It’s All Connected

If it seems like there is another school shooting every week in the United States, it’s pretty much because there is. It’s a little hard to explain to people who don’t live here the numbed acceptance with which these things are greeted in the American public sphere.

Even accepting that the claim (touted by Bernie Sanders and a number of liberal media outlets) that there had been 18 mass shootings since the beginning of the year turns out to have been grossly inflated, there have still been enough that a civilised country would have been galvanised to action.

The atrocity in Parkland was atypical in that a movement to effect some sort of change in the nation’s gun laws has arisen among the survivors. 

Appearing on television, and even meeting with the president (who came equipped with a cheat sheet to ensure at least a minimal degree of apparent empathy), students made a compelling case for thoughtful reform of the gun laws. They created an interesting ripple in the public sphere since even the Wayne LaPierres and Alex Jones of this world had to take a breath before casting aspersions on children who had had their friends shot to death.

But this was just a brief respite. With a pause of perhaps only 24 hours, the hard right gun propaganda machine got into gear and the usual aspersions were cast: the kids are immature, or they’re pawns of George Soros, they’re crisis actors, etc., etc. On the lunatic fringe, the usual suspects asserted the usual claims that the whole thing was (yet another) false flag attack meant to give an overweening government the excuse it needed to take away all guns and reduce the country to a condition of grey, Orwellian servitude.

And so it seems that normal service has been restored after all. In post-Columbine America, the recognition that public places (all too often schools) are liable at any point to become kill zones is met with the assertion that what is actually needed is an increase in the number of guns in public life. 

Why bother with the mountain of evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness in firefights of those who do not spend their working lives in the practice of arms? Or that, in a number of cases (including both Columbine and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School) there were armed security guards on the premises? 

What is important is the confirmation of the proposition that the answer to gun violence is more guns.

Mr. Trump, weighing in with his accustomed gravitas, proposed arming teachers on a massive scale. How odd it must seem to his backers within the web of Koch-financed anti-government zealots to hear that the president’s favoured solution is a program that involves pumping around a billion dollars into American schools, predominantly the public ones. 

This was certainly not what the Scaifes, and Mercers would have wanted to hear. But something was needed to mollify the concerns of Wayne LaPierre and his associates. The NRA, essentially a trade organization for gun manufacturers masquerading as a civil rights group, required solutions that defend the bottom line as much as any conception of American freedoms.

The inability of the United States to take any sort of rational approach to the problem of gun violence, and the toxic public spectacle that arises every time it appears that it might do so, illustrates the degree to which America has been reduced to the sum of its pathologies. And there is a very real sense in which most of the major pathologies of the American polity can be traced back to the slave society of the American south. 

Gun laws in the United States, which constitute a massive anomaly among the states of the North Atlantic world, are a poisonous holdover from the era of chattel slavery. 

The inclusion of the Second Amendment in the US Constitution was not, as is often claimed, an outgrowth of the aversion of the North American colonists to standing armies (although that aversion did exist). It was rather an insurance policy taken out by southern states against the prospect that the northern states would try to damage the slave system by preventing southerners from engaging in slave patrols (viewed as necessary to keep those enslaved from rising up and murdering their enslavers).

Both Patrick Henry and George Mason made this point explicitly in the debates over the constitution in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Not only would the prohibition on states forming their own armed militias prevent the formation of the necessary defence against slave revolts, but the inclusion of slaves in federally formed armies would be, Henry argued, a step toward emancipation. 

Clearly, those in the north concerned with abolition also hoped that emigration would be part of the deal, but northern hostility to the slave system was a fact of life that the leaders of the slave states knew even at that early date had to be addressed. And thus they gifted to future generations a provision in the founding document of the country that facilitates random mass killing.

It is also worth noting that the culture of the American south bequeathed to us the oligarchic “libertarian” conservatism that has now colonized the Republican Party. 

As Nancy MacLean has amply illustrated in her recent book, Democracy in Chains, the most powerful strain of modern American conservatism has its roots in the antebellum writings of John C. Calhoun, for whom the limitation of federal power (to restrict slavery) was central. 

Calhoun’s writings were taken up by James Buchanan and his stable of hand-picked ideologues at the University of Virginia during and after the school integration crisis in Virginia (and the south more generally) after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Buchanan then found a willing donor and political ally in Charles Koch, and together  built a network of political and institutional resources for restricting the ability of popular government to govern.

Buchanan and Koch were both determined to restrict the capacity of groups organizing collectively to exert power over minorities. The minorities that they were most concerned about, of course, were rich white people, who might have their economic freedom restrained in order to provide schools, sanitation, and old age benefits to the parasitic majority of their fellow citizens. It was by no means a coincidence that these efforts were brought into being by the strivings of African Americans for social justice. 

Their efforts were couched in terms of the promotion of individualism and personal responsibility. But their fascination with the defence of their own liberty invariably precluded any recognition the restrictions on the liberties of others. Nor did they seem interested in the complexities of history, so that for them the condition of African Americans was a result of their failure to live up to certain ideals rather than their systematic exclusion from the circuits of American capital.

It is this brand of zero government obsession that stands behind the modern Republican party. In its actions, it abets the government in taking no action to address precisely the sort of problems that democratic government is suited to address. 

And thus we see that, in the immediate aftermath of shooting after shooting, ideas like extending background checks, banning the sale of bump stocks and high capacity magazines, and closing loopholes for gun show sales, these are quickly snuffed out in the name of defending American liberty.

At one point in the Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary, the author and historian Barbara Fields make the argument that it’s unclear whether the Civil War has been won and might, in fact, still be lost. This is pretty clearly an overstatement. The failures of the Reconstruction did cost the country and African Americans many of the gains achieved by the war. 

On the other hand, the inclusion of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments in the Constitution righted (at least in a formal sense) some of the most egregious wrongs built into the original foundations of this country. 

Still, the heritage of the Civil War and of the culture of the antebellum south weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the modern American state. It is unlikely that the epidemic of gun violence in this country will receive any serious treatment before we collectively awake.

Photograph courtesy of Mike Licht. Published under a Creative Commons license.