Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, October 03, 2015

On Guns (Only) in America

While the scale and scope of gun-violence in the United States is exceptional, as compared to other industrial and at least notionally representative societies in the world, it seems to me that the American Constitutional system also provides for an exceptionally clear solution to the problem and one that illuminates a host of questions that are often incidentally but rarely insistently connected in discussions of the problem. All right, so guns…

At the outset, I am going to simply set aside as fundamentally unserious the prevailing misreading of the Constitution popular among so-called Second Amendment absolutists (most of whom are cynical shills for gun-lobby profiteers and the unwitting dupes of their mass-mediated echo chambers): If you do not believe that the Second Amendment sanctions individual ownership of nuclear weapons then you already concede the premise that there are weapons safety bans and regulations compatible with the Second Amendment.

Once conceded, the question becomes a matter of just what gets banned and regulated according to objective determinations of harm and how best to implement these bans and regulations. I commend much of the suite of reforms familiar to gun control advocacy for well over a generation: universal background checks facilitated by waiting periods; elimination of egregious loopholes for gifts and gun-shows; refusing violent criminals, domestic abusers, certain emotionally distressed individuals from the use and possession of guns; banning of military style weapons and arsenals to private citizens; implementation of licensing regimes requiring periodic demonstrations of competence and awareness of safety rules and laws at least as strenuous as those already required of those who drive cars or operate other kinds of potentially dangerous machinery; compulsory purchase of insurance to defray the public costs of damage and disruption from gun use for all gun owners and users; sequestration of recreational shooting to public facilities with on-site storage of the weapons used in them; radical circumscription of destructiveness of weapons sanctioned for hunting; ongoing tracking of weapons and ammunition purchasing and public circulation; and so on. Again, I am going to simply set aside as fundamentally unserious, and usually as outright deceptive, the commonplace claims of gun activists and enthusiasts who declare such measures impractical or ineffective, inasmuch as nearly all of them have been demonstrated to be both practical and effective in real world practice.

None of this preliminary throat-clearing is the least bit original, of course -- important though it is to make these obvious points given the insistent ubiquity of their denial -- but nor is any of that the thrust of my post. For me, it matters that the Second Amendment guarantee of "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" is explicitly subordinated, both conceptually and grammatically (not to mention as a matter of the historical context of the harsh collective memory of military occupation by the British out of which the Amendment originated), of "a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state." I regard the Amendment as an insistence that the military and police providing "the security of a free state" be accountable to and representative of -- and hence, "well regulated" -- of "the people" in whose name they act. This imperative is also expressed, of course, in the Constitutional establishment of civilian control over the military but it provides as well, in my reading, a firm Constitutional basis for contemporary demands not only for gun safety regulations but also for accountable, representative community-based policing in the United States.

It is not an accident that gun-control activism and Black Lives Matter movements to end violent, inequitable, unaccountable, non-representative, predatory white-racist policing practices are happening at one and the same time. These movements are structurally connected, and not only in their shared aspirations, but in the interdependence of the crises they would overcome: the suffusion of public space with guns in private ownership provides an official rationale or at least inevitable argumentative recourse for ever more militarized domestic policing practices.

This is far from the whole story, however. The incessantly reported and invoked defensive, even paranoid, psychology of public policing in a gun-suffused public space materializes, or more specifically embodies, the broader, inchoate, poisonously repressed defensiveness and paranoia occasioned by the demographic diversification, secularization, and planetization of an American public displacing the white supremacy long sited and secured by policing: For not only have the police historically policed white-supremacy in the name of civil order, but the police have historically been sited in the cultural state investing racially long-marginalized populations like the Irish, Italians, Polish, Latin Americans, and so on with at first and at best probationary "whiteness," whiteness provisionally secured while provisionally securing white-supremacy.

The defensiveness, especially, of white police who do not live in the communities of color they police is a performance of alienated occupation that rationalizes its violence through the paradoxically Janus-faced recourse to, on the one hand, an historical imaginary that treats these communities as themselves an invasive, occupying force on the body politic of White (sometimes denominated "Real") America -- yes, it is obscene to figure as an alien "invasion" the violent kidnapping and enslavement of people and subsequently as an alien "occupation" a people officially emancipated but then in fact ruthlessly subordinated by Jim Crow, terrorist lynching, share cropping and wage slavery, exclusion from Progressive era and then New Deal reforms creating the White American middle class, segregation through education and zoning and election practices, and mass incarceration -- but also, on the other hand, by recourse to a futural imaginary that treats these communities as the symptom and specter of a demographic reversal in which a majority minority America now threatens White-Supremacy-qua-Occupation with all of its dirty, ugly, guilty open secrets with the prospect of factual displacement and just reparations.

To make much the same point from a different vantage, there is nothing the least bit paradoxical in the fact that some of the first accomplishments of the gun control movement were occasioned by practical interventions and protests of violent white-racist policing on the part of the Black Panthers that took the form of Black bodies Open-Carrying defensive weapons while the consummation of gun-activism today is represented by the spectacle of White bodies Open-Carrying threatening weapons, usually in public spaces where people of color make their homes or are otherwise encouraged to feel welcome. Open-Carry, today, is a political movement to countermand ongoing American diversification by suffusing public space with white-racist patriarchal terror, and in this it is directly connected to the terrorist work of lynching as an historical maintenance of white-supremacy.

By way of conclusion, allow me to take yet another step back for an even wider contextualization of the issue at hand... Gouverneur Morris was a Founding Father who has not quite remained a household name. He wrote the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, which insists that liberty is secured through the promotion of general welfare, and he was one of the few delegates who was explicitly opposed to slavery (by the way, he was also a strong public advocate for the building of the Erie Canal to transform New York into a modern global industrial commonwealth -- on the basis of a proto-Keynesian pre-Rooseveltian understanding of stimulative public investment as general welfare in line with the thinking of another abolitionist Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton). Meanwhile, a much more famous Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, wrote the Declaration of Independence, which delineates instead an individualist conception of liberty, and he was an apologist for slavery now notorious for his exploitation and abuse of slaves.

Of course, the assertively individualist, agrarian-feudalist "democracy" of Jefferson -- that is, individualist in the form of a distraction from or outright denial of social interdependence; that is, democracy in the form of plutocratic, slave-holding anti-democracy -- has long held ideological sway over the American public imaginary, especially in moments when Americans seek to rationalize their avowed democracy with their anti-democratic sins and crimes. (Given this blog's usual preoccupation with reactionary "tech" discourse and corporate-militarist futurology, allow a parenthetic reminder of the special indispensability of these Jeffersonian formulations to neoliberal venture-capitalist "tech culture" from the California Ideology, to Barlow's so-called Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, to the abiding metaphor of the Electronic Frontier.) But whatever the rhetorical priority of the Jeffersonian formulation of liberty it is the Constitutional Morrisonian formulation of liberty that has primary legal standing. And of these historically competing American ideologies of liberty, it is the Constitutional version that also seems to me by far the most philosophically sound, practically sustainable, and authentically American.

Just as the historical emergence and consolidation of the American "free enterprise" was predicated on the quintessentially unfree system of chattel slavery, so too the ongoing ideology of free enterprise depends on fantasies of voluntary contracts the terms of which are too often actually duressed by the unequal knowledge, unequal precarity, and unequal access to cultural and infrastructural affordances of the participants in the contract as also the eventual profitability of free enterprise depends on socializing the risks and costs of enterprises while privatizing their benefits.

There is a direct connection between the historical fantasy of the historically American individualist who disavows his dependencies on the ritual and material artifice of slavery, wage slavery, and unpaid domestic labor and the present-day fever dream of the white-racist patriarchal "Real American" individualist for whom the Open-Carried weapon is the ruggedizing cyborg shell that disavows interdependence to "stand its ground" on an American Homeland geography resonating with the history of native American genocide, slavery, sex-panics, anti-immigration mobs, drug-war hysteria, postwar militarism, and post-9/11 security state insecurity. The feudal Jeffersonian conception of possessive individualist liberty resonates still in the "Castle Doctrine" so cherished by gun culture, in which the individual and his gun is figuratively transformed into a feudal castle "standing its ground" on an anarchic terrain of lawless warlords -- and, no doubt, damsels in distress -- the all too familiar imaginative recourse of Confederate slave-masters of whom Jefferson was a precursor and market libertarian ideologues for whom Jefferson remains a paragon.

The Morrisonian Preamble to the Constitution endorsed the crucial premise of the Jeffersonian Declaration that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" with the frame "We the People… in order to form a more perfect Union… ordain and establish this Constitution." After the conspicuous failure of the radically minarchist "Articles of Confederation," Morris proceeds with his fellow delegates to institute a federal form for that just and consensual government (as Jefferson hesitated to do in principle but then did with gusto in his Presidential practice, of course). Against the individualist spontaneism of the Declaration and failed Articles, the Morrisonian Preamble elaborates the public constitution of the Union from which alone can flow the "blessings of liberty," the "establish[ment] of justice… domestic tranquility… common defense… and [the] promot[ion of] general welfare." It is not until the Fourteenth Amendment ensuring birthright citizenship and universal equitable recourse to the administration of justice in principle that the Constitution doctrinally admitted (as, needless to say, it has never fully or consistently managed to do in actual practice to this day) the third plank in the uniquely American conception of liberty, that America is a nation of immigrants and the exercise of its liberty is invigorated by the diversity of its stakeholders.

It is no surprise that gun culture is connected so regularly with the politics of white-supremacy, nor that self-described patriots and even law enforcement personnel allied with this gun culture are connected so regularly with nullification strategies and secessionist rhetoric and hostility to birthright citizenship. In their specifically American form, racist white supremacy and libertarian spontaneous order are of a piece historically, culturally, and conceptually. Understanding these connections is indispensable to resisting them here, but doing so also provides uniquely American resources for hope. Just as feminist and anti-racist work are both clarified and strengthened by grasping their intersectionalities, so too gun safety advocacy and community policing work and Black Lives Matter movements are clarified and strengthened by grasping theirs. Gun safety activism both practically and intellectually facilitates activism against the drug war, the school to prison pipeline, the abuse-to-prison pipeline, for-profit prisons, police militarization, bloated military budgets, and for community policing reform, structural racism education, work to expose and end sexual violence, and all and each for the others as well.

None of the preceding is offered up to imply that the aristocratic Gouverneur Morris was without great faults any more than to deny that the radical Thomas Jefferson had his strengths, but the distinction I have drawn between them is meant to highlight an early and abiding contest between negative and positive, private and public conceptions of liberty that help elaborate connections between gun control, community policing, immigration politics today that clarify stakes and identify allies. Gun safety regulation "in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity" is also a struggle to clarify and implement the American Constitutional conception of a positive liberty indispensably indebted to accountable/consensual governance, public investment in common goods, and the critical, creative, constructive dynamism of stakeholder diversity. American gun violence today is an exceptional outrage, as our solution to it tomorrow could provide an exceptional illumination to ourselves and our posterity.

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