A hard choice, if it should come to that

The Supreme Court’s decisions regarding displays of the Ten Commandments was extensively covered this week. The public reacts to symbolism like toddlers respond to colorful toys. Meanwhile, I brooded over the eminent domain decision.

If I make my stand in the garage, I can die in the same spot my father died. My building preparations for the event would focus on two goals: (1) To hold out for a respectable amount of time, meaning sufficient time for the national media to take an interest; and (2) To insure that the police could not take me by surprise, preventing me from either killing myself or being killed by them.

Media coverage would be important because I would be giving my life so that my home could not be turned over to another person or group, and I would assume that most people would recognize I was in the right, and that my sacrifice would inspire others to take up where I left off. While I have no desire to die a martyr, I would choose such a course if the terms of my continuing to live were made untenable. I see myself as like those revolutionaries who started this country, for they were not men who were impoverished or enslaved. They were largely wealthy men who were unable to capture the loyalty of two-thirds of their fellow colonists until the war had been won. They were also men who had been pushed and refused to live with the indignity of being pushed farther. How can a life be worthwhile if it must be purchased at any price? What joy can there be in arising each morning and looking in the mirror at a man who will accept any degradation if only those who are stronger than he will permit him a groveling existence?

I have given much thought to whether I would actually attempt to kill a policeman, and have decided against it if possible. The people who I would like to kill, I could not kill if I decided to barricade myself inside my house, because I could not afford to risk being caught on the way home. This is how little confidence I have in my ability as an assassin. Such endeavors require a cooler head and steadier hands than mine.

As for my fortress, it would need to be reasonably sturdy (re-enforced concrete would be better, but multiple layers of plywood might have to suffice) to reduce my vulnerability to a direct assault after an attack with tear gas or concussion grenade. It would also need to have an upward angling door close to the floor (or even beneath the floor) just large enough that I could crawl through it and seal it, so it couldn’t be flattened with a battering ram or pulled away with machinery—at least not before I could kill myself. The walls would require closable apertures (wider at the back than at the front, to see through, shoot through, and get air through. Since I could not prevent gas from coming through these same apertures, I would need a gas mask. Naturally, I would need a supply of food and a toilet (maybe a narrow pipe leading to a wider hole beneath the floor.

When I consider my plans and whether I would really pursue them, I ever run into the obstacle of having a wife whose property and fate are so linked with mine that I could not bring danger to myself without bringing suffering to her. The heroes of the American Revolution had families, but this did not prevent them from risking their lives and fortunes, although I don’t know how they brought themselves to do so. The sentiment, “I could not love thee half so much loved I not honor more,” never held sway with me: I would feel damned either way if I was forced to choose between honor and family. If I elected the former, I would not live at all; if I chose the latter, I would have to live with anger and humiliation. I would anticipate choosing the latter as the only loving option, and also as the choice that would reflect the direction of my responsibility. If I were alone, I would react very differently, the choice not being whether to respond violently, but how to best use violence to avenge myself and to inspire others.

Another thought that comes to mind when I consider taking a violent stand is that I am unlikely to ever be faced with eminent domain. The hotel, if it is built, might go up on the other side of the fairgrounds; or an economic downturn might eliminate the possibility. It could even happen that years might pass before it was built, and we might actually want to move by then. On a scale of realistic fears, eminent domain is low, but the magnitude of a fear is determined not just by its likelihood, but by its horror.

No more property rights

The Supreme Court ruled last week that local governments can seize people’s homes and businesses and turn the property over to private developers (Kelo et al v. City of New London, 04-108). Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a dissenting opinion:

“Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result. ‘That alone is a just government,’ wrote James Madison, ‘which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.’”

I happened to turn on my computer and learn of the ruling within minutes of it being issued. I sat in shock, having known that the case was before the court but never imagining that the court would contradict my very definition of America. I listened to radio and television all day, switching from one station to another to discover the extent of the nation’s outrage, but was chagrined to learn that what struck me as cause for revolution, scarcely registered on the country as a whole. The proposed flag burning amendment was considered worthy of yet another daylong discussion, whereas only NPR even made mention of the Supreme Court decision. I am surely a mutant to a decidedly unintelligent species.

Free speech is worthless unless the speaker succeeds in raising sufficient support to intimidate politicians (a feat that requires money and status). Until then, the merits of his arguments and the persistence of his presentation are ignored. Property, on the other hand, is important because it gives the individual a measure of control and self-determination. By making my property available to whomever can generate the highest tax revenues, the court has effectively made it possible for the city of Eugene to sell my property to the highest bidder. I don’t say that the city will take my land and give it to the owner of a True Value Hardware Store, although this very thing happened to a homeowner in Arizona. And it is unlikely that my house will be torn down so Ted Turner can put up a parking garage, even though this was the case in New Jersey. But I might very well face a similar fate, because my house sets where the city wants a hotel that would serve the county fairgrounds.

Now, I am free to wonder if and when the axe will fall, free to decide how many more dollars and hours I want to put into improving my property. I am free to wait for the city to appoint advisory committees to hire feasibility experts. If their reports are favorable to the ears of the city, I am then free to take whatever money I am offered based upon the recent selling prices of similar properties in my area, no matter that the market is up or down, and no matter that there are no similar properties in my area. After deciding what it will pay, the city will send a policeman with a condemnation order telling me when I am free to leave so bulldozers can sweep away my years of work.

I suppose that, when all is said and done, the leaders of even the best governments spend their taxpayer financed careers looking for ways to take power away from taxpayers. Individuals come and go like fireflies, but bureaucrats are forever, weaseling, manipulating, and strong-arming; doing things in the name of government that they would never dream of doing in their private lives. Alone, they won’t put a gun to my head to take my property, but they will do it for government and sleep soundly afterwards. This is not because government is wiser or nobler than ordinary people, but because it relieves its minions of personal responsibility. They, in turn, can assure those whose lives they disrupt—or destroy—that they are just doing their jobs, just following the orders of the legislature or the city council. In any event, no actual person is to blame; it’s the system, it’s city hall. Soldiers are dying everyday so I can be free to rant all I want against governmental unfairness, but I had better be damned sure to be out before the wrecking ball arrives, or I will be killed (impersonally, of course); and that would be a shame because such deaths look bad on page 19-C of the local paper, and because they throw the builders off schedule.

If Ted Turner had persuaded the city to condemn my home so he could build a parking garage, I would take it very personally. I would blame him, and I would blame the mayor and any council members who went along with him. I would also blame the secretary who typed the order, the police officer who delivered it, and the contractor who demolished my house. My problem would not be who to blame, but who to kill since I would be stopped before I killed them all.

Of course, I speak as a fanatic, a hothead, and I probably wouldn’t harm anyone anyway because I have both a wife and a life to consider. But this is where I get confused. Is life a thing to be clung to regardless? Apparently, the government is also confused. On the one hand, it has gotten 1,729 American men and women killed in Iraq for a cause that makes no sense to me, while on the other, it has fought vigorously for the “life” of a brain dead woman along with the “lives” of test tube fetuses that would be destroyed anyway. Compared to war, snuffing Ted Turner would make perfectly good sense because it would be a direct attack on an egregious predator and oppressor. In war, directness is seldom the case. My countrymen have killed the youth of many nations, and their youth has killed our youth, not out of hatred or because one or the other was evil, but because governments ordained the killing.

I offer this as another example of individuals performing horrific acts because government claimed the power to relieve them of personal responsibility. I would suggest that this is not an ethically defensible position, and this is why the assassination of someone like Ted Turner would be an act of virtue and economy. War is like burning down a house to get rid of the roaches; assassination is targeting nothing but roaches. How much nobler is that man who takes personal responsibility for a justifiable assassination than is that soldier who kills strangers in war. The former knows that his own defamation and destruction are insured, while the latter anticipates honors and benefits.

These were some of my thoughts after I read the court’s verdict, but there were others. For example, I recalled that I am expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag at lodge, and I can no longer do that unless I substitute, “…the country for which it stood for “the country for which it stands.” I thought of America’s soldiers, and I knew that I no longer consider them my soldiers; and of America’s police, how they are no longer my police. Both have become the arm of an occupying force. I also felt relief, because, having lost connectedness to my country of origin, I am less concerned for its welfare. So what if illegals flood the borders and rob us of our culture and language? So what if terrorists set off a dirty bomb in Washington? I will grieve for the innocent dead, and I will regret whatever economic cost I incur, but I will not view it as a personal affront to something that is precious to me.

I experienced such feelings because property is my most intimate possession. For the government to take away my right to be master of my home and the little parcel of land upon which it sets constitutes such an intimate and degrading incursion that it would lead me to seriously question the value of my life if I acquiesced.

Simply put, I don’t know if I could in good conscience allow it to pass without resorting to violence. I would reflect on the fact that I have already lived a good many years, and that surely it would be better to die at sixty while fighting for something I believed in than at eighty of a stroke. The rub, as I have said, is that I have a wife; also, the worst has not yet happened, at least not to me, and I can’t honestly say what I would do. I can but say that I would equate surrender with weakness.

Social angst

I wince under the irony of the fact that I consider most people so vapid that I can scarcely tolerate them, yet I want them to enjoy their time with me. Most of my social interactions result in a net loss, for not only do I not enjoy my companions; I rarely learn from them; I don’t feel bolstered by my part in the interaction; I don’t believe my companions enjoyed my part in our interaction; and I even feel a loss of self-respect due to my failure to socialize in a mutually gratifying way. My need for society is analogous to my need for religion in that both are unabating and unrequited.

Somewhat in my defense, I have observed that if you record a conversation—or a speech, lecture, or sermon—and play it before an audience—no one but your family will voluntarily watch it. The situation is almost as bad if the conversation, speech, etc. is heard directly, but the act of recording it removes the listener from any semblance of a give and take relationship, causing the emptiness of content to become obvious. I suspect therefore that most people truly are as boring as I perceive them, and that any interest they appear to possess must be attributed to their relationship to their listeners.

As a boy in church, I was called upon from time to time to address the congregation. I was stricken by how bored and distracted my audience looked until I observed that the audience looked the same no matter who was speaking, and I concluded from this that I might indeed be boring, but at least I was no more boring than anyone else. It is still true that I don’t long to excel as a speaker or a conversationalist (such goals overtaxing my credulity), but only to equal some imaginary average. Even this I cannot do except on those occasions when I am drawn to someone for information (as when I am talking with a botanist or geologist), or when a person is gifted at drawing me out and affirming the worth of what I offer. I realize that the approval of people in the latter category can not usually be taken personally, because their interest extends to everyone. Like Will Rogers, they would say they never met a man they didn’t like (a claim that would hardly have astounded me more had the speaker been a woman who said she never met a man she didn’t sleep with).

I went to a funeral after I wrote the above, and I reflected upon what I had written as I interacted. Since I possess so little hope of either pleasing or being pleased by others, the best I could think to do was to be kind and to at least appear interested (as opposed to talking about myself, as is my habit). I have heard it said that we eventually become that which we pretend to be, but I have not found it so. Maybe the reason is that I am not kind enough, kindness being a haphazard endeavor for me. It is a virtue that my native empathy, combined with my considerable intuition, enables me to excel at when I think of it and resolve to do it, but these prerequisites are often lacking. It could also be argued that I expect too much of others—and of myself—and this might be true, but it can only lead to a resignation akin to that of putting up with an old dog that can’t help but piss on the carpet.

One of the reasons I prefer to write rather than to converse is that talking is so nearly effortless that too much is said, whereas writing takes time and dedication, and thereby encourages depth and conciseness. It also eliminates distractions and allows me to proceed at a slower pace. If my speech were as personal and profound as my writing, people would consider me peculiar and not know how to respond; but if my writing were as shallow and desultory as my speech, I could fill pages without saying anything of interest.

The first time in a long time

My Odd Fellow’s lodge secretary called today to ask if I would be willing to take his job. The irony of most organizations is that, if you are a non-attending member, they don’t ask anything of you, but if you attend even a little, you are expected to assume more and more responsibility. This was the main reason I stopped attending my Masonic lodge.

Speaking of Freemasonry, I went to lodge tonight for the first time in years. My home lodge has since combined with another lodge (due to falling membership), and the other lodge meets but a few blocks from my house. I only recognized one of the brothers, but this was enough to enable me to avoid an investigating committee. No matter what such a committee had asked, I probably wouldn’t have known it, my memory of Masonry being so fuzzy. I took my membership card, and I remembered the distress signal that is supposed to bring all Masons within sight or sound to my aid, so I knew that the two together would get me in.

A story that came down through my father’s family has it that one of my uncles from the Civil War era was about to be executed by the military when he inadvertently gave a Masonic sign that inspired an officer to save his life. After the war, he became a Mason and went all the way to the 32nd degree. My father, who knew almost nothing about Masonry, was most impressed by this achievement, because he thought it came as a result of hard work and dedication. Well, not really. Only the first three degrees require a lot of memorization.

The applicant learns the material by hearing the answers from men who volunteer to teach him, and then repeating those answers until he gets them right. His only written aids are books that contain the first letter of every word. When he becomes proficient, he is tested in lodge. When he finishes all three degrees, he is a Master Mason and can attend the basic unit of Masonry, the blue lodge. Afterwards, he can—if he chooses—go into the York Rite or the Scottish Rite (or both), the former being for Christians only, and the latter being for any Mason.

Masonry has a rich mythology and symbolism. In fact, there are books that contain nothing but Masonic symbols. As for the mythology, most of the blue lodge work centers on the building of King Solomon’s temple. I don’t respect tax-and-spend kings and the monuments they erect with their ill-gotten gain, but the stories were interesting.

Mostly, I was happy that the Masons still make a man work to get in, because the Odd Fellows have relaxed all such requirements due to their desperation to attract new members. The problem is that few of the new members in my area give a damn about the fraternity. They come for their initiatory degree so they can gain cheap access to the Odd Fellow campground on the coast, and we never see them again. I’ve railed against admitting them, but mine is a lone voice—my brothers maintaining the hope that, at some point, they will attend lodge.

Not a potty dance at all

The ophthalmologist said I am in the clear. My eye and the top of my head still hurts, but not terribly much.

I have been off Zoloft for two or three months now, and am hopefully done with the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. Peggy was initially happy that I can enjoy music again, but she hadn’t counted on how different our tastes had become. I like reggae and other forms that I don’t even know the names of. Yesterday, I was dancing to American Indian music while I worked on a project, and either the music or my dancing drove her from the house. She says my every dance looks the same, and that they all look like a potty dance. Since I am part Indian, I argued that this is just how “my people” dance, and I threaten to report her to the authorities for committing a hate crime.