A Dialogue on Gun Control, America, and Ordered Liberty, Pt. 3

Here, Kent and I continue the conversation on gun control and American conservatism (see Part One and Part Two). In this exchange, we go deeper into the question of to what extent policies like gun control may sap the civic fiber of a nation, and whether this loss of active citizenship is worth the increase in safety.  (This may, or may not, be the last publicly-posted installment.)

Hi Brad,

Well, it seems we’re close to an impasse of agreeability.  I’m with you on the lesser magistrate deal. By taking up arms in the last resort I was thinking more of the outright murder-by-government that the twentieth century saw so much of. Such cases would seem to me to fall under the individual right not to get slaughtered if he can help it.

If the purpose of civil government is basically to promote the peace and liberty of the commonwealth, then we have to rule out standing armies and omnipresent police forces as instruments of the magistrate (there is a pretty respectable body of thought that regards them as ready-made tools of war and slavery, respectively). Without those instruments, a society must instead rely on a spirited and independent body of citizens, who collectively respond to the call of the magistrate to defend the commonwealth, and individually interpose between the innocent and their would-be predators. Hence, in England and America, the concept of citizens as comprising the militia of the commonwealth, as well as individual defense doctrines such as the Castle Doctrine. I don’t see any way to uphold such civic and communal responsibilities except through the general duty that able citizens have to own death-dealing weapons. Is the responsibility great? Yes, but civic responsibility is the bedrock of free societies. Read More


A Dialogue on Gun Control, America, and Ordered Liberty, Pt. 2

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.

Brad,

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. Read More


A Dialogue on Gun Control, America, and Ordered Liberty, Pt. 1

 

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:

“Hey Brad,

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.

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A Snapshot of America

More than ever today, we hear handwringing among the press, politicians, and pollsters, about how America is “headed in the wrong direction,” and eager finger-pointing over who is to blame.  Naturally, we assume that it is our politicians (especially the ones on the other side of the aisle, of course) who are responsible for the general national malaise.  But how much of it, I can’t help but wonder, is due simply to the steady inebriation of our senses with electronic media, and abandonment of reading?  One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to be sobered by the following statistics (taken from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows):

1150: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends online (on a computer)

49: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends reading any form of print publication.  

2,272: number of texts per month the average American teen sends (that’s 75 per day)

153: hours per month the average American spends in front of the TV (still rising despite increased internet usage)

Unsurprisingly, Americans outstrip Europeans by a long shot, spending 50% more time surfing the Net and three times as much time in front of the TV. 

(These figures are all from 2009, I should add, and are most likely considerably worse now, as they had been getting worse at a rapid pace through 2009.)

And consider that, as of 2006, 42% of those watching over 35 hours of TV programming a week (the national average) also used the Net for over 30 hours a week, for a total of over 65 hours per week, nearly 2/3 of their waking hours.  

 


Abortion and the Politics of Protest

In a recent piece for First Things On the Square, Kathryn Walker reviewed a book called Raised Right: How I Untangled my Faith from Politics by Alisa Harris.  I hadn’t so much as heard the book before, but my interest is certainly piqued now.  Harris, like so many others in my generation, finds herself, despite having been given a full-blown fundamentalist, pro-life, right-wing upbringing, having somehow wandered across the political divide, so that she is now unmistakably left-wing, though still, I take it, evangelically Christian.  In this book, she chronicles her journey and tries to explain why.  For a fuller summary of the book, I certainly recommend Walker’s excellent review; if I ever get around to reading it myself, perhaps I’ll offer my own review, but for now, I simply wanted to pick up on one interesting question that Walker raises.

Walker does not share Harris’s newfound sympathies for the Left, but she does at least give her a fair hearing, and grant that she may have some good points.  But for Walker, the most important issue is still abortion, and she can’t accept Harris’s rationale for minimizing that issue.  Harris remains pro-life, but has lost her sympathy for the pro-life movement, it’s foot-stomping and sign-waving, and wants to invest her effort into caring for women, rather than politicking.  But Walker asks toward the end of her review why Harris happily engages in sign-waving in protest against Bank of America—”she embraces public displays against injustice, and it’s hard to see any difference in the latter over the former ones, except for the causes themselves. And in this case, it’s not clear why corporate greed trumps infanticide in degrees of heinousness.”

Walker’s question set me pondering a bit, because I must confess I find myself feeling a lot like Harris at times.  Of course I still think abortion is a great evil, a heart-breaking crime against the defenceless children, and often against desperate mothers as well, who are pressured into it.  But I have so little sympathy left for the pro-life movement.  There, I said it.  I’ve admitted it.  I cannot make myself care all that much whether a candidate is pro-life, as a litmus test for voting for or against him.  Of course it’s relevant, but then, so are the candidate’s views on gasoline taxes.  I simply cannot get worked up about the issue as a political issue (though I can get worked up about the issue in other respects; I found the portrayal of abortion in Ides of March heart-rending).  But, I do get worked up about corporate greed.  I don’t sympathize with sign-waving abortion protesters, but I can be brought to sympathize with sign-waving Bank of America protesters.  Is there any good reason from this, or is it just some kind of hypocrisy or something worse? 

Well, there may be a few good reasons, or at least partial reasons, and I wanted to explore them.

There are, I suppose, two distinct issues, though I have elided them here.  One is protesting, the other politicking.  Protesting is of course generally political in its orientation, but is essentially indirect, seeking to influence the attitudes and the milieu within which political decisions are made.  By the latter, I mean direct lobbying for legislative, executive, or judicial action, crafting laws, promoting candidates with desirable positions on an issue and attacking candidates with undesirable positions.

Skeptics like myself (and I would take it Harris) doubt whether the politicking is a meaningful or useful way of advancing a pro-life agenda.  Certainly, prima facie it would seem to be misguided: (1) abortions were widespread in the US well before Roe v. Wade; (2) Roe v. Wade was a judicial decision, not a legislative one, and the judiciary is by far the most independent branch of our government, and the most difficult to influence through political action (rightly so); (3) empirically, it is hard to see that 39 years of feverish pro-life politics have yielded any significant gains.  Digging deeper, it seems like abortion is not really by its nature primarily a political issue.  Of course, legal systems have an obligation to protect life and prosecute murder, but legal systems can only function within a framework of broadly shared moral assumptions.  If a culture has reached the point where no one sees the problem with something, then trying to stop it by outlawing it is like spitting in the wind.  (Of course, this is oversimplistic—there are other less drastic ways of trying to legally limit abortion, which may be effective.)  But of course a second point to note here is that few people get abortions because they think it’s a perfectly fine thing to do.  I don’t know statistics, but my guess is that most women who get abortions don’t like the idea at all, but they’re frightened or pressured or desperate enough to do it anyway.  In such a case, making a law against it isn’t necessarily going to change many of their minds.  It might dissuade a lot of abortion doctors, but there will still be plenty willing to supply a black market.  

Contrariwise, it seems clear that political action is a meaningful and effective way of confronting economic injustice, particularly when that takes the form of large corporations engaging in dubious behaviour that prioritizes short-term profits over long-term considerations and the well-being of society.  I would argue that, normatively, regulation of justice in economic exchange and justice in distribution of goods is one of the core functions of a well-ordered government.  But of course, nowadays conservatives have gotten it into their heads that in fact, it is precisely economic decisions that are private and individual, lying outside the proper purview of public justice.  To be sure, such regulation will not be wholly effective, but the fact that the injustices in question are not simply or even primarily the result of individual decisions, but are structural and institutional in nature, suggests that legislative action is a natural, appropriate, and effective way of addressing these problems.  Indeed, I could go further, and point out that the very mechanisms by which investment banking is made possible do not simply spring out of the state of nature, but are the product of political and legal structures.  The corporation itself is a legal creation, as are the securities with which an entity like Bank of America makes its money—they simply would not exist apart from some kind of legal edifice.  Therefore, to call on the law to redress their abuses, one might suggest, is the most natural thing in the world.  Empirically, we could point out that politicking against particular abuses by big business, in favor of the rights of labor (in the first half of the 20th century primarily) and the rights of the consumer (in the second half of the century primarily) yielded enormous, measurable gains.

 

When it comes to protesting, well, it is worth asking exactly what protesting is intended to do?  Protesting is, to be sure, often quite directly political in orientation.  But such phenomena as pro-life marches and the Occupy movement are not best described as a kind of popular political lobbying.  In its most coherent form, protesting is a form of public witness against injustice—it seeks to call attention to, to name, an evil that is being done amongst us, with the intent of influencing the perpetrators to rethink their actions, and, perhaps more plausibly, of influencing our fellow citizens to become attentive to the injustice so that they will share our judgment of it, and join their voices with ours in calling for an end to it (whether that end come from individual, social, or political action).  

When we put things this way, I think it is possible to see why someone might consider this a rather clumsy response to the issue of abortion.  For it makes sense that a protest should be as public as the sin itself is.  Adultery is rampant in our culture, and while there are plenty of Christian voices calling it to account in appropriate ways, there has not been, to my knowledge, a National Anti-Adultery Rally, or a National Right to Fidelity March, or anything of that sort.  Of course, part of this is because we now consider adultery a sin but not a crime; but that’s not all of it.  For neither are there regularly large Anti-Drunk-Driving protests, despite the widespread deploration of drunk driving and its disastrous consequences.  For these problems, widespread as they are, are essentially an aggregate of individual, essentially private (though I do not mean to say that any sin is entirely private) sins or crimes.  They do not rise to the level of a public sin, a structural sin.  They do not have an institutional form that can be witnessed against in public.  

One could argue that similarly, abortion is essentially an individual sin and not a structural sin, that “the abortion issue” is simply an aggregate of individual evil abortions, rather than a unitary public evil that is greater than the sum of its parts.  The problem is not “abortion” as an abstract force of injustice, but particular acts of abortion—individual agents in the midst of individual crises, making individual wicked decisions.  The situations that lead women to seek abortions are unique to each woman, and so the best way to stop abortions is to work with individual women to help them.  Not, of course, that there are not many wonderful Christians out there doing just this; but we are asking now whether the sign-waving, marching, protesting side of things contributes to this work at all, or rather undermines it.

And of course, there is a “structural” element to the problem of abortion too—the poverty and abuse that drive so many women to desperation, to a sense that abortion is the only way out, the treatment of women as useful objects for sex, for which pregnancy is an awful inconvenience (this is not to say that there are not a great many abortions that are simply wicked unconstrained decisions of convenience).   But it is precisely this structural element that the pro-life movement, as a political movement, tends to most ignore.  

On the other hand, the Occupy movement, inasmuch as it has a coherent message, is bearing witness against a public, structural, institutional sin.  The greed, inequality, usury—however you want to label the core problem—that today infects our society is a structural sin.  Yes, of course, there are greedy individuals, and if no individuals were greedy, then perhaps we wouldn’t have all the problems we’ve had in recent years.  But the evil, and the harm that it does, far transcends individual greedy decisions; it would be possible for most of the investment banks’ employees to be good decent people just doing their job, and for all the problems still to persist.  The systemic usury and injustice of the financial system is the result result of warped incentive structures, poor laws, a loss of sense of the true purpose of financial institutions, collusion amongst the powerful to protect one another and veil their dealings from the public, etc.  Therefore, public protest, as a way of calling attention to the systemic problems, as a way of naming this evil and inviting us all to join in decrying it and undermining is foundations, seems highly appropriate.  

(Of course, I acknowledge that the abortion issue has a counterpart to this kind of corporate corruption, in the so-called “abortion industry”—doctors, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, entrenched advocacy groups, etc., that have a vested interest in perpetuating abortion, hiding the truth, and manipulating the powerful.  I think that pro-lifers perhaps overstate their case here sometimes, but inasmuch as this is a real power, a real fortress of evil, it warrants a forceful public witness.)

Having said all this, though, I think it is fair to admit that neither of these is, I think, the real reason why Harris (and myself) find ourselves naturally more sympathetic with sign-waving against crony capitalism than with sign-waving against abortion.  The real reason is that the former is new and the latter is old.  We grew up with the latter, and we frankly find it a bit tiresome and grating now.  It feels like our sub-culture has been harping on the same old problem forever and ever and it’s time to just deal with it and move on.  Whereas, although for our parents protesting the evils of capitalism might’ve been a common enough part of their experience, for us, it’s new, fresh, and a bit exciting.  

Now, I say all this in a tone of somewhat mocking self-criticism, but there’s more that needs to be said here as well.  For one thing, just because something’s appeal lies partly in its newness does not render it invalid.  I think stodgy Baby Boomers are right to point out that the enthusiasm for social justice causes among the rising generation is partly fuelled simply by the novelty (to us) of the cause; but I would also make the case that the cause still happens to be a very just cause, worth getting passionate about (and yes, perhaps protesting about, though that’s really not my cup of tea).  

More importantly, the newness factor makes an objective difference when one is asking about the appropriateness of the rhetoric of protest.  No doubt part of Harris’s antipathy to pro-life protest arises from her sense that, after more than three decades of it, any positive potential has likely worn off, and it is much more likely simply to have the effect of hardening opponents, and alienating potential sympathizers who are simply sick of the conflict and polarization.  A protest movement is always at its most effective when it is brand new; pretty soon, it starts to grow stale and tiresome, and people just sound like they’re whining, or obsessed, or pathologically combative.  Indeed, just look at three months of the Occupy movement.  A couple weeks in, they were cool.  A couple months in, and it’s like, “C’mon guys, enough already.  Pack up your tents and stop digging pit toilets in the park.”  After the initial point has been made, and awareness has been raised, it is usually time to turn to more constructive, concrete, and patient means of bringing about change.  In large part, to be fair, the pro-life movement has certainly done this, and has succeeded thereby in incrementally reducing the rate of abortion and in some cases improving the legal restraints upon it.  But inasmuch as portions of the movement continue to adopt the posture of angry protest, demonizing opponents and refusing to vote for any political candidate who does not share their fervour on this particular issue, it risks not only failing to be an effective voice in American culture and politics, but also continuing to drive away young evangelicals, contributing to a widening political gap between the generations that threatens to further fracture American evangelicalism and harm our witness to a watching world.