How can holding two contradictory ideas at the same time make you intelligent?

Democracy makes decisions slowly.  Sometimes it takes a crisis to get any decision made.  As Harry Truman said, “Wherever you have an efficient government you have a dictatorship.”  On the flip side, whenever a decision finally gets made in a democracy, opponents claim we’re living under a dictatorship.  We’re going through that cycle now in the aftermath of President Obama’s announcement that he would issue Executive Orders concerning enforcement of our gun laws.

Many people had hoped that the killings of 20 little children in Sandy Hook, Connecticut would catalyze Congress to do something with our Federal laws to help prevent such mass shootings from happening again.  Nothing happened.  Instead the incidence of mass shootings has only increased to about one a day in 2015.  It’s difficult to wait patiently for democratic processes to reach a solution when that time is measured in dead bodies and destroyed lives.

Facing similar Congressional inaction on what to do about the more than 10 million people who are living in this country without proper legal approvals, President Obama issued Executive Orders in late 2014 to create some programs to deal with parts of the problem.  The thinking at the time seemed to be that reaction to these Executive Order might spur Congress to act.  If they didn’t like what the President had done, they could just enact laws to deal with the problems as they wanted them dealt with.  Instead of doing something about the issue, members of Congress spouted outrage that this “dictator” had usurped their power.  Unfortunately the President’s ploy only resulted in legal action to undo his efforts.

The White House fact sheet on the new Executive Orders again recognizes that “Some of the gaps in our country’s gun laws can only be fixed through legislation ….”  Nevertheless, the President is taking executive action because “Congress has repeatedly failed to take action and pass laws that would expand background checks and reduce gun violence ….”  While these new Executive Orders seem much more narrowly tailored to avoid the legal problems with his immigration orders, the outrage over his “dictatorship” has been the same.  Some comments attack the President for what they think he would really like to do and not what he’s actually done this time.

To build support for his immigration actions the President went around the country to meet with audiences interested in resolving the legal status of undocumented immigrants.  Tonight, in another change of strategy, the President appeared on a CNN town hall meeting to face his critics and opponents, as well as  supporters.

The discussion on CNN was certainly more civil on both sides than many comments in the media.  The President recognized the sincerity and good intentions of his opponents.  The President was much more civil than many supporters of gun control have been on social media, where they argue or assume that people must be ignorant or stupid or evil-minded if they own guns or oppose further controls on gun ownership and use.

The President even addressed the historical tendencies in the United States not to trust government.  “It’s in our DNA.”  This distrust feeds the fears that he and the Federal government want to take away everyone’s guns. (The moderator Anderson Cooper confused this point with a question that started off about why people believe in conspiracy theories and turned into whether the President believed there was a conspiracy to make him the villain.)

Gabby Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly questioned whether any attempt to take away everyone’s guns could realistically be carried out.  He said that there are 350 million guns in the hands of 65 million households in the United States.  This reminded me of a realization I had at the time of the San Bernardino shooting. I realized that I’ve been totally inconsistent.  When Trump & Co started talking about sending all “illegal aliens” back where they came from, I among others argued that it would be physically and economically impossible to deport more than 10 million people living in this country, even aside from the political realities and morality.

Yet, after every mass shooting, I sign petitions and write Congress to act on legislation that would restrict access to firearms.  The problem with my knee-jerk reaction is that one in three Americans own guns.  That’s more than 100 million people.  I laugh at cartoons mocking the caricature of a fat, white, middle-aged man vowing that the government will only take away his AK-47 over his cold, dead body.  Yet, more than one million people in New York state alone are estimated to own assault weapons requiring registration under that State’s new law.

There is no rational reason why any individual citizen needs to own a weapon capable of killing dozens of other humans in seconds.  If I had my way, no one would own these weapons and all such weapons currently in private hands would be collected and destroyed.  But that’s not going to happen.  It’s time to get real.  Time to stop letting the perfect get in the way of the good.  Another point the President made tonight.  He was responding to critics who said his Executive Orders would not ensure any more gun deaths.  I’m talking about how we gun control advocates relate to gun rights advocates.  As long as we caricature and demean gun-owners, as long as we threaten what they see as their right and their safety, they will listen to the likes of Wayne Lapierre and the NRA.  Until we recognize their common humanity and shared values of caring for each other, they will listen to voices appealing to baser instincts.

I’m not saying that gun control advocates created the situation of widespread gun ownership, nor that we created the impasse in doing something to stop these almost daily mass shootings.  I am saying that if we truly want to change this situation, we need to change ourselves.

As the NBC story cited above about gun ownership indicates, we are where we are today because of culture and history.  More than laws we need to change our culture.  That change only comes from within.  We can change others only when we change ourselves.

Part of change from within is to recognize our own inconsistencies, like mine about 10 million undocumented immigrants and 100 million gun owners.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The 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.”  The ability of a democracy to function while people hold opposing ideas certainly is a good test of its quality.   As far as individuals go, by recognizing their inconsistent ideas first rate intelligences do not let lack of self-awareness get in the way of changing themselves and others.

By the way, Fitzgerald wrote the article in which this quote appears in 1936 during the Great Depression.  It’s fascinating how much what he has to say about a country undergoing fundamental stresses and changes applies to what we’re going through today.



  1. Thanks for adding another contradiction to the list. Another aspect of this contradiction is the probability that someone in the household will use a gun to commit suicide.

  2. Excellent and thoughtful post. Having grown up in a place & time – the edge of Harlem in NYC in the late 60’s and 70’s – where the only purpose of guns is to kill people – to a place where people hunt and the gun culture is quite alive, and very different, I have had to examine my own contradictions about guns. The vast, vast majority of gun deaths are ‘local’ to the gun owners – like, people killing their spouses, daughters & sons, guests at parties, neighbors, etc. In a very real way the people who are armed to the teeth are the ones most dangerous to each other. If you do not live in an armed household, you are much less in danger than those who are. I wonder if, statistically, random drunk drivers aren’t more of a mortal danger to strangers than automatic weapon-toting madmen. So, what I’m saying it that it is strange that, given that the gun owners & their immediate families are far more in danger from their own gun ownership than, say, I am, that they aren’t concerned. That is also an interesting contradiction.

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