The Dead Poets and Gun Owners Society

by Katharine Anderson-Dávila

Saturday, May 27, 2000


"I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life ... to put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

-- Neil Perry, quoting Henry David Thoreau in Dead Poets Society

"There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power governments, and tyrants, and armies can not stand. The Centauri learnt this lesson once. We will teach it to them again. Though it take a thousand years,

we will be free."

-- Narn ambassador GíKar, Babylon 5: "The Long, Twilight Struggle"




So, let me be honest, here and now.

I have been putting off this article, because I lacked inspiration.

I thought about writing about the Second Amendment Sistersí patriotic counter-demonstration to the Million Mom March, but I thought about doing so in the way of reporters, in telling you how many had been there. I thought Iíd mention their web site, which is full of examples on how to talk to women about guns in a way that might make fewer of them fall on the Million Momsí side of the debate. (Although, as many of you know, it was nowhere near a million.) I thought Iíd make some interesting point out of it for your enjoyment. I thought all of this, before I found my inspiration this evening while clicking channels.

Instead, Iím going to talk about idealism, a thought-provoking movie, and majority numbers versus minority numbers. After all, it wasnít anywhere near a million for the Second Amendment Sisters, either.

And you know what else? It doesnít matter.

It doesnít matter, because no matter how unpopular their view, the human spirit stood tall that day and was given voice by those women that went against the press and the media, against the odds. The individual triumphed.

The bitter irony is that the other side wonít see it. Or, depending on whether itís presented in a palatable enough fashion, maybe they will. After all, as the media has shown us, itís all about spin.

All of this came to me tonight as I was watching Dead Poets Society on television. If you havenít seen it, itís a sad film, but a good one. More importantly, in the oddest of ways, it deals with our cause.

You see, at the end, Neil Perry, the charismatic, extroverted son of poor parents, kills himself because his passion to become an actor is squelched by his rigid father, who wants his son to be everything he never had the chance to be. Mr. Perry is living vicariously through his only boy, and wants his son to go to Harvard and become a doctor. After a tragic scene in which Perry has just given a brilliant performance as Shakespeareís Puck, the father is determined to lay down the law. He attempts to force obedience by removing the boy from Welton, a prestigious boysí school where Neil has been exposed to the free-thinking ideas of his English teacher, Mr. Keating, who emphasizes thoughtful individuality over mindless conformity. This attempt to curb and overprotect his son fails in the direst way possible.

Neil is a fine, bright, fragile boy who feels trapped with no hope of escaping the confinements of his fatherís desires. He feels the chains of the old saying "he who has the gold, makes the rules" weighing so heavily on his shoulders that, in his pain, the only exit he sees is suicide. That night, after his parents have gone to bed, he sneaks into their room and gets the revolver his father keeps in the bedside drawer. In the very study where his parents have denied him his vision, he kills himself, and his parents find him shortly afterward.

Do they regret their actions? Not at all. They never get it Ė the film doesnít end with a sad funeral where the parents, all too late, realize their mistake in imprisoning their son in a model he didnít fit. No, instead the parents cry out for justice, for a scapegoat Ė they force the school into a witch-hunt for the terrible people who have influenced their son and put these wild ideas into his head. After all, he couldnít possibly have made this choice for himself, so the paternalistic line of thought goes. It must have been his buddies, the school, the teacher, someone. And indeed, they find their scapegoat in Mr. Keating, the very one who encouraged independent thought. All of Neilís friends, all of the members of the Dead Poets Society, are coerced into signing a document blaming their beloved teacher, pressured into this because of their state of powerlessness at seventeen. They are too young to fight the system Ė threatened with an expulsion that would destroy their lives and their chances of getting into college, they all sign on.

And yet, they make a stand. At the end, Mr. Keating returns to his classroom to get a few personal items during a lesson being given by the schoolmaster while they search for a new English teacher. Todd Anderson, the boy who was Neil Perryís roommate, stands up on his desk in a salute to his former teacher, an act that he had performed earlier in the film to teach them about the importance in viewing life from a different perspective. One by one, not the whole class (the scared, unimaginative conformists remain seated), but the remaining members of the Dead Poets Society all stand as Mr. Keating leaves the classroom for the last time.

Now, I suspect that the Million Moms would say that if the handgun hadnít been in the fatherís drawer, then Neil couldnít have shot himself.

They would be missing the point entirely.

You see, that boy was so pained, so grief-stricken, that he would have found a way no matter what. A knife from the kitchen drawer, driving off a bridge in the family car . . . by any means necessary, he would have taken his life. He could no longer tolerate living in a world where he could not be himself. As an individual who was being repressed and oppressed, he simply could not bear the pain any longer.

But yet, like the father in the film, as weíve seen in real life, the Million Moms would search for a scapegoat Ė the media, the school, the games Neil was playing, the gun itself. After all, they couldnít even recognize the concept that he was acting on his own as an individual, capable of making his own choices and decisions about his life and his destiny. It was a tragedy, yes, a selfish and misguided act, certainly. But it was his choice. If he could not live freely, if he could not truly be himself, he would refuse to participate in life any longer. These parents, these moms all suffer from an illusion of comfort Ė they feel good because they think theyíre "doing something," by finding someone to blame Ė gun owners, firearms manufacturers, Hollywood, game designers, anyone but themselves, unless theyíre enjoying a sobbing guilt-jag of feeling like they should have "done more." Never mind that none of their actions would bring this child back. He was determined, impassioned in the very way that theyíre impassioned. He would have frozen to death in the snow to end his pain, and I donít see them outlawing weather.

Now, Iím certainly not advocating suicide. I am making a point, however.

The members of the Dead Poets were unquestionably a minority in their school. As Thoreau said, "most men lead lives of quiet desperation." Most of those kids would never make a difference, or be inclined to bravery in any way. Most feared disapproval too much to ever tweak the noses of authority. Heads down, walking from the London Underground terminal to the routine of their jobs, never looking around them, then back home to tedium, never being more than just another "brick in the wall" that is the structure of society. The very same structure that often, misguidedly, seeks to control individuals Ė to tell them how to eat, what to wear, how to be, when to go to church, and most importantly, how to act.

Think Iím joking about this? Just today, President Clinton released new dietary guidelines for "healthy living" for Americans. Not recommendations Ė guidelines. Because of course you, the average American, is too stupid, too busy, too preoccupied to make use of the information given you on the existing food labels. You couldnít possibly figure out that the slice of bacon in front of you is probably worse for your health than the unbuttered slice of toast next to it, much less that the bacon is chock full of nitrates and fat.

Does anyone besides me find this insulting?

As a matter of fact, someone does.

The Second Amendment Sisters, whether they know it or not, find this paternalism (and with the Million Mom March, letís add maternalism), absolutely revolting. They wonít allow themselves to be oppressed, and they dare to fight for their rights to live as individuals Ė and to protect that right by any means necessary, including the use of deadly force to protect themselves against an attacker. Only on the weekend of the Million Mom March, their attacker was armed with popular celebrity, with the propaganda of much of the liberal media, and with the enthusiastic support of a government seeking scapegoats in the wake of two boys acting as (admittedly sick) individuals at Columbine. The weapons of the attackers were different, but far more deadly to the free thinkers of our society.

But still, the Sisters stood up. They werenít as many in number. Neither were the members of the Dead Poets Society.

But in the end, both stood up. Because the numbers, the majority versus the minority, didnít make them any less right.

These women donít retreat from defending their lives against an attacker (a far more evenly matched fight), and they didnít retreat from speaking out about their rights to that defense against those who would attack it and victimize them by denying that right. They speak for idealists like myself who support freedom of choice and a somewhat libertarian mindset. More pragmatically, they speak for the impoverished single mother who doesnít have the luxury of thinking about freedom of choice in an overeducated way, who canít afford the ongoing cost of an expensive alarm system, but whose inexpensive revolver makes her feel a little safer at night.

For in Thoreauís world, in the world of the Dead Poets and the world of Whitmanís barbaric yawp, might doesnít make right. In the world of the Second Amendment Sisters, the spirit of the I perseveres, no matter how many Wes there are.

The great tragedy lies in the fact that most of the Wes just canít see this, but the Wes have always been this way. Be it a different idea, a different sexual orientation, a different lifestyle or choice in any way, shape, or form, the Wes donít like it, and they never have.

And theyíll try to repress it. More insidiously and seductively, theyíll try to assimilate it, try to tell us that itís not our fault, weíre just products of a sick and violent culture.

I come from a strong nuclear family. Iím a happily married woman with a cat, who rarely curses and who routinely contributes to worthy charities and programs for endangered animals. How much more incorporated into society can you get? But because my happy household happens to contain a firearm, the Wes would have you believe Iím the product of a sick and violent culture that we all need to be protected from, whether I want to be a part of their we or not.

I donít think so.

I donít think so, because, idealist that I am, I think.

The founding fathers thought. The Second Amendment Sisters think. And you folks reading this also think. You out there who are writing your elected officials, your newspapers, and anybody else who might listen, which brings me to my next point.

As long as weíre all thinking, and heaven forbid, acting on those free, individual thoughts, the numbers donít matter. We are strong because we are empowered by I. The individual cannot cease to exist as long as we are able to think.

But thinking only gets us so far. Thought into action Ė thatís the next step.

Maybe you have a relative or a friend, male or female, who disagrees with you about gun control. May I suggest this as a means to provide them a little lesson in autonomy?

Donít tell them anything in advance, just suggest that you get together and rent Dead Poets Society. Itís a good, feely movie Ė theyíve probably seen it before, and theyíll probably agree to it. It should work especially well with Feelers, who will surely be delighted that you want to watch a good tearjerker with them. And, after theyíve had a good cry, point out the movieís message about individual choice to them. Point out that if they deny Neil his decision to use that gun, theyíre siding with the parents, with the school, and with the rigid, unimaginative world that stifles creativity. They wonít want to be on the "bad" side, I assure you. Iíd be interested in hearing from you if you try this, and in what kind of results you get.

Then again, you donít have to take my advice.

After all, itís your choice.

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