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Sunday, August 30, 2009
Contemporary Conservatism: Have Gun, Will Tea Bag
Posted by Austin Cline
People bringing guns to town hall meetings and presidential events has received a fair amount of attention, but I think it deserves quite a bit more. Although the people carrying weapons to political events probably seem like little more than fringe elements of an already a lunatic fringe, they may be better described as an early warning of far deeper and systemic problems in America. If we don't sit up and take notice now, we may be forced to do so when it's too late.
America has benefited from a relative lack of purely domestic violence over the past decades; we may not have been violence-free, but it's also not been a daily concern for most people. Carrying weapons to political events threatens to turn all that around because weapons are inherently violent — even when they remain unused in a holster, they communicate an unmistakable message of potential violence. Indeed, that's clearly part of the point of carrying them: to communicate a message of violence for the purpose of intimidation.
Carrying weapons to public political events should be perceived as an example of political theater because it's not being done for the sake of any practical concerns. There are two practical reasons for carrying a gun: offensive and defensive. Conservatives have no reason to fear for their lives at these political events, so there is no practical defensive reason to come prepared to use deadly force. I doubt that any are contemplating taking offensive action against liberals at these political events — at least not yet — so there is also no practical offensive reason to come prepared to use deadly force.
Once the practical reasons for being armed are eliminated, political theater is the strongest explanation. People aren't carrying guns because of any expectation of a need to use them as weapons, but rather because displaying the gun is precisely the use they intend. Their guns aren't so much tools or even quite weapons, but rather props — dangerous props, to be sure, but still theatrical props designed to communicate messages to both supporters and opponents. For these purposes even fake guns would be suitable, but real guns are needed because the final targets for a message are the gun-carryers themselves.
Opponents are of course being sent a rather violent and intimidating message: don't mess with us if you know what's good for you. Short on reason, evidence, and sound arguments, all these people have to fall back on are threats — implied and otherwise — in the hope that fear will win the day. Supporters are being sent a message of encouragement to be ever more strident, shrill, and violent in their language. When you're angry and your colleagues are carrying weapons, it's easy to keep shouting and not give anyone else a chance to argue.
Some people call that "democracy" — it's bad enough when conservatives reduce democracy to nothing more than "majority vote rules" (except in the Senate), but now we're seeing conservative shift the definition to "loudest minority rules." The truth is that democracy depends upon a relatively level political playing field — that's why it's not democratic for a majority to vote to take away some of the rights of a minority. Similarly, it's not democratic for either a majority or a minority to use force, intimidation, or even just loudness to drown out other voices. It may be legal and constitutional, but it's not consistent with the basic requirements of a liberal, democratic state.
What sort of message are they trying to send themselves, though? I wonder if perhaps there's some element of self-reassurance: I'm still powerful, I'm still strong, I'm still masculine, I can still harm others. The loss or potential loss of privileges typically sparks broader insecurities in a group, making them feel threatened in multiple ways, and that's what's happening for many whites today. Some fear the loss of racial privileges. Some fear the loss of economic stability. Some fear any potential changes in traditional social and cultural structures. For them, carrying a gun may be reassuring on a variety of levels, some of which they may not even be entirely aware of.
It's instructive, I think, that just about the only "defense" that any of them are able to offer is that it's constitutional to carry weapons in these circumstances and so people are just exercising their constitutional rights. This is true, but when you can't offer more than this you're essentially admitting that what you're doing is wrong on some level. It's constitutional for the KKK to march, but is it right, good, or just? Is their message right, good, or just? A real defense would involve not merely saying that one's actions are legal, but also necessary, important, good, and/or helpful on some level. They thus aren't defending their behavior, they are only defending their right to behave in this manner — and that's effectively an admission that their behavior is indefensible.
Conservatives are in denial about this being a problem and I think there are two primary reasons. First, they don't seem to be willing to recognize the inherent dangers in bringing weapons to public, political events. They seem to believe that more and more weapons should make any social situation more rather than less safe — though as far as I know, there is no actual, empirical evidence for such a belief. This would thus be more a matter of blind faith than a reasonable conclusion.
Just as important, though, is the denial which conservatives seem to engage in when it comes to systemic explanations for social problems. The best example of this phenomenon would have to be racism: because racist, discriminatory laws are off the books, any racial problems which exist must be attributable to individual actions. The solution to racial problems must therefore be to change individual attitudes rather than make any systemic changes to social, political, or economic institutions.
I wouldn't say that all conservatives approach racial issues in this way, but it is distressingly common and it's even got strong religious warrant from conservative evangelicals. Similar attitudes can also be found when it comes to other problems: global warming, pollution, welfare, crime, etc. In all cases, solutions are proposed from the perspective of changing individuals and it's simply denied that social systems, structures, or institutions might bear some of the responsibility. Since those systems have no blame, they do not need to be changed. The fact that they maintain a status quo in which particular groups retain traditional privileges is surely just a coincidence, right?
I think something similar is at work when it comes to carrying weapons and potential political violence. Whenever violence does occur, conservatives are quick to insist that the perpetrators are lone wolves who acted entirely alone. They deny there is any culpability for any groups, movements, or institutions: conservative groups that use violent language about opponents, conservative media which repeats falsehoods and violent language about targeted groups, traditional privileging of the experiences or perspectives of white males over all other groups, etc.
Denial of systemic causes or influences makes it easier to resist changes in the relevant systems or institutions. Resistance to changes in traditional power structures is the hallmark of what conservatism is, and this usually entails resistance to changes in the systems or institutions which are seen as maintaining, reinforcing, or promoting those power structures. Denial thus serves a vital political and ideological goal for conservatives, even though there is nothing about conservatism which should necessarily require it — in fact, you'll find conservatives eagerly pursuing systemic solutions to things they perceive as problems if it means reversing changes in social institutions. This is part of what drives efforts to turn back the clock on marriage, women in the workforce or politics, and eroding privileges for Christianity.
at 7:30 AM