In “The Secrets of Princeton” The Pasty Little Putz informs us that Ivy Leaguers don’t need advice on how to preserve their privilege. No shit — really? Putzy should know, he’s a Harvard man himself… MoDo has a question: “Can We Get Hillary Without the Foolery?” She claims that Democrats feel the inevitable, inexorable, inescapable pull of the Clintons. The SASQ to MoDo’s question is “NO.” The Moustache of Wisdom is hankering after another war, apparently. In “How We Wasted Our Timeout” he says for the last five years, the world has had a break from major conflict. That may be about to end. You can practically hear the hope in his voice… Mr. Nocera also has a question in “What Gun Lovers Think:” Could a gun-owning liberal explain the thinking of the other side? Gee, Joe, I don’t know. Let’s see if Mr. Bruni will weigh in on the matter. In “Day of the Hunter” Mr. Bruni says that a first experience with a shotgun and pheasants only heightened my worry about guns and my support for gun control. Here’s the Putz:
Susan Patton, the Princeton alumna who became famous for her letter urging Ivy League women to use their college years to find a mate, has been denounced as a traitor to feminism, to coeducation, to the university ideal. But really she’s something much more interesting: a traitor to her class.
Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.
Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that’s formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And it’s even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.
Thus the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next.
The intermarriage of elite collegians is only one of these mechanisms — but it’s an enormously important one. The outraged reaction to her comments notwithstanding, Patton wasn’t telling Princetonians anything they didn’t already understand. Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites — yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females — have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle. What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”?
That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!
Why, it would be like telling elite collegians that they should all move to similar cities and neighborhoods, surround themselves with their kinds of people and gradually price everybody else out of the places where social capital is built, influence exerted and great careers made. No need — that’s what we’re already doing! (What Richard Florida called “the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated and highly paid Americans to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, and a corresponding exodus of the traditional lower and middle classes from these same places” is one of the striking social facts of the modern meritocratic era.) We don’t need well-meaning parents lecturing us about the advantages of elite self-segregation, and giving the game away to everybody else. …
Or it would be like telling admissions offices at elite schools that they should seek a form of student-body “diversity” that’s mostly cosmetic, designed to flatter multicultural sensibilities without threatening existing hierarchies all that much. They don’t need to be told — that’s how the system already works! The “holistic” approach to admissions, which privileges résumé-padding and extracurriculars over raw test scores or G.P.A.’s, has two major consequences: It enforces what looks suspiciously like de facto discrimination against Asian applicants with high SAT scores, while disadvantaging talented kids — often white and working class and geographically dispersed — who don’t grow up in elite enclaves with parents and friends who understand the system. The result is an upper class that looks superficially like America, but mostly reproduces the previous generation’s elite.
But don’t come out and say it! Next people will start wondering why the names in the U.S. News rankings change so little from decade to decade. Or why the American population gets bigger and bigger, but our richest universities admit the same size classes every year, Or why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can’t seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn’t have a Harvard or Yale degree.
No, it’s better for everyone when these questions aren’t asked too loudly. The days of noblesse oblige are long behind us, so our elite’s entire claim to legitimacy rests on theories of equal opportunity and upward mobility, and the promise that “merit” correlates with talents and deserts.
That the actual practice of meritocracy mostly involves a strenuous quest to avoid any kind of downward mobility, for oneself or for one’s kids, is something every upper-class American understands deep in his or her highly educated bones.
But really, Susan Patton, do we have to talk about it?
Christ, he gets worse and worse… Now let’s slog through MoDo:
Please don’t ask me this anymore.
It’s such a silly question. Of course Hillary is running. I’ve never met a man who was told he could be president who didn’t want to be president. So naturally, a woman who’s told she can be the first commandress in chief wants to be.
“Running for president is like sex,” James Carville told me. “No one ever did it once and forgot about it.”
Joe Biden wants the job. He’s human (very). But he’s a realist. He knows the Democratic Party has a messianic urge to finish what it started so spectacularly with the election of Barack Obama — busting up the world’s most exclusive white-bread old-boys’ club. And he knows that women, both Democratic and Republican, want to see one of their own in the White House and became even more militant while listening to the G.O.P.’s retrogressive talk about contraception and vaginal probes last year.
Also, Joe genuinely likes Hillary. These two have no appetite for tearing each other apart.
As long as there are no more health scares — the thick glasses are gone — Hillary’s age won’t stop her. The Clinton scandals and dysfunction are in the rearview mirror at the moment, and the sluggish economy casts a halcyon glow on the Clinton era. Hillary is a symbol and a survivor, running on sainthood. Ronald Reagan, elected at 69, was seen as an “ancient king” gliding through life, as an aide put it. Hillary, who would be elected at 69, would be seen as an ancient queen striding through life.
She was supposed to go off to a spa, rest and get back in shape after her grueling laps around the world. But instead she’s a tornado of activity, speaking at global women’s conferences in D.C. and New York; starting to buck-rake on the speaking circuit; putting out a video flipping her position to support gay marriage; and signing a lucrative deal for a memoir on world affairs — all as PACs spring up around her, Bill Clinton and Carville begin to foment, and Chelsea lands on the cover of this week’s Parade, talking about how “unapologetically and unabashedly” biased she is about her mother’s future.
“I can’t see her taking it easy and sitting on the couch eating a bowl of popcorn,” said Randall Johnston, a 25-year-old New York University Law School student who helped pass out “Ready for Hillary” signs on Friday outside Lincoln Center, while her icon was inside enthralling the crowd at Tina Brown’s “Women in the World” conference.
Hillary jokes that people regard her hair as totemic, and just so, her new haircut sends a signal of shimmering intention: she has ditched the skinned-back bun that gave her the air of a K.G.B. villainess in a Bond movie and has a sleek new layered cut that looks modern and glamorous.
In a hot pink jacket and black slacks, she leaned in for a 2016 manifesto, telling the blissed-out crowd of women that America cannot truly lead in the world until women here at home are full partners with equal pay and benefits, careers in math and science, and “no limit” on how big girls can dream.
“This truly is the unfinished business of the 21st century,” she said. But everyone knew the truly “unfinished business” Hillary was referring to: herself.
“She’s gone to hell and back trying to be president,” Carville said. “She’s paid her dues, to say the least. The old cliché is that Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line. But now Republicans want a lot of people to run and they want to fall in love. And Democrats don’t want to fight; they just want to get behind Hillary and go on from there.”
The real question is not whether but whither. Does Hillary have learning software? Did she learn, from her debacle with health care, to be more transparent and less my-way-or-the-highway? Did she learn, after voting to support W.’s nonsensical invasion of Iraq without even reading the intelligence estimate, that she doesn’t need to overcompensate to show she’s tough? (No one, even Fox News, thinks she’s a Wellesley hippie anymore.)
Did she learn, from her viper’s nest and money pit of a campaign in 2008, how to manage an enterprise rather than be swamped by rampant dysfunction? Did she learn, when she wrapped herself in an off-putting and opaque mantle of entitlement in the primary, that she’s perfectly capable of charming reporters and voters if she wants to, without the obnoxious undertone of “I’m owed this”?
Even top Democrats who plan to support Hillary worry about her two sides. One side is the idealistic public servant who wants to make the world a better place. The other side is darker, stemming from old insecurities; this is the side that causes her to make decisions from a place of fear and to second-guess herself. It dulls her sense of ethics and leads to ends-justify-the-means wayward ways. This is the side that compels her to do anything to win, like hiring the scummy strategists Dick Morris and Mark Penn, and greedily grab for what she feels she deserves.
If Obama is the kid who studies only on the night before and gets an A, Hillary is the kid who studies all the time, stays up all night and does extra credit work to get the A. She doesn’t know how not to drive herself into the ground.
As Carl Bernstein wrote in his Hillary biography, “A Woman in Charge,” her insecurities grew from her herculean effort to win paternal praise: “When Hillary came home with all A’s except for one B on her report card, her father suggested that perhaps her school was too easy, and wondered half-seriously why she hadn’t gotten straight A’s. Hillary tried mightily to extract some unequivocal declaration of approval from her father, but he had tremendous difficulty in expressing pride or affection.”
Hillary was an indefatigable secretary of state — she logged 956,733 diplomatic frequent-flier miles — and a star ambassador, especially on women’s issues. But many experts feel, as John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker, that, compared with the work of more geopolitical secretaries, her “signature achievements look like small beer.”
Still, the job allowed her to get out of her husband’s codependent shadow and develop a more authentic aura of inevitability. President Obama allowed his former rival to take Hillaryland into the State Department and then build it out, burnishing her own feminist brand around the world.
The idea of Hillary is winning, a grand historical gender bender: first lady upgrading to president. But is the reality winning? The Clintons have a rare talent for finding puddles to step in. Out of public life, can she adapt and make the leaps needed, in a world changing at a dizzying tempo, to keep herself on top?
Her challenge is to get into the future and stay there, adding fresh people and perspectives and leaving the Clinton mishegoss and cheesiness in the past.
The real question about Hillary is this: When people take a new look at her in the coming years, will they see the past or the future — Mrs. Clinton or Madam President?
And now we come to The Moustache of Wisdom, who’s never met a conflict he didn’t love, at least at first, for a few FUs…:
Yes, it’s true — a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. But a “timeout” is also a terrible thing to waste, and as I look at the world today I wonder if that’s exactly what we’ve just done. We’ve wasted a five-year timeout from geopolitics, and if we don’t wake up and get our act together as a country — and if the Chinese, Russians and Europeans don’t do the same — we’re all really going to regret it.
Think about what a relative luxury we’ve enjoyed since the Great Recession hit in 2008. We, the Europeans and the world’s other major powers all have been able to focus almost entirely on healing our own economies — without having to worry about a major war or globe-rattling conflict that would snuff out our fragile economic recoveries or require extensive new defense spending. Relatively speaking, the world in the last five years has had a geopolitical timeout.
But now, everywhere you turn, you see different actors standing with their toes on red lines, seemingly ready and willing, even itching, to cross them at any moment. North Korea’s boy king, Kim Jong-un, who seems totally off the grid, has ordered his strategic rocket forces to be on standby, ready to hit U.S. and South Korean targets at a moment’s notice. Which is why you see the South Koreans starting to wonder aloud whether they should stay on this side of the red line and not be building their own nuclear bomb. Iran is also steadily getting closer to a similar combination of a homemade nuclear weapon and delivery system, and so far no sanctions have deterred Tehran. Meanwhile, Egypt is running out of money to buy bread for its people and is perilously close to crossing the red line into failed-state status, which would destabilize the whole region. At the same time, Syria’s mad leader, Bashar al-Assad, having been given the choice of “rule or ruin,” has chosen ruin for his country, which is also approaching state collapse, raising the prospect of jihadist militias picking through the rubble to obtain chemical weapons and sophisticated surface-to-air missiles — with no adult supervision.
Finally, the bailed-out euro zone states just had to bail out Cyprus — a bailout by the bailed-out — leading one to wonder just how many more Band-Aids the European Union has left. Maybe you can bail out Cyprus and its people will accept the haircut on their bank accounts, but we are one thin red line away from Spaniards’ waking up one morning and asking why they should keep their money in euros in their banks, when there is a real possibility they could get a similar haircut. Warren Buffett likes to say that if you ever walk by a bank and there is a long line of people out front, “get in it.” A bank run is a terrible thing to miss.
If any one of these red lines, let alone all of them together, get crossed, we will rue the day that we did not use these last five years to make our own economy more resilient. After all, in sports, timeouts are when you catch your breath, try to make sense of what is coming at you at high speed, figure out what has been working and what has not, design a play to win the game and then collaborate on its execution.
Future historians will surely ask how we in America could not agree on sensible near-term infrastructure investment — to upgrade our country with cheap money — paired with a long-term package of tax reforms and spending cuts, phased in gradually as the economy improves, so we have a much sturdier balance sheet to survive any geopolitical storms. We’re now driving around without a bumper and a spare tire, just when the world seems poised to turn into a crash ’n’ smash derby. (Kudos to President Obama for still trying for a Grand Bargain. Will the G.O.P. step up?)
But historians will also ask China: What were you thinking? When will you realize that whatever is bad for America is not necessarily good for you? Will it take South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Taiwan all getting nuclear weapons? China controls food and fuel going into North Korea. It could end the freak show there anytime it wants, by cutting off both and opening its border to refugees. Yes, it is worried about a united, nuclear Korea and a flood of refugees, but America could help facilitate a united, nonnuclear Korea and dealing with refugees.
Then there is the Russian president, Vladimir Putin — the man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple, because his country has so much oil and gas. Refusing to ease Assad out in Syria, rather than hanging tough with him, at best could alienate Russia from the next generation of rulers in Syria and at worst could help Syria turn into another Afghanistan. Do the Russians really believe that indulging Iran’s covert nuclear program, to spite us, won’t come back to haunt them with a nuclear-armed Iranian Islamist regime on its border?
In many ways Russia and China are more irresponsible than we are. We need to make ourselves resilient but are not. We are being shortsighted. They are being downright harmful.
But the net result is that we could all look back one day and wish we had used this timeout from any global geopolitical contagion more wisely. I hope historians won’t say that for five years we were lucky. And then we weren’t.
And now we have Mr. Nocera:
In most respects, Dan Baum is a political liberal. But he has always had a thing for guns and has just written a book, “Gun Guys: A Road Trip,” which is part gun country travelogue and part meditation on what it means to be a gun lover at this particular moment. Baum, who lives in Colorado, agreed to come to New York, where he grew up, to debate the issue with me.
JOE: Let’s start here: Connecticut just passed what may be the toughest gun law in the country, which includes restrictions on magazine capacity and an assault rifle ban. Sounds good to me.
DAN: I’m not one of those gun owners who says, “You can’t ever infringe my rights.” My orientation is safety. How are we going to live more safely? And, to me, the impulse to ban guns and large-capacity magazines is rooted in a delusion — that somehow if we ban them, we’ll be rid of them. That might have been a good idea 75 years ago, but it’s too late. There are 300 million guns in the country.
JOE: In your book, though, you make a very different argument for not banning assault weapons. You argue that very few people are killed with them.
DAN: That is true. They’ve been used in these big high-profile mass killings, no doubt about it. But there were no assault rifles at Virginia Tech or Fort Hood.
JOE: But assault rifles were used in Aurora and Newtown. And here is my larger point. When I talk to gun absolutists, they claim that we shouldn’t make such a big deal out of mass shootings because they are statistically insignificant. But so what? We have turned this society upside down because 3,000 people died on 9/11. In the scheme of things, that number is also statistically insignificant. Yet we take extraordinary measures, limiting people’s personal freedoms, to prevent another act of terrorism on our soil. Besides, we enact regulations all the time designed to keep people safe, even when the number of people who have been harmed is small. Why are guns different?
DAN: The answer is because we already have so many of them. You need gun owners — the “gun guys” as I call them. They are the custodians of the guns. I also think, though, that gun guys need to take their responsibility as gun owners seriously. A lot of gun owners are perfectly fine, for instance, with universal background checks. I know I am. They are fine with it so long as it doesn’t lead to a database and de facto registration.
Gun guys need to lock ’em up; gun guys need to take our responsibility to us much more seriously.
JOE: And what if they don’t?
DAN: Then I think we need to punish gun guys. If a gun guy leaves his gun in the glove compartment of a car and it’s stolen and used in a crime, perhaps he should be criminally liable. If a gun guy leaves a gun unlocked and a child finds it and kills himself or somebody else, that gun guy should perhaps be liable. And laws that require people to lock their guns up, I think they’re great. Report them if they’re stolen.
JOE: So why don’t “responsible gun owners” — and I know there are a lot — why don’t they support such laws?
DAN: There is no tree for them to gather under. And this is a big problem. Because they don’t feel represented by the N.R.A. This is why I started on this book — I don’t feel represented by the N.R.A., and I know a lot of gun guys who don’t. But we don’t have — perhaps because we don’t feel strongly enough about it — there is no other organization of the sane gun guys, of the nice gun guys, the reasonable, socially minded gun guys. Gun guys, I think, need to take much more seriously that they’re custodians of firearms. Their guns affect everybody and they need to be much more responsible with them. And in order to get them there, we need to make allies of them. And frankly, forgive me, you and your rhetoric make enemies of them, and that’s making us less safe. Look at what Connecticut is doing. You’re not going to get any public safety benefit out of that. I think you’re gonna make us less safe. Because you drive the gun guys into that defensive crouch that’s so destructive.
My essential belief is that we need to treat gun owners with more respect while also demanding a higher level of responsibility.
JOE: Why do gun owners get to have this level of “respect” that no other segment of society has? I could say, “I’m a responsible driver. Why does the government get to tell me that I have to wear a seat belt?”
DAN: It’s not a question of fairness. I am not making a rights argument, or a fairness argument. I’m interested in what will make the country safer.
JOE: Actually, you do make a fairness argument. Toward the end of your book, you write about how you had gained a greater appreciation for the way many Americans feel “over-managed and under-respected.” You use the example of a neonatal nurse in California, irate that the state passed legislation mandating that hospitals lock up certain drugs that had always been readily available to the nursing staff. “We’re nurses,” you quote her as saying. “We’re responsible professionals who know how to take care of our medications.” And then you write, “Substitute a word or two and she might have been any gun guy who is certain that his gun will never be a public safety problem.”
DAN: We have a tendency to say, “There oughtta be a law!” Why would you ever think that someone who’s bent on homicide is going to obey any of these laws? Also, you’re operating in a la-la land if you think that by banning guns we’ll be rid of them.
JOE: Forget about banning. What if the law said, “Your gun must be locked up at home. If it’s not, we’ll prosecute you.”
DAN: I’m with you.
JOE: If a child finds a loaded gun in his house and accidentally shoots himself or someone else, should his parents be prosecuted?
DAN: Perhaps they should be. But let me ask you this. Do you favor having a course in school for children, “What to do if you find a gun?” To educate children on how to handle a gun — would you favor that? Because most liberal parents would not.
JOE: I don’t know. Here’s what I would like to see, though. I would like to see a cultural change, like the cultural shift that took place with drunken driving, where a behavior that was once acceptable becomes unacceptable. I would like to see a cultural protocol, for instance, that would make it O.K. for parents to ask other parents if there is a loaded gun in the house prior to allowing a play date.
DAN: That’s fine. But then you should also ask, “Do you have a backyard swimming pool?” since young kids are more likely to die from a swimming pool accident.
JOE: Here we go! The classic gun guy’s argument.
DAN: I’m not trying to make an ideological point. I’m talking about being safer. And we get there, I think, by being respectful to the people who own the guns.
JOE: Once again, your argument seems to be, we’re going to treat gun owners differently from everyone else.
DAN: Well, maybe we have to, because guns are so dangerous.
JOE: Why, because they’re going to shoot us?
DAN: No, no! Because we need the gun guys. You won’t get there by vilifying them or treating them like children. I think most of what happens with guns that is bad in this country could be solved by the gun guys themselves.
JOE: I disagree.
DAN: You don’t understand guns, and you don’t know gun guys, yet you want to make rules for things you don’t understand for people you don’t know. And that is not how we’re going to end up safer. Where gun guys draw the line is having you make consumer decisions for them. Because what you’re saying, Joe — you, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — you want to say to some guy in Kansas, “You can have this rifle. But you can’t have that one.” And they’re saying, “What does Joe Nocera know about guns? What does Joe Nocera know about me?” It is offensive. We should be insisting on real responsibility from gun owners instead of doing what we’re doing now, which doesn’t get us anywhere. Because you don’t really think that by adjusting the number of rounds in a magazine we’re going to make everybody safer. You can’t possibly believe that.
JOE: When there is a mass shooting, and you’ve limited the number of rounds in a magazine, fewer people might get killed. That seems obvious to me.
DAN: Once you have made a consumer decision for 100 million gun owners that they can’t have these magazines because they are too irresponsible, you have now driven them out of the conversation.
JOE: After Newtown, Wayne LaPierre said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Do you believe that?
DAN: As much as I dislike the N.R.A., there’s a cold logic to it. It’s the reason we have armed guards in airports and shopping malls. When you see an armed guard someplace, what you’re hoping is, if somebody pulls out a gun and does something bad, that the guard will use his gun to protect you.
JOE: Actually, what the N.R.A. means by that statement is that if somebody attempts a mass shooting in a movie theater, someone else in the theater will have a gun and shoot the shooter. Which seems crazy to me.
DAN: I can’t imagine anything worse than one guy with a gun bent on mass murder in a room full of unarmed people. Anything is better than that.
JOE: The idea that some heroic figure is going to be able to get up and actually be able to shoot them…
DAN: Then why do cops carry guns? Disarm the police.
JOE: That’s an absurd, extremist argument.
DAN: Why? I carried a concealed weapon…
JOE: And did you think you were going to save somebody?
DAN: I was not nearly well-trained enough. I think somebody who wants to carry a gun should be at least as well trained as the police. Right now, for example, if I wanted to carry a gun, my permit would be good in 30 states. But in every state it’s different. I can wear it in a restaurant in this state, but not in that state. In this place, I can take it near a school, but in that place I can’t. Flip the script. Say, “If you get licensed to carry a handgun, you can carry it anywhere. But you have to be trained at least as well as a police officer.” Do you worry when there’s a police officer in your kid’s school? No. You trust the police officer. Trust gun owners. Raise everybody’s level of responsibility instead of treating them like children. It’s getting us nowhere. Folks like you, who have a cultural aversion to guns, who want to stick it to the gun guys…
JOE [interrupts]: I find it astonishing that you say we’re deepening the divide but the N.R.A….
DAN: Oh, they are, too! A pox on both their houses. Absolutely. The N.R.A. is a hideous organization. Every day I get e-mails from people who say, “I’m a gun guy, and I can’t stand the N.R.A.” We need to speak with a different voice. It’s really important.
It’s cute that Dan thinks everyone trusts police officers… Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:
People who rhapsodize about the glory of hunting never mention what an unfair fight it is.
Or was, in my case. I went last week, for the first time, visiting a bird-hunting grounds in Pennsylvania with two companions. The pheasants and partridges there had wings, which gave them one advantage over us. Over them we had something like 50 advantages: the number of shells for our shotguns. The gun on loan to me, a semiautomatic, could fire three rounds in rapid succession, which seemed to me as many as anybody could want or need before reloading. I’m a lousy aim, and still I killed.
I had never used a firearm before, not even on a shooting range, and understood the allure instantly. My 12-gauge semi was black, sleek, elegant and Italian-made, as much an accessory as an instrument of death. The Vinci, it’s named, as in Leonardo da, the “Renaissance inventor, artist and thinker who shattered the technological boundaries of his world,” according to the Web site of the manufacturer, Benelli. This is how thoroughly a weapon can be romanticized and fetishized, as if it were a Rolex. As if it were a shoe.
Holding it, I felt potent. But also anxious, even panicked, with a new grasp of how much could go wrong. The safety on the Vinci is a small, gray button, and the difference between on and off is perhaps a quarter-inch. In a moment’s distraction, I could mistake one for the other. In a burst of adrenaline, I could deactivate the safety too soon before a shot or wait too long after to reactivate it.
I could forget, when not aiming at a bird, to keep the gun pointed toward the sky or the ground. Or my pivot as I followed a bird’s flight could bring one of my companions, so perilously near me, into my sights. I was haunted by this and by the fact that although I was a first-timer, I needed no background check, no training, no proof of any dexterity to hold this shotgun and squeeze its trigger, not on the kind of regulated hunting grounds (called a preserve) that we went to. This country of ours makes it astonishingly easy for people to arm themselves and take aim. Is it any wonder that we have an exceptional harvest of gun-related injuries and deaths, many accidental?
I went hunting mainly for dinner. A few weeks ago I was in a favorite Manhattan restaurant, Tertulia, and its chef, Seamus Mullen, mentioned that he had been shooting and cooking game birds. I said that I had never eaten anything I’d killed myself and had never acknowledged, in that way, the connection between an animal’s death and my nourishment and pleasure. We agreed that I should join him on his next expedition. An experience of hunting made ethical sense.
Political sense, too. Hunting is always coming up when the country is debating new restrictions on firearms, as we are now. Opponents of such basic gun-control measures as universal background checks and an assault-weapons ban talk of slippery slopes and raise the specter of parents’ being unable to lend shotguns to their children for a wholesome duck or deer hunt. They assert the importance to hunters of certain semiautomatics that might be prohibited.
Hunting enthusiasts recently went as far as advocating a boycott of Colorado because the state had passed some entirely reasonable new gun restrictions. There’s this assiduously orchestrated outcry that a primal, virile, broadly beloved American pastime is under dire siege from disconnected lawmakers.
And it’s hooey. Let’s take the broadly beloved part first. The popularity of hunting has generally declined over the last four decades. According to a survey by the Fish and Wildlife Service, only 13.7 million Americans 16 or older hunted in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available. That’s in a country of more than 313 million people.
In Pennsylvania, the number of people interested enough in hunting to get licenses dropped from 1.2 million in the 1980s to about 930,000 now, according to Joe Neville, a spokesman for the game commission. And fewer than half of those people are such committed hunters that they renew their licenses regularly.
Hunters are already governed by a thicket of state and local regulations about whether they can use a rifle or a shotgun in a certain place, for a certain quarry; about how many bullets or shells it can hold; about when they can hunt; about how much, or even what gender, of a creature they can kill. Any tinkering that new federal measures would do is so puny in contrast as to be almost irrelevant. It’s not going to threaten hunting as we know it.
And hunting as it’s done doesn’t always hew to the mythic man-in-nature images often promoted. Paul Ryan with his bow and arrow is one kind of hunter; a klutz like me with my Vinci loafer — I mean shotgun — is another.
The pheasants and chukar partridges, or chukars, that I was after had been scattered across a patch of property expressly so that Seamus, a friend of his and I could chase them down. That’s how preserves work. The birds are raised there, and some are released from their pens just before the hunt.
Pennsylvania has more than 300 bird preserves, including the one where we hunted, Pheasant Hill Birds, in Honesdale. For about $325, its owner released 20 pheasants and chukars. For another $60, he lent us his Brittany spaniel, Red, to find and flush out the birds. Red was Advantage No. 51.
Advantage No. 52: many of the birds weren’t so quick to use their wings. We would be within inches of one of them before it fluttered skyward, and it would be maybe 20 feet away when one of us took our shot, which wasn’t a single bullet but rather — Advantage No. 53 — a scattering of pellets.
If we missed a bird, it tended to land close enough to be flushed out anew. Only three birds actually fled the area and escaped death.
All of that explains how even I managed to down a chukar. Maybe a pheasant as well: it was sometimes hard to tell whose shot had hit what.
And there was a thrill to it, no question. My heart hammered. My curiosity spiked. Will a dinner of these birds — gutted, cleaned and cooked by Seamus, thankfully — be different from another? On my blog next week, I’ll let you know.
I’d hunt again, though I’m in no rush. It was impossible for me not to be nervous around guns, even with Seamus patiently teaching me and repeatedly urging vigilance.
He’s 38 and has hunted on and off since his teens. I asked him if more stringent gun control would cramp his and other hunters’ style.
“A totally bogus argument,” he said without hesitation or elaboration, then he flitted to a topic that accommodated more disagreement. How should the pheasant be prepared?