Thursday, January 31, 2013

Meanwhile, in the agora....

Growing up around guns and owning them as an adult affords a person memories and experiences that strangers to guns may have trouble understanding. The divide is phenomenological, not political (or not political until it gets to be), like the gulf between those who’ve had sex and those who haven’t or those who smoke and those who’ve never lit up. Pulling a trigger and being prepared to do so cuts patterns in the self. Depending on the nature of your social life, which time around guns can shape and color in ways that I’ll describe, you might forget that these patterns are even there, because you’re surrounded by people who share them—until someone or some event challenges you to answer for your thinking.
That's from an article Josh Marshall highlights at TPM, where he's trying to make much of the distinction between those who live in a "gun culture," and those who don't.  I rise to call "bollocks" on the whole discussion.

Replace "guns" in that quote with anything you like:  "Evangelicals;" "Bible-thumpers" or "holy rollers" would do, as well.  "Snake handlers" comes to mind, though I'm more familiar with the previous categories.  Maybe "Ultra-orthodox Jews," or "Fundamentalist Muslims."  You get the idea.  Drop in the term of your choice for the exclusionary group of your choice, and then tell me what's different about guns and gun owners.  JMM notes he's had correspondence with people fanatical about the "liberty" they think the 2nd Amendment represents, even though they don't own guns, and with gun owners who think all guns should be registered and very heavily regulated, so it's not a simple either/or equation, even as we try to make it one for easier discussion. But really, do we have to talk about "tribes"?

Part of the reason I object is the quasi-anthropological aspect of the topic.  "Tribes" is a term with specific meaning in anthropology, but a vaguer, looser meaning in the general public.  We can speak of "tribes" with in political parties, or even within national regions (or even local ones).  But when we speak of "tribes" in this context, it carries the idea that we must give due deference to that tribe's concerns.  And yet we don't have to acknowledge the "legitimate concerns" of the "gun tribe," anymore than we have to give due deference to the "tribe" of drug gangs.

Ah, you will say, but gun owners are not criminals, and drug gangs are; the comparison is unfair and unjust.  But drug gangs are only criminal because we have declared their activities criminal; there's nothing inherently good or bad about drugs; it's the ones we define as bad which are the problem (alcohol v. marijuana, for example).  The real issue is not the inherent evil of the fetish object (drugs, guns), but the question of recognition of, and response to, the "tribe" we say surrounds that issue.  Do we really need to recognize the legitimate concerns of drug gangs the way we recognize the legitimate concerns of gun owners?

Let me put this in religious terms.  We have a 1st Amendment, which protects religion in this country.  Does that mean we have to respect the rights of religious fanatics to firebomb abortion clinics, or commit terrorist attacks, or just insist our children learn that evolution is false and comes from Satan?  Do we even discuss such extreme ideas in terms of the "tribe" such people grow up in, or join in adult life?  We have a 2nd Amendment which we think protects gun ownership in this country (it is, even under Heller, far less protected than religious belief).  Does that mean we have to respect the rights of people to amass arsenals that can be used by family members, if not the purchasers themselves, to commit mayhem?

If  you understand religious extremists (Muslim, Christian, what have you) as a "tribe," does it advance your understanding of how to respond to them?  Do I really need to understand fundamentalist Christians as  "tribe" in order to know I don't want them writing laws about who can marry whom, or what can be taught in schools?  I've grown up around both gun owners and religious fundamentalists, and it's never occurred to me to categorize either as a "tribe" whose "culture" I must understand.  I understand full well the culture of both, and each partakes of the general culture far more than either creates a unique, individual culture apart from the main.  They aren't tribes so much as they are special interest groups.  They also move back and forth between wanting to ignore and withdraw from the general culture, and wanting to dominate and control it.  The former is their business, but the latter is political, a matter for the polis, the people in general.  And I don't really need to consider them as anything else but wrong, to confront that.

The "divide" is not phenomenological, unless you mean it is basic to human identity and existence itself.  But that's nonsense; how can gun ownership be any more basic to human existence than religious belief, and yet we don't allow religious beliefs not shared by the majority to hold sway over our legislative process.   As for "patterns" which are "cut into the self" which you may not even know are there, I could make the very same argument about growing up in a small East Texas town in the '60's.  Annie Dillard even wrote a very insightful memoir about a '60's suburban American childhood.  You could use the language of that quote to describe the weltanschaung she described from that experience, or to describe mine; and I've never considered such experiences to be "phenomenological" or like a gulf between the sexually experienced and the sexually inexperienced (which is a pretty silly gulf, looked back at from 40 years past the onset of puberty).  Are Ms. Dillard and I part of a "tribe" because our childhoods look familiar on "Mad Men"?  Hardly.  And as for events that have challenged my thinking, well:  if that hasn't happened to you by now, you haven't been paying attention.  That, or you haven't been out in the world yet.  Maybe it's time you joined the polis in the agora.

Molly Ivins once wrote that she liked the guys who ate lunch in the Petroleum Club, but she didn't want them running the country.  I feel the same way about the "gun tribe."  I have nothing against them, personally; but I'm not too concerned with the source of their fanaticism, or with the need to find a common language with them, any more than I want to reason with fundamentalists about teaching evolution schools, or with rabid anti-Communists about the fluoride in the public water supply.  Such fanatics are no less tribalistic than rabid defenders of what they think is the 2nd Amendment.  I don't have to understand and appreciate their position, to know I don't want them making laws.

This is, I suppose, "tribal" thinking:

 “Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ — we are not going to stand for this injustice,” [Oklahoma state Sen. Nathan] Dahm [(R)] told the receptive crowd. “Another quote that he said was, ‘Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’ Now, I’m willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt, and believe that this is just sincere ignorance and not conscientious stupidity. But I’m here to say, no matter what it is, we in Oklahoma will not stand for it. The Second Amendment reigns supreme. ‘Shall not infringe’ means ‘shall not infringe.’”
The Second Amendment "reigns supreme"?  Supreme over what?  The entire Constitution?  You can call this kind of reasoning "tribal," but it is also supremely stupid.  One might as well say there is a "tribe" that supports the cause of nullification.  They don't deserve my respect or consideration, either.

As far as I'm concerned, this is the best and final word on the subject:

"We stop being the world's greatest country when we allow our most vulnerable citizens to be slaughtered because we might offend people by taking away their guns."
Indeed, at that point it is safe to say we stop being a country at all.


  1. "It's an X thing; you wouldn't understand."

    Always a poor excuse for an argument. But very common.

  2. Rick--

    Exactly. And I don't know how much traction this line of argument is getting on this subject; but it doesn't deserve any traction, at all.

  3. drkrick11:26 AM

    I think you're agreeing with Marshall. Guns are as important as religion to a lot of people on the anti-gun control side. Not so much on the pro gun control side where we tend to treat it as another important issue like tax policy, not a fundamental identity question.

    Marshall isn't arguing that this means we have to respect or defer to their views as a result (although other people certainly do), but that we had better understand it if we're going to have any chance of successfully debating the issue or enacting better policies.

    The fact is that there a lot more of these people than there are members of the Petroleum Club. We can't just write them out of the political process.

  4. Actually, I don't agree with Marshall. I do understand the insane side of the gun culture, just as I understand there are sane gun owners who support assault weapons bans, for example (a PPP poll finds 49% of Texas support such a ban. Who knew?).

    What I don't have to do is "understand" the paranoia that thinks guns protect the owner from tyranny or criminals, and think the first whiff of "gun control" means confiscation of their precious firearms. For one thing, felons cannot possess (it's a much narrower concept than "own") a firearm, under Federal law (the only criminal case I ever defended....). Yet no one imagines the Feds are going to decide that law gives them the right to repossess the firearms of non-felons.

    And so and and so forth. I don't have to understand "gun nuts" in order to know the guy in Alabama currently holding a five year old in his "bunker" so he can get some attention, shouldn't have any firearms and should have had them taken from him long ago (if his neighbors are right about his behavior). He might not like that, and others might not like it, but as far as I can tell they are a distinct minority.

    Racists didn't like the civil rights movement, either, and in some states they were a distinct majority. That didn't mean we had to give due consideration to the position of the racists before we desegregated schools or passed the Voting Rights Act. They had a vote, but they lost. We didn't "write them out of the political process." We just refused to give them authority over the majority.

  5. Sherri5:40 PM

    I'm not a stranger to guns. I grew up around hunters. I learned to shoot a rifle. Those experiences give me no insight into the thinking of the crazies who think the 2nd amendment matters more than the others and think they need an arsenal to protect themselves. I think those people are insane, and I see no reason to let insane paranoid lunatics dictate anything.

  6. I am not sure if I fully agree with you (although I'm also not sure if I agree with what the author of the original quote is getting at either) ... performing one of your suggested substitutions (or a slight variation of it) I get

    Growing up around conservative evangelical Christians affords a person memories and experiences that strangers to conservative evangelical Christians may have trouble understanding.

    This, in my experience is true. Having grown up around conservative evangelical Christians and now interacting with politically conservative Jews who have grown up entirely in New York City and who now like to make common cause with conservative evangelicals around such issues as support for (right-wing nationalistic elements in) Israel, I have a very different view of the wisdom of making common cause with them than the political conservatives I know in, for example, my synagogue.

    To many Jewish conservatives, the theological and eschatological motivations of dispensationalists may be safely ignored because "they can't really believe that, can they? in any case, we don't believe it, so who cares why they support us ... it's good for once the goyim are supporting us rather than trying to attack us!". I, having direct experience with this "tribe" know enough about the sincerity of their beliefs and the power that beliefs have in shaping actions (even if they shape actions in ways that may seem hypocritical and incoherent to big city Northeastern liberals) to know that policies supported by conservative evangelicals, being designed to bring on Armageddon, are not necessarily policies good for Israel's long term stability and security.

    Maybe I would get this if I didn't have first hand experience with conservative evangelicals growing up ... and maybe I am in fact, based on (nowhere near entirely but often enough) negative interactions with conservative evangelicals wishing to convert me or condemn me to hell, prejudiced against them and my wariness of making a political alliance with them is based on a form of bigotry. But even in that latter case, my experiences with evangelicals makes my point of view very different than a big city neo-con.

    I would argue that our host's view of guns (and many other issues) is similarly influenced by knowing very well from his childhood certain thought processes and, to some degree, rejecting them.

  7. alberich--

    You raise an important point. Without disagreeing at all with your example, let me see if I can draw the proper distinction with the case in question.

    I agree that "gun nuts" (to use a shorthand term, even though it's undoubtedly pejorative) have a point of view it's better to understand (as in, "Yes, they really mean it"-understand) than to dismiss out of hand. I like to know my enemy, so to speak. And, as you say, you have to accept that they mean what they say. I'll throw in an example from a recent Charlie Pierce post, where he said it was no defense to the craziness of Ted Cruz that he went to Harvard. Pierce is right: just because Cruz went to Harvard doesn't mean Cruz doesn't really mean the crazy things he says (like the UN is conspiring to take away our golf courses and freeways). And even if he doesn't mean it, does it really matter when he says it publicly over and over again? He may know he's talking crazy, but he's still talking crazy.

    I'm not keen, in other words, on knowing the dancer from the dance. That kind of dualistic split is appealing in some ways, I suppose; but it creates a creature of one's imagination. Which is pretty much what you are pointing out; at least as I read it.

    The distinction I would draw with your excellent example (and ironic I heard about a documentary today about the Israel intelligence forces, "The Gatekeepers," where former Israel heads of their agency were highly critical of right-wing Israeli policies; and I think some in America are more right wing than the people in Israel. I digress....) is that part of my argument is that I don't seek to make common cause with the "gun nuts." I take them at their word: they are paranoid; they do believe their guns keep tyranny at bay (or will, when the apocalypse comes), they believe as Sen. Graham said, that in time of natural disaster social order dissolves and every man or woman with a gun will survive the horrors that will erupt.

    Why do they believe this? What does it matter? I can take their belief system seriously without understanding where it comes from. As I say, this is not a situation of anthropological, or even sociological, interest to me. I could also understand the sociology of the Tea Party, as a prominent sociologist did. Oddly enough, nobody cares about that study anymore; the Tea Party is a spent force. The study still has its uses, but not for political decisions.

    As for the fear of imminent violence, the biggest problem is there is no history of it. It didn't happen in New Orleans after Katrina; nor in Houston after Ike; nor in New Jersey after Sandy. It was, in fact, the police with guns on the bridge that caused the most mayhem in NO during Katrina. The worst excesses of civil violence seem always to have been provoked by words, not by nature. Interesting that, no?

    So, I take the gun nuts seriously, and I reject their claims. Do they have a voice? Yes; but if they aren't the majority, they have no right to have their sentiments become law. Too much ground has been ceded to these people already; there are too few real laws and too little enforcement of those laws, because of the NRA and its ilk. I reject their ideas; but I also reject their claim to political power.

    I wouldn't make common cause with anarchists, either, or give much consideration to their point of view; to underline the point.

  8. What's happened in my neck of the woods is that the paranoid people are stockpiling guns and bullets, and one of the big stores has run out of bullets, thereby reinforcing the paranoia of the paranoid.

    I don't understand the "gun nuts", and I never will. I've tried to have rational, civil conversations with them, but I've given up, because there's no civility or rationality in the conversations.