Tuesday, February 5, 2013

An Ounce Of Prevention

An old Chinese legend tells about a man who was searching for the world's greatest physician.*  He learns of a man who can heal any illness, and he assumes that this healer must be the one he is seeking.  The healer denies this, saying that another physician is even greater.  The greatest physician is the one who can heal any disease before it even begins.

I've lost track of how many times I've heard someone say recently that the point of the Second Amendment is, first of all, to safeguard the other rights enumerated in the Constitution, and second, that a well-regulated militia is necessary in case we ever need to overthrow a government that has turned into a tyranny.

I have a little (though not much) sympathy with the second of those positions, but the first is, I think, simply wrong.  Here's why: the First Amendment is itself an extremely powerful tool, and it is fitting that it should precede the Second, because an attempt to solve problems by reasonable words should always precede the attempt to solve our problems by force.  In other words, if we exercise our First Amendment rights responsibly, we will never need to invoke the Second to overthrow our government. One of the beautiful things about our Constitution is the way it provides means for us to address unjust power grabs by our government officials without starting an insurrection.

But the bigger problem is one of what fills our hearts and minds: Focusing our attention on preparing to overthrow a future tyranny is like a physician preparing to euthanize a patient who might someday become ill. Yes, it is possible to "cure" any illness by killing the patient, but it's not good medicine.  We need more than just preparedness to kill a disease; we need to promote good health as well.

If you're concerned about the nation becoming a tyranny, buying more guns is a poor response.  Here are some far better responses:
  1. Support good schools. One of the best defenses against a nation falling apart is a well-educated populace.  People who are able to think for themselves are less likely to let others do their thinking for them, which is one of the surest defenses against abdicating to a tyrant.  People who know their rights and their history will be well-prepared to fight to defend them.  People who only know how to fight but don't know what they're fighting for promote instability in government.
  2. Promote economic opportunity for everyone.  We celebrate Dr. King as a promoter of equal rights, but it's worth remembering that for him those rights were closely tied to the opportunity to exercise them and to help one's family to flourish.
  3. Encourage bright people in your community to become teachers. Public school teachers play too important a role for us to not want our brightest minds in our classrooms.  I'm not just talking about STEM fields, either.  Literature, history, social sciences and arts are the disciplines that shape our imaginations.  Without good art and good stories, you don't have a nation, period.   
  4.  Subscribe to your local newspaper. Here are two of the most important professions for any democracy: law and journalism.  Without defense attorneys to defend rights, equal rights don't mean much.  And without investigative journalism, power will corrupt governors unchecked.  Your subscription is your share of the paycheck of people who will watch the custodians of the state.  There's not much more important than that.
Democracies are not just defended by military might; the first lines of defense are in those places where the diseases to which democracies succumb are cured before they begin: teachers, lawyers, and journalists all practice preventive medicine for democracies.  If your sole response to the threat of tyranny is to pick up a gun, you should rethink your political medicine, and begin to practice like the world's greatest physicians, eliminating the diseases before they begin.


* Thomas Cleary tells this story in the translator's introduction to his edition of Sun Tzu's The Art Of War (Shambhala: Boston and London, 1988) p. 1.

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