It’s been a while since Jonathan and I got into a scrap on Dial M. I kind of missed it. Whatever else may be said about Jonathan, he’s a fighter, and I like that about him. A couple of people have emailed me to express alarm at his recent post, but I don’t mind it when Jonathan takes a swing at me. Anyway, I started it.
I’m not actually going to respond directly to a lot of Jonathan’s points, partly because I actually agree with a lot of them.* Main point of agreement: it is stupid and obnoxious to tell people who are being targeted by organized and weaponized hate to love their enemies. My attitude on this score is actually far more militant than you might expect. My Mum posted a comment here that compares my stance to Obama’s, which is very nice but is the kind of thing a loving and indulgent mother would think about her boy. My real position is much closer to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. (Sorry, Mum.)
A lot of people forget or never knew that “for Self-Defense” was the other half of the BPP’s official name. The BPP formed when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale hit upon an action they could take in response to police brutality. (Who are you going to call when cops are terrorizing your community? The cops?) The idea was simple: California laws at the time (as in most states today) allow for the “open carry” of firearms so long as they are not brandished at anyone in particular and obey certain safety protocols. The Panthers memorably put this strategy into action when they descended on the state capitol en masse, bristling with guns.**
Point Seven of the BPP’s “What We Believe” statement reads,
We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
I don’t really disagree with any of this. If the state is corrupted — and yes, I think there is good reason to suppose that it has been or shortly will be — and can no longer be trusted to safeguard the lives and freedoms of all its citizens … well, that’s what the 2nd amendment is for, isn’t it?
I know I’m not the first person to think this since November.*** The traditional (i.e. very conservative) gun community heaved a huge sign of relief when Trump was elected, and yet Black Friday saw the biggest single-day number of NICS background checks ever. Why? Hard to say quite yet, but it seems as if a lot of progressives — even fervently anti-gun progressives — are starting to realize that posting angry blog posts is not going to help them if and when the SHTF. We all hope the S doesn’t hit the F. But what if it does? That is what Jonathan’s original post was about. The academic’s usual answer to everything — keep the conversation going! — doesn’t seem quite good enough anymore. I strongly agree with Jonathan that the dumb Leonard Bernstein quote you see everywhere (“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before”) is worse than useless. It’s hard to get your embouchure right when someone is kicking the teeth out of your face. And I also agree with Jonathan that crossing our fingers and hoping for the best is no answer at all.
But the obvious and logical conclusion to the question what if the worst does happen — that if you can’t rely on the authorities you have to rely on yourself and your people — does not come easily to latter-day progressives. So everywhere we see a cataract of rage and loathing (of which Jonathan’s original post is a specimen) that comes, I think, of people stuck between the rock of a dire situation and the hard place of learned prohibitions and taboos that keep them from doing anything about it, except more and angrier talking. On the whole, we academics do not speak softly and carry a big stick; we speak loudly and constantly and carry no stick at all. Which, if and when the SHTF, is a bad strategy.
Long story short, I believe in the rights of threatened communities to defend themselves against tyranny. Now, I need to say a few things by way of qualification. No, I’m not advocating violence or lawlessness. No, I don’t think everyone should go out and buy a gun. No, I don’t own a gun. Yes, I know that guns are dangerous and a lot of American lives are lost unnecessarily because of them. No, I don’t think things are exactly the same, now, in 2017, as they were in Oakland in 1966. No, I’m not defending everything the Panthers did. And I’m not even saying that things are at a pass when progressives and members of threatened communities (African American, Jewish, LGBTQ, Muslim, etc.) should assume it’s time to arm up. Since I don’t belong to any of those communities, it’s not my business to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do.
If you are lucky enough not to be an easy target of hate crimes — if , for example, you are a straight Anglo-Canadian guy — what is your responsibility? I won’t pretend to know what would happen if I were witness to, say, someone trying to tear a hijab from a Muslim woman’s head. I would like to imagine that I would bravely intervene, though when people are thrown into sudden, unpredictable, violent situations, they usually freeze. I know what my responsibility is, though, and that is to do something, to act. And once you face that responsibility, the question becomes, what will you do? I am thinking long and hard about this question, and I think that the value of Jonathan’s post (leaving aside the rhetoric, which, sorry, I still think is pretty ugly) lies in the fact that he, at least, is trying to answer that question.
So I am not urging a turn-the-other-cheek approach here. On the contrary, I am urging self-defense and solidarity. But aren’t I contradicting myself? Wasn’t I saying that we should be nice to the all the White Supremacists and homophobes?
No. We should treat our friends as friends and our enemies as enemies. But just as it’s a bad idea to approach a crisis with loud shit-talking and no credible means of backing it up, it’s also a bad idea to proclaim, at the outset, on general principles, that all red-state Americans are our enemies, especially if we don’t actually know any. Right now, we need all the allies we can get.
This is my problem with Jonathan’s original post. He suggests that about half the electorate is our enemy, unworthy of the minimal baseline respect and obligations owed to fellow Americans. No, about half the electorate voted for Trump. A few of those people have been emboldened by Trump’s victory to commit hate crimes. I’m guessing that a small but nontrivial number of Trump voters would love to commit some hate crimes if they had half a chance. But unless someone gives me actual evidence to the contrary, I believe that this country is full of people who didn’t vote for our preferred candidate and yet would be fighting right along with us if the government sent its attack dogs after us. I know Jonathan doesn’t agree, and the example of the Third Reich (or, more recently, Rwanda) does offer the dismal spectacle of neighbors who were friendly and decent right up to the point they weren’t. Maybe I am being naïve.
But allowing my hatred of Trump (and yes, I really hate that guy, to a degree that sometimes makes me feel physically sick) to turn into a hatred of people who voted for him … that feels like capitulation to his barbarism. It feels like I’m playing someone else’s game, like I’m being played for a sucker. Given what recent intelligence leaks tell us, it’s quite possible that we are being tricked into playing someone else’s game — someone who does not mean the United States well.
This is why I brought up that stuff about Beethoven, Prometheus, etc. It is possible to have a hard-ass, come-at-me-bro attitude that is nonetheless not tinctured by bitterness and hatred, and the best responses I’ve seen (among younger people especially) are of this sort.
Well, this post should put the cat among the pigeons. Looking forward to reading all temperate and well-reasoned responses.
Of course, the guy who has dropped far more S- and F-bombs etc. on our blog than I have—for style reasons, doubtless—may want to show a tad more restraint in talking about “rhetoric,”
is a particularly lame attempt at tu quoque. But fuck it, I have other fish to fry.
**Interestingly, one of the first modern gun control bills (the Mulford Act) was drafted expressly to thwart this tactic. It is richly ironic that the NRA was happy to back this measure. This thought should give pause to modern-day progressives who want strict gun control; there is an argument to be made that, in the United States, prohibitions on private ownership of weapons have always been a tool of racist authoritarianism.
***A few data points:
- The BBC reports that progressives are suddenly buying a lot of guns. This article quotes a spokesperson for the Liberal Gun Club (did you even know this existed?) saying that they have seen a 10% spike in paid memberships.
- In the wake of Ferguson, a Philadelphia activist named Maj Toure formed a group called Black Guns Matter, which is a good deal more moderate the the BPP but which nevertheless agrees with them that “the best way to combat police brutality is to get armed.” BGM has gotten support from some unlikely places, including the NRA.
- The Pink Pistols (motto: pick on someone your own caliber), a group that supports LGBTQ people who conceal-carry in order to protect themselves from hate crimes, has experienced a huge surge in membership since the Orlando shooting. Operation Blazing Sword has compiled and mapped a huge list of LGBTQ-friendly firearms instructors.
None of this proves anything, except that issues around gun ownership in the U.S. are a lot more complex than either the Left or the Right is willing to recognize.