Domestic-Foreign Policy Integration: Gun Control/North Korea


In theory, all things are, or seemingly appear, interrelated, however dissimilar they may be, as though human activities and events are causally bound together (the historical aphorism about Cleopatra’s nose that E.H. Carr mentions), but arcane as that is, we need no special divination to spot the relationship between gun control in America and US policy toward North Korea, for both existential problems stem from a common source: advanced capitalism here particularized through policies brought up to date by Obama’s global adventurism and the nation’s supporting militarism implementing war, intervention, regime change, and—our separate phenomena now conjoined—the celebration of the cult of violence. America is a boiling cauldron, the twisted logic of dominance (over others), spoliation (of the environment), and possessiveness (erection of the property right as a supreme deity governing class, status, and power in society), together defining the national spirit of hate, greed, fear, above all, conquest, has rendered consistent the inner workings and mentalset of a political-ideological structure geared to contempt for human dignity at home, international peace abroad. We have become a society of warrior-strangers, first, to each other, and then, casting around, to any who dare question our judgment, cross our path, reject our blandishments, or deny our moral purposes and rectitude.

Call it Exceptionalism if you want, but what gives America the right to arrogate to itself the chief role in ordering the global system, using force when necessary (which seems to be more often the case), and with North Korea, going further, to demonize and isolate the Enemy as the basis for its submission to the American will, is exactly the same driving force and set of assumptions at the heart of US gun violence: the braggart, the bully, the despoiler, the outsider, constantly reminded that violence is the key to self-respect (by towering over others), the gun merely the reconciler of status and power, the instrument of aggrandizement in a social order that values besting one another as the true test of character and moral worth. We do to each other what we would like to do to the North Koreans, blast them off the planet in a fit of pique, whether because of an imagined slight or because the Other sees through us, penetrates our defenses, calls our bluff of virtue incarnate.

No, I do not apologize for gun violence; just the reverse, condemning it as the big-shotism (pun not intended) bred-in-the-bone of capitalist social relations. For every crime committed, from murder to bank robbery to individual holdup, etc., through the use of a gun, we see operating the gnawing desire to become a “somebody” (I think of Robert E. Sherwood’s description in his “Roosevelt and Hopkins” of street kids on New York’s Lower East Side who stand in silence in reverence at the news that Dutch Schultz or some other gangster had been slain), a respect that otherwise is denied to all but the affluent and respectable under a capitalist system that denies the universality of human rights and dignity. Even the aforementioned crimes, the gangster phenomenon, would be negligible in a framework predicated on authentic social and economic democracy, where one neither suffers want nor constantly must prove himself/herself. The real source of gun violence is not poverty, but the distorted pictures and narratives implanted from very early in the American mind, where property (in itself coveted under these conditions) is the bridge to superiority, and, projected outward, the selfsame superiority is a battering ram to cram down the throats of others (North Korea here the quintessential scapegoat perhaps for reasons, unlike its neighbor to the South, of noncompliance with American-defined capitalist orthodoxies) the militarized paradigm of market penetration, trade expansion, and unbounded investment opportunities—not coincidentally, the heart of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, with the added element of encircling and attempting to isolate (if not also somehow subjugate) China in the process.

Gun violence in America is the normalization of American policy in general, and foreign policy more particularly, in both areas pointing to the glorification of invidious distinction underlined by the moral sanction of superior-inferior social relations, whether of wealth, race, or political influence, indeed, a structural dichotomization prevailing through every aspect of society. In all of this, Veblen was more than a century ahead of his time, from Theory of the Leisure Class to Imperial Germany an insight into capitalism’s powers of human and national separation, a thirst in both cases for recognition, the aforementioned big-shotism believed thwarted from without. The place of militarism as contributing mightily to hierarchy in all its manifestations–individual wealth, national hegemony in international politics–provides a unifying experience for relating domestic gun violence to the dominance over/containment of North Korea. Pyongyang is like Detroit or Chicago’s South Side, if not to be squashed down or eradicated, at least to know its place in the hierarchical framework of truth and virtue, i.e., at the bottom. America busily steps on whatever it disapproves of, an ideological-mental climate which handily separates gangsters who kill at the point of a gun, from law-and-order Authority which also kills at the point of a gun (current police brutality being entirely legitimate, few questions asked, and accounting for its full share of gun violence).

One wonders, would respectful treatment of individuals’ rights, and the toning down of profit-seeking and invidiousness, have yielded different outcomes with respect to both crime and the wild proliferation of weaponry in America? Would skull-bashing of striking workers by federal troops, state militias, local police, and private detective agencies, had they never occurred, in a hospitable context for labor rights, resulted in different outcomes with respect to popularizing and legitimating the use of force as a class weapon in defining labor’s place in America? The nation got off on the wrong foot very early, making the historical emphasis on gun rights both understandable and perfectly acceptable; for every criminal taking lives and money at gunpoint, there are many more packing weapons—in some states, unconcealed- to test their self-identity as Bunyanesque salt-of-the-earth moral enforcers of the American way. From putting down slave revolts before the Civil War, to intimidating whomever appeared different or thought differently in our day, the gun was a useful appendage, code for patriotism and antiradicalism, in the enforcement of that way of life: propertied, preclusive of whom to exclude from the folk community of capitalism, and casting the view outward, demanding, yes, demanding (as in the case of North Korea) compulsory respect for, and absolute acceptance of, that very way of life.

Let’s turn first to Obama’s op-ed piece in NYT, January 8, entitled, “Barack Obama: Guns Are Our Shared Responsibility,” a holier-than-thou plea for less than effective gun control which is wholly contradicted by his own and his administration’s record of massive killings in foreign lands while doing little to stem the violence at home. Lest my point on this be not emphasized enough, the two are closely related, in that legitimated killings abroad sanction and habituate the American public to the depersonalization of death at home—legitimation as the product of established authority, giving violence a head-start to all claimants of moral rightness, including a financial system that practices violence by driving some into poverty while rewarding others with staggering wealth, as well as the now common-variety of violence, shooting down young blacks in the spirit of impunity. (The badge is handed out by God.) Carpet bombing, torture, intervention per se, all have their effect on the domestic psyche, breeding lawlessness under the umbrella of law—or for corporations, also the same. Our home generals, deserving respect, are the pharmaceutical CEOs, hedge fund operators, media personalities, all dishing out class weapons (pens and microphones replacing guns) to maintain hierarchy, militarism, obliteration of personal autonomy, in place. Anything less is presumably an invitation to terrorism (Israel already labeling dissidents and opponents of the reigning coalition as terrorists, America, as in the innuendoes trotted out in the present campaign, not far behind).

Obama’s umbrella, “common-sense gun reform,” is farcical; he throws in the towel even before he starts. After correctly declaring, “The epidemic of gun violence in our country is a crisis. Gun deaths and injuries constitute one of the greatest threats to public health and to the safety of the American people,” he now retreats: “A national crisis like this demands a national response. Reducing gun violence will be hard. It won’t happen during my presidency.” Obama spreads out the national response; rather than bearing down—as did FDR when he addressed poverty and unemployment specifically through using the power of the federal government—he calls on a feel-good participation accomplishing nothing (even the private sector a valued ally): “Still, there are steps we can take now to save lives. And all of us—at every level of government, in the private sector and as citizens—have to do our part.” Thus: “We all have a responsibility.”

But we don’t have a responsibility to cease war, intervention, regime change, or paramilitary operations and drone assassination, among “citizens” a nonstarter when it comes to public policy and government boundaries on achieving positive social change. Responsibility is a limited goal designed not to interfere with the foregoing policy-characteristics, themselves, as I’ve argued, contributory factors to the acceptance and approval of violence itself. A nation up to its neck in displaying force (as through NATO at the Russian border or in carrier battle-groups in the South China Sea) cannot but reinforce gun rights and a gun culture at home, the current swagger in Oregon not unlike the swagger in US military bases worldwide. A nation at peace, having equitable wealth distribution, and assigning responsibility to government for achieving the health and well-being of its citizens, is not likely to have the problem of gun violence. Yet Obama prattles on, oblivious—given how far a gun culture, and its psychological attributes of disdain for human life, has penetrated defensive layers of self-justification to the heart of the American Mind—that he is mouthing platitudes (or worse, knowing he is) which ensure that neither regulation at home nor inspiration from America’s conduct abroad will have changed, a tawdry record of complicity and deception favoring the mentality of combativeness good for the functioning of capitalism.

In the face of US global imperialism, his gun-reforms at home are mealy-mouthed at best: “They [recommendations on January 5] include making sure that anybody engaged in the business of selling firearms conducts background checks, expanding access to mental health treatment and improving gun safety technology.” National crisis; by his own admission, modest expected gains: “These actions won’t prevent every act of violence, or save every human life—but if even one life is spared, they will be well worth the effort.” Obama means business, as in this widely quoted passage: “I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform.” I.e., personal involvement sets an example; structural-legal obstruction of gun manufacture and distribution is postponed indefinitely. He appeals to “the vast majority of responsible gun owners” to do the right thing, specifics not mentioned. Ditto, the “gun industry,” which should be encouraged to meet, like the producers of “consumer goods,” the “high standards to keep our families and communities safe.” Guns become a special case of consumer goods, not lethal instruments of human harm and societal breakdown: “Cars have to meet safety and emissions requirements. Food has to be clean and safe. We will not end the cycle of gun violence until we demand that the gun industry take simple actions to make the product safer as well.” Don’t eliminate guns, give them safety catches; he rounds out the passage: “If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should also make sure she can’t pull the trigger of a gun.”

This marks the trivialization in safeguarding against gun violence. Still, the industry and its lobby remain uncooperative, and their obstruction is backed by Congress—Obama rightly complaining, “They’ve guaranteed that manufacturers enjoy virtual immunity from lawsuits, which means that they can sell lethal products and rarely face consequences,” but then dips into his box of clichés by creating a false analogy between guns and car seats. “As parents,” he writes, “we wouldn’t put up with this if we were talking about family car seats. Why should we tolerate it for products—guns—that kill so many children each year?” One devoutly wishes for better car seats, but until government focuses directly on guns, their deadly character per se, action is diverted from requisite steps bringing them under direct supervision, control, drastic reduction in the polity. Obama wants manufacturers “to make guns smarter and safer,” as in the development of “microstamping for ammunition,” which neither touches on their supply, lethality, or availability. Stand firm, Americans: “demand leaders brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies,” and get “governors, mayors and our representatives in Congress [to] do their part.” Gun-control issues merge with the body of great social issues of Liberal America, at the pace expected of liberalism—slow, modulated, expressly rendered nonradical: “Change will be hard. It won’t happen overnight. But securing a woman’s right to vote didn’t happen overnight. The liberation of African-Americans didn’t happen overnight. Advancing the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans has taken decades’ worth of work.” He pulls out all the stops: “Those moments represent American democracy, and the American people, at our best.” Meanwhile, wars continue, munitions factories go full tilt, arms exports to dictators the same, nothing truly ventured nothing gained—quite typical of Obama.

My New York Times Comment to the Obama op-ed article, same date, (submitted, yet despite my being a regular contributor, the green check mark, it is then rejected, i.e., placed under the censor’s axe by NYT, no doubt because controversial) follows:

“I will not campaign for….” Let me hear, “I will not mercilessly bomb innocent civilians through drone assassination.” Let me hear, a halt to war, intervention, regime change. Let me hear, the social safety net is tattered, I will drastically reduce the military budget and take care of human needs. In other words, Obama stands side-by-side with the murderers of our time. (If this is too strong for NYT, let them censor it.) There is a direct correlation between gun violence in America and America’s gun violence with respect to the rest of the world. Barrington Moore would have called this, “legitimated violence,” that which is done from above by Authority on behalf of law and order (or fill in the blank, so long as it supports upper-groups’ business and military agendas).

Others have noted Obama’s crocodile tears when tragedy strikes. He doesn’t display them when he backs rightist regimes who kill indiscriminately, only when, as now, it is advantageous to do so. And on foreign policy he has dragged a not-very-struggling Democratic party along with him, so that Hillary and Bernie are not very different on US hegemonic claims and not very different from their Republican rivals.

America will remain violent because it thinks violently, cultivates violence as a sign of national strength, luxuriates in violence as testimony to its unblemished moral character. Away with such phoniness. Obama can sleep at night because he is well-habituated to the killings he has ordered.

Finally, we find the worship of violence, as essential to advanced-capitalist development for its continued growth both at home and abroad, preventing domestic stagnation and unemployment while also energizing and providing the military clout for global market penetration and investment, directly relevant to interventionist policies addressed to the neutralization of North Korea because, as noted above, of its noncompliance with US-defined capitalist orthodoxies. North Korea has committed the cardinal sin, which is interference with (and perhaps seeing through the follies of) American Exceptionalism, an expansionist quest which brooks no opposition. Violence becomes the midwife of US global dominance, creating the integration of domestic and foreign policy, a congruence of purpose in which beating down North Korea, as one example of many over the years, keeps the xenophobic-ethnocentric mentalset at home sharply tuned, ready to spring. The foremost imperialist power in the world cannot expect less of itself if it is going to manifest the strength to stay on top, let alone survive, in the face of ascending rivals, notably China, which, not by chance, is North Korea’s protector. In US policymaking circles, to contain and weaken North Korea is to strike at China.

We note then the ethics (or lack thereof) of superiority, consistent with the treatment of every other point of intervention and regime change: a rigid conception of national security that corresponds to an equally rigid psychological framework of holding the line at all costs—the domino theory alive and well in the year of our Lord 2016. Here I turn briefly to David Sanger and Choe Sang-Hun’s Times article, “U.S. Prods China on North Korea, Saying Soft Approach Has Failed,” January 8, never mind since 1950 the approach has not been soft, Pyongyang a particularly hated target in an evolving all-purpose Asia policy having China, India, and Afghanistan in mind. The hermit kingdom couldn’t break out of its isolation even if it wanted to. To put a fine point on matters, US contempt for and opposition to North Korea was not only psychological or ideological, but also had to do with market expansion and the spread of capitalism, not there, of course, although South Korea and Japan were showcases of the American Way, but widening the region of US enterprise as a whole, knocking down all barriers, and thus reviving the dream and actuality of the Open Door policy of the latter 19th century.

Angered by the North’s nuclear test earlier in the week, America’s first response was to blame China. The reporters write: “In a striking public rebuke of China, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Beijing on Thursday [January 7] that its effort to rein in North Korea had been a failure and that something had to change in its handling of the isolated country it has supported for the past six decades.” Sanger-Choe parrot State Department belligerence, quoting Kerry’s demanding/accusatory statement to Wang Yi of the Chinese foreign ministry without comment as to America’s claims to define and supervise affairs in the region: “’China had a particular approach that it wanted to make, and we agreed and respected to give them space to be able to implement that. Today in my conversation with the Chinese I made it clear: That has not worked, and we cannot continue business as usual.’” Always “we,” we agreed, we gave them space, we no longer can tolerate the situation—I’m sorry but who the hell are WE either to control North Korea or tell China what to do?!

There follows the usual, squeeze the North still further, until they cry uncle (Sam). Thus: “Two administration officials said the United States was now drafting a proposed resolution for United Nations Security Council approval that would impose sanctions on North Korean trade and finance, including a partial ban on permitting North Korean ships to enter ports around the world, an effort to cut off more of the country’s trade.” Not enough? Go further: “A second set of sanctions under consideration is a cutoff of North Korean banking relationships, similar to the restrictions placed on Iran in the successful effort to drive it to the negotiation table on its nuclear program.” (This goes beyond Bush II’s sanctions regime on banking, which his administration “eventually … relented [on] and lifted … in part because of pressure from the government then in place in South Korea.” Hence, Obama the more doctrinaire ideologue of the two, at least in this case.) Still not enough, Sanger-Choe continue the account: “The most effective step against North Korea, most experts believe, would be the one that the Chinese most oppose: a restriction or cutoff of oil exports to the North. The country is highly dependent on oil that runs through a small number of pipelines from China.” Again, America seeks to exercise a supervising/supervening role in the internal life of another country, and between the lines engage in pushback against China.

The sanctions regime appears less harmful or destructive than military intervention, and passes for a more enlightened, albeit sophisticated, response, but this is mistaken, not only because sanctions cause human privation (North Korea is today’s Gaza, Gaza, about the same time, yesterday’s North Korea), but also because for the implementation of sanctions the military is not far behind. Sanger-Choe write: “The United States Pacific Command met on Thursday to take up other, if largely symbolic [are they kidding?] steps. One is an overflight of the border between North and South Korea with a nuclear-capable bomber, the B-52 or the B-2.” In addition, throw in a missile shield, hardly defensive in character. They write further: “South Korean and American officials said there was also renewed discussion of deploying an advanced missile defense system [really, like the NATO-based “defense” system facing Russia], called the Thaad for Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, in South Korea.” But here, reality sets in; the geopolitical world is changing. South Korea can no longer be relied on to be the abject ally, dependable partner, of America. Economic tides, despite Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, are shifting: “The United States has been pressing for such a deployment for some time, but the South has resisted, largely because of opposition from China, which is the South’s leading trade partner.”

Not only is China making inroads in Latin America, and besting America in Africa, but now is doing the same in its own backyard—driving Obama, his administration, etc., into even greater defiance with respect to North Korea, the brave soldier with his finger in the dike to plug the hole through which US influence is gradually seeping out. North Korea, time to make a decisive stand and in doing so whet Americans’ appetite, already in an advanced state of conditioning, for violence, its helpmate, and for militarism, its contributory matrix, capitalism, a boost up necessary for business as usual.

My New York Times Comment to the Sanger-Choe article (this one published), same date, follows:

Economic strangulation, overflights by nuclear-capable B-52s and B-2s, that will show those Commies who’s boss in (and over) the world system. “…we cannot continue business as usual.” We… this, we… that: everything we, as though holding a God-given mandate to shape and determine Asian and indeed global history, structures, cultures. Kerry comes off poorly here, perhaps as usual, because he is merely the implementer of US hegemonic foreign policy.

Political chutzpah with respect to China and South Korea, enlisting their support for regime change which would destabilize the region as the least of the problems raised, as well as being none of our business (as usual). American dictation of global affairs is coming to an end, either that or the biggest conflagration yet–which the US foreign-policy establishment appears unconsciously to welcome. Thanatosean America on the march, its death wish forcibly extended to all others because, largely, an empty civilization of war, regime change, and unabashed consumerism leaves a moral void in the pit of America’s stomach.

China will not consent to go along with the more outrageous “solutions” to North Korea’s international conduct, in part because it recognizes that the West is responsible for driving North Korea into isolation. The we shall do this, do that ethos is catching up with America, Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership to encircle and perhaps eventually dismember (doesn’t the US wish!) China not helping matters.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at