President Barack Obama wipes his eye as he talks about the Connecticut elementary school shooting, Friday, December 14, 2012, in the White House briefing room in Washington.
After the horrific massacre of 20 little children at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut in December, US society is undergoing another phase of acute polarization pitting right wing gun fetishists against what we may call centrist and leftist gunophobes.
This conflict is being orchestrated by cynical political manipulators. What follows is a warning to persons of good will that this problem is so intractable that it is probably impossible to solve in the current situation of US society, and engagement on either side of the current acrimonious conflict is likely to be futile.
Tragic mass shootings like Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Aurora, Colorado deserve to be thoroughly investigated, and the default explanation of the deranged lone gunman needs to be subjected to critical scrutiny. In each of these cases, there are troubling reports of second shooters or other participants whose presence has not been satisfactorily explained. But what of the thousands of Americans who die as a result of gun violence which actually does represent a sociological phenomenon? If this society is pervaded by barbaric violence, how can the incidence of this barbaric violence be reduced? Gun-control measures by themselves cannot provide a solution.
The pacification of modern US society, including a radical de-emphasis of the obsessive social significance of firearms, is a task that forces us to contemplate a vast new campaign for the eradication of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, despair, ignorance, illiteracy, homelessness, needless morbidity and mortality, and related social problems.
As novel as it might sound for those who have followed the current exchanges on guns pro and con, the best weapons against gun violence will turn out to be the de-globalization and re-industrialization of the US economy, leading through the creation of 30 million well-paid jobs to a situation of permanent full employment. When dealing with a sick society like this one, we must treat causes, and not just the symptoms. It is this overriding necessity which the current gun debate is designed to obscure.
Guns are a classic cultural populist wedge issue
Guns, we must never forget, are a wedge issue. Wedge issues were developed over several decades by Republican demagogues for the purpose of splitting and defeating the Franklin D. Roosevelt national coalition of urban areas, southern states, labor, ethnic minorities, and farmers which dominated US politics between 1932 and 1968.
Wedge issues were developed by Bush 41’s guru Lee Atwater, who started his career as an adviser to South Carolina Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, and were later perfected by Karl Rove of Salt Lake City, commonly known as the brain of George W. Bush. By raising wedge issues during political campaigns, Republican operatives found that they could deceive and paralyze the majority of the American people who might otherwise oppose reactionary policies.
The Republican southern strategy, dominant between 1968 and 2008, made the states of the old Confederacy the keys to election-year success, and thus gave national ideological and economic dominance to the most socially and culturally backward parts of the nation at the expense of Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. One reflection of this was a new centrality of gun culture. As a new party alignment emerges, it may well be that the obsession with guns will subside.
A classic American wedge issue has always played on the white-black racial divide, now supplemented by similar divisions involving Hispanics, Asians, and others. The modern Republican Party, since it transferred its center of gravity into the previously Democratic Solid South, is based first and foremost on the racist gambit.
Very important are also the issues of cultural populism, which generally involve an ethno-cultural appeal to widespread class hatred for the arrogance of wealthy and hypocritical liberal elitists among white working people. Here guns and gun control have always played a major role, supplemented by issues like school prayer, abortion, etc. Such cultural populism serves reactionary elites as a way to prevent the growth of economic populism, which could take the form of class-based demands port forward by working people which Wall Street bankers would actually have to pay for.
Cultural populist wedge issues are essentially divide and conquer tactics which raise issues that pose no real threat to the accumulated privileges, political power, and exorbitant wealth of the financier oligarchy.
If we take the Koch brothers and George Soros as archetypes for right wing and left wing financiers active in manipulating public opinion, we can safely assume that gun rights, abortion, and gay marriage are far less important in their eyes than the big questions of taxes, labor unions, federal regulations, entitlements, and the like. The importance of cultural populist wedge issues is that their inclusion allows wealthy financiers to attract large numbers of resentful dupes into supporting candidates whose main tasks will be to defend plutocratic privilege, not the interests of voters.
In a time when numerically limited forces will succeed or fail to implement policies like the Wall Street Sales Tax and the nationalization of the Federal Reserve to begin a reorientation of US society towards tangible physical commodity production, the best advice at the present time is to avoid taking sides on the gun issue and other wedge issues, and to focus instead on a sweeping program of New Deal economic reform.
Obama utterly devoid of humanitarian bona fides
The human losses of mass shootings are shocking. But who can take Obama seriously as a humanitarian, when he has sent killer drones over the world to attack women and children, and when his infamous illegal practices include Terror Tuesdays at the White House, when proscription lists are drawn up of the alleged terrorists, including US citizens, slated to be slain?
It is also clear that Obama wants to use gun control as a way to refurbish his left or progressive credibility, in such a way as to make his base accept his planned killer cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, child nutrition, food stamps, and Social Security -- which will inflict whole orders of magnitude more in the way of needless deaths and human suffering on all age groups than the gun crimes themselves, bad as these are.
Obama knows that the wedge issues have in the past been the specialty of the Republican Party, but he appears to be convinced that demographic changes allow the wedge issues to go into reverse, damaging the Republicans who largely invented them. This also shows that Obama, as the Wall Street operative that he is, is just as determined as any Republican to perpetuate and exacerbate the ideological divisions of the American people.
On the other side, the vociferous reactionaries demanding more guns is the solution to social ills are the same politicians who want to strip the American people of their economic rights even more totally than Obama does, leaving a doomed economy with low wages, no unions, no unemployment insurance, and virtually no social safety net. Desperate Republican demagogues now see gun fetishism as an issue they can use to regroup their defeated and demoralized base and keep it loyal to the austerity psychosis which is the dominant thrust of the GOP. Anyone supporting either side of this dog and pony show is showing their own gullibility.
Origins of gun fetishism
Why are the gun fetishists so numerous and vociferous? The intensity of gun fetishism today derives largely from the fact that the overall US standard of living, including real wages, has declined by about two thirds since the end of the Johnson administration. Because of the corruption of the economics profession and the mass media, the average American is deprived of this fundamental knowledge required to make sense of one’s own life chances and socioeconomic predicament.
The middle class is trying to maintain itself as the middle class, even as the material prerequisites for this are undermined more and more. This leads to rising consumer debt, the need for multiple jobs, the inability to keep a home, failure to provide one’s children with a college education, and the like. One way to act out the fear and rage of such a situation is through gun fetishism. Violent crime has actually been declining since the days of Nixon’s “crime in the streets” fear campaign, but the average person feels more threatened nevertheless. The causes for this have to do with the tremendous insecurity generated by deregulation and laissez-faire globalization, with almost everyone’s job now being in danger of being offshored.
To this must be added a crisis of the legitimacy of all social institutions, including government, the military, academia, medicine, organized religion, and most others, often deriving from real crimes, real abuses, and real failures. Under the influence of clever reactionary demagogues - including those calling themselves libertarians -- the crisis of institutional credibility leads the individual into a wilderness of anomie - a situation in which no norms or standards seem to be meaningful or reliable. The extreme form of this is the survivalist or doomsday prepper, clinging fearfully to guns, gold coins, freeze-dried food supplies, and filtration devices. Many do not go this far, but something of this mentality has now infected broad strata.
Case study: Guns and respect in the high-poverty inner city
Many studies of the sociology of gun fetishism in the modern US concur that demographic groups which feel themselves to be oppressed, excluded, and impoverished tend to fall back on guns as a prop for their self respect. This process has been studied most closely among the poverty-stricken residents of black and Hispanic inner-city ghettos, starting during the Reagan years. Here we find young men who have little education, no jobs, no prospects of upward mobility, and few of the predicates which the broader consumer society tells them are necessary for self-respect and success.
As many sociologists have shown, the gun becomes a ticket to acquiring such self-respect. What is true of poor and marginalized black and Hispanic youth can be just as true of the right-wing white southern, rural, and urban or suburban backlash demographics. The tremendous emotional energy which the gun lobby manages to tap into these people suggest that gun possession plays a key role in macho honor, the neutralization of material, racial, and psychological fears, and a whole array of other complexes. In the present phase of acute economic crisis and high unemployment, it would be extremely unwise to stir up the potential hornets’ nest lurking here.
The low income areas of the inner cities are still where the majority of gun violence occurs, often in the form of killings among the minority populations. Here sociologists have identified a code of ritualized masculinity used to procure the status and respect which these oppressed populations have a hard time getting any other way.
According to one study, “… the workings of the ‘code of the street,’ this ‘set of prescriptions and proscriptions’, or informal rules, of behavior organized around a desperate search for respect that governs public relations in the ghetto. For the young men who embrace it, life is a perpetual ‘campaign for respect’ waged by conveying, through appearance, deportment and demeanor, speech and act, that they are prepared to define and dish out violence without fear of consequences so as to get their share of ‘juice,’ as mainly regard is called on the streets.” (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Black Philly: Anderson on the Moral Life of the Inner City,’” American Journal of Sociology)
Gun possession becomes a way to counterbalance economic oppression, poverty, family instability, and the lack of a father: “Structurally, the combined effects of poverty, unemployment, family disruption and isolation from mainstream America define the neighborhood context for residents in many inner-city neighborhoods… the gun becomes a symbol of power and remedy for disputes. ” (See Charis E. Kubrin, “Gangstas, Thugs, and Hustlas: Identity and the Code of the Street in Rap Music,” Social Problems 52:3 (2005), pp. 361, 364)
Gun-toting white libertarians may not be pleased to be compared to oppressed inner city populations, but the parallels are clear. An article by Stephanie McCrummen profiling Ron Paul supporters in New Hampshire a year ago tells of one who was facing personal bankruptcy and foreclosure on his home, a situation which had made his wife very upset. He is full of fear that the Social Security number his wife has just procured in order to qualify for health insurance (probably Medicaid) will somehow make her a slave to the Leviathan State. His response is to distribute leaflets for Ron Paul, but not until he has ostentatiously shown off a firearm on a walk outdoors, something that is legal under the New Hampshire open-carry gun laws. (We can safely assume that many such gun enthusiasts from generation X [born 1963-1981] and the millennial cohort [born 1981-2001] have also experienced narcotics, domestic violence, broken homes, alcoholism, and the like.) (Washington Post, January 9, 2012)
Such figures remind us of the world of economic breakdown, destitution, humiliation, and despair during the Weimar Republic as documented in novels like Hans Fallada’s 1932 Little Man, What Now?. Interestingly, the same Fallada had previously studied the nexus of economic depression, rural life, and senseless quasi-political violence in his novel Farmers, Bureaucrats, and Bombs (Bauern, Bomben, und Bonzen, 1931). Something about the current US situation can be learned from this distant mirror.
Robinson Crusoe and reactionary-libertarian rugged individualism
Chairman Mao may have written that political power comes out of the barrel of a gun, but his actual practice put much more emphasis on the building of political organization. Southern, rural, and Scotch-Irish traditions, mistaking mere heteronomy for real freedom, lead away from the basic truth that union is the basis of strength. The archetype or Gestalt here is often that of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, an extreme model of the isolated and autarkical individual. This may be supplemented by the pervasive influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who taught that it is society that corrupts the individual.
The reactionary and libertarian program amounts to right-wing anarchism, seeking to weaken and dismantle government. Unscrupulous right-wing elites, who have led the charge to under-fund and hollow out police departments, propagandize a world in which the suppression of crime comes down almost exclusively to individual “good guys,” and not the police, using firearms for self-defense. This is neo-feudalism, and fits perfectly with the supremacy of zombie banks and predatory monopolies over all forms of government, which the financiers and their retainers are determined to institute.
We should recall Jared Diamond’s calculations about the prevalence of violent death in traditional and pre-industrial societies. Even a person living in Germany, Poland, or Russia during the bloody world wars of the 20th century, Diamond reports, had a much better chance of avoiding violent deaths than someone living in the average Paleolithic or tribal setting. The difference is the existence of a state - a finding which left wing Rousseauvians and right-wing Austrians find equally disconcerting.
In other words, it is better for all concerned if the state is preponderant in military and policing capabilities, especially if the state is a representative democracy. Against this stands the libertarian myth of the sovereign individual, in reality a return to the worst of the Middle Ages. The greatest barrier to the progress of civilization during the medieval period was the incessant private warfare of various feudal-aristocratic clans, cliques, and combinations.
The decisive positive feature of the modern state has been the ability to suppress the violence of groups of armed retainers - the big advantage of Gian Galeazzo Visconti over his 1300s competitors, of Louis XI over Charles the Bold, and of Henry VII (Earl of Richmond, the founder of the Tudor dynasty), whom historians have called the Big Policeman precisely because of his commitment to shut down the private wars of the feudal oligarchs.
The privatization of armed force is neo-feudalism, today’s financier program
The last approximations of actual sovereign individuals in European history were the early 1500s Imperial Knights of the Holy Roman Empire, who acknowledged no authority above them except the distant and tenuous one of the Holy Roman Emperor. One of these knights, Ulrich von Hutten, has left us a description of the endless misery of being one’s own sovereign state, including the constant fear of sneak attack and the need to bring armor and weapons along every time that a field had to be plowed or a horse shod.
The libertarians claim that they require heavy-duty firearms to protect themselves against the encroachments of a Hobbesian Leviathan state, and they are unable to see that the total privatization of armed force leads to an armed conflict of all against all (Bellum omnium contra omnes) complete with warlords, which has historically been far more lethal than centralized tyranny.
Gun fetishists then make matters worse by interpreting the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in a blatantly unbalanced way: They harp on the notion that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed upon, but forget about the “well regulated militia” clause so they can deny any rules. These same gun fetishists claim that the second amendment is the basis and guarantee of all the other provisions of the Bill of Rights.
To see if this is true, we can check to see whether the most outspoken gun fetishists have shown any aptitude on the political level for identifying and defending the rights which are most important in the modern context, including economic rights. We find with dismay that libertarian gun fetishists routinely mock and negate the two general welfare clauses of the Constitution, one in the preamble and the other among the main tasks for Congress.
Ron Paul, one of the ideologues of this group, was always adamant that the American people have no right whatsoever to health care. He also condemned parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The right to a measure of self-government and collective bargaining are natural rights, but how many libertarians have taken the lead in opposing emergency manager and antiunion laws and acted by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder? None that we know of.
The front line in today’s struggle for natural rights focuses on the economic rights which pertain to every individual in the world, even though these rights may not yet be recognized by the U.S. Constitution or the basic laws of other countries. These include the rights contained in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Economic Bill Of Rights or Second Bill Of Rights, which received its fullest expression in his State of the Union address on January 11, 1944. FDR’s proposed economic rights included a productive job; an adequate income for food, clothing, and recreation; a decent home for every family; adequate medical care; a good education; insurance for old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; protection for small businessmen against monopoly cartels; and parity prices for farmers. Are there many libertarian gun fetishists that will support these rights, much less fight for them against some future aggressive regime? The evidence replies in the negative.
So how can we expect gun fetishists to use weapons to defend rights which they are either unwilling to support with verbal advocacy, or else actually deny? Unfortunately, the track record of the gun fetishists, libertarians especially, is one of hostility to trade unions and of opposition to government attempts to raise the living standard by prescribing a minimum wage.
The gun fetishists of today are much more likely to show up as gangs of strikebreakers rather than as 1775-style Minutemen in the cause of liberty. Even worse: if reactionary moneybags like the Koch brothers were to decide that gun ownership represented a source of strength for a militant mass strike movement, such plutocrats would be the first to demand gun confiscation, and many of the libertarian organizations they fund would be quick to follow the new party line. In the past, southern politicians especially have advocated stringent gun control when they thought that too many guns were going into the hands of black sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
The contention by gun fetishists that their semi automatic rifles, shotguns, and pistols allow them to pose a serious challenge to modern military forces is absurd. Any modern military establishment possesses weapons of a technological sophistication which far exceeds what a gun collector might muster.
M. L. King’s non-violent organizing a better bet than gun fetishism
To bring about the needed revolutionary economic and social changes in this country, non-violence in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King is a much better bet than the macho posturings of the gun fetishists. This does not mean nonviolence as a formalistic straitjacket, as we saw with the wayward anthropologists of Occupy Wall Street. It simply means a hardheaded recognition that nonviolent political organizing, taking advantage of the considerable legal space which still remains, is the smartest strategic choice.
Given an American population still traumatized by McCarthyism and by the post-9/11 hysteria, nonviolence is the only conceivable method for building a political mass movement based on a program of economic reform. So leave your guns at home.
Many rank-and-file supporters of Obama demand gun control because they are sincerely horrified by the barbarism of the man shootings. Many of them are also culturally opposed to hunting animals. Obama & Co. manipulate these sentiments just as the gun lobby does with the strong feelings on the other side of the ideological divide.
The National Rifle Association and the rest of the gun lobby are past masters in the slippery slope argument: any gun control is the immediate prelude to total confiscation of firearms. It is the equivalent of saying that a speed limit on the highway means that the government wants to seize your car. Given the current makeup of the Congress, it is not clear what, if any, gun control measures can pass. Given the psychological cathexis of guns, anyone proposing anything like gun confiscation should be regarded as a provocateur. It is elementary psychology that people want something all the more when they believe that it is about to be taken away from. This is a dynamic to avoid.
So what should be done? Rather than attack the gun issue frontally, if we really want to begin reducing violence in the most effective way possible, it is time to focus the attention of the American people on the struggle for employment, wages, education, infrastructure, science, technology, and the other issues of economic development.
The two thirds of the pre-1968 standard of living which have been lost must be restored. Paths to upward socio-economic mobility must be opened for all. Globalization must be rolled back and greater job security provided, above all by making the labor market a seller’s market through full employment. The entire hard infrastructure of the country must be rebuilt. An ambitious space program, a biomedical research effort to find cures for dread diseases, and the most advanced high-energy physics must be cultivated.
Notice that these are real issues, not wage issues, and would enjoy the majority support of the American people. In the course of time, the vast majority will find these pursuits far more enthralling than the dubious rewards of gun fetishism. In time, the gun problem will recede.
The current pathological focus on guns (both pro and con) in US society reflects the growth of historical and cultural pessimism. Replace the current lugubrious atmosphere with a return to the traditional scientific and technological optimism, and the gun problem can be cut down to size.
Abraham Lincoln had a favorite metaphor for political problems that were so intractable that it was wise to set them aside until conditions became more favorable. He would recall that when Illinois farmers were confronted with a tree stump in the middle of a field that was so hard it could not be reduced to pulp, so wet it could not be burned, and so heavy that it could not be carted away, they would temporarily decide to plow around it. The gun problem is one we may have to plow around for the immediate future.