19 December 2012

Guns and American Conservatives

After the Connecticut massacre where 20 children and 6 adults lost their lives a teary President Obama announced that something had to be done.

Do you believe anything will be done?

In case you are not sure, let me refresh your memory.

The last time something was done, it was Jim Brady, Ronald Reagan's Press Secretary, who succeeded in pushing legislation (with St Ronnie's backing) that established a waiting period before gun purchases and some background checking. That was it. Since 1994, no gun legislation was introduced and Congress refused even to consider limits on automatic assault weapons or specialized ammunitions.

In the intervening years, several high school and college shootings led to the death of hundreds of young people.

A Congresswoman was shot in the head and 6 people around her died and 11 seriously wounded.

A deranged person wearing a mask opened fire during a movie screening, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.

Reactions to all of these incidents? Most commentators said something along the lines of, (a) nobody could have predicted such violent acts, (b) guns don't kill people, people kill people and (c) Americans needed to get more guns to defend themselves against crazy people.

According to some of these conservative voices if school kids were armed in these instances, they could have defended themselves.  Since then, many states are considering allowing guns on campuses. I am not kidding. Feel free to check out www.armedcampuses.org for statistics.

So, the basic answer to mass killings with guns has been more guns, not less.

I never understood why the gun industry and its lobbying arm the National Rifle Association (NRA) were so important, so powerful and so successful in stifling discussion. After all, this is just a $11 billion a year industry.  To put it in perspective, at the height of the banking bubble, Goldman Sachs alumnus John Paulson and a couple of his colleagues made more than that in bonuses in a single year (2007). Surely, this is not an economically significant sector.

But the question remains that, if cigarette manufacturers could be taken down, if mighty bank CEOs can be grilled in Congress or if defense contractors could be criticized, how is it that such a relatively small sector could remain untouchable?

The answer is that a disproportionate number of Americans see guns as an extension of their belief system.

Conservative Mind Set: Fear and Martyrdom

After the Connecticut incident, BBC's Mark Mardell wrote that we do not understand the historic and emotional bond the Americans have with their guns. I am sure there are gun nuts for whom this is a valid observation. But I think guns are important to a large number of Americans for ideological reasons. These are people who share the values and ideas of the modern conservative movement. As such, this group includes -besides conservatives- many independents and some democrats as well.

One of the interesting attributes of American conservatives is the belief that they are surrounded by enemies. In their alternate reality (also known as the bubble), there are people who would like to take Christmas away; there are people who would like women to quit their traditional roles as reproducers and caregivers to destroy the social order; there are people who fight for abortion rights so that women would become sluts; there are people who would like to open US borders to illegal immigration so that white people could be run over by hordes of brown people; there are people who would like to legalize drugs to turn Americans into zombie addicts; there are people who would like gays to get married so that traditional family is destroyed. And there are people who would like to let Muslims blow up American landmarks and kill innocent Americans.

Notice also that all these issues are almost always expressed in military terms. War on drugs, War on crime, War on family, War on unborn babies, War on illegal immigration, War on terror and, of course, War on Christmas.

They see themselves as a small island of sanity in a large hippie ocean composed of naive white people and women, Muslims, blacks, Hispanics and gays. And they fear that they could be swept away by a looming tsunami of liberalism and its messages of equality, inclusion and opportunity. The horror!

Given that fear and their perceived predilection to live under constant threat, conservatives are also very easily martyred. They can swiftboat, spread lies, rumors and innuendos about their opponents but they would go into a public pearl-clutching-fainting-couch mode if a joke was cracked about W or a mild criticism was directed at St Ronnie. They can hunt a President for a decade over a few blow jobs but heaven help you if you dare to mention Papa Bush's alleged long term affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald.

In this mind set, freedom of expression refers to a partial practice of allowing only conservative ideas and positions to be propagated. It is not a freedom that can be extended to others. Because others are just that, others.

In fact, conservatives firmly believe that others have to be permanently silenced: Most of the recent efforts of American conservatives have been directed to remove liberal professors from academia and to force journalist to adopt a pro-conservative perspective by claiming that they have a liberal bias.

In that context, guns make a lot of sense.

Think about it. You are in a war. Whether you are a minuteman trying to stop illegal Honduran immigrants or a pro-lifer trying to stop abortion doctors, or a Christian vigilante on the lookout for Muslim terrorists, a gun is your most valuable asset.

A gun is also critical when you, as a conservative, need to  assert your freedom of expression.  Remember that guy who showed up for an Obama Town Hall meeting with a gun strapped to his belt? What do you think he was trying to achieve?

A professor of philosophy had this to say about guns and freedom of expression:
I often think of the armed protestor who showed up to one of the famously raucous town hall hearings on Obamacare in the summer of 2009. The media was very worked up over this man, who bore a sign that invoked a famous quote of Thomas Jefferson, accusing the president of tyranny. But no one engaged him at the protest; no one dared approach him even, for discussion or debate — though this was a town hall meeting, intended for just such purposes. Such is the effect of guns on speech — and assembly. Like it or not, they transform the bearer, and end the conversation in some fundamental way. They announce that the conversation is not completely unbounded, unfettered and free; there is or can be a limit to negotiation and debate — definitively.
Is It Different This Time Around?

When you see the unexpectedly less timid outcry this time around (and NRA's prolonged silence followed by a pledge to prevent future massacres), you get the impression that this whole thing is different this time.

The zeitgeist seems to have shifted. From the "us vs. them" fear climate to a less polarized society. There are small signs. But they are there. In the last elections, people voted to legalize drugs in two states. A new discussion began about mandatory sentences that penalized poor people during the War on drugs. Californians have just voted overwhelmingly to reform the draconian three-strikes law passed during theWar on crime. Gay marriage was accepted by voters wherever it was on the ballot.

Lindsay Graham was right, the conservatives may not be creating enough angry white males to stay in business. Young people seem more accepting and inclusionary and much less afraid of their neighbors.

If you ever watched Bowling for Columbine you know that Micheal Moore compares Canada and the US in terms of gun ownership and violence. He is puzzled by the fact that most Canadians do not lock their doors (surprisingly even in Toronto). Or the fact that Canadians own something like 7 million guns (for 33 million people) yet gun related homicide statistics are comparable to Western European countries where gun ownership is all but nonexistent.

He concludes that this is because Canadians have not been subjected to a constant media narrative of fear (also known as the 6 o'clock news) about how members of different groups are likely to kill, maim and rape your family.

Since media narrative remains largely the same, I suspect the change came from the Internet.

You see, producing angry white males was the job of conservative blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and his stablemates like Michael Savage in Clear Channel radio network. Or Fox News and Wall Street Journal's editorial pages. And all the other media outlets which leave them alone to propagate their discourse. But more people get their news from online sources, blogs and social media. There are many conservatives on the Internet but they are not as effective as you are not in you truck listening to a single voice talking about feminazis.

Besides, you see similar signs in traditional media. Limbaugh has been massively hemorrhaging listeners. That is the first time since, well, ever. MSNBC, despite its lukewarm liberalism (Morning Joe, seriously), being the only clearly non-conservative channel, increased its ratings exponentially. And it is poised to take over Fox News in the 25-54 demographics.

Something is stirring up in the US.

Presidential candidates could not utter a word about climate change during three debates and Sandy pushed them in a corner. Only to discover that the people were ready for a narrative change.

Politicians were afraid of the NRA, a tragic shooting took place. And they discovered that people are much less likely to be afraid of the conservative message.

I hope Obama takes this to heart for the fiscal cliff negotiations.

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