Arguments can bring out the contrariness in me: “Yes, but suppose…” By “arguments,” I don’t mean fights. I mean the honest effort to challenge beliefs and preconceptions.
Friends who recently returned from France told us that people there are saying they’re tired of hearing about our mass shootings. I share our friends’ conviction that America has more of these incidents than any other country because of the ease with which guns can be obtained. But complaining about the failings of others is inescapably an exercise in throwing stones from glass houses. Even though I’m a confirmed Francophile, I could say I’m equally distressed over their country’s shortcomings. I might begin with Vichy and the French-enabled roundups for transport to Germany’s concentration camps. Vichy’s own camps were hardly models of humane treatment. Then there was the post-World War II brutal treatment of Algerians that ultimately led to France surrendering control over its long-time colony. Today Marine Le Pen’s right-wing extremist National Front party is on the rise again.
Our friends’ contention and mine boil down to two statements, with both of which I agree:
A. I don’t blame you, France, for being tired of hearing about our mass shootings.
B. Hey, France, remember Petain, Vichy and the roundups? The kinds of guys who would do that are coming back.
I’ve since thought of other cases where one or more lines of argument come to me, call it Argument A, to be followed by seemingly opposite Argument B that also has at least some validity. These two conflicting notions concerning our Middle Eastern policy typically occur to me at the same time:
A. We in Iraq and Yemen, as well as Afghanistan, are tired of your idealism, America. We wish you’d keep it to yourselves.
B. We in America are fed up with your endless squabbling and sniping, Saudis and Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians. Give us a call when you really mean you want peace.
How about a sticking point in the current trade war?
A. Hey China, you’re stealing our intellectual property and damaging our companies. We want what’s due us.
B. We Chinese love how you Americans forget your history. Who were the great patent thieves of the nineteenth century when you were a developing country? Here’s looking at you, America.
In other cases, both opposing statements can be valid and yet fundamentally unfair. In this next example, two “A” statements occur to me at once, along with their ostensible repudiation:
A. Russia to Eastern Europe: We supply your oil and gas. Energy is our second biggest export after discord. So shut up and play nice.
A. Germany to the Mediterranean: Spend responsibly. Grow up.
B. Middle and Southern Europe to Russia and Germany: Our entire history is about fending off you guys. By the way, Germany, give us back the treasure you stole in the 1940s.
Then there is the counter-argument that is valid even though it rests on a flawed foundation, such as a willful misinterpretation of history:
A. Here in Australia, we solved the problem of mass shootings by calling in all the guns. With all your mass shootings, America, why won’t you?
B. See, in America, we have this thing called the Second Amendment. Nothing we can do: “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.”
America’s gun laws are rife with opposite viewpoints, and not just between liberals and conservatives. There’s the contradiction between the position that conservatives took in the mid-twentieth century and the stance they’ve taken ever since 2008:
A. The 1939 Hatch Act prohibited federal employees from… belonging to any group that advocated “the overthrow of the existing constitutional form of government.”
B. Yo there, NRA, that Second Amendment thing didn’t get going until Scalia and the Supreme Court went originalist on us and took us back to 1791. I mean, do you really want private militias rising against the government? Times do change.
My own thinking is also subject to contradiction. I have friends who live in rural and suburban America whose argument, I admit reluctantly, makes some sense:
A. Cities to NRA: Guns make for mass murder. Stop bringing your violence to us.
B. Rural and suburban gun owners to cities: We must protect ourselves and our families.
I’m hardly alone in my contrariness when I argue against statements I believe in. F. Scott Fitzgerald made a virtue of it: “[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
America, despite Vietnam, Iraq and now Yemen, has done more than any previous empire to bring about a peaceful world, best showcased by the Marshall Plan. Even so, our history contains a pattern of poisonous social policies, from slavery to Jim Crow to minimally regulated gun ownership. This history tells us that not all propositions are created equal. Some stand in such sharp contrast to decency that there is no supposing they’re tenable:
A. DMV to drivers: Get a license and comply with our regulations.
B. National Rifle Association to gun owners: Good hunting.