Although two weeks have now passed since thesis submission, this blog remains depressingly silent, a victim of a frenzied rush of packing and shipping, and a dizzying international and trans-continental itinerary that will continue for another couple of weeks.
However, I do have some material to share here while the travels continue, drawn from a dialogue I have been carrying on in leisurely fashion for the past couple months with a very smart, old-school Southern conservative friend of mine, Kent Will. In the aftermath of the failure of modest attempts at gun control legislation in the Senate in April, and a subsequent online discussion that generated more heat than light, my friend Kent sent me a very thoughtful email articulating, as he saw it, why gun control opponents felt as passionately as they did. With his permission, I have decided to commence posting here almost the full text of our ensuing dialogue, in installments.
So here is Part I, comprising his initial email and my first reply:
I’ve followed with some interest the conflagration on your Facebook page regarding gun control. I know you’re busy with your dissertation, so I don’t expect a response, much less a thoroughly reasoned one, but here are some thoughts anyhow, and you may take them or leave them for what they are worth.
I think [one of the interlocutors] was pretty much accurate that non-American observers have a hard time understanding our attachment to gun rights, and our particular phobias about tyranny, more because they lack understanding of the American context that our political debates take place in, than because our particular phobias are especially bizarre. It might be somewhat analogous to an Italian or Greek scoffing at an Englishman for his inherited cultural sense that the right to trial by jury is the holy grail of legal theory. Such a critic of English laws would gain little credibility without first endeavoring to grasp how this right developed–its historical antecedents, the circumstances that gave it rise, the ways it has been tested, assaulted, and defended throughout history, and ultimately how it has entered the culture and identity of English society as a priceless birthright. If he doesn’t take the time to appreciate this, and account for it in making his critique, then in plain words he is just being an arrogant ass.
You have the qualified advantage of having lived for several years at some removal from the cultural air that we breathe over here, and that does grant you a potentially useful platform from which to reflect on American culture. But I get that sense that for a variety of reasons you no longer greatly care for your American identity, and the severing of some of these ties may have induced an absence of empathy that disqualifies you from the role of cultural physician.
Because, of course, the gun control debate in America has everything to do with culture, and very little at all to do with bare questions of expediency. From its inception, the American identity was based on sensibilities that arose from the immediate and concrete necessities our forefathers were under to provide the basic trappings of life in an unsettled wilderness. While the attitude of self-sufficiency and independence is certainly open to abuse, in its basic form it is a legitimate expression of certain values that developed out of the Reformation–the elevation of household and domestic economy, the duty of men to provide for their dependents, the civic responsibility of the member of society, the freedom that is the corollary to this responsibility, etc. (I’m sure given your area of concentration you could amend and qualify this summary; consider it just a hazy attempt by a layman.) As an accident of our place in the timeline of history, firearms became a critical tool and symbol of our effort to establish independent freeholds, to provide for our families, to protect ourselves against famine and hostile forces. That these exigencies are still alive might be illustrated by the fact that I have depended on hunting to keep my family fed through some very lean winters over the past five years.
And of course the capstone of all of this is the American revolution, which has entered our consciousness as the definitive example of how firearms enable the independent freeholder (that ideal component of republican society) to maintain his life and livelihood in the face of external oppressors. Whether or not you think that myth has a basis in truth, it has everything to do with how our culture and political philosophy have developed. Of course the dreadful history of twentieth century tyrants wreaking their wills on helpless millions has only served to reinforce in our minds the importance of preserving to the citizen that final option.
For all these reasons, which were concrete and historical before they became ideological or political, a culture of gun ownership is a major part of the American character. It is tied to every value we have tended to emphasize here–the duties of provision, land ownership, civic responsibility, ordered liberty. Like anything of common importance, they have also worked their way into all sorts of rituals and traditions that make up a huge part of our social fabric. What may seem exotic to a European is daily life for an American. (This is one major reason why car registry is an inappropriate analogy to the gun registry controversy.)
There is a certain set of people, composed mostly of corporate elitists, radical academics, and career politicians, whose experience of this kind of life is nonexistent, who have little capacity to understand such a culture, and who often are directly hostile to the values and virtues that undergird it. If this type is, as seems fairly well understood, behind the gun control lobby in America, then here is your explanation for why the issue is so much more politicized than in Europe, and why hot battles are fought over ground that in the abstract are uncontroversial and innocuous (e.g., background checks). Given the cultural importance of guns in America, a successful challenge must have greatly subversive, one might say revolutionary, consequences. Whether they are right or wrong, the policies they are pushing carry dramatically higher stakes in America than they might in Europe. I hope it is clear why you can’t simply take a measurement of European sensibilities, map them over the American landscape, and expect to gain much light from the exercise.
All of those considerations are part of what I mean when I say that we need to talk about the net effect of an effort to circumscribe gun rights. Even if you believe our tradition is an unhealthy one, that is all the more reason to resist the hacks who are banging on the surgery door demanding to perform the required operation with chainsaw and crowbar.
I hope all that may help make sense, if not of our reasons, then at least of our sensibilities when it comes to gun ownership. Blessings on your dissertation work.
Here’s a stab at a reply.
I think you’re quite right to insist upon the importance of understanding cultures and customs in this discussion. An essential part of the conservative tradition, however much many modern-day conservatives have lost sight of it, consists in the defense of contingent local traditions, recognizing the critical role these play in forming people and generating social cohesion, against the tyranny of bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all solutions. Or, put another way, “laws must be framed…according unto that very particular, which riseth out of the matter wheron they have to work,” as Hooker says; it doesn’t matter how rational a law may seem in the abstract, if it fails to meet people where they are, and adapt itself to deeply-entrenched customs and mindsets. That is why I am in all in favor of incrementalism when it comes to reform.
And yet, reform there must be. Conservatism for the sheer sake of conservatism won’t do; we should only cling to something if it has ongoing positive social value. And that’s the problem with your analogy to “trial by a jury of one’s peers.” I don’t want to say that that is a prerequisite for genuine justice in every time and place, but it seems hard to deny that, in most places where the institution exists, it is an extremely positive one. That is to say, it’s not just a quirky practice the English happen to be irrationally attached to, but a central plank in the safeguarding of justice within their society. The circumstances that gave rise to the right may have been different from contemporary circumstances, but the value of the right remains essentially the same today; it has not become obsolete. Can the same be said of gun rights in America today? To what extent do these continue to serve a positive social purpose? If the circumstances that gave rise to the right no longer hold, if society has changed to the extent that what was once an asset has now become a liability, then reform is needed. Incremental reform, yes, but reform nonetheless.
And this is where I think you’re straw-manning to say, “Whether they are right or wrong, the policies they are pushing carry dramatically higher stakes in America than they might in Europe. I hope it is clear why you can’t simply take a measurement of European sensibilities, map them over the American landscape, and expect to gain much light from the exercise.” I, at least, have no illusions that the US can simply be transformed into a modern European society with the right legislative programme; nor would I want to see it so transformed. But that is simply not what’s being proposed. Here in the UK, gun ownership is almost entirely illegal, across the board. To try to ram through that kind of transformation would be absurd. But to identify incremental harm mitigation policies that involve a partial curtailment of gun rights is not to attempt to impose a European makeover on American society. Most of the distinctives in this regard that you could identify about American culture would apply to Australian culture as well—the independent mindset, the history of dangerous life on the frontier. Indeed, one might say that Australia is a counterexample to your whole thesis, since they managed, despite all of that heritage, to completely transform their gun laws almost overnight, far more dramatically than anything proposed in the States.
Now, I want to interact with your remark that I “no longer greatly care for your American identity.” This, I think, is a somewhat unfair charge, given that, unlike many American expat Ph.D students over here, I have a very determined desire to move back to the US, and probably spend my career there. I’ve been sorely tempted a few times to renounce my American identity, but I haven’t. Nonetheless, you are onto something. I have a hard time generating any enthusiasm for American values or American culture. But frankly, this is because it is hard to see anything meaningful or positive that American culture now stands for. American culture now means McDonalds, t-shirts, raunchy movies, a glorification of war, and cars; it stands for mobility, rootlessness, the fast-paced and the transient, which means it is more an anti-culture than a culture. If one seeks to go back behind the present, and seek value and identity in America’s past, it is hard to know where to look for something particularly praiseworthy. The 20th century was a story of amoral imperialist expansion; occasionally for the sake of good, admittedly, but more often for the sake of a quick buck. I was raised, of course, to see in the antebellum South a locus of value, a cultural heritage to be cherished and preserved, a sense of identity to be maintained. But as I left the bubble and learned that yes, it was true that most of that heritage had been one of cruel oppression, it was hard to generate much enthusiasm for it. Sure, I still value my Southern heritage, and don’t want to entirely let go of it, but it is hard to cling to it with anything like unqualified enthusiasm. As far as the Revolutionary War, I’ve always had trouble seeing it as more than an act of petty rebellion, completely out of step with Christian teaching about subjection to governing authorities and just war, so it’s hard for me to generate an identity founded in veneration for this supposedly sacred war of liberation. Of course, none of this need be a fatal blow to a sense of national identity and loyalty. Plenty of nations have rather dubious origins, and rather black spots on their national histories, but that does not keep their citizens from a strong sense of pride in being French or Italian or whatever. But this is because, even if they cannot always take pride in what their country has been, they can take pride in what it is now—its traditions, institutions, cuisines, music, whatever. And this is what makes the contemporary bankruptcy of American culture so problematic; it leaves one very little to cling to in terms of a positive American identity. The only thing one has to fall back on is vague ideas and values like “freedom” and “self-sufficiency.” The problem is that, as understood in America, these values seem to look a lot like just “selfishness.” Of course, I acknowledge that there is a positive side to the American value of “self-sufficiency,” as you describe it. But part of the problem is that those distinctives of our national character were indeed well-suited to a nation of frontiersmen, conquering a harsh wilderness, but they are poorly suited to any other. They are not well-suited to life in a settled society. Once the frontier is gone, and we have to settle down in cities, our independent streak manifests itself in a restlessness that cannot stay in one place for long, a defensiveness of one’s own turf that drives us out into ever-more-distant suburbs, a contentiousness that makes public deliberation and common projects very difficult.
All of which is to say that, it may well be true that the defensiveness over gun rights, even over policies that, in the abstract, are highly sensible and command wide support, can only be understood as part of a symbolic war over the preservation of values deeply rooted in the American psyche. I understand that; to the extent that I didn’t before, I have certainly come to understand that in listening to people over the last week. And I think it is very important for anyone advocating gun reform, or anything of that nature, to grasp that larger picture, and realize that it’s never merely about policies in the abstract. If that’s all you’re saying, then, yes, absolutely, you’re right on the mark. But if you’re saying that this gets advocates of gun rights off the hook, because they’re defending what it means to be American, I don’t agree. Because I’m not convinced that “Americanness” as they’re defending it is really a positive force in today’s world. We do need to find a way of continuing to be American, rather than letting our culture simply be replaced with some bland globalism or imported Europeanism or whatever, but we need to find a different, better way of being American than the “me and my property, me and my rights” variety to which the Right continues to gravitate.