January 2, 2010

The Government Does Not Fear Your Puny Guns

They love their guns in Elizabethtown. The little burgh just south of Fort Knox ("where they keep the gold") is a hotbed of everything 'mericn . . . guns, God, Ronald Reagan, John Birch, free markets, etc. Every other vehicle on the road here has a bumper sticker referring to random articles of true faith, even several different articles thrown together into a creamy right-wing custard.

The main ideas behind the gun stuff is anti-government. No, actually, that's not quite true: the main idea is fear, followed closely by an inadequacy that screams Freud . . . but let's leave that aside for a moment, and take these true believers as seriously as they take themselves. So: the idea seems to be that the second amendment exists to keep the government in line, and gun ownership is more than a right, it's a patriotic duty. Well, that's fine back when the country's army and police forces were a citizen militia, when it was the duty of the citizen to bear arms to help safeguard the fragile social contract, to actively participate in the policing of the state.

Today, the right to bear arms has taken the aspect of resistance, as opposed to the co-operative aspect of the citizen militia. The idea seems to be that "the government fears an armed citizenry" (verbiage taken directly from the bumper sticker of an F-150 that always seems to be commuting back to Louisville at the same time I do), and that, as long as we all have guns, we will keep the government "honest". The government has gone from being "us" to being "them".

For a moment, let's assume that we can all agree on what it means to keep the government honest, which we clearly do not. If we depend on our guns to control the government, then we are making two related errors: one, that our government can be broadly influenced by the level of force our "armed citizenry" can muster; and two, that those who bear the brunt of our violence would be the people repressing us.

You can be sure that the guy running around with the store keys hanging off his belt doesn't own the joint. In the same way, you can be sure you won't be shooting at real power. Just who do you expect to be prying your gun from your cold, dead fingers? That police officer keeping you from waving your guns around at your teabagger rallies may be the government's proxy, but he is NOT the government. As a matter of fact, the average police officer is more conservative than not (except, tellingly, when it comes to the subject under discussion: many, if not most, cops are pro-gun control). He (or she) is just a working stiff, trying to get home alive to live his version of the American dream. Incongruously, the knife's edge of what the teabaggers fear are the very law and order types they celebrate. As for the left, how can you claim you are fighting "the man" for the benefit of "the common man" when your guns are pointed at "the common man", not "the man"? The people who really run this country won't show up at your door with weapons - they have people that do their dirty work. The people between them and the muzzle of your gun are very much like you, no matter what you claim your politics to be. They are the ruling elite's shock absorbers, isolating them from the bumps in the road - and you, friends, are never more than bumps in the road to them.

"So that's the way it has to be", you claim . . . "you're either with us or against us". "Unfortunate collateral damage," maybe. Or, the old "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" nugget. Okay, fine. That's how revolutions normally run, it seems. But do you think your guns are really going to make a difference?

Let me clue you in to a little secret: THERE ARE ALWAYS BIGGER GUNS. AND THE GOVERNMENT HAS THEM. Got yourself a little stash of nines? They'll show up with the SWAT team, all sniper rifles and night vision scopes. Pull out your AK, and they'll show up with tanks and flamethrowers. Get yourself a seriously strapped posse, and they'll whip out their joysticks and fire up the Predator drones. There's always more weaponry, and the government has it. Talk about insurgencies all you want, but at the end of the day, insurgency is only as successful as the masters will let it be . . . you could go all Israeli on an insurgency, and it wouldn't last long. Or, it would only last as long as it takes to kill the insurgents. As long as you make violence the game, then those capable of the most violence will win. And no man, no group of men, is as versed in the art of violence and domination than the historical pillars of state and capital.

Indeed, the next war for independence will not be fought with muskets. And you're just as fucked if you're trying to fight it with an AK. Who do you think did the most for the black civil rights cause: King or the Panthers? We lefties fetishize the Panthers' revolutionary chic just like the teabaggers fetishize their guns . . . but ultimately, it is will, not violence, that wins the day. Beyond that, if you still think your AK is the ultimate fashion accessory for the next revolution, you're an idiot. "Lawyers, guns, and money?" Leave the guns at home, pal.

Ask the Chinese what it takes, since they apparently know: cash and computers. Kim Jong Il shakes his fist at Sam with some missile tests, the Chinese get into Pentagon computers. Who's gonna make you paranoid? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talks about vanquishing the infidels, and the Chinese buy up huge chunks of our national debt. Who really keeps you up at night? I'm not advocating another bogeyman for our nightmares, but I am pointing out that the distribution of power is becoming (at best) tangentially related to weaponry on the macro level . . . and as above, so below.

* * * * *

I've been pro-gun control most of my adult life. I have lately come to count myself in the "guns don't kill people, people do" camp. The places that resist gun control most strenuously (the wide-open west, rural areas, etc.) probably don't need gun control. Gun control is not a bad idea in places like Baltimore, D.C., Detroit, etc., where people support it. See how well that works out? Guns aren't the problem, people shooting people is the problem. Gun control should always be considered a stopgap measure, a treatment a symptom rather than a solution to a problem . . . which doesn't mean it can't be useful in places where people are shooting each other at a ridiculous rate.

Unfortunately, guns have become fetishized, not just by the far right, but also the far left. They have become symbols far beyond their practical measure, both to those who want them and those who would rid the world of them. In the end, guns are just another silly obsession that distracts us from what is really going on.


Matt said...

Hate to be the first one commenting all the time. I always sound like a freaking Dittohead. (Unlike the real Dittoheads, I do not consider that an honorable distinction.)

I personally would be happy to see all guns made illegal. The best I could compromise outside of that would be to see only handguns made illegal. The proposition you posit in the second to last paragraph is the best compromise. I could live with that though I think guns are for cowards.

Now I'll stop commenting for a few entries to let others sound off.

mwhybark said...

I want to take issue with your historicization of old-timey pro-gun propaganda as depicting the brave gun owner as primarily a brake on gummint gone wild. Gun clubs were explicitly organized to provide and recognized as intended to provide an extralegal enforcement wing for the forces of power, whether that power was the mine owner, the plantation manager, or the sherrif. In many, many popular entertainments of the last half of the American nineteenth and the first half of the American twentieth, the posse is celebrated specifically and precisely for its' appeal beyond written law. This has been transformed into the implicit - if absurd - anti-government stance seen since the electoral, regulatory, and cultural triumph of civil rights.

Bill Zink said...

Mike - I think you and I have the same understanding. I saw the old "citizen militia" as functioning quite like a volunteer fire department, except with guns. It was a very cooperative situation, "extralegal", as you say. When I say "The main ideas behind the gun stuff is anti-government", I meant currently, not historically. I would date the changeover as beginning at the end of the civil war.

In my quest to break down the false polarization of American political debate, I once again want to point out that the gun fetish exists for 9/11 Truthers as much as Obama Birthers.

josh said...

Bill, I think you're fighting windmills, here. Sure, there are some gun nuts who fit your caricature; but, revolutionary fantasies aren't at the core of the issue. It's about power. Weapons are symbols of power and when the state attempts to consolidate power for itself, citizens should be suspicious unless they honestly believe that the state is a manifestation of the collective will of society.

A voluntary militia is very different from an army of mercenaries paid for with wealth plundered from citizens. A posse or militia comes into being when individual citizens voluntarily decide to join together because some kind of action must be taken and it's worth risking their own lives and limbs to do so. Do you think a volunteer army of 100,000 would have decided to leave their jobs, homes, and families to invade Iraq? The reason many of us don't view the government as "us" anymore is because it isn't. 600 or so elected federal officials make decisions for over 300 million Americans. And "voting the bums out" just means voting other bums in.

I think a lot of people simply feel helpless against the leviathan of the state. The right to bear arms is something which at least makes them feel like they have a remnant of power (illusory though it may be).

Matt said...

not that it matters, but wanted to tone down the rhetoric of me first post - but only a tad.

Though hunting is not MY thing, I don't really have anything against it. I consider myself anti-gun, but mostly anit-handgun/assault weapons. When I say that "guns are for cowards", I'm talking about those who tout guns for protection of home and property. Maybe it makes A LITTLE sense to have a gun if you live in Compton or whatever, but not Fishers, IN.

Not that it matters all that much i guess.

Bill Zink said...

HA! Josh, you know damn well tilting at windmills is what I do. And yes, you're right, it is about power, and what I'm shooting for (if you'll excuse the pun) is that guns have nothing to do with power. I think I just confused the issue with the discussion of revolution. That's actually pointed more at the left wing fools than the right wing fools.

"An army of mercenaries paid for with wealth plundered from citizens?" I prefer "an army of the underclass forced by lack of education and economic pressures into servitude". But, you say tomato . . . And, ultimately, we come to more or less the same place: in my college conscientious objector days, I often debated with an Air Force ROTC officer who argued that what I really should want was mandatory military conscription (like in Israel) so that the armed forces would be a true citizen militia. In that case, I doubt very seriously that we would have been in Iraq, as you suggest.

Back to "tilting at windmills" again: I may be reading you wrong, but the basic suggestion seems to be that I am off base, wasting my time by over-reacting to cliches and caricatures of the "right-wing gun nut". Well, first of all, I took pains to make it clear that this isn't a left wing/right wing issue, but the gun-happy right wing is simply more present (and therefore more of a target) than the gun-obsessed left.

Secondly, this is not caricature. You have discussed before how frustrating it is to be "conservative" (do you accept that term?) in a left-wing college atmosphere, and I'm here to tell you that there are worlds between Elizabethtown and Tucson. Louisville is a worker's collective compared to the rest of Kentucky, including Lexington. If anything, I think I was overly sensitive to caricaturing the right. This is pretty much on the money, if I am allowed to say so myself.

josh said...

Bill, I guess what I'm saying about the "gun nut" caricature is that it isn't relevant even if it's accurate. Ok, now I'm being presumptuous. But I think these are people who--at least subconsciously--realize they have very little power and see American culture changing in ways which frighten and confuse them. I think they also have the occasional insight that the American values they want to believe in are and (more importantly) always have been a sham. I may be wrong on this account, but cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing. I didn't mean to imply that you were being unfair to gun nuts or that you were making it a right-left issue. I just think the primary motivation on both sides of the issue is the desire to exercise power. All the other stuff is just flimsy narrative, in my opinion.

I don't consider myself a "conservative." Really, I just want to be allowed to live as best I can and am happy to let others do the same. If the US government would allow me to secede, I'd probably do so. That puts me at odds with most liberals and conservatives, alike.

Off-topic: It's a myth that US soldiers are disproportionately lower-class. In 2006 and 2007, most new recruits came from neighborhoods where the median income is middle or upper-middle class. This has been true for quite some time. In fact, low-income neighborhoods were statistically under-represented while upper-class neighborhoods were over-represented during the same time frame. What's more, 98.6% of recruits in '07 had at least a high school diploma compared to 79% of 18-24 year-olds in the general population. 95% of officers have at least a bachelor's degree.

The US military, however, does have a disproportionate percentage of Southerners. Although, again, most of these are white and middle or upper-middle class. Rather than recruits signing on because they don't have any other options it appears most of them sign on because of a genuine desire to serve in the military. This desire is particularly strong in the South where military service has long been admired and respected. For the most part, US soldiers are US soldiers because they want to be not because they have to be.

Conscription would result in just the opposite. Most soldiers would serve under the threat of force. Unless a government gives its citizens the option of peacefully seceding in lieu of serving in the military, conscription is just slavery. I can understand the argument that we'd probably be less likely to go to war if we all had to serve in the military but since most of us don't get to vote on going to war regardless, I'd rather that military service be a pre-requisite to serve in Congress or the White House. That way the persons who will make those decisions would at least have the benefit of a soldier's perspective. The problem today is that very few politicians have ever served. I don't think it's a coincidence that Eisenhower was the president who warned against the political influence of the industrial-military complex.

Bill Zink said...

"Bill, I guess what I'm saying about the "gun nut" caricature is that it isn't relevant even if it's accurate."

Yeah, I can see that. Perhaps the more relevant discussion is an archeology of these and other similar distractions. The fact that this gun discussion is so dominant (and it is, though that's not an argument for its relevance) is a problem in and of itself. That idea is floating around in the subtext here.

"In 2006 and 2007, most new recruits came from neighborhoods where the median income is middle or upper-middle class."

Yeah, the armed forces are the last refuge of the disappearing middle class. Joining the armed forces is not a desperate attempt to become upwardly mobile from the lower classes, it is a desperate attempt to keep from becoming downwardly mobile from the middle class. My use of the word "underclass" was misleading.

josh said...

"Yeah, the armed forces are the last refuge of the disappearing middle class. Joining the armed forces is not a desperate attempt to become upwardly mobile from the lower classes, it is a desperate attempt to keep from becoming downwardly mobile from the middle class."

What's your definition of "middle-class?" I guess I just don't see the evidence that large numbers of people are joining the military out of desperation. There might be some people joining right now because jobs are harder to find, but that wasn't the case 2-3 years ago. I'm more inclined to believe that most people who join the military do so as an act of patriotism, because they think it's an admirable and respectable line of work, they feel a desire for discipline and/or direction in life, or some combination of these. From a purely cost-benefit perspective, joining the military isn't a very good bet right now. They really don't pay enough for the guaranteed risk of being sent into a war zone. If someone is just trying to avoid poverty, there are better options. That's why I have trouble believing that fear of becoming lower-class is the prime motivation for the kids signing up these days.

Bill Zink said...

It's both, Josh . . . I think we are both right, and both wrong. I've known people who take the military as a vocation, and I've known (lots more) people who've joined the military because they were "at a loss" for anything else to do. I'm referring to people roughly my age, but also younger. With the disappearance of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest (starting in the early '80's) the armed forces became a much more present option.

My experience is purely anecdotal evidence - I wouldn't take it as the final word. I think the modern American armed forces is a very complex collection of people at this point. I myself have fiercely ambivalent feelings toward the armed forces. My own father paid his way through college in the Army, and I believe at one point he wanted to make it a career of it. Turns out he's no better at taking orders than I am, which (I believe) factored into him leaving when his hitch was up.

Talking about the military is like talking about the country: you become reductionist at your own risk. I think we are both making that mistake.