Two Nations Face the Music

by J.D. Tuccille

The current ruckus over gun control -- the assault weapons ban in particular -- can't be settled by majority vote in Congress for one good reason: Congressman Charles Schumer and I are not citizens of the same nation. Now, we're both Americans, and we're both New Yorkers (well, some folks maintain that New Yorkers aren't really Americans, but some folks eat cornpone, too). Our passports are the same color and we vote on the same day -- at least on those election days when I can goad myself to the polls. But we're still not citizens of the same nation.

You see, despite the differences that have always divided the people of the United States, the American "nation" has always been defined and held together by certain underlying assumptions -- a sort of societal background music. There have been discordant notes in that backgound music, of course: Slavery, the 200-year long eviction proceeding against the Indians, the (not-so) sobering experience with Prohibition, and McCarthyism, for example. When the musical discord has become so jarring that many Americans danced to different tunes, effectively splitting into separate nations ... well, Gettysburg will never be the same.

And as illustrated by the ongoing controversy over "assault weapons," Rep. Schumer and I enjoy very different soundtracks. Schumer and his compatriots hear a ditty that defines America as communitarian, collectivist, and maternalistic. Like mom, it wakes its citizens in the morning, feeds them breakfast, then goes through their rooms while they're out for the day -- digging around for BB guns and comic books. At night it lets them watch a half hour of PBS, then gives 'em a swat on the fanny and sends them to bed. The government in Congressman Schumer's nation is benevolent and caring and calls once a week like clockwork.

The tune I hear, on the other hand, is a bit more rock-and-roll; it sets the beat for a nation that is libertarian, individualistic, and rights-based. It's more like an honest insurance agency with a bit of a beat cop thrown in than like mom. The government won't come calling unless you chase it down, though it might just make sure you make your way home with wallet and teeth intact after a raucous Saturday night. My fellow citizens expect their government to be small and inoffensive, but they'll still give it a kick in the ass on occasion to remind it of the proper pecking order.

When Rep. Schumer speaks in favor of the assault weapons ban he recites incidents of gun crimes and the names of crime victims. There is no mistaking the honest emotion in his voice as he lobbies in favor of restricting the possession of objects that he regarded as too dangerous to be in private hands. His attitude is that of a concerned parent prying a pair of scissors from a recalcitrant child's hand. He asks how his opponents could possibly oppose such a clear "common good" with a vague concept like liberty.

Schumer's opponents in Congress (and myself in quiet anonymity) speak of freedom and of the inalienable right to own weapons for self-defense, for pleasure, and to ward off tyrannical government. Many of my fellow citizens pat their wallets and check their passports when they hear the words "common good." We ask how Rep. Schumer could possibly move to abolish a right that is not his to take, and that is in no way conditional on its abuse by others.

If Schumer's ideal government is like a mother who calls to check up on us every couple of days, his opponents respond "don't call us, we'll call you" and hang-up on the blue-haired broad.

The two nations' music isn't just discordant -- it's reminiscent of a classic college dormitory stereo battle, with the speakers pressed firmly to the walls. But in our battle neither side is likely to move into friendlier quarters.

And the issue is unlikely to be settled by that all-important democratic process. The very government policies that Schumer's compatriots cry out for as necessary for public security are the ones that my nation rejects as beyond the legitimate reach of the state. Schumer's people may pass their laws, but mine recoil in disgust and refuse to obey. Schumer's fellows then accuse mine of being disloyal and rebellious, and mine charge that Schumer's act like the agents of an occupying power.

And we're both right. Because our music is more discordant then ever, and although we live side-by-side, our nations are drifting further apart. We live our lives by irreconcilable rules, but commingled as we are, only one set of rules can prevail. Assault weapons are only one issue -- the difference in principles extend across the board to wherever political power intersects with important issues. The comforting embrace of Schumer's nation is death by smothering in an overprotective mother's bosom to those who feel as I do. The government that Rep. Schumer demands is one that I could never give my loyalty, and he probably feels the same in reverse.

Such deep disagreements inevitably result in escalating conflict. If we're listening to competing background music, it's only a matter of time before the rhythm sections take it outside.

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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