The importance of hope and the danger of cynicism and pessimism in politics

I am usually optimistic about politics, that however bleak things look at the moment for the causes of equality and justice (and boy are they bleak right now) over time things will improve. But there is one issue where I felt where things would not improve and that is with gun control. My pessimism on that particular issue was sealed with the murders of twenty first grade children in Newton, an event that did not lead to any movement to limit the easy availability of high-powered weapons that pretty much anyone could get with no difficulty. It seemed like the political class was not going to interfere with the ability of any individual to buy unlimited numbers of weapons and ammunition to kill as many people as they can.

If such a horrific event did not produce any action, what would? Or so my thinking went. But Alec MacGillis warns that my kind of cynicism is playing right into the hands of the gun extremists in the NRA and congress, who are trying to create this sense of pessimism.

For one thing, such pessimism demoralizes, and dismisses, those who are motivated to fight against gun violence, such as the network of angry moms that sprung up after the Sandy Hook massacre and the organization led by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, which have managed to achieve a series of state-level successes even as reform stalls at the national level.

For another thing, it lets off the hook those who are opposed to stronger gun laws. Declaring preemptively that any new effort at gun-law reform is doomed spares opponents from even having to make their arguments for protecting the gun lobby.

Most importantly, liberal fatalism on gun control overstates the strength of the opposition. The National Rifle Association’s influence depends heavily on the perception of its power. By building up the gun lobby as an indomitable force, pessimists are playing directly into its hands.

Bottom line, the widespread fatalism on guns is self-fulfilling. It inflates the power of the opposition, undermines activists, and gives off the air of defeat, never a good thing in a country that prizes winners.

But now a new generation may be showing a different way. A remarkable wave of student outrage and activism is spreading from Parkland, serving as a rebuke not only to conservatives who have blocked gun-law reform, but also to liberals who had given up the fight.

“When we’ve had our say with the government — and maybe the adults have gotten used to saying ‘it is what it is,’ but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you will fail,” declared Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland student, in a speech that has gone viral on the Internet. “And in this case if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something.”

Yesterday, we saw an extraordinary debate in which students hammered senator Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch of the NRA for not taking action to get rid of the easy availability of guns.

Faced with a furious crowd of Florida students demanding a renewed ban on assault weapons, Republican senator Marco Rubio offered one concession after another.

He said he supported legislation to raise the legal age to purchase a rifle to 21 from 18. He said he supported a law to create gun violence restraining orders, which would give family members and law enforcement a way to petition a court to take away a dangerous person’s guns. He said he opposed Donald Trump’s proposal to prevent school shootings by arming teachers or putting more armed security in classrooms.

Finally, Rubio said he was “reconsidering” supporting a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, what experts call the most substantive part of the assault weapon ban. Rubio said that yet-to-be-announced details from the investigation on the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school would show that limits on ammunition magazines might have saved several lives in the shooting.

None of this was enough for the passionate crowd of more than 7,000 people at CNN’s town hall discussion in Florida on Wednesday night. They applauded, cheered and gave standing ovations in support of a full ban on the kind of military-style rifle and ammunition used in the Parkland shooting. A loophole-ridden federal assault weapon ban had passed in 1994, in the wake of a school shooting in California, and expired a decade later, in 2004.

These students are really taking action in an organized way. They are telling politicians that they have had enough of their thoughts and prayers and now they expect to see real action. This article looks at their efforts to organize the nationwide March for Our Lives protest on March 24.

Once again, I will quote legendary journalist I. F. Stone about the importance of never giving up even if the short-term outlook is bleak.

“The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing — for the sheer fun and joy of it — to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.”

The last time I quoted it, reader John Morales semi-jokingly asked whether this meant that those fights that are won were not worth fighting for. Of course, that is not what Stone meant. What he meant was that when victory on an issue seems imminent, then there are enough people who are willing to join in at the final stages. But we need to lay the groundwork for that eventual victory and not many people are willing to be the early and lonely voices who face almost certain defeat. But such people play a vital role.

I am really encouraged by these students. I suspect that politicians and the NRA are going to see what happened to Rubio and Loesch and will try to avoid such public encounters in the future. But they cannot fully escape engaging with the students who seem determined to get in their faces until something is done.


  1. says

    I am really encouraged by these students.

    For one thing, it really puts a hole in the idea that millenials are inert and inarticulate. A professional politician like Rubio has a career experience lying and dodging, and that kid punched his lights out.

    If they are wise, the youth will re-ignite a peace movement, and the old 60’s “don’t trust anyone over 30” -- the establishment in the US is a bunch of creaky old oligarchs and they’re ripe to be pushed over. The problem is they’re creaky old and very cunning and absolutely ruthless.

  2. says

    Rubio was eaten alive at that town hall. My favourite moment was when he said that a ban on assault rifles could result in a ban on all semi-automatic weapons like that was a scary slippery slope, but instead the audience applauded the idea.

    As much as conservatives mock safe spaces and claim the left lives in a bubble, the right has spent decades building up their own bubble and it’s always a shock to their system when they wander outside it.

  3. says

    For one thing, it really puts a hole in the idea that millenials are inert and inarticulate.

    Nnnyeh not exactly. Millennials are in their 20’s and early to mid 30s now. These activists are in the next group along.

  4. jrkrideau says

    # 3 Tabby Lavalamp
    Perhaps we need to start setting up refugee camps for US students fleeing violence?

    I am being a bit sarcastic but then I was being sarcastic when I suggested setting up refugee camps when Trump was elected. Granted, I was, somewhat jokingly, referring to native-born USians wanting to get away from Trump.

    The inundation of people fleeing the USA took me by surprise. I wonder how many DREAMERS fleeing deportation and violence will be arriving soon?

    My opinion back then was: “Immigrants like the American-Haitians and long term US Somali residents? Hey, these guys understand most of the culture and languages. Show them how to find a Timmie’s and demonstrate what a toque is and we are good to go”.

    If we snag some really well qualified DREAMERS we may be even better off. Perhaps the Gov’t should consider a recruiting campaign ( I am only partly joking) .

    We will still have to instruct them on Timmies and Toques. Still that should not take more than 10 minutes at most.

    Unfortunately, I am not being sarcastic this time. If I had children in school in the USA, I’d be packing up the kids and heading for the Canadian (Mexican ?) border as quickly as possible.

  5. jrkrideau says

    If we snag some really well qualified DREAMERS we may be even better off. Perhaps the Gov’t should consider a recruiting campaign ( I am only partly joking).

    I have reconsidered this. We should be actively recruiting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *