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June 22

I've been working on a novel set mostly in '70's New York City for some time now, certainly over a year. Most attempts to portray the place and time fall short. Jazz is a part of my own book, so is New Wave.

One thing that I've noted about criticisms of books and shows and movies set in this time and place is that those who were there like to invalidate almost any other remembrance of the place apart from their own as counterfeit. It's been a luxury to be able to observe this; I've had a chance to ponder why this reaction may be so. It's not like New York in the '70's is Paris in the '20's, and there's a small crew of expats to whom we can point and say with certitude, "Oh, they caught the moment best." In truth, nobody could have caught it best, and I can readily see that through the lens of music alone. I think of myself as unique for expressing interest in Jazz and New Wave, but I am missing (as I indeed missed at the time) Disco entirely, and that was a large part of the time too. Simply to turn the radio to a particular station was to make a political, social, musical statement.

I don't know if I want to get started on classical. You would go to the Met (for $2.50) and people would even start booing the sets if they didn't like them or even if they had seen them too many times. I saw a performance of Pictures at an Exhibition at Barnard, in a brightly lit classroom with maybe thirty people there, and there was hissing at the pianist at the end, with the folks nearest me criticizing the arc of her wrists when pounding out The Great Gates of Kiev.

Now, THAT was a critical environment if nothing else. It may yet be found that the great commonality of life in New York City in the '70's was what a ferociously critical place it was. So you have some formative years there and you carry that with you, and then forty years later culture hopes to push criticism aside and present the world as a wonderful place, when we know it's also a horrible place; and the new attitude is, maybe if we don't talk about how horrible it is, it will get better. Yeah. I think I'll leave that implicit contrast alone, and once again simply try to show something as it actually was, rather than as we'd like to imagine it was.

June 16

I've watched the nation's top legislators weigh in on what to do next regarding mass shootings. I realize most others haven't. If you've missed any of these procedings – the President's briefing, the House leadership's briefing, the fillibuster – I didn't miss much, and much of what I saw is distilled in this post. How the Democrats have backed off of talk of an assault weapons ban and seem to be "settling" for different steps forward, and how this happened in a mere two days time, is included. But first, an opinion.

It seems banal to say you have to respond to lies with truth; but it seems fruitless to insert into our gun and terror debates that none of us are advised by any sages to respond to hate with more hate still. I've seen a lot of people this past week say scattered things about guns, immigration, and how America should respond to the Pulse catastrophe, and what I have seen has been more shrill and hate-laced than sagacious. In fact, most of what I saw disappointed me, on all sides, and yet I couldn't say precisely what was wrong with what I saw. So early this week while all the outrage was going on, and so many people were sounding so shrill even before the dead were mourned, I decided to watch our Washington legislators very attentively, to try to determine what is really going on in all of this, and perchance even to form a personal idea about what people should do next. Here are those thoughts and observations.

Two days ago, I watched the two big briefings on terrorism, the one from the President and from the House. I'll bet not many had time to see these. I didn't know what was best to do about last Sunday morning's catastrophe before I watched these briefings, and I still don't. But I think it's best to review carefully information from President Obama and Speaker Ryan than from a thousand others with points to prove and agendas to shove. If we had a media that were capable of reporting off-the-record information, I'd review that too, but thus far media have done very little off-the-record reporting on this – although there has been some, and it has been valuable too.

And yesterday, I watched about four hours of the Democratic Senate fillibuster, which will force two votes, one on a no-brainer issue, one on a policy that some states have already instituted. It wasn't so much that I was riveted to what was being said; I was mostly curious how much energy the Democrats would devote to promoting their amendments to Senate bills. It turned out that they are putting a lot of energy into it, and plainly think this is their issue to win. Along the way I learned quite a few things about what is real and what is pose: for instance, I learned that gun-happy Colorado already has background check and gun show purchase regulations on the books, so it wouldn't be impacted much by nationwide legislation calling for such. Neither of California's Democratic Senators partook in the fillibuster, but one of the amendments, to ban gun sales to those suspected of involvement with terror, is Senator Feinstein's.

But before I get into what all these top officeholders in the land said, I want to let you know that here in California, which is a very exemplary state because of its enormous population, we already something beyond what both amendments are calling for: we already an assault weapons ban, and have had it for nearly a generation. Obviously, this not foolproof (it didn't prevent San Bernardino, for instance), but just as obviously, any extra hurdle is an extra deterrent to a tragedy. I don't think there's any question that making an assault weapon illegal creates bigger hurdles to overcome for those with dangerous hatreds. It's too bad our California Senators didn't participate in the fillibuster – they could have shared good information with the rest of the nation.

I also want to state the obvious: in California, we have literally millions of immigrants, and even a million or so undocumented folks living up and down the state. The rate at which they commit crimes or are discovered to be engaged in terrorist activity is under persistent review and dispute, but it is not especially controversial in the State. The majority of Californians believe that the high presence of immigrants here does not contribute to crime and terrorism any more than fully-privileged American citizens do.

° ° ° ° °

Two days ago, in his security briefing to the nation, Obama was purse-lipped and exasperated. He especially wanted America to believe that the GOP is the obstacle in a Federal assault weapons ban. As you may know, the Federal government had something similar for ten years and did not renew it. It expired over a decade ago. He also spoke of what he thinks are great strides made against ISIL.
But countering much of what he said, I also am astonished to see this morning that the head of the CIA is going to tell – or more like warn – the Senate that we haven't had much impact on ISIL yet. Obama was clearly trying to leave the impression that we have. I know my friends on the left don't think of Obama as ever having bad facts or even lying, but it appears that to-day the CIA director will contradict him at minimum on how successful we've been against ISIL.

Speaker Ryan's briefing of two days ago, as you might expect, was very different. He said that the House has put together six bills restricting immigration that they're waiting to pass through Congress. He was fairly purse-lipped too. He did not speak about any kind of gun control.

° ° ° ° °

It's probably time to insert some history underlying all this. What you don't often hear in conjunction with any of this national discussion is that immediately after the first assault weapons ban instituted at the Federal level, in 1994, the Democratic party subsequently lost control of the House for the first time in two generations, losing an astonishing 54 seats in that November's election. In the long time Democrat's mind, things haven't been the same since. (President Clinton himself, when asked about the historic '94 losses, likes to point to the assault weapons ban as the reason for the losses; but most, including most liberals, disagree, as NAFTA had passed the year before, and many of these losses were in Rust Belt states).

That forgetting of history may account for this: after Obama and after Ryan, the parties themselves get awfully thin on a lot of these issues. In fact, after Obama and Ryan, a lot of top spokespeople in the House don't seem to know what they're really arguing. The Senate does, as evidenced by the fillibuster, but the House does not. The GOP Chair of the House committee on Homeland Security, Michael McCaul, is either the richest or second richest man in Congress, so he doesn't really have to have talent, and he sounded predictably ridiculous – he kept saying "under the radar" when he meant "on the radar" for instance. But the Demos mouthing Nancy Pelosi's talking points isn't getting anything done either. Really, two days ago, only Obama and Ryan were capable of hosting hearings and fielding questions that linked gun control issues to terror issues informatively (the fillibuster discussed little of this – in fact, it changed the debate to more marginal issues).

In the fillibuster yesterday, Senator Chris Murphy responded to made-to-order questions regarding gun rights and gun control. Murphy, a young Senator, did not come to the Senate with expertise in these issues. However, in between his election and taking office, the Newtown tragedy occurred, and as the new junior Senator from Connecticut, he was thrust into the heart of the issue. Murphy is affable and yet wonkish, and he replaced the retired Joe Lieberman in 2013.

Though Elizabeth Warren came to give a mini-tubthumper, probably the most dramatic moment of the fillibuster that I saw was Senator Durbin coming in to announce a Feinstein amendment to the amendment. Feinstein's amendment would enable the Attorney General to block someone on the terror watch list to purchase a firearm. It was exciting because the legislation was being worked on even as the fillibuster was unfolding. Durbin as the Minority Whip was the most powerful Senator who came to the floor. I interviewed him once, over a decade ago; he was stern, no-nonsense, and not social media savvy but trying his luck with some of us anyway. So my impression of him is of being more adventurous than his no-nonsense persona lets on, and that was exactly the way he was yesterday.

So what in all this is a meaningful response?

The best thing citizens can do in 2016 if they agree that they want to ban assault weapons is to work their own state's legislatures, some of which already have the things the fillibuster-produced amendments are calling for. The Dems are all about making noise about restricting firearms; that is something they know they can't get done meaningfully in the present Congress. They can create the illusion of meaningfulness, however, and that's what's going to happen with these votes. The votes that will happen as a result of the fillibuster are not especially high impact votes; neither of them would have prevented the Pulse catastrophe, for instance. And the public should not be satisfied to learn one of two of the votes have passed (I think the Feinstein amendment calling for banning gun purchase for terror list suspects will pass, but I am not sure about the Internet/gun show background check amendment – my guess is it won't).

The Republicans seem more interested in assigning the cause of this catastrophic crime to the influence of the radical Islam. They would like to restrict immigration more. This is policy that does not unfold at the state level. If you believe that this might work, or if you believe that the influence or specter of radical Islam is more responsible for the Pulse catastrophe, you should hold your nose and work for Trump.

But the thing I don't like to see is Democrats vilifying the GOP position as irrational and irresponsible for being concerned about radical Islamic terror, and Republicans vilifying any Democratic gun control position as unconstitutional. Congress and the President may be at a stalemate – and they are likely to remain so after November – but that doesn't mean Americans themselves need to be. It would be fairly easy to work in a meaningful way for both for an assault weapons ban and to restrict immigration from cultures with open contempt for American values. But I don't think either can be accomplished at the national level without acknowledging – and esteeming – the other side. You wouldn't respond to lies with anything less than truth; with what human quality should you respond to hate?