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A Political Culture of Violence

America in the Crosshairs

by NORMAN POLLACK

It would be tempting to blame the NRA for the impasse over the control of gun violence.  Obstructionist  surely,  it possesses political muscle in Congressional circles similar to that of Norquist’s No-tax-increase pledge, as though “gun rights” shares equal place in the American Decalogue with property rights, which is a somewhat bawdry interpretation of the Constitution on both counts.  The NRA would  seem to have America in its cross-hairs.  Why, though, should the nation—and its political leadership—be enthralled by its patriotic claptrap, including its defense of the Second Amendment?  No-one applauded the efforts of civil-liberties groups, much less showed interest in, or helped to defend on constitutional grounds, victims of McCarthyism, when the Fifth Amendment was torn to shreds before our eyes.  It comes down to  whose ox is gored.  The Left, nary a murmur; the Right, not unlike letting loose the bulls of Pamplona.

Sorry, but the NRA is merely shorthand for deepseated Reaction; it is al Qaeda with an American accent, capable of striking sheer terror into the body politic, yet far more perversive of the nation’s foundations than all the work of terrorists combined.  Is the statement too controversial?  I wonder whether a truly democratized America, particularly one having a foreign policy without a global system of military bases, a record of habitual intervention and counterrevolution in order to ensure the political stabilization of the world’s trade-and-investment activities compatible with US interests, would have attracted Muslim and Arab opposition and hostility to the same degree, if at all.   Add to that  the US intimidatory posture, warning all nations, as integral to Cold War international politics, first, the Soviet Union, now, China, not to mount ideological-cultural claims which challenge or are viewed as antithetical to the structure and values of American-defined and –sanctioned capitalism.  Given the actuality of unilateralism,  the complexity of alliance systems, and the centrality of oil affecting the other two, would America still have been a target on the world stage if it had pursued a more accommodative historical course?  Violence breeds violence.  We entered, actually decades ago,  the world of blowback, retribution (on earth, not in heaven), or simply comeuppance, for our gargantuan appetites and the treatment of nonindustrialized nations.

Why then even mention the NRA? Despite a purported membership of 2.5 million, they are a surface indicator, a social phenomenon of a political culture, which points to underlying authoritarian traits, from xenophobia, ethnocentrism, rigidly-maintained defense mechanisms preventing introspection and self-criticism (The American Way, code for the hierarchical structuring and militarization of American capitalism), to a worship of power and, though sanitized and channeled into the world of sport, a cult of violence.  Unrestrained capitalism has made a mishmash of human values, rule of law, respect for the poor, the disadvantaged, those rendered powerless, so that “democracy” itself has been transvalued into extreme individualism, the renunciation of social obligation, and that which we currently place on a pedestal—gun rights.  Strip the Emperor of his clothes, and we find the prototypical neofascist clinging desperately to an identity which masks, even from himself, his inner nihilism.  Did Newtown shake him up?  Did it penetrate the thick walls of Obama’s psyche—crocodile tears in locus, while murdering far more children than gun violence could ever account for, in his signature campaign of armed drones for targeted assassination?

I am old enough to remember the Butcher of Buchenwald, although, thank goodness, I was never in a death camp.  But now I fear—for America’s sake and its future—the Butcher(s) of the Beltway.  I do not exaggerate, not that the Holocaust is comparable yet to what in the near-term one can expect from the rightward shift of the political-ideological spectrum, projections of either structural tendencies or trends in political leadership, and concerns about the social peace as inequalities of wealth and power continue to widen and intensify, but rather I believe Obama and Brennan, our butchers, their geopolitical vision of a drone-saturated methodology of undisputed hegemony intact, can work greater harm in international politics than we’ve seen since JFK.  (I choose Kennedy to be deliberately provocative, because I want to see altogether fresh thinking about his nuclear diplomacy, counterrevolutionary efforts in Latin America and the Third World generally, and, like Obama, his ability to clothe conservative doctrines and policies in liberal glitter.)  This drone business borders on, if not already crossing the line to, a sadomasochism so unworthy and unspeakable in the upper reaches of government that, however hidden from view by the imperatives—self-declared by Obama—of the National Security State, it should have aroused the wrath of a now narcotized, spineless American public willing  indeed anxious to turn a blind eye to a successive record of atrocities in the name of fighting terrorism.  We cannot face the commission of criminal acts done also in the name of promoting freedom.

Here I come to the nub of the matter.  The NRA is an excrescense of the wider political culture.  Its goals and tactics would be seen as puerile, easily countered, were there political will to stand upright for the achievement of a social order founded on principles of peace and justice, not as words but structurally inscribed and demonstrably realized in the culture, values, and condition of the people.  Yet that exactly flies in the face of a corporate framework which, had that vision been realized, must renounce its most cherished attributes: hierarchy, toughness (toward those viewed as weaker), and, now perhaps more than ever, militaristic, to reinforce patterns of social discipline and the mentality of looking upward for guidance in public policy, economic growth (trickle-down wealth creation), all decisions affecting foreign policy and the determination of war and peace.  Teachers in Texas would not be undergoing instruction in the use of firearms, guns would not be brought into the national parks, and children in Pakistan would not be evaporated, because a president, poring over hit lists, makes a determination, then transmitted to a “pilot” in an air-conditioned sancturary 8,000 miles from the target who presses the lever, and the child, possibly in the same car (often of targets not identified) or walking on the street, becomes, the most hated phrase I know, “a blood spat.”

That Obama dares to nominate John Brennan as CIA director is a grave insult to moral decency (whether or not the public condescends to raise an eyebrow), and speaks volumes about Obama’s  moral vacuity, which itself is becoming more evident with each passing day.  And we’ve had four years of it, as social policy withers, environmental spoliation is unchecked, civil liberties drowned in the unctuous blather of the state secrets doctrine (i.e., the use of the Espionage Act against whistleblowers), unionization rolled back, surveillance magnified—why continue, one gets the picture.  Or does one?  Brennan, war-criminal material, nevertheless is acknowledged to be Obama’s closest adviser.  And Obama himself?  On Terror Tuesdays he sits down with his national-security advisers, his baseball-card-like hit lists to be discussed,  playing God, the juices no doubt working, as one who holds whole areas of the world in a state of terror, lest an UAV descends from the sky on a mission of human obliteration.  No POTUS to my knowledge has ever played such a direct role in authorizing the death of others.  This seems a personal thing with him, and his sidekick, Brennan, still does not admit the existence of civilian casualties.  Why should he?  He has the weight and prestige of the government behind him.  He also has Obama’s cunning redefinition of the combatant as being all males of military age (broadly conceived)—the beautiful and the damned alike; and if wives and children get in the way, then presumably they are fellow travellers or otherwise deserving.  I do not exaggerate.  The evidence is overwhelming.  And if the “collateral damage” which comes from the designated strikes isn’t enough, there are also the second strikes directed at funerals and first responders, premeditated murder being the nicest way I can put it.

Thus, we have a context from which to work toward the analysis of gun violence, and the reason the NRA enjoys the success that it does.  Americans, beginning with the president, for we are looking at a framework in which political-cultural cues are transmitted from the top downward through both major parties, appear inured, desensitized, ultimately, habituated, to violence.  Gun violence is legitimated, allowed to go unchecked, because of the widely-subscribed value placed on equating social restraint on individual conduct with impermissible checks on freedom of action.  Whether my gun butresses feelings of manhood and sexual prowess in me, is a testimony to my liberty as a free American, provides a fictive equality which takes me beyond narrow class boundaries, or—the rationalizations are as unlimited as a fertile and furtive mind can concoct, the important point is that the gun-obsession is rooted in a dense  ideological atmosphere saturated with compensatory themes and values in which the individual, denied a meaningful personhood, desperately seeks to fill the void, the emptiness, with the electrical charge he or she no longer feels.  Guns are the antidote to numbness, the surrogate for acts of heroism.  Take away my gun, I become a nonperson, prey to nightmarish creatures of the deep, left without protection.  Sadomasochism above is met by paranoia below, they intermix, leaving a diluted form of each spread with varying proportions throughout the social order.  The obsession with guns becomes thinkable and tolerable because it fills a need, apparently unique to America, as evidenced by its comparative absence in other advanced industrial countries.  Armed teachers—packing on your next trip to the mall or the supermarket—making the worship of guns a National Gun Holiday (mark your calendars, 1/19/13), all of these are signs of a societal decadence to which, if further confirmation were needed, we are oblivious.

From the top down.  A nation which promotes the use of force and executes, by presidential direction, its application in ways that violate international law, sets—to say the least—a bad example at home.  How can Obama push for effective gun control when he does not have clean hands?  For by his order there has been a promiscuous use of weaponry, all the time increasing in lethality, as with the next generation of nuclear bombs reputed to be in the pipeline, and for now, supercarriers to confront China.  I say unclean hands when it comes to effective gun control, not only because he is favorably disposed to all things military (which sets up an incipient mental conflict of interest), but also because he consciously disfavors such control, as is the case with fundamental reforms of every description, from the regulation of the financial and business systems to rearguard holding actions with respect to climate change.  His procrastination is not merely temperamental, it is ideologically driven.  This can be seen by an article in  The New York Times (1/11/13), by Michael Shear and Peter Baker, entitled “Tough Path Seen by Obama on Ban of Assault Weapons,” so devastating as to call forth protests from the White House and an article in the Washington Post largely defending the Administration.

We see Obama in true form:  a pretend-vacillation, in which he almost invariably starts by anticipating defeat, so that, the reality here, he then proposes halfway, ineffectual measures pleasing to those who are subject to the regulations—and probably corresponding with his own conservative stance.  This is called “pragmatism” or “realism,” but looks to me, rather, as his being devoid of conviction and always anxious to court popularity—the conservatism representing opportunism more than specific choices in public policy.  Foreign policy seems another matter (the centralization of decision-making in the White House), but on gun control, a feigned modesty, essentially, Please Congress, do allow us some cosmetics (i.e., cover) at home—not, the banning of assault weapons, but, ah, background checks.  The reporters write in careful, neutral language:  “…the White House has calculated that a ban on military-style assault weapons will be exceedingly difficult to pass through Congress and is focusing on other measures it deems more politically achievable.” (Italics, mine)  Specifically, gun checks “and the need for more research on gun violence.”  And when Biden let slip “limits on the purchase of high-capacity magazines,”     in his own extended public remarks, “he made no mention of curbing the production and sale of assault weapons.”  Still, with apprehension about being pinned-down by anything specific, the reporters state, “A spokesman for Mr. Obama said later in the afternoon that the vice-president’s remarks merely reflect a desire for a broad approach to gun violence.”  To be sure, the broader the approach, the less depth or specificity—and the less likely of anything efficacious being done.

Gun rights.  Why not people rights?  Guns are carcenogenic; they are creating a political culture of force and deceit that is eating away at our vitals.  Let this continue, and rather than worry about fiscal cliffs, we can start worrying about the fascist precipice.  I say then, “America in the Cross-Hairs,” because, not NRA, but we ourselves, by allowing the Butcher(s) of the Beltway to define the tone of national life, backed by actions which disgrace the moral standards openly professed and, in essence, underwrite, any meaningful democratic society, proceed to shoot ourselves, no longer in the leg but through the heart.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.