Don’t Bring Policy to a Culture Fight

E.J. Dionne suggests that gun control advocates have given up and are “rationalizing gutlessness”.

I’ve moved in my own life from being intensely certain that comprehensive restrictions on gun ownership were an important political objective to being indifferent to the issue. The reason is not that I think it would be a bad thing to change national and state policy on guns. Moderate licensing and regulation on par with what we ask of the owners and operators of cars and restrictions on certain types of armaments and ammunition still seem reasonable and useful to me. Over time, however, I have become more sensitive to two things. First, that there are many responsible, careful gun owners motivated in some cases by hunting and in other cases by the pursuit of security who have felt underappreciated and stereotyped by gun control advocates. Second, and more importantly, the entire issue has become a fiercely powerful synedoche for much vaster complexes of sociocultural identity, conflict and anxiety, and it got that way through organic, complex currents flowing up out of American history, some of them deep and some of them relatively recent. That makes it a disastrous target for top-down changes in policy or law.

This is a wall that Americans as a whole seem increasingly determined to smash their heads into. I’m going to be grossly simplistic about the history of the last 75 years for a moment. Starting in the late 1940s and accelerating in the 1960s, US liberals and progressives managed to demolish much, if not all, of a massive web of legal and governmental structures that actively enforced discrimination, racism, sexism, and inequality. The problem that arose in the wake of that change was that discrimination and inequality did not disappear and in some cases, seemed frustratingly likely to persist. Crudely speaking, the only people who were content to stop at that point were extremely strong believers in negative liberties, e.g., those who felt that once you removed strong governmental or other structural impediments to the social freedom of all citizens, it was up to the citizens to enact their own liberty. For anyone else, there were only two broad options for further action, in the direction of positive liberties: statutes and policies designed to move society towards equality and true freedom, or programmatic attempts to instrumentally change the culture and consciousness of people and institutions that were reproducing inequality and discrimination.

I know this is familiar ground for me at this blog, but initiatives in both of those directions in the 1970s and 1980s were an important force in the long-term coalescence and political empowerment of American cultural conservativism. There’s a Newtonianism at work here: each attempt to use policy and law to create or empower social transformation, or conscious attempts to alter culture in a predetermined direction has created an equal and opposite attempt to do the same thing in the other direction, to use policy and law to compel others to follow conservative moral and cultural practice, or to use civic and educational institutions to secure the content of culture and consciousness.

You can disagree with my implied view of the initial causality here and argue that the interventions of the 1970s were just one more waltz in a long dance of hegemony and counter-hegemony. Or get irritated with the compulsive “balancing” going on here. I’m particularly sympathetic to the latter objection in the sense that I’m not implying moral equivalency between the two “sides” in this push-and-pull.

The point here is that this is a political fact: that when a particular practice gets deeply, powerfully written into culture, identity, consciousness, you generally cannot force it back out again through government or civic dictate. The harder you try, the more you provide thermodynamic fuel that makes your target stronger and more resilient. This should not be news to my colleagues and friends who are social and cultural specialists in history, anthropology or sociology. We can see this kind of dialectic at work very powerfully in the societies that we study in the past, or in some other part of the world. Frequently, our sympathies are with the people and communities that governments and civic institutions are trying to change. Even when we’re uncomfortable with some of the moral or practical consequences of their beliefs and practices–say, with witchcraft discourses; gendered differences dictated by spiritual or religious belief; hierarchies in the domestic sphere and family life; mutilations and alterations of the body–we tend to acknowledge both that these practices acquire new vigor and meaning when they are the focus of strong “top-down” efforts to change or eliminate them and that such efforts at forcible change typically overlook the subtlety and richness of the cultural worlds they are striving to transform.

There are practices you can change by fiddling with tax incentives or promoting public education or partial bannings. They tend to be practices that are either highly marginalized already at the time that the state or civil society takes an interest, or practices that have a relatively shallow historical rooting. Gun ownership in America is neither of those things. It doesn’t matter that there are places in the world with few guns and little gun crime: the histories of gun ownership and of state-society relations in such places are different. You can’t simply transpose one onto the other by policy and law.

If you protest that this condemns us simply to more serial-killer shootings in public places, more uses of guns in urban violence with innocent bystanders falling right and left, you’re right. We are condemned, at least for now. There is nothing that can change that: no law or police-force or government agency big enough for it. Any more than there has been a law or police-force or government agency big enough to win the “drug war”, make people stop having racist thoughts, stop wanting to view pornography or to make people stop eating Chick-Fil-A.

When lots of people are doing something and valuing it as a part of their lives, it cannot be changed by fiat, no matter how good the arguments on paper are for doing it.

What I think we lack sometimes is confidence that in the long run of things, a certain kind of homespun wisdom wins out in culture. When you look at the social transformations of the last two centuries in many societies, there are some you can credit to the forcible intervention of the state or dominant social classes, but a lot that just sort of incrementally and complicatedly happened. Sometimes because things that used to make sense just stopped making sense, or the cost of a certain kind of practice became higher for pervasive and unplanned reasons. Sure, you can keep talking about why guns are a bad idea, or why the fantasies of certain gun-owners are just actively dangerous or wrong. (Say, that it would have helped anything for there to be three or four guys carrying handguns in Aurora. Anybody with police or military experience, any responsible gun owner, knows that’s stupid bravado.) The conversation can continue. I think the more curious, the more exploratory, the more interested in the range of actually-lived practices people are (on all sides), the more possible it becomes for real change to occur, for the great knotted muscle at the heart of contemporary American life to relax, unwind and open up.

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6 Responses to Don’t Bring Policy to a Culture Fight

  1. David says:

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this piece, and its insights into the complexities of the interplay of culture and politics. But I think the gun problem is actually a much newer invention. And I think this dark invention poses such a threat to our society that we can’t allow ourselves to take refuge in the “it’s complex” analysis, because unless something’s done, it has the potential to get so much worse.
    I don’t pretend to have my finger on the pulse of contemporary cultural politics, but my sense is that there is something very new (in the last two decades) and very sinister about present-day gun culture, that is not just about counter-swings in politics.
    My first thought is that handguns and assault rifles have shifted “culturally,” from being tools and/or symbols of ruggedness, independence, masculinity, ad elevated to the level of fetish-object. The fetish really took off in recent mass-culture. In Bogart’s old detective films, a pistol was just that—a pistol; a tool. (And no match for a good manly right cross.) Even in ’70s cop films, guns were generic, rarely the focus. I think this started to change in the ’80s: the gun-shop scene from Terminator (“.45 long slide with laser sight;” “Uzi nine millimeter” Ahnold the killer robot rattles off with unerring precision) was startling, in part because the vast majority of the audience had no idea what an “Uzi” was. That excitement sparked something. Three decades later, (capitalist) culture, from films to rap songs, can expect many/most viewers/listeners to have intimate knowledge of firearms. Hell, I don’t even own a gun, but even I know the difference between a Glock and Sig-Sauer, that an AR-15 is the semi-auto version of the M-16, and that the SKS is the cheap Chinese knockoff of the AK-47. And me knowing these details reflects a MASSIVE and relatively recent investment of culture. Today, even fairly good-natured geeky films (I’m thinking of “Kick-Ass”) builds jokes and visual “rewards” around firearm fetishization. Importantly, since this fetishization is so new (within a generation) we cannot so comfortably assume the preservation of the social norms of even the previous generation.
    One problem with guns becoming a fetish is that it’s fetish-status makes it a target and/or focus for mental illness. People are no crazier now than they were in the ’50s; but the firearm fetish today attracts the mentally ill like moths to a flamethrower. So, first, unless something is done, we’re going to get more and more mass-shootings. Mass murder will become our barometer of mental health. (if it’s not already) And culturally, we’ll become as inured to it as we are to traffic accidents. Should we just shrug when firearm murders go from 12,000 a year to 80,000 in the next 30 years?
    But it’s not just the mentally ill (or for that matter, the economically disadvantaged) who are increasingly drawn in by the gun fetish. Add an increasingly-paranoid NRA into the picture. I think in your column lets the NRA entirely off the hook. The NRA is not just mobilized “conservatism”—not just a reaction to progressive social gains. It is much more. The NRA is an organization that elevates the gun fetish into the role of SOLUTION to social problems. Remember the run on gun stores after Obama was elected… so much so there arose a shortage of firearms and ammunition? This was NOT because Obama had proposed (or even hinted at) any sort of comprehensive gun ban—he didn’t. Instead, gun-stockpiling, goaded by the new institutionalized paranoia of the NRA, became seen as a perfectly valid “solution” to the “problem” of a black president.
    Firearm fetish as politics. Worried about racial tensions? No need for balanced social policy; just stock up on firearms. Fearing urban decay and/or crime? No need for urban planning, or economic policy: just expand conceal-carry laws, and taut them as the solution to social disorder. Problem with “Liberals” interfering with your “freedoms”? Stockpile guns, and score political points by publicly daring them into “coming after” you. Problems with failing educational systems, or unaffordable health care? Stockpile weapons as you prepare your Alamo-like stand against “taxes.” Yes, the “solution” of guns to every social problem is on the part of the NRA, largely rhetorical. But how violent can culturally-validated, institution-driven rhetoric get without real-world impact? The shooting of Giffords was not some freak aberration; it’s the logical culmination of these two new developments in gun cultural-politics. And there is some legitimate fear that we are at a starting point; incremental pendulum-like change and/or the homespun wisdom of culture works in some spheres—but it falls apart in the sphere of real violence, I think. (South Africa is in that downward spiral: it has maybe 7 times more gun deaths per capital than the USA… and, correspondingly, a guns-are-the-only-solution on the part of many Afrikaners, correct?)
    True, legislation alone is probably not going to accomplish much (as you write). But that does not mean we can allow ourselves to be “indifferent.” Social/political movements CAN change culture, and even change it swiftly. The model I’m thinking of is Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. MADD pretty much took on an entrenched culture (“one for the road!”) that had its own fetishes, and, within about two decades, utterly discredited it. People still drink and drive, of course, but there’s now a public culture of this being unacceptable—which has had an enormous and beneficial social effect. We desperately need some sort of movement against the threats posed by firearm fetishization and institutionalized paranoia, and I think an effort to culturally discredit “irresponsible” gun ownership (and the NRA’s irresponsible rhetoric) would, like discrediting “irresponsible” drinking (or “irresponsible” second-hand cigarette smoke) be a starting point.
    Culture can be changed. And if we don’t at least try, I fear that we are going to be facing a growing mountain of dead bodies. Yes, the white suburbs will always remain safe, perhaps behind gates and militarized police forces. But is Detroit or Chicago or Tucson really SO unimaginably far from Johannesburg or (worse) Mogadishu that we can allow ourselves indifference?
    Sorry for the long reply-post: I’m from Colorado, and it’s been hard to see the way things are going here.

  2. Withywindle says:

    TB: Your argument against cultural intervention at home strikes me as similar to your argument against military intervention abroad. An interesting consistency.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Good of you to pick up on that–I’m more and more aware of that myself. I think I’m really coming to believe in a kind of Edmund-Burkean view of instrumental power: that there is such a thing as progress, that there can be modest deliberate action in pursuit of progress, but that strong instrumental action by powerful institutions (private and public) to force the pace of progress is almost always a terrible mistake.

  4. Doug says:

    Australia as counter-example?

  5. Nord says:

    Australia had a broad political mandate to “do something” post the shootings in Port Authur. The direction in Australia was clear that “do something” was less guns. In the US, today, “do something” would involve liberalizing carry laws for some significant % of the population, because if only one person in the theater had a carry permit, this story wouldn’t be a story …

    Also, don’t underestimate that mass shooting were not uncommon in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Heck even Swarthmore college had its shooting. Back then, people didn’t blame the guns, but had their own list of cultural things to blame …

  6. One more issue is that video games are normally serious anyway with the primary focus on understanding rather than entertainment. Although, we have an entertainment facet to keep your young ones engaged, each game is often designed to develop a specific expertise or curriculum, such as numbers or scientific disciplines. Thanks for your write-up.

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