Individualism, Collectivism, and Newtown

I began THE NEW HATE with a famous quote from Thomas Paine’s THE CRISIS:

‘Tis suprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered… They sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world.

Such, I submit, has been the case with Newtown–it has shocked some professional pundits so thoroughly that their inner censors failed them. Horror can be as good as a Rorschach test.

Prayer in school is an issue that is near to the hearts of Huckabee and Fischer, who I quoted on Newtown a couple of posts ago. They are Dominionists; in essence, they believe that the Constitution stands in the way of the establishment of a Christian theocracy. When Huckabee was on the campaign trail in Michigan in 2008, he said, “I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God…What we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards.”

Over at the NRO, Charlotte Allen, the author of The Human Christ , seized on two issues: the lack of testosterone at Sandy Hook Elementary (“a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel”) and the late Mrs. Lanza’s coddling of her mentally ill son (“you simply can’t give a non-working, non-school-enrolled 20-year-old man free range of your home, much less your cache of weapons. You have to set boundaries,” she scolded the dead woman. “Unfortunately, the idea of being an ‘adult’ and a ‘man’ once one has reached physical maturity seems to have faded out of our coddling culture”). I’m sure she would have had her own children committed or kept in restraints in a heartbeat.

The Tea Party Nation’s Timothy Birdnow hit every theme of the rightwing culture war (except, oddly enough, gay marriage) in his initial response: he blamed the “therapeutic culture,” “cultural relativism,” the “refusal to recognize Evil as a Transcendent thing,” but mostly the faculty and administrators of the school.

Maybe if they had spanked their students, he opined, they would still be alive. They certainly would be if their parents hadn’t sent them to public school to be indoctrinated in Godless secularism in the first place, if they had been homeschooled. He lists a number of steps to prevent the next Newtown, among them the passage of right to work legislation (teachers unions promote liberal group think in the classroom); ending mealy-mouthed political correctness (“for far too long we have tiptoed around these issues, fearful of being branded a racist. If black thugs kidnap and rape a woman, ask if there is something in the black culture that fostered that. If an evil white kid murders a bunch of children at the school, ask the same question of the white community”); stopping the media from glorifying school killers; more public anger (as if there isn’t enough of that!); less sex on television and the Internet and more modest clothing (“there is a reason why young people commit these sorts of crimes, and sex plays no small part. Their passions are eternally inflamed, and they wander the Earth with no outlet for their overstimulated glands”); less pot smoking; plus, schools should hire responsible, cool-headed armed security guards to stand guard (“had George Zimmerman been at the front door,” he wrote without a trace of irony, “those children would still be alive”). Finally, everyone should attend church.

Virginia Delegate Robert G. Marshall is proposing legislation that would require that some members of school staffs be required to bear arms. Though the legislation is unlikely to pass, he’s not alone.

“I would be very supportive of the idea that properly trained teachers could carry concealed firearms,” said Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun). “There’s no way you’d have 20 innocent children gunned down if you had teachers who could help to defend themselves.”

Philip Van Cleave, who heads the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he would like to see the state eliminate the gun-free zones surrounding schools. As an interim step, he would support arming teachers and other staff.

“We’d prefer to just see that [gun-free zone] go away, not just [for] teachers but even parents or whoever,” he said. “They’re carrying everywhere else. Why do we not trust them on school grounds? Gun-free zones don’t work, and telling people with permits they can’t carry on school property — the people you don’t want carrying on school property don’t have permits.”

The same people who begrudge public schools every nickel for textbooks, who want to voucher them out of existence, are willing to expend all kinds of resources to militarize them. Suburban schools like Newtown, anyway. Inner city schools already have all the metal detectors and armed guards they need.

As bizarre as it might seem to be militarizing our elementary schools, remember that for half a century, the fate of pretty much the whole world hung on an arms race and the doctrine of MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction. Doctor Strangeloves at RAND and other institutes created complex war game scenarios to calculate the odds of survival–and the military industrial complex ground out more and more complex and redundant weaponry to improve them. If the enemy has developed an anti-missile technology, you deploy a vehicle that scatters more warheads that could possibly be shot down as it re-enters the atmosphere, any one of which is big enough to wreak unimaginable destruction. The idea is to ratchet up the costs of war to an intolerable level. Retaliation has to be so sure and certain that even the boldest adversary won’t dare to strike first.

The “more guns less crime” school of thought imagines criminals as so many warring states, probing the enemy for its weaknesses, choosing the most optimal times and places to attack, while protecting their lines of retreat. As rational actors, they seek out the most vulnerable people and places for their victims. As John R. Lott said of the Aurora killer, it was clearly no accident that he chose the only theater in the neighborhood that had a “no firearms” policy; gun-free zones empower killers. That’s why the Gun Owners of America’s Larry Pratt wrote that “blood is on the hands of members of Congress and the Connecticut legislators who voted to ban guns from all schools in Connecticut (and most other states). They are the ones who made it illegal to defend oneself with a gun in a school when that is the only effective way of resisting a gunman.”

If spree killers and school shooters were conventional criminals, there might be some sense in this point of view–at least from a strategic, RAND Corporation type perspective. But school shooters and spree killers pretty much by definition aren’t rational at all. They are lucid enough to plan their crimes, but they don’t have conventional motives; often they don’t care if they get out alive. If they were nation states, they would be rogues–suicidal terrorists that strike first, heedless of (or maybe because of) the enemy’s doomsday retaliation strategy.

But the bedrock issues that the Newtown Rorschach test exposes are only incidentally about guns. What they really turn on is the definition of citizenship and civil society.

Gun control advocates weigh a literalist interpretations of the Second Amendment against its most obvious costs–sky high firearm mortality rates, much higher than any other country in the developed world, whether because of deliberate criminal acts, crimes of passion, accidents and suicides. If the Second Amendment represents a personal freedom, it is one they are willing to curtail for the greater good.

Gun advocates look at the same statistics and declare that all those dead and wounded are not just an acceptable cost of freedom, but an inevitable feature of life anywhere. Besides, they argue, pointing to their own proprietary statistics that tot up crimes prevented and lives saved, there would be a lot more bodies if you took legal guns away. The gun lobby not only suffers from epistemic closure itself–it works relentlessly to impose it on everyone else.

I wonder–especially given some of the quotes I cited above–if there isn’t a theological as well as an actuarial dimension to their thinking. Perhaps, like many Protestants, they believe that people are sinful and wicked by nature and violently inclined, and that personal salvation can only be obtained in the next world, through the blood of Jesus. If you’re looking for safety in the here and now, they might say, then praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.

Yesterday in the car I listened to an interview on NPR with Dr. Richard Land, the director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He wasn’t a nut at all; he seemed like a genuinely thoughtful, feeling man. He said that private gun ownership and Christianity were compatible because of the commandment to “love thy neighbor.” If you see your neighbors being threatened, he said, you are obliged to defend them. When asked what about “turn the other cheek,” he replied that that was a personal choice, one that he would choose for himself, but that the obligation to protect the innocent was paramount. It’s not what I necessarily think of as a “Christian” philosophy, but as not a few of my critics have pointed out, I’m not a Christian.

But getting back to citizenship and civil society, my son Nathan, who is studying political philosophy at Brandeis, put it brilliantly yesterday in one of his Facebook posts:

Even most Libertarians acknowledge that police and an army are a useful thing to have around. Yet now we’re seriously considering building a policy of public safety based on the premise that each man must be his own army, waged in a perpetual war against all. We are turning our backs on even the barest form of social contract and returning to rule by force. It’s disgusting and pathetic. I doubt even Hobbes would have thought that some day government officials would be arguing in favor of returning to the State of Nature.

Hobbes’s war of everyone against everyone, in which life was “nasty, brutish, and short” described the state of nature, before civil societies and religions were established. The social contract that made civil society possible, Hobbes believed, turned on an even exchange of individual freedom for safety, of chaos for order. As he wrote in Book Two, Chapter XVII of Leviathan:

THE final cause, end, or design of men (who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in Commonwealths, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as hath been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants.

I suspect that we are really talking about when we talk about gun control is what we argue about the most in this country: individualism versus collectivism, the hardscrabble rights of the one as opposed to the softer desire for the safety, security, and comfort of the many. The way Ron Paul put it after the Giffords shooting, the latter is not so much a “choice” as a dangerous temptation: “politicians and a complicit media have conditioned many citizens to view government as our protector, leading to more demands for government action whenever tragedies occur. But this impulse is at odds with the best American traditions of self-reliance and individualism, and it also leads to bad laws and the loss of liberty.”

This brings us back to Thomas Paine, who famously wrote in Common Sense that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

Of course, it always helps to consider a quote like this one in its context. Unlike Hobbes, Paine (who was a freethinker), believed that man in his natural state was not innately sinful and vile and vicious, but amiable and sociable. But people are not perfect, and as societies get bigger, their natural ties are attenuated. “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence,” Paine wrote. “The palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise.” The worst form of government is the least representative, a monarchy; the best is that which is the most democratic, the most responsive to the people. Thus government is a “mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. Freedom and security.”

Not freedom versus security, notice. Both.

5 thoughts on “Individualism, Collectivism, and Newtown

  1. I have been saying over and over again after incidents like this occur that when we don’t take care of our most vulnerable and needy members of society -we lose our safety and very civilization. You can’t make a solution for a reaction.Guns are not solutions they are weapons and tools of reaction. I think on Novermber 6th we started to move away from the stupidity, ignorance and all out bigotry which I think started when Reagan entered the White House. The barbarians are not at the gate as they were in the Roman Empire-they are among us.

  2. Arthur: The Dominionists find an ally in the Birch Society.

    As the John Birch Society put it in their April 2011 Bulletin:

    “The history of the socialist movement in the U.S. is one of advocating mandatory public education. Recall that it is the tenth step toward communizing any country outlined by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto…The aim of the Conspiracy has always been to break down the old social order and replace it with the anti-God system of socialism. Kindergarten was part of the breakdown of the old social order and it included that indoctrination of children at an ever-younger age away from their parents.”

  3. We are no longer living in a frontier nor exist in a society where common citizens with arms are the front line against invasion by a foreign power. And yet, the dominant cultural roots of the United States trace back to the Anglo warlike mentality (and lest anyone question whether this is racist, take a peek at the cultural expressions of the West Frisians), and we continue to hold as ideal the “rugged individualist” who by toughness and courage takes on the world, boldly risking life and limb out of the innate primacy of doing for oneself. Violence is a virtue for the rugged individual; it is the ultimate projection of will.

    Naturally, while romantic, this ideal forgets that at no time in human history has anything truly been done by any individual without the context of other factors, whether they be physical laws, environmental or “natural” forces (i.e. those of birth, which requires a mother), societal influences, and the mutually dependent dynamics of an Earth in homeostasis. Nothing arises nor falls in exclusion from everything else. While free will and individual characteristics do indeed feature prominently in the human landscape, these are not conditions of exclusion, but dependent upon everything else and in a dynamic relationship with everything else. Thus this ideal — while still a powerful motivator for human behavior, especially in our culture — is essentially a false premise. There is a will to power, but human will does not exist in a vacuum.

    We are simply the part of the universe which believes we are distinct from the universe. As long as we continue to delude ourselves in this manner we will continue to reside in a very violent and fruitless plane of existence. How this manifests itself includes such things as random acts of violence and fury.

    What we can do about violence is contain the violence that is within our own minds. Whatever anger we project, no matter how slight, increases the propensity for violence in the world. Violence is not power. Power is overcoming violent tendencies, mastering anger, and recognizing that the concept of self, with all its violent and selfish justifications, is a very convincing delusion.

  4. DOUBLESPEAK! Government provides not more security, but more violence!

    The vast majority of mass shootings are acts of democide – murder by government. 262,000,000 INNOCENT UNARMED CITIZENS MURDERED BY THEIR OWN GOVERNMENTS in the 20th century. Just to give perspective on this incredible murder by government, if all these bodies were laid head to toe, with the average height being 5′, then they would circle the earth ten times. Also, this democide murdered 6 times more people than died in combat? in all the foreign and internal wars of the century.

    Anything that can be said of territorial street gangs can also be said of government.

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