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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Contemporary Conservatism: Have Gun, Will Tea Bag

Contemporary Conservatism: Have Gun, Will Tea Bag
Image © Austin Cline
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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.

Political Theater

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.

Conservative Denial

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.


  1. Comrade Clinebergskidorfgoldsteineisnermann:

    Your poster is a joke, right? Do you seriously think any "True Patriot MerKKKin™©" is gonna show up at some comsympofascist death panel rally with that ridicululous pop-gun?

    That looks like an '03 Springfield to me, a great weapon in its time. Oh, sure, it killed lots of Kaiser Willie's schweinhundts and a whole messa sortabrowns from Panama to the Philippines. But, dude, that was then, this is now. I wouldn't be caught dead carrying that antique. I want, at the very least, to be strapped with a pair of Glocks in .45 ACP and have M16/M204-- 5.56mm assault rifle/40mm grenade launcher combo for long distance work. I always rely on the "Street Sweeper" for close work. Anything less would be surrender monkeyish.

    Speakin' of surrender monkeys, we just missed your commie ass last week when you went to that "Dixie Chicks" concert we seen you at...we was just there for survaylants purposes.

    democommie™™™™™©®ç åü courant

  2. democommie, until you get your eyes checked, you are off sniper duty in the militia group. That ain't no Springfield '03, its an M-1 Garand, the rifle that won World War Two! But you are right about it being an antique. Personally, I like a pair of Browning Hi-Powers in 9mm over the Glocks, because I like the extra magazine capacity in a crowd situation where you may have to "spay and pray" and I'd take something a little less bulky than a long gun for urban survival shooting - like a fully automatic Saiga 12-gauge (scroll down for the video) because nothing says "arsenal of democracy" like the ability to spray a room with a pound of buckshot at a single squeeze of the trigger. Where's your "public option" now, you commies?
    Personally, I think real patriots with permits for buying dynamite and blasting powder (gotta clear them stumps on the farm somehow!) should be attending these town hall meetings wrapped in sticks of TNT, maybe with a surplus claymore mine duct-taped on the chest and back to really emphasize our argument that helping poor people is exactly how the Nazis got started.

    (Dear NSA surveillence staffer, just kidding!)

  3. Cline, by saying the actions of patriotikkk gunpatriots who bring their guns onto the public stage are just "political theater," it sounds like you're laughing at us. First mistake, buddy.

    After all, what do you do at the theatre? You laugh at the clowns on the stage, especially if they're some snooty serious actors trying to do some weepy Swedish Bergdorf play. Who do those mopes think they are anyway? That's why we snap our bubblegum and make fart noises during the quiet parts, to make everybody laugh.

    You'll be sorry that you laughed at the patriots' weapons, Cline. I once knew a patriotikkk guy who brought a chick back to his place for some hanky-panky, and she shoulda been glad for it, because she wasn't a skinny chick. Nowhere near, if you know what I mean. But she laughed at the patriot's weapon when I... uhh HE couldn't get it cocked and loaded.


    Keep laughing, funny boy. You're supposed to be scared. If you laugh at us, we're going to ratchet up the terror to make you take us serious. In six months, you're going to be looking back at this scribble and regretting the day when you laughed instead of trembled like you oughta be doing. Except you might be looking at it through two eyes that are swollen shut, or from holes where your eyes used to sit before the worms got to them in your cardboard coffin.

    The stuff us patriots are going to do -- you made us do it. Whatever we do with our guns at public meetings, IT'S YOUR FAULT!

  4. Mr. the reverend paperboy, sir:

    I thought it was an M-1 Garand as well, but it appears from Clinefarbski's crappy drawin' that it's got a bolt action. Other than than I defer to your superior knowledge. A pound of buckshot at one pull? I hope that puppy has a recoil compensator of some kind!


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.