Sunday, December 23, 2012

A serious view on American gun control.

There are sound reasons why the U.S. should not crack down on law abiding gun owners, but these are overshadowed by the poor defense provided by pretty much every idiot who has managed to get  themselves on television. For all the right wing bluster about perceived liberal media elites, they sure seem to run like lemmings to just about any smirking prick with a news show.

What's changed in the last week is that I think blue state opinion makers have taken time to reflect and understand what the zeal of gun owners and the gun lobby is really about. Piers Morgan's repetition of 30,000 gun deaths a year vs. about 30 in the UK seems to make an inarguable, if patronizing, case for the solution to gun violence. The numbers are apparently clear. He has the data and it frames the issue in a way that shows quantitatively that there can be no rational response other than to reduce the number of guns available to civilians in the U.S. From this view, the facts have data, the government has the power to respond, and this should be a done deal. But these numbers don't tell the whole story.

John Stewart seemed to acknowledge last week that for 2nd amendment advocates, this isn't about hunting or fighting criminals; there is a significant group of people who believe sincerely that they are empowered by the U.S. constitution to use their guns defend themselves against the government of the day. This view is of course incomprehensible to anyone who believes that an elected government is the expression of collective will, and it is in place to protect citizens, provide for the needy, and build and maintain civic  infrastructure. But for anyone who does not identify as being enfranchised by that system, it is so overwhelmingly powerful, so pervasive, and touches (often, physically) every part of their lives, they are powerless, and feel oppressed by it.

The anger of that conspiracy guy on CNN going on about a reprise of 1776 if the state attempted to confiscate guns is not so much a fear of this particular administration, but perhaps a surprisingly rational (if inarticulate) response to the previously unimaginable power of the modern state. The rhetorical tools of old time religion and superstitious conspiracy theory are clumsy and blunt, but they belie a broader sense of disenfranchisement. 
Gun owners are characterized as predominantly white, middle aged, lacking higher education, privately employed, suburban or rural, and either poor rednecks or wealthy republicans. What they are not described as is urban, liberal, educated, publicly employed or funded, and middle class. To a lot of democrats, they are hillbilly boogeymen.

It is difficult to have a "national conversation about gun control" when the discussion is already framed by a particular constituency, with specific values, on a single solution. What is presented as a "national discussion" is really just haggling over how many rounds a magazine can hold, and what new powers the state will grant itself to manage (through seizure) the availability of firearms.

There is no appetite in the press for national conversations framed as things like freedom, perversity, privacy, profligacy, personal responsibility, religious issues or any of the other issues that  matter to people outside the city middle class. John Stewart used a clip of former Republican presidential candidate and going concern, Mike Huckabee, saying that the conversation needs to be about, "sin." Huckabee was engaged in cheap dog whistle politics, but the real point to be made to blue state thinkers is that for people who see themselves as subject to the enormity of American power, it is as absurd to blame their remaining freedoms for atrocities as it is for Huckabee to blame sin.

This gap should give all parties pause.

What John Stewart addressed as paranoid concerns about potential dictators seems foreign and ridiculous when compared to the real and present victims, but I think he's found the tip of the iceberg.  The divide in America is radical.

The main divide is not income but education. People with higher education vastly support democrats over republicans, and the remainder of educated republicans would be social liberals and fiscal conservatives. Few would associate the sort of libertarian, capitalist or even anarchist tendencies of both lower and upper class people as being aligned with educated views. There is something embourgois-ing about what are objectively Statist values. Even union executives who use borderline soviet rhetoric say they are, perhaps aspirationally, agitating on behalf of the middle class. The gap in the U.S. between the educated and less-educated is that university graduates are socialized to identify as stakeholders in society, and to believe they are empowered to affect change through negotiation and political organization. Individualistic and heroic stories are things you learn as a kid, or are entertained by at the movies, but mostly they are useful for encouraging iconoclasts and other trouble makers to self-select out. The reality of the world is that success is just a function of finding ways to get along and survive longer than the other guy. But they don't tell you that in high school. 

This, I think, is also why it is so hard for a lot of people to understand the position of non-middle class gun owners, who interpret threats to their families as personal, existential threats. To most gun owners, a crazed shooter doesn't exist on a spectrum of 20th century mental illness, or within a post-modern critical framework, nor is he a "troubled boy" with access to weapons who has attacked "society." A young man killed 20 children in an singular act of berserk predation. Full stop. There is no new or meaningful information that would enable us to empathize with the person who acted this way. For many gun owners, this was a simple case of Evil that does not require rationalization. There just isn't that much to know. Anything else is either self-serving or morbid.

Someone socialized with a more received moral framework, what some on the right call a "secular liberal," bases their interpretation on notions of co-existence, co-operation, equality, and science. There is not a lot of room for Evil in this view, since accepting Evil implies accepting what appears to be a superstitious, irrational view of the universe. At best, to middle class Americans, Evil is something unreconstructed, counter-revolutionary, or, ironically, an ensconced power. There are scientific or political explanations for many of the things we perceive and experience, and educated people align around principles derived from these observations. Secular liberals reasonably look to rational explanations that confirm their beliefs to explain extreme events. However, while that framework implies obvious political solutions, such as the framed "national conversation," it does not acknowledge conservative morality.

It's easy to underestimate gun owners as a bunch of ignorant rednecks, but when viewed as a popular majority in pursuit of its interest, it is something much more complex.

If you are not a part of the self-identified middle class America, the stakeholder class, America is a pretty awful thing to be left out of.  George Bush Jr's platitude that "the terrorists hate us for our freedoms" was absurd at the time, seeing as he was actually referring to Iraqi's who in fact hated him  for propping up their vicious dictator and then dropping bombs on them, but in the end he may not have been far from the mark. If you can imagine identifying as someone who is antagonized by something as ubiquitous and powerful as the American state, a logic of existential despair begins to materialize and formulate extreme views.

It's not just about drones, surveillance, rendition and military issues either. Nor is it poverty, crime and economic crisis' It's the domestic climate of contempt for a heroic narrative that Americans traditionally used to self-identify, and its replacement with a collectivist political framework of centralization, moving goal posts, two-tier rules, and what could be termed as the "liberal shame machine."

Gun opponents should take a step back and take more time to reflect, and they should not exploit the horror of this recent shooting to push through new controls on their fellow citizens. Further, and as exemplified by some discreditable rants by conspiracy theorists,  it is possible that control advocates have dangerously underestimated how seriously their countrymen take the roles of individual guardians of the constitution. Just because they talk funny doesn't mean they aren't serious.

The indebtedness of federal and state governments, the increasingly cartoonish and distopian security apparatus of the U.S., and the relentless state of crisis in the legislative branch is undermining the popular legitimacy of government authorities. Ramming through laws that would be perceived as a radical attack on people's freedom would be over-reach. Taking into account the perspective of a significant constituency who consider themselves left out of the new America, it could have disproportionate consequences. It is one thing to have a bunch of left-wing students and middle-class young people marching in the streets demanding more government intervention in the economy a la Occupy, and quite another to put under siege armed people who believe they are patriotic defenders of a constitution designed to limit the powers of the state.

The political divide between gun owners and control advocates exacerbates a fundamental misunderstanding in the U.S. between the collective and the individual, and the material vs. the transcendent. It is possible that gun owners may accept tougher requirements but only in exchange for guarantees, and especially guarantees in times of crisis such as natural disasters, or political and criminal instability - but in what is now perhaps a familiar arc, their ostensibly progressive opponents are outspokenly denying their moral right to exist.

Judging by the flapping heads on television, there are a lot of easy answers. But then there are the right ones. Finding these will take something that is in troublingly short supply on both sides, and that is compassion.


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