Very little worthwhile in life is easy, as the survivors from Parkland High School found out Tuesday night in the Florida State Legislature. But even by lazy and corrupt state legislative standards, the politicians’ display was a profile of cynicism.
I'm not just talking about the fact that Florida State Legislature declined to support an assault weapons ban by a lopsided margin just days after the latest mass shooting in their state killed 17 kids and teachers.
I'm not talking about how Tallahassee’s gutless wonders refused to even debate the issue. But given how much politicians like to talk, it's always telling when they refuse to engage in a debate. It's usually because they will be asked to confront some uncomfortable truths that their safe space of ideology and donor dollars lets them otherwise deny.
No, the most cynical aspect of Tuesday night's defeat was the fact that some genius decided to put a resolution defining pornography as a public health crisis next on the legislative docket.
State legislators aren’t usually known for their novelistic sense of humor, but it's hard not to see the dark irony with the kids from Parkland watching from the visitor's galley. The gun bill couldn’t get a hearing; the declaration of pornography as a public health problem easily passed the Republican-led chamber.
It's a distillation of almost everything wrong in our dysfunctional legislative debates.
Faced with a crisis of violence, Florida’s legislators chose to ignore the real pornography of violence in favor of puritanical posturing. It's kind of shallow, finger-wagging moralism that too often passes for real political principle, a strain the author and essayist Marilynne Robinson has called “salacious panic.”
But ask yourself what's more offensive: a son or daughter with their guts suddenly ripped from their bodies by bullets from an AR-15 or sex?
Pornography addiction may be bad for the heart, mind and relationships of the people who compulsively consume it, but it does not indiscriminately kill kids at school, or folks attending church in Texas, or dancing at a club in Orlando or a concert in Las Vegas.
What frequently motivates political puritans is often revealed to be a discomfort with sex, which amounts to a discomfort with themselves. Because sex is, after all, how we all got here. Guns are too frequently how we depart.
It's worth having a debate whether a mentally ill 19-year-old should get access to a weapon of war before he can buy a beer.
It's worth having a debate about universal background checks when they are supported by an astounding 97 percent of the American people according to a new Quinnipiac poll.
Even with that unheard of popular support, the legislative road to reasonable gun reform will be long and contain many setbacks. Compromise will be necessary on both sides to achieve any progress. There’s a reason why Washington is the place where cynicism passes for wisdom.
The strategy of the gun lobby is to bet on the forgetfulness of the American people. They can cynically look at the fact that Congress failed to take action after the slaughter of 6-year-olds in Sandy Hook as a vindication of their strategy, despite overwhelming support.
But the gun lobby has never come up against the kids at Parkland High. They have unique moral authority and speak with uncommon eloquence on this issue. Confronted with the Pavlovian political refrain about how “it’s too soon to talk about gun reform”, the Parkland kids set a date to escalate the debate – March 24 – a March for Our Lives in Washington.
That’s why they are already being attacked by right-wing trolls trying diminish them with conspiracy theories and snide dismissals that do not reflect anything in the same moral universe of the slogan conservatives sometimes offer: “What Would Jesus Do?”
Real moral clarity would mean recognizing that being pro-life doesn’t stop at birth. Compassion and action need to be connected in a spirit of common sense compromise. There seems to be some new openness to modest legislation and at this writing President Trump appears to deserve some credit for backing a ban on bump stocks and other means of orchestrating mass murder. Our Teflon Don of a president once vocally backed gun reform, but Olympic-level flip-flops don’t seem to stick to him. At least we can expect that his denunciations of pornography will be limited to the accuracy of actresses’ accounts of their relationships.
Political cynics prey upon our civic laziness. But because the surviving kids from Parkland High are speaking out with more eloquence and urgency than most politicians, we may finally be at a tipping point in this bloody national debate, determined to break through the abstractions and distractions with bracing moral clarity, confronting the real pornography of violence that is almost daily disfiguring our claim to be a civil society.