Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Arguable: Tears and silence come first

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 3: Pedestrians on the Las Vegas Strip stop and light candles at a makeshift memorial for the victims of Sunday night's mass shooting, in front to the Bellagio, October 3, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Late Sunday night, a lone gunman killed over 50 people and injured over 500 people after he opened fire on a large crowd at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, a three-day country music festival. The massacre is one of the deadliest mass shooting events in U.S. history. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
A makeshift memorial on the Las Vegas Strip for the victims of Sunday night’s mass shooting.

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Massacre in Las Vegas

More than 50 people were murdered, and at least 200 wounded, when a gunman in a Las Vegas hotel opened fire on a crowd at a country music festival late last night. It was one of the worst mass shootings in modern US history. Americans will be dealing with the aftermath of this horror for a long time to come.

As I write, little is known about the shooter, who is now dead, except his identity: He was Stephen Paddock, 64, of Mesquite, Nev. His motives, his connections, his ideology, his accomplices — all that remains to be learned.

Inevitably, this bloodbath will reopen the endless debate over gun control. That is understandable and appropriate. But why do so many people feel that their very first reaction to such a terrible event must be to start venting politics? The bodies of the dead were still warm, and the wounded were still bleeding, when the political posturing and agenda-thumping began.

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On Twitter and Facebook, on news websites and talk shows, there was an instantaneous freshet of comments about gun control and white males and terrorism and the presumed partisan leanings of the shooter. Of course none of these topics should be off-limits. But none of them needs to be expressed within minutes of learning that hundreds of fellow citizens have been cut down.

There is a time for everything, and the immediate wake of a ghastly mass murder is a time for tears and silence and prayer — not for exploiting the dead to advance a political agenda. It’s not that political agendas don’t matter; democratic self-government would be impossible without them. But we shouldn’t be so consumed with politics that we see nothing else when a tragedy takes place.

In the first jolting moments after so terrible a crime, racing to score political points should not be anyone’s priority.

In a column following the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, I described a different response, more humane and meaningful to a bloody tragedy:

On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was on his way to a campaign rally in Indianapolis when he learned that Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis. Breaking the news to the largely black audience, the normally hyperpartisan Kennedy had the grace and good judgment to rise above politics.

“You can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge,” he told his listeners. But “what we need in the United States is not hatred . . . but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.” From memory, he quoted Aeschylus, who wrote 25 centuries ago of the wisdom that pain and despair can reveal. And Kennedy ended with a plea as poignant and relevant today as it was in 1968:

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country, and for our people.”

FILE- In this March 14, 2017 file photo, people walk past Boston's Faneuil Hall, which was named after Peter Faneuil, a successful merchant and trader whose ships carried slaves between continents as well as the normal dry goods, spices and wares. The national soul-searching over discriminatory symbols has some cities now scrutinizing whether monuments to contentious figures should be removed. And historians are questioning how to draw the line, cautioning against the fast removal of monuments without thinking through why they’re being removed, and the collateral impact the removal may have. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
Faneuil Hall.

How powerful a government?

Boston’s Faneuil Hall — the original “cradle of liberty” — is a splendid place to debate the workings of democracy. Faneuil Hall is where Samuel Adams formed the Sons of Liberty, and where Massachusetts colonists first met to protest the British Parliament’s Tea Act. It was a favorite venue of abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison in the years before the Civil War. It was where John F. Kennedy closed his successful presidential campaign on Election Eve in 1960 — and where his brother Edward opened his own unsuccessful presidential campaign 19 years later.

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Dominating the west wall of Faneuil Hall’s main chamber is George P.A. Healy’s dramatic painting, “Webster Replying to Hayne.” It depicts Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, one of the great orators in American history, speaking from the floor of the Senate chamber during the “nullification” crisis of the late 1820s. Southern leaders had insisted that states had the right to nullify federal laws of which they disapproved; Webster argued forcefully that they did not, and that the integrity of the national union took precedence over any state’s demand for autonomy.

The speech portrayed in the Fanueil Hall painting has often been called the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress, and its ringing final words appear on the frame: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”

If you visit Faneuil Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 11, you can take part in a debate on a contrary proposition: whether Congress should have the right to nullify a law passed by any state. This isn’t a roiling controversy today, when the supremacy of the federal government over the states is well-established. (Too well-established, some of us might say.) But once upon a time, it was a burning issue, and its great exponent was James Madison. Harvard Business School professor David Moss and Marc Campasano tell the story in Democracy: A Case Study, a new book that applies the business school’s famous “case method” to 19 pivotal moments in US political history.

In yesterday’s Boston Globe Ideas section, Moss and Campasano recalled the tumultuous years when the United States was governed in accordance with the Articles of Confederation: the years when Congress was weak and could not levy taxes, when the states engaged in internecine trade wars, and when thousands of angry farmers fomented rebellion in Massachusetts. At the time, George Washington — the young nation’s greatest hero — described himself as “mortified beyond expression” that Americans, having won such a hard-fought war for independence, were making themselves look “ridiculous & contemptible in the eyes of all Europe.”

The answer to the crisis, Madison concluded, was a much stronger central government. When a convention was called in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation, he proposed that Congress be given a “federal negative” — the right to strike down any law passed by a state legislature. In the end, of course, that didn’t happen: The convention instead wrote a brand-new Constitution — one that greatly strengthened the central government, but also reserved key powers exclusively to the states.

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That wasn’t the last word on the subject, not by a long shot. One way or another, Americans have been contending for better than two centuries over the best way to balance state and federal power. The relationship between Washington and the states has been colored by the Civil War and the 14th Amendment, by the admission of new states and the direct election of senators, by federal civil rights laws and the acceptance of judicial supremacy, by the vast expansion of federal spending and the even vaster expansion of federal regulation.

I would argue that Washington now is much too influential and that the states have been dangerously handicapped. I am persuaded that if Madison were alive today, he would be scandalized by the immense degree of control wielded by the national government, and by the pathetic reduction of the states to mere satrapies willing to swallow almost any encroachment in order to receive federal funds.

And so the debate goes on, as it should. If you’ll be in Boston next week, you can be part of it. At a public forum in Faneuil Hall, in connection with the annual HUBweek festival sponsored in part by The Boston Globe, Professor Moss will lead a public discussion of this case. The program is free and open to the public, but seats are limited, so registration is required.

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Think left and think right and think low and think high

Domenic Sarno, the Democratic mayor of Springfield, Mass., had some choice words for Liz Phipps Soeiro, the Cambridge librarian who snottily rejected a gift of Dr. Seuss books sent to her school by First Lady Melania Trump.

Dr. Seuss — the pen name of Theodor Geisel — was born and raised in Springfield, which today is home to The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, a museum dedicated to the life and work of the extraordinarily popular children’s author. In a letter addressed to Mrs. Trump, the mayor blasted Soeiro’s put-down of Dr. Seuss as “ridiculous” and “political correctness at its worst.” Sarno said his city would happily take the books if Cambridge doesn’t want them, and invited the First Family to visit Springfield and take in the Dr. Seuss museum.

Soeiro’s attack was disgraceful and rude, and the backlash it provoked was entirely justified. Even the Cambridge school district hastily dissociated itself from the ill manners of its librarian. Who, it turns out, was not only discourteous but hypocritical to boot: Twitter users quickly turned up posts from 2015 showing Soeiro dressed as the Cat in the Hat, and presiding over a Dr. Seuss birthday breakfast of green eggs.

Needless to say, Soeiro’s public rejection of the First Lady’s gift had less to do with any political solecism on the part of Dr. Seuss, and everything to do with her distaste for the Trump administration. Theodor Geisel was no right-winger, after all. Christopher Klein, writing about Dr. Seuss for the History Channel, notes that he drew political cartoons for a left-leaning newspaper:

As the Nazi tanks rolled into Paris in 1940, Dr. Seuss felt compelled to express his opposition to American isolationists, particularly aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. “I found that I could no longer keep my mind on drawing pictures of Horton the Elephant. I found myself drawing pictures of Lindbergh the Ostrich,” he said. Between 1940 and 1942, Geisel drew over 400 editorial cartoons skewering isolationists at home and the Axis abroad for the liberal newspaper “PM.”

Measured against today’s standards, some of those drawings were racist in their depiction of Japan’s rulers, but by all accounts Geisel was a liberal Democrat who supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. “His early political cartoons show a passionate opposition to fascism, and he urged action against it both before and after the United States entered World War II,” states the Wikipedia entry on Dr. Seuss. “His cartoons portrayed the fear of communism as overstated, finding greater threats in the House Un-American Activities Committee and those who threatened to cut the US ‘life line’ to Stalin and the USSR.”

But when it comes to Dr. Seuss’s children’s books, political messages are for the most part nonexistent.

There are a few exceptions. I will admit to detesting The Lorax, a tendentious and preachy environmental screed that treats business as little more than concentrated greed. For example:

I, the Once-ler, felt sad

as I watched them all go.

BUT…

business is business!

And business must grow

regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.

On the other hand, Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose makes for a terrific parable about the dangers of unrestrained welfare-state policies, and how they end up crushing well-meaning and productive members of society under a load they cannot bear. Thidwick is a generous moose who gladly allows a Bingle Bug to hitch a ride on his antlers. Then a Tree-Spider hops aboard, then a “fresh little Zinn-a-zu-Bird.”

Soon Thidwick finds himself supporting a large population of mooches, who come to regard his hospitality as an entitlement that may not be curtailed. When the moose needs to cross a lake for food, his “guests” put it to a vote, with predictable results:

He stepped in the water. Then, oh! what a fuss!

“STOP!” screamed his guests. “You can’t do this to us!

These horns are our home and you’ve no right to take

Our home to the far distant side of the lake!”

“Be fair!” Thidwick begged, with a lump in his throat.

“We’re fair,” said the bug.

“We’ll decide this by vote.

All those in favor of going, say ‘AYE,’

All those in favor of staying, say ‘NAY’.”

“AYE!” shouted Thidwick,

But when he was done,

“NAY!” they all yelled.

He lost ‘leven to one.

“We win!” screamed the guests, “by a very large score!”

And poor, starving Thidwick climbed back on the shore.

When my kids were small, our house was filled with Dr. Seuss books, many of which were read aloud over and over and over. Like tens of millions of other children, mine loved Dr. Seuss not because of any political themes he expressed, but because of his exuberant tales, his comical drawings, his catchy rhymes and driving meter, and his hilariously joyful made-up words.

For decades, Dr. Seuss’s books have been a source of happiness and delight — and sometimes wisdom — for countless families like mine. There is every reason to think they will be captivating new readers for decades to come. Not because they’re political, but because they’re magical.

To be gifted with a pile of Dr. Seuss books is to be gifted with children’s laughter and adult glee, with zany plots and lyrical silliness, with love of language and kindness and imagination. What kind of Grinch would say no to that?

ICYMI

In yesterday’s column , I wrote about a state legislator’s proposed bill to ban “any false information” from being expressed in political campaign materials — and to punish any violators by seizing all the funds in their campaign bank accounts. Such a law would egregiously violate the First Amendment. Of course truth is important, but when it comes to political debate, the Constitution leaves it to the people, not to government regulators, to determine the truth or falsity of public speech. Bottom line? Politicians who object to their critics’ claims should refute those critics, not threaten them with prosecution.

Last Wednesday’s column, written amid the controversy over football players kneeling in protest, asked: What is the national anthem doing at sporting events in the first place? Originally a gesture of spontaneous, heartfelt patriotism, it has been transformed into an enforced, rote display of national loyalty, ripe for exploiting by players or politicians with a disruptive agenda. “Playing the national anthem before every team sport, track meet, and auto race hasn’t deepened American unity and love of country,” I wrote. “It has tarnished it.”

Wild Wild Web

Always wanted your own rhombicuboctahedron? Now you can make one!

On Rosh Hashanah, the most prominent rabbi in America condemned the president. It was 1935, and the president was FDR.

What would happen if you never washed your sheets?

A budget airline wants to do away with seats and make all its (cattle?) passengers stand.

Mom tells her little boy she’s going to have a baby. He finds that very exasperating.

The last line

“And the turtles, of course . . .

all the turtles are free.

As turtles and, maybe,

all creatures should be.” — Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.