Following on from my last post, in which I shared the first two missives of a correspondence between my friend Kent Will and myself on gun control and American conservatism, I offer the next two sections of the correspondence here.
Thanks for your reply. Actually, I agree with you on almost every point you raised, including your assessment of American culture (though I think you’re looking at only part of the story).
Although frontier conditions have largely disappeared, I think there is still a legitimate (even necessary) place for citizen-owned firearms in a settle land. Sport, food provision, and land management are probably the most common and culturally important, but also the least provocative instances. The two most important and controversial instances are surely 1) home defense and 2) retaining the ability to check tyranny in extreme circumstances.
Especially with regard to those two points, I’ll grant everything you could say, and probably more, about how deficient and irresponsible the American Right’s expression of them has been. However, Peter Escalante made an insightful remark in a recent TCI article that comes to mind here: he noted that the average American retains a traditional sense of disapproval toward homosexuality, but is confused how to translate it into policy because his predominant political vocabulary is pop-libertarian. You could extend that observation to almost everything contemporary American conservatism has tried to defend: in most cases our instinct is sound (as an instinct, it was most likely inherited from pre-libertarian days), but the philosophical tools we turn to are ill-suited for the purpose.
I think the argument could be made that the American instinct to hold onto our guns is a mindset we inherited from England. Whatever the contours of contemporary Castle Doctrine, the terminology at least is English and quite old. The English Bill of Rights asserts the right of Protestants to carry arms as well as their Catholic fellow citizens. The idea of placing limits on the sovereign’s power is a grand English tradition. Indeed, English common law is pretty much the grammar of American law below the federal level, and although it doesn’t carry authority in constitutional interpretation, there are plenty of explicit allusions that highlight how important it was to the formation even of that document. And beyond (or alongside of) law, our sensibilities when it comes to rural society, land ownership, ordered liberty, domestic inviolability, and citizens’ rights originally came from England, though they certainly adapted in the American environment.
The point of all that is to say that a gun culture needn’t be predicated on Wild West or frontier conditions (though I did appeal to some of that in my original email), but that in fact, via England and colonial America, we have excellent examples of how it can support an ordered and settled economy.
Having said that, I of course have to agree with you that conservatism embraces (indeed survives by) reform, and that if our current practice is prejudicial to the common good it is imperative that we change. Indeed, nothing could be further from dispute than that America today is not the America of 300 years ago. We can pretty much default to the position that some amount of reform will be necessary in this time span.
However, I think this question has to wait until we’ve dealt with the question of what is different about America now than when we first enshrined our system of gun rights. Here’s where (to zoom out to the culture-wide setting again) I think it might help to distinguish between American mass culture and local cultures within America. We are all collectively responsible for our mass culture, so I don’t mean to make this distinction as an excuse. But mass culture—raunchy movies and the works—comprises, I am willing to bet, most of what makes it across the pond, and small wonder that Americans on your side tend to grow disillusioned.
While mass culture is making inroads at terrific speeds, and while recent immigration has also done a fair bit to erode the transmission of our real culture, I do think that there remains a recognizable core of “normal” people whose lifestyle remains essentially unaffected by the things that are getting pushed in college classrooms or on TV. Through I put zero faith in the virtue of these people as individuals, collectively they harbor instincts that are probably a fair representation of historic social norms. If we can grant that such a core exists, and that they are not the ones committing mass murder in schoolrooms, then it makes sense to dial back on a broad indictment of American culture and start narrowing our reforms to more accurately target the problem areas. Basically this is my problem with federal gun control: not only will it further contribute to cultural erosion, but, by upending federalism and enacting national policies, it will leave the problem areas without the pinpoint attention they need while tightening down unwarrantably on responsible citizens. This is the way every federal social engineering project has gone in the past—I’m not sure why we would expect this time to be different. I would, however, be open to favoring local efforts at gun law reform. If, oh, say, Chicago had a problem with gangsters buying guns over the counter and going off to slaughter their thousands, and it could be demonstrated that tightening up the buying process within the city would cut down on that sort of thing, then why not? In fact, this is largely the way our system actually works, as laws vary widely from one municipality to another as conditions dictate. Sweeping federal laws naturally work against this sort of localism. (Even, however, on local levels we need to encourage citizens to take responsibility for their own safety, simply because a full-bore police state is the only alternative that can provide a similar level of security.)
I do understand the frustration with American culture, especially if, as I suggested above, most of your exposure in Britain is to our “mass culture.” In my own experience, for what it’s worth, I haven’t had much trouble finding a worthwhile inheritance in our history, warts and all. Especially once you get past our distorted Reformed view that America was a founded on a select set of Puritan and Covenanter notions, a fairly pleasant if chequered vista opens up. I am certain the mid-Atlantic colonies (Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware) would present a congenial field for one of your theological persuasion, their society having been dominated for so long by easy-going 17th century Anglicans. And I am surprised you would mostly dismiss the history of the South as one of “cruel oppression,” since in areas like slavery it differed not at all from most Christian nations of the same epoch (unless it be in generally eschewing the trans-Atlantic slave trade and offering arguably the most comprehensive evangelical reforms of the institution to be found in any of these nations). As you mentioned, no country on earth can claim to be rooted in purely virtuous origins. But if we are going to let our natural affections atrophy for this reason, we can only end by turning our backs on humanity. I didn’t expect to find you such a purist. 🙂
Yeah, I went through the whole neo-Confederate thing too, much in the way most of us went through a hard-core Presbyterian stage, a flirt-with-Catholicism stage, and for that matter a Moscow-inspired triumphalism. But as we grow past the sectarianism, we should be gaining a mature perspective that can accept all the warts on the object of our affections while still loving the object. Thankfully, as with Reformed theology, there are some really fine Southern scholars in the classical tradition who have achieved a similarly generous vision. I’ve been greatly appreciating the work of the Abbeville Institute out of South Carolina, which has done some great work (resourcement, not repristination) on the literature, society and political philosophy that form an impressive cultural legacy that we’ve inherited as Southerners. Not like you have the time to chase down everybody’s pet projects, but with you being a South Carolinian I think you could find a lot to identify with in their lectures on Southern literature, or on the South’s critiques of American imperialism, nomadism, etc.
But it is high time I bring this to an end. I look forward to your response as you have the time and inclination.
Thanks for a continued high-quality correspondence. There is much that I agree with in this, but there are a few points where I would still like to quibble, or need to clarify.
First, I would hesitate to grant that there is a necessary place for citizen-owned firearms in a settled land, as there are a number of settled countries that seem to be doing quite alright without them. If the society as a whole is sufficiently disarmed, and the police force sufficiently effective, few people feel the need for firearms for home defense. In Britain, most people do not feel any more at risk of assault or robbery in their homes than they do in the US; probably less so, in fact. Of course, it is up for debate whether such heavy reliance on a police force rather than private peacekeeping initiative is a healthy thing for society—but it is at least a viable option. As far as “checking tyranny,” forgive me, but I have always had, and continue to have, difficulty taking this seriously. In the modern world, with modern weaponry, a group of individuals with rifles is not really in a position to “check tyranny,” if, God forbid, it should ever come to that. Moreover, as far as Christian resistance theory goes, I am unwilling to go beyond the “lesser magistrate” concession—a right of purely popular resistance does not seem justifiable.
But, those quibbles said, I would freely grant that there remains a legitimate place for citizen-owned firearms in a settled land, but that has to my knowledge not really been the question under debate in current gun-control discussions. To be sure, there is a radical fringe on the left that would like to see private gun ownership done away with altogether, but they are so far as I can tell a fairly small minority, with no realistic political chance of accomplishing their goals. The Right has, as is their wont (though of course both sides do this) used such radical proposals as bogeyman to distract from the much more nuanced questions really under debate. Most of the debate has fallen well within the lines of the Second Amendment: a well-regulated militia being necessary . . . the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The question has simply been to what extent the right needs to be regulated without being thereby infringed, has it not?
And this is where the pop-libertarianism serves the Right so badly. It makes people unable to distinguish between prudent and limited regulation on the one hand and tyrannical repression on the other. Because any level of government whatsoever is met with suspicion (“that government is best which governs least,” etc.) people of this sort immediately see regulatory action as aggression against individual rights that must logically end in a complete loss of freedom, when of course sensible reflection reveals that often limited regulation can serve to maximize the freedom of citizens. But again, a quibble. It may be right to say that the Right’s bad arguments often proceed from good instincts, poorly formed, but it is also the case that just because an instinct is prima facie good doesn’t mean it’s ultima facie good. This is where I emphasize again my point about history requiring change. A good, defensible instinct, deeply rooted in history, may prove not to issue in good policy for the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong…I’m highly suspicious in general with the kind of rhetoric that says, “Hey, it’s the 21st century, get on board with the program!” but it remains the case that many developments of modern technology, demographics, social structures, etc., render untenable assumptions that would’ve been very sound ones once upon a time. But, a statement like that is perhaps too abstract to be that helpful, especially given that you’ve already admitted that you “agree that conservatism embraces (indeed survives by) reform.”
So, to make it more concrete, I would just contest the usefulness of appealing to the English common law tradition here. No doubt you hope to prevail upon my putative Anglo-philia, suspecting that I am just hostile to American culture and will embrace an idea if it is shown to be English. Nice try. In reply, I could simply point out that the beautiful thing about the common law tradition is its adaptability, its ability to respond to changed social conditions. Accordingly one finds that in England itself, without simply rejecting their legal tradition, they have determined that, inasmuch as 17th century conditions no longer prevail, private gun ownership is no longer an fundamental part of what it means to be a free British citizen. Of course, one could, I suppose, readily counter that by pointing out that modern Britain is something of a cultural and political slough, and perhaps more has been lost in its modernization than it realizes. But again, we remain at risk of dealing in platitudes, for I’m certainly not about to say that “rural society, land ownership, ordered liberty, domestic inviolability, and citizens’ rights” are bad things (even if the first of these is a rare thing nowadays, and unlikely to experience a revival anytime soon).
So we move on finally to the concrete question of how federal gun policy might erode this culture of ordered liberty. And here, I think you make some very sound points, that have alas not been a big part of the discussion. Federalism (oh how it irks me that by some linguistic inversion, “federalism” refers to a preference against “federal” policy-making) is of course a venerable part of the conservative tradition, and that aspect of conservatism to which I have been most deeply attached in the past, and remain deeply sympathetic too. Here again, the current libertarian tilt has deeply obscured the earlier tradition. I was in a book club once where we read a book called Sidewalks in the Kingdom, offering a sort of Christian new urbanism, and talking about the kinds of policies that city councils could enact to improve social cohesion and public spaces, and develop vibrant civic life. There were a lot of people in the group who were like, “Well, it would be great if all that sort of thing could happen, but we wouldn’t want the government imposing something like that!” And I couldn’t help thinking, “Wait a minute…isn’t this kind of localism—putting decisions in the hands of small town, rather than federal, authorities—exactly what conservatism used to be about?” So it is in the current gun control debate. Yours is perhaps the first voice I’ve heard (though admittedly, I’m out of the country, and I’m sure there are many more) that has said, “Sure, gun control could make sense in many contexts, but it’s federal gun policy that I’m concerned about.” I think this concern is extremely well-placed, and would be very sympathetic to such a state-by-state, or city-by-city approach.
But in defense of certain policies being enacted at the federal level, it does seem that local laws can only do so much in this day and age, when transportation is so easy and so many purchases are done online. I mean, I don’t know exactly how these laws work, but it seems that, if, say, the state of Illinois imposed very strict background checks on all gun purchases, then malefactors in Illinois could simply order their guns online, and avoid the checks, no? That’s why it seems that an extension of universal background checks to gun shows and online purchases is so important—it means that people in particular problem areas can’t simply walk around the local red tape. Also, I suppose it’s worth asking if the problems of gun violence are that localized. If you had asked me to name the most dangerous states for armed violence, Colorado would not have been high on my list, and yet two of the biggest mass shootings in recent years have been in Colorado. Nonetheless, I can see the force of the argument that the benefit gained in violence prevention in such places might be outweighed by the negative social and political consequences of more top-down, uniform, bureaucratic federal legislation.
So, to turn finally to your last two paragraphs about American culture and Southern culture. You make a very good point about all the worst aspects being the ones that make it across the pond. That had occurred to me before, but I’m not sure I’d given that fact its due weight in accounting for my growing cynicism. On the other hand, I’m not sure my cynicism has actually grown materially in the last three years; most of its increase occurred in the first year, as I got an outside perspective for the first time (and as you know, I was plenty cynical by the time I left anyway). But we shall discover soon. I am certainly looking forward to moving back, and am more than happy to say that for all the weaknesses of American culture, British culture nowadays really can’t claim to be any better. Hopefully I will find on return to my homeland all the wonderful little things about its culture that I had not noticed before, or forgotten.
But regarding the South in particular—to be sure, its slavery was nothing unique. What makes it unique is that it is defined, as a distinct culture, by that part of its heritage. The only way around that is if one accepts the narrative that the War Between the States wasn’t really about slavery, that that was just some tangential issue that Northern propagandists brought into that. I’m afraid I can’t really buy that narrative anymore. The historical moment at which the South achieved self-definition, claiming to be something unique, rather than just part of the United States, and the moment to which most nostalgic preservers of Southern identity have looked back to most, was one in which it staked its identity on the defense of an institution which the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world had decisively turned its back on. Sure, there were brutal slave societies in Cuba or Mexico, but for whatever reason, their national and cultural narratives are not at all bound up with that phase of their history. That is perhaps why it is particularly hard to indulge in a sense of Southern pride. And of course, it’s not merely a thing of the past. On leaving the South, I became painfully aware for the first time of how racist it still was. Watching The Help was an agonizing experience for me, because it was all too familiar. That said, part of it is merely the typical overreaction of disillusionment. When you idolize someone, you lose all respect for them when you find they have one glaring fault, even if they still have many virtues, more than most. So it can be with cultures. I would love to reach the point where I can feel again a mature love for the Old South, warts and all. But part of my aloofness at present is strategic—having no idea where I’m going to live long-term, I’m deliberately avoiding forming any deep regional or cultural attachments. (What a child of modernity I am, however much I may rage against it!)
Well, that was much longer than intended. We will have to resist the tendency of such conversations for each email to grow longer than the last.
For the next exchange, please see my next post here.