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.