Are people truly good at heart? What does the word “good” mean in this sense, and if it’s internalized, when does it show?
I had a nice plan for another sorta-silly “Local Tourist” editorial this week, reacting to Source readers’ evaluations of their Virgin Islands experience. But I’m not feeling fun or funny or particularly good today, frankly. My job as a reporter is to tell you the truth. Here’s the truth. I’m worried to the point of being scared.
It’s not a feeling I handle well. You’d think riding out two-plus years of infectious disease killing or wounding friends and neighbors would harden a person to worry. But this is a different sort of worry. I knew we’d get our heads around the virus. People are inventive. We’re creative. We’re problem solvers.
But are we good?
When white supremacists started marching through U.S. cities a few years ago, I wondered what I might do if I encountered a Nazi. I don’t mean a historical, black-and-white photograph Nazi. I mean an actual modern-day person espousing racial division and cultural chauvinism backed up by state-sanctioned violence.
“Is it wrong to not punch a Nazi?” I asked my cousin.
She and I have the same tendency to get worked up about things and sometimes act as counterbalances for each other.
Maybe you don’t need to punch them, she suggested. Maybe you mock them. “Hey, look at this idiot,” she suggested I yell.
It’s a good plan — certainly better than getting into a fistfight that I would surely lose. And thankfully, I have never been punched by a Nazi or had to shout one down.
This morning, however, I’m picturing myself on the streets of Manhattan, maybe in a coffee shop or boutique of some sort, and in walks someone with a handgun in their pocket. Or maybe it’s under an open jacket, strapped around their chest in one of those black velcro paramilitary bralettes a certain set of people seem to like so much.
Then what? I’m just supposed to be scared? Or do I shout them down?
Let’s be clear: Handguns were invented to kill people. Automobiles were invented to move people around, and their occasionally killing people is a sad side effect. Pistols were invented to kill people. There is no hunting or sporting use that is not ancillary to their true purpose: killing humans.
There are parts of the world, mostly in the U.S. mainland, where it is uncommon but not unheard of to see someone openly carrying or poorly concealing a handgun. It is a weird cultural norm. It’s also not unheard of for those handguns to fall out of someone’s pocket, someone’s purse, someone’s glove box. It’s really common for a poorly handled pistol to kill someone.
But Mat: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. FALSE. I’ve looked into this. Spaces with no guns have zero gun-related deaths. Look it up. It’s actually the exact same ratio as potential tiger attacks to tigers in any given space. The moment you introduce a tiger to a space, your chances of getting mauled by a tiger go way up.
So when the U.S. Supreme Court said this week that, essentially, New York can’t regulate people who want to hide a gun in their pocket for self-defense, they shifted the dynamic significantly.
If I’m in a restaurant and someone drops their napkin, and at the same time, a revolver clatters to the floor, I would be tempted to — following my cousin’s advice — stand up and publicly shame that person. But if everyone in that restaurant is also armed to the teeth, protecting themselves from everyone else, my moral outcry is no good.
The Second Amendment triumph was the second big case the Supreme Court bungled this week. The first was a huge misread of the First Amendment. Church and state are now one, the justices said, as states have to fund religious schools.
I am vastly oversimplifying these rulings, by the way. I encourage you to read an analysis of them in the links provided and elsewhere.
Money for schools sounds great, right? Well, there’s a church up the street from me with a school of 20 or so kids. They’re taught that homosexual people are evil, that white people are evil, that anyone who disagrees with the pastor’s teachings is evil. I’m not exaggerating. The pastor is a demagogue positioning himself as a savior.
But Mat, that’s just one school. FALSE. You know it, and I know it.
Thirty-seven states have rules barring public money for religious schools. Why? Here’s how this sort of thing manifests years down the road: I had a very unfortunate yet enlightening conversation with a former V.I. legislator a few years ago in which the once senator said, to paraphrase, nothing mattered because Jesus was coming. The whole ship should sink as quickly as possible because then God will appear and whisk the righteous away.
This was a guy voting to approve your government budgets, your waste management plans, your zoning permits, basically your community’s future. A grown man, in fact, educated and elected to public office who based his life on a fatalistic reading of a nihilistic death-cult fairytale. My cynicism can’t hold a candle to that.
This leads us to the Supreme Court’s third, most-astounding misstep this week. The Third Amendment guarantees that, during times of peace, the government can’t force you to house a soldier. The Supreme Court ruling overturning federal protection of reproductive rights strips women’s bodies of these same protections. States can force a woman to grow an unwanted clump of cells in her body that may or may not turn into a person one day.
Not that it’s about children, either. There are 424,000 children in the United States in foster care right now. Four hundred twenty-four thousand clumps of cells that turned into people born to parents unable to care for them. If, as predicted, vast swaths of the southern and middle United States outlaw safe abortion services, what will that number look like in a few years?
It’s not really that surprising. Our laws often give property more protection than people. Our country was founded by land-owning, deeply racist, male chauvinists whose core value was that American stuff belonged to them — not the British and certainly not the people who were there first. Everything else — freedom of speech, freedom from religion, a well-regulated militia — was secondary, amendments, poorly worded addenda.
To recap: This week, we chose more guns, tax money for churches (who don’t pay taxes), and significantly less personal dominion over our own bodies.
V.I. Del. Stacey Plaskett is no fool. She saw what’s coming. “The door is now open to overturn other rights – birth control, same-sex and interracial marriage, the list is long,” she wrote regarding the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade.
I think she’s only seen the tip of the iceberg — to use a metaphor with an ever-shrinking shelf life.
Does the federal government have the right to limit greenhouse gas emissions? How about race and gender discrimination? If we believed people were good at their core, truly good, we’d say, of course, the cause of the catastrophic global climate emergency should be governed, and of course, discrimination should be outlawed.
But are we good?
It was a teenage girl who wrote, “It’s really a wonder I haven’t dropped all my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them because, in spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart.”
Maybe she meant some people some of the time. Maybe “good” means they have good intentions.
A state-side buddy thinks there’s a civil war coming. I really hope not. War is terrible. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I’d much rather solve things in a civilized manner. We vote. We protest. We try to educate and empathize. Does it do any good? I don’t know. I guess we’ll see what’s next.