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Polls often reveal that gun owners oppose legislation being pushed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). This is true to a large extent even of gun owners who belong to the NRA. For example, Frank Luntz, who is a Republican pollster and frequent analyst on Fox News, found that 69% of NRA members support closing the loophole that allows buyers at gun shows to circumvent background checks (the figure was 85% for all gun owners). Seventy-eight percent of NRA members support requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen guns (88% of all gun owners). I’m just citing Luntz because he’s a conservative, though of course the NRA disputes his findings; there are other studies that also show that the NRA is too extreme for many of the people it claims to represent.

I used to belong to AAA; my parents bought me a membership when I got my driver’s license, and for many years it was synonymous in my mind with “roadside assistance.” Gradually, as I read the AAA magazine and paid attention to the news, I realized that “the highway lobby,” with which I disagreed on almost all issues, was in fact the better synonym for AAA (see what you can learn if you’re a compulsive reader?). Roadside assistance and those handy little tour books were just a sideline use of our membership funds, while the major use was to pay lobbyists to get Congress to increase highway funding, oppose un-American activities like rails-to-trails conversions, and generally resist any policy that might move us more toward other forms of transportation than the almighty automobile. As soon as I learned that there were other roadside-assistance plans available, I stopped sending my money to AAA.

The NRA is forever hiding behind “responsible gun owners” and “hunters” and implying that anyone who does target shooting, goes deer hunting, or for that matter, keeps a handgun in their home for self-defense, supports their positions. If you are a gun owner, please have a look at what the NRA wants to accomplish, and if you disagree with them, don’t fund them. There are other organizations for gun owners, responsible ones that, unlike the NRA, are not the bane of police departments. Join one of them. (And that gun in your house? Lock it up well. There are kids around.)


Federal judge dead, Congresswoman among 12 wounded in shooting

I’m watching the events in Tucson unfold and thinking about what to say for tomorrow’s service. There are a lot of places in the world where the one with the biggest guns makes the rules, and when public officials live under the threat of death, we edge closer to that reality.

It’s my dad’s district, and I believe he worked on her last campaign, which was a squeaker. And I was a little afraid to write that, in case some lunatic looks him up. I know that that is paranoid, but this is what I’m talking about: the chilling effect violence has on open conversation.

The Palo Alto Art Center is about to host an installation by Patrick Dougherty, who will be in residence here for three weeks beginning on January 11. I’ve seen his work before, several years ago at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, and liked it. If you’re in the Bay Area, you may have seen Dougherty’s sculptures at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausolito.

The PAAC’s press release quotes a critic who calls him “the Jackson Pollack of sculpture,” an opinion I don’t share because I think Dougherty is much more interesting. Just because two artists have a similar use of line doesn’t mean their intentions or results are similar.

The installation will apparently be up for a year, and during the three weeks he’s in residence, there are tie-in activities, at least for kids. Adults who want to learn to make sculptures out of twigs might not be in luck.

It seems to be my week for environmentally interesting art. A friend posted a link to this page of Areca Roe’s website on Facebook. Wow. She has found the visual language to express so much of what I feel about the relationship between wildness and us. Hence her new spot on my blogroll.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is grappling with standing, an unsexy but important question in the Proposition 8 federal case.  Namely:  the plaintiffs–couples who want to marry and are denied access to marriage–have standing to bring their complaint to the federal courts.  But who has standing to defend Proposition 8?  One county tried to claim it, and the judges threw that part out.

When they heard the case several weeks ago, the judges asked many interesting questions, and some challenging ones, about the question of standing.  One judge was quite sharp in asking whether the governor (then Arnold Schwarzenegger) and attorney general (then Jerry Brown) had effectively vetoed a law by refusing to defend it in court.  I thought that was going a little far, but it did get at a good point:  if the government of the state won’t defend a law when it is challenged, is that government doing right by the legislators, and by the will of the people?

Years ago, when I was living in Vermont, and the state Supreme Court was tackling the question of whether the state’s equal protection clause mandated marriage equality, I bought a raffle ticket from my county Democratic Party and won a lunch with the state’s attorney general.  I knew he was named in the lawsuit, and asked him about the fight.  He said frankly that it was one of those cases where plenty of people in his office agreed with the challenge to the law.  (He didn’t say his own opinion, and I neither thought it was appropriate to ask him, nor would reveal it here if he had.  He paid for the lunch.)  But, he said, part of the job description of the state’s attorney general is to represent the state in any lawsuits against it, and since Vermont was the party named in the suit, their role was to take its side.

In that regard, he and his staff were like the defense attorney in a criminal case (this is my extrapolation–he knew the difference between civil and criminal law).  Defendants must have representation; their lawyers must do their best to get them acquitted; our justice system depends on it.  Switching back to the realm of civil laws and state governments, Vermont had duly passed various laws and it was the attorney general’s job to defend them.  If he didn’t, then the people who passed the laws (the legislators) and the people whom they represented (the citizens) were being shortchanged.  I don’t know if this is legally compelling, but I find it morally so.

So I ought to look askance at Schwarzenegger and Brown’s refusal to defend Prop 8.  I do think it might have been bad strategically, but I don’t think it was morally wrong.  Instead, it illuminates one of the major problems with our crazy ballot proposition system:  the people, voting on a ballot measure, are a fourth branch of government that has not been fit into the system of checks and balances.

Remember checks and balances?  You learned about them in civics, or maybe it was called social studies.  We have three branches of government, with different roles, and they check each other.  The executive has to abide by the laws set by the legislature.  The legislature can’t create any laws that violate the constitution, as interpreted by the judiciary.  The judiciary is chosen by the executive, with confirmation by the legislature.  Et cetera.  Now California has created a fourth branch, but where are the checks and balances?

Plenty of people argued that the state Supreme Court didn’t have the right to cancel out the people’s vote by ruling unconstitutional laws that excluded same-sex couples from marriage. Well, they’re idiots.  Of course it did.  Ruling on the constitutionality of a law is not only the judiciary’s right, it’s its obligation, and furthermore, in doing so, it is doing its part to uphold the will of the people as well–the will of the people as enshrined in the constitution. 

The people then did the only thing they could do to remedy such an injustice, if they thought letting same-sex couples marry is an injustice, which for some reason they did:  amend the constitution, in this case via a ballot proposition.  Game over.  The state Supreme Court might like the amendment or it might not, but there it is, a part of the constitution:  marriage is only allowed between one man and one woman.  (Of course, this new line contradicts other parts of the constitution, but I won’t even go into that.  Nor will I rant about the stupidity of having a constitution be so easily amended–at least not today.)

But here’s the rub.  I’ve read many ballot propositions, and some of them build in an immunity to checks and balances.  Their text says that if they’re passed, no legislature can overturn them, or only a supermajority can do so.  This is absurd.  Any act of the legislature can be reversed by a subsequent act of the legislature.  They don’t get to say “. . . and neener neener, if you don’t like this, future legislators, too bad.”

Yet that’s what these ballot propositions say:  that a direct vote by the people supersedes a vote by the people’s representatives.  This just does not work, unless it is part of a carefully calibrated system of checks and balances, such as applies to the other three branches of government.

So if “the people” lack standing, well, we asked for it.  If legislation passed by direct vote isn’t subject to the checks of the other branches of government, then it’s a bit much to ask another branch to defend it.

Some days, you’re in the drawing zone, and other days . . . not.  Today I just could not make anything I was really happy with.  On a couple of drawings, I thought the hands and feet were the best part (hence the detail shots that follow).  Maybe that was my problem–too much time spent on the hands and feet, not enough on the rest?  Whatever.  It’s all learning.

What continues to amaze me is how much I look forward to this time every week.  I know I’ve said it many times, here and elsewhere.  I just can’t get over how totally different I feel than a year ago, when I was about to go to San Miguel and (despite the thrill of going to Mexico) felt a sense of duty and dread about taking a drawing class.

It’s also striking how much harder it is for me to draw on my own than in the group.  I’ve experienced the same thing with meditation; the only time I’ve meditated regularly, and without more than minor resistance, was when I was part of a sangha.  One aspect is simple peer pressure.  I would be ashamed if I were one of the few people who didn’t show up.  Not exactly an enlightened motive, but as one of my favorite Buddhist aphorisms says, lotuses grow out of the muck at the bottom of the pond.  Attachment it surely was, but that attachment to status kept me planted on the cushion.

Buddhists give thanks for the three jewels:  the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.  Originally the sangha meant the community of monastics, but when I give thanks for the sangha I always think of it primarily as the local community of practitioners.  I seem to rely on a sangha for art too.

Our Sunday morning worship theme for the month of January is “home.”  We kick off the canvass this month as well, so I’m thinking a lot about the idea of one’s congregation as one’s home.  It’s a common enough metaphor, but what does it mean?  It depends on what “home” means.  If it means “comfort,” I’m not crazy about that being a primary quality of any congregation I belong to (and/or serve).    I want it to be comforting, absolutely, when we need to be comforted.  But not entirely comfortable.

Tangentially, but not unrelatedly, I’d like to pass along this New Year’s wish from the blog of a favorite writer of mine, Neil Gaiman: “May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness.  I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art–write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can.  And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”

I wish all those things for myself in 2011, and for anyone who reads this.  And now I am going to turn off the computer, go kiss two someones who think I’m wonderful (the feeling is mutual), and get some sleep in the hope that tomorrow morning I’ll be able to say some words as only I can say them, and so help my dear, beloved co-congregants to live as only they can.

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