In The Stone yesterday Firmin DeBrabander references Hannah Arendt to buttress his argument for gun control in the wake of the tragic massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve wanted to avoid turning a true tragedy into a political cause, but DeBrabander’s thoughtful essay merits a response.
The thrust of DeBrabander’s reflection is that the presence of guns in society does not promote freedom. He is responding to the pro-gun argument that, in his words, “individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty.” In other words, guns make us independent and give us the power to protect ourselves and thus the freedom to take risks and to live boldly. Against this view he enlists Arendt:
In her book “The Human Condition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that “violence is mute.” According to Arendt, speech dominates and distinguishes the polis, the highest form of human association, which is devoted to the freedom and equality of its component members. Violence — and the threat of it — is a pre-political manner of communication and control, characteristic of undemocratic organizations and hierarchical relationships. For the ancient Athenians who practiced an incipient, albeit limited form of democracy (one that we surely aim to surpass), violence was characteristic of the master-slave relationship, not that of free citizens.
Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.
I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand parts of this argument. First, yes, “violence is mute.” Arendt does insist that violence cannot create conditions of political power. Power, on the contrary, has its roots in speech and action, by which Arendt means that any political regime lives upon the continuing support of its people, something that only persists amidst freedom. Political support does not issue from the barrel of a gun.
DeBrabander’s last point that guns chasten speech is also suspect. Revolutionaries have long found guns helpful, not only because they can kill, but because they command attention. When weaker elements of society have been overlooked or overheard, they have traditionally found weapons and guns a useful megaphone. There are of course other megaphones like civil disobedience. I may prefer the latter to the former. But that doesn’t erase the fact that guns can equalize an unequal political playing field and can, and often are, symbolically important. Political support may not issue from the barrel of a gun, but attention for one’s platform might very well.
But what does any of this have to do with gun violence like what happened in Newtown last week? The muteness of violence in politics that DeBrabander highlights does not mean that Arendt thinks it possible or right to exclude all violence from society. Contra DeBrabander, violence can be associated with freedom. The human fabrication of the natural world—man’s freedom to act into and build upon nature—is a kind of violence. And violence is, at bottom, an often justified and positive human emotional response to injustice. As Arendt writes in just one instance:
In private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this will permit us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or by finding another substitute. The point is that under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd striking dead the man who bore false witness against him is the classic example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.
I am not sure why DeBrabander wants to employ Arendt to oppose violence itself. That is certainly not her point.
What Arendt opposes is the reliance on violence in politics. The massacre in Newtown is not, at least so far as I currently know, an example of political violence. Arendt’s distinction between power and violence and her assertion that mere violence is politically mute seems, quite simply, out of place in the discussion of gun violence.
But Arendt does have something to offer us in our thinking about the excessive dangers of powerful guns. In her essay “On Violence,” Arendt considers the rise of extraordinary new weapons like nuclear and biological weapons and robot warriors. These super-powerful weapons threaten to upend the usual relationship between power and violence. If traditionally the more powerful and hence more free nations were also better able to marshal the implements of violence, the existence of weapons of mass destruction mean that small, weak, and irresponsible nations can now practice violent destruction well beyond their relative power. In short, the existence of excessively destructive weapons elevates the impact of violence over and against power.
The same can be said of the kind of automatic and semi-automatic guns used in the Newtown massacre and other recent attacks. In each of these cases, loners and crazy people have been able to murder and kill with a precision and scope well beyond their individual strength or capacity. Whereas killing 27 people in a school would at one time have required the political savvy of organizing a group of radicals or criminals, today one disturbed person can do outsized and horrific damage.
What might be an Arendtian argument for gun control is based upon the dangerous disconnect between strength and violence that modern weaponry makes possible. When individuals are capable of extraordinary destruction simply by coming to possess a weapon and without having to speak or act in conjunction with others, we are collectively at the mercy of anyone who has a psychotic episode. It is in just such a situation that regulating weapons of mass destruction makes sense (and that is what automatic weapons are).
As for DeBrabander’s larger point about freedom and guns, carrying a gun or owning a gun may at times be a legitimate part of someone’s identity or sense of themselves. It may make some feel safer and may help others feel powerful. Some are repulsed by guns, others fetishize them. I have little stake in a debate about guns since they aren’t part of my life and yet I respect those who find them meaningful in theirs. We should not reject such freedoms outright. What I worry about is not people owning guns, but their owning automatic and semi-automatic weapons capable of mass executions.
Let’s concede that the vast majority of gun owners are good and responsible people, like Adam Lanza’s mother seems to have been. Why in the world do we need to allow anyone to own automatic weapons with large clips holding dozens of bullets? If Adam Lanza had stolen a handgun instead of a semi-automatic, the trail of terror he left would have been shorter and less deadly. We cannot prevent all violence in our world, but we can make political judgments that weapons of mass destruction that put inordinate power in single individuals should be banned.
What Arendt’s thoughts on violence actually help us see is not that we should expel violence from society or that guns are opposed to freedom, but that we should limit the disproportionate and tragic consequences of excessively violent weaponry that dangerously empowers otherwise powerless individuals to exercise massive injuries. We can do that just, as we seek to limit biological and nuclear weapons in the world.
The crisis must matter.
The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.
The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.
It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.
We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.
According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:
We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once. Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.
Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.
Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.
Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.
Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age. It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.
There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.
If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".