd. No right is ever absolute, as the proverbial cry of fire in a crowded theater illustrates, nor would reflection on that kind of scenario induce a writer to beg that we take her freedom of expression away from her. Rather, we understand that rights involve and are always subject to reasonable regulation. The Supreme Court itself has said as much about the Second Amendment. This involves certain obvious implications: if a convicted murderer on death row attempted to purchase a handgun online for his personal use, we do not tie ourselves in knots wondering if denying them this in some way obliterates the right more generally. But while there are reasonable regulations that all reasonable people can agree on, what is reasonable is often something that reasonable people can differ on. The life of the law is all about what restrictions harmless people should be burdened by in order to protect them from the harmful few.

Was it too easy for Kevin to buy his gun? I don’t know, and neither do you. I have no idea what hurdles he had to jump to satisfy the state of California that it was safe for him to own a gun, and I have no idea whether more burdensome restrictions for everyone could have saved his life. I know that if he had wanted to die he probably would’ve found a way, but perhaps more thorough background checks for mental illness, longer waiting periods, etc. would have slowed him down some. If that had been enough to save his life, it would have been essentially random and meaningless, just as my son’s death without access to a handgun was essentially random and meaningless. But I do know that Kevin’s decision to buy and keep a gun was not an impulsive one, because it was a decision he renewed by inaction every single day, from the day he bought it to the day he used it for the last time. Regard his last moments as the product of “illness” if you like, but to regard his entire life as nothing but an illness is to regard him as less than fully human. That he made a choice, I understand all too well, for I have made, and every goddamn day continue to make, the contrary choice. Words cannot express how deeply, profoundly wrong, evil even, I regard the choice that he made. But, as we used to say, about belief and its expression, I would defend to the death his right to make it.

Repost: How Gun Talk Is Misperceived

[Originally posted Sep 27, 2011] Firefly is a canceled science fiction television program with the most thoughtful writing and most devoted fan base since Star Trek. Whereas Star Trek articulated the values and aspirations of Kennedy liberalism, Firefly is unusual in articulating a distinctively libertarian vision. Part of how it does this is by modeling its imagined universe on the decades after the American Civil War, but a Civil War in which the Union’s only purpose was to extend and intensify its sway, and the South’s only purpose was to retain its self-government, a postbellum world seen through the eyes of the South. Naturally, slavery does not enter into it. Our hero, Captain Malcolm, finds no place in the new order and becomes a wanderer and a smuggler. He is presented as an honorable man trying to live a self-sufficient existence. Since he has no use for the State that would put him out of business or worse, he must make his own freedom and justice, and thus is always personally armed. Unlike scores of pop culture icons, he is never seen using force to take revenge, but only to protect himself or his crew. Part of his charm is that he is almost never truly angry. These are not unconnected facts if you think about it, and I hope you do.

Because his self-help approach to justice is unfamiliar to those who rely on the authorities for their protection, he can seem dangerous, even villainous, but this is a misunderstanding. At one point he addresses precisely the concern that another character raises about whether anyone is safe around him, by saying “You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed.”

Notice that he says “if” not “when.” “When” is revenge talk. In fact, if this were one of those scads of ressentiment-filled pop culture confections, this really should read “When I kill you, you’ll never see me coming. You could be enjoying a meal, playing with your children, and before you know what hit you, I will be there, and that moment will be your last.” Now Captain Malcolm is not “deconstructing” this sort of comment, he is simply rejecting it. But this must be explained because we don’t know him. He is explaining that he does not do this, this is not who he is. He does not prey on people and he does not hunt people down. He says “if” and the full meaning of the “if” is “if you force me to kill you by your actions.” What would those be? Endangering him or those under his protection, by their own acts of violence.

The rest of the quote explains something I discussed in my last post. There are two reasons why the opponent will be armed, one of which we just alluded to: the opponent will be armed because he is acting violently in a way that endangers others, but so violently that nothing short of lethal force will be able to protect them. In short, the aggressor will be armed. If he were not, he is either not acting violently, or his violence can be managed with less harsh action, action which, Malcolm implies, can preserve the aggressor’s life. Second, Malcolm is alluding to a norm he follows regarding a fair fight. Even if all justice is on one side and none on the other, an honorable man gives his opponent a fighting chance. An honorable man does not kill the disarmed or insensate. Which, by the way, is why an honorable man cannot accept the State’s most awful activity, the activity of execution.

The reason for such a code of honor is necessity. If there is no institution that will achieve justice between us, then we must internalize standards of justice in our dealings with each other, and when a man is just because this is who he is, independent of what the State would induce him to do and to be, that is what it is to be honorable.

It may come as no surprise to you that these are all ideas which are somewhat foreign to academia. So when an academic who is also a Firefly fan (like myself) posted a picture of Captain Malcolm, uttering the above quote, on his office door on September 12, at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, it should also not surprise us that campus police removed it, saying that “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.” Perhaps if it were a picture of Gandhi saying “never kill” in so many words, the point would have been more congenial? But here’s the thing: the quote is about not killing, it explains why, on the whole, an honorable man does not kill. And that means that if the hypothetical Gandhi poster were acceptable, but an actual poster that says, in so many words “never kill unless it is necessary to protect someone from violence” is not, then this is what constitutional lawyers call “viewpoint discrimination.” Wisconsin, and her universities, are state institutions, and thanks to the First and Fourteenth Amendments, Wisconsin cannot use force (a police officer) to engage in viewpoint discrimination. It cannot implicitly insist that Nathan Fillion’s sarcastic mug be replaced with Gandhi’s sanctimonious one. Now there are exceptions to the First Amendment, the “clear and present danger” doctrine and the “fighting words” doctrine: if we can assume that violence will immediately ensue because of this act of speech, it is not protected. The conditionality and temporal remoteness involved in the speech (“if I ever kill you, you will be awake”) make this an impossible argument. So the poster is protected. Whoah. Good Constitution.

Naturally, the officer of the State would prefer a world in which individuals are disarmed and do not even suggest that there are alternatives. This is the only explanation for why it is that when the professor in question put in the place of the Captain Malcolm poster a poster that read “Warning: Fascism. Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets” this too was removed. Now reasonable people can differ about what the First Amendment’s outer boundaries are. But few fail to grasp the fact that the First Amendment’s core is the protection of political speech. It is hard to imagine someone so obtuse as to fail to grasp that the second poster’s comment expresses a political opinion, and an opinion which is critical of violence.

To understand this entire episode, one would need to be able to do three things: know something about the libertarian values expressed in the Captain Malcolm quote, understand the constitutional law of one’s own nation, and read language for meaning. And yet all of these things were in short supply precisely at a government-sponsored institution of higher learning. I’m thinkin’ someone weren’t burdened with an overabundance of schooling.

[hat tip Foundation for Individual Rights in Education]

Newtown

By all means, have a discussion about the regulation of assault rifles. Because if there hadn’t been an assault rifle involved, it would’ve been a murder-suicide, two fatalities, and you wouldn’t have had to be aware of it at all. And that would be great because then there would be even less of a chance that we would have to think about what happens when women and children are abandoned by their husbands. But seriously, why on earth would a wicked patriarch stay in such a painful and difficult situation when, instead of upholding the wicked patriarchy by doing a duty no one honors or respects anymore anyway, he could flee to self-actualization, leaving the mother of his severely ill child to “empower” herself in the only way available? It’s funny: we bend over backwards to avoid discriminatory hiring that might adversely affect white upper middle class professional women, and yet somehow, it still totally sucks to be a woman in America. While we wallow in our sublimated fantasies of revenge against those who do not share our distrust of our neighbors or ourselves, remember that, while the Other created the lax gun control regime that we are complaining about now, the match as it were, we created the dysfunctional families that cannot survive severe stress, the powder keg.