Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
11Feb/130

Secondhand Gun Smoke

"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."

Hannah Arendt, On Violence

The instruments that Hannah Arendt refers to in this quote are instruments of violence, that is to say, weapons.  Weapons, which in the main, translates to firearms, make it possible for One to commit acts of violence against All. And this fact has been brought into sharp focus in light of the devastating tragedy of this past December 14th, 2012:  the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a 20-year-old man using a semi-automatic assault rifle that belonged to his mother, the first victim of a killing spree that ended when he turned his weapon on himself and took his own life. The extreme depravity of this incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation, and reports of subsequent shootings of a more commonplace variety have been picked up by the news media, whereas previously they have more often than not been ignored. Fulfilling their function as agenda-setters, journalists have placed gun violence high on the list of national debates, reflecting the outrage of many citizens, as well as the genuine concern of a significant number of leaders and officials in government and organized religion.

Despite the fact that many citizens find the status quo intolerable, and favor legislation that would increase the limitations on the types of weaponry citizens can legally purchase and own, and on the requirements for sale and ownership of firearms, there has been considerable opposition to any form of what is commonly referred to as gun control. That pushback had come from what is sometimes referred to as the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association being the primary organization representing the firearms industry, and citizens who insist that our constitution's second amendment guarantees them the freedom to arm themselves as they see fit. And whereas one side mostly speaks in the language of moderation, arguing for reasonable restrictions on firearms sales, the other tends to speak in an extremist language of absolutes, arguing against any abridgement of rights and freedom, maintaining that gun control legislation is completely ineffective, and that, in the words of NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Fighting fire with fire is not a method favored by firefighters, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and likewise fighting firearms with firearms is a tactic of last resort for putting an end to gun violence. Firefighters stress the importance of prevention, and we certainly are entitled to ask, how can we prevent a bad guy from getting hold of a gun in the first place? When prevention is ineffective, and violence ensues, it may be necessary to engage in further violence as a countermeasure. But even if the result is cessation rather than escalation, the situation already represents a failure and breakdown of the community. As Arendt explains,

the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.

LaPierre's insistence that the only way to stop violence is with violence is not only simplistic in his childish morality of good guys vs. bad guys, but in his view of the situation as being One against One. Again, it would certainly be reasonable to concede the point that violent action on the part of one individual is sometimes required to put an end to violent action on the part of another individual, and such action is authorized on the part of duly appointed representatives of the law, e.g., police. But in acting in the role of police, such individuals are acting as representatives of the All, so that what appears to be One against One is in fact a case of All against One.  But LaPierre's notion of a good guy with a gun is not a police officer—indeed police departments typically favor stricter gun control—but an armed private citizen. In other words, his One against One would exist in a larger context of All against All, everyone armed in defense against everyone else, everyone prepared to engage in violence against everyone else.

That guns are instruments of violence ought to be clear. You cannot cut a steak with a gun. You cannot chop wood with a gun. You cannot excavate a mine with a gun. Unlike knives, axes, and even explosives, firearms have no practical use other than to harm and kill living things. There are recreational applications, granted, but there is nothing new about violence in recreational activities, boxing, wrestling, and fencing all have their origins in antiquity, while eastern martial arts disciplines have grown quite popular in the United States over the past half century, and football has become our most popular sport. It follows that hunting is simply another violent recreational activity, as we are now 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and few if any of us live in the wilderness as nomadic hunter-gatherers.  And target ranges, skeet shooting, and the like, all of which use obvious surrogates for human and animal bodies, are essentially recreational activities, apart from their function in training individuals  how to use firearms.

Instruments of violence, like all tools, are made to be used, and their violence cannot be confined to prescribed targets and situations. So with All against All, everyone lives under the shadow of violence, the possibility of being fired upon serving as a guarantee against bad behavior. From the individual's point of view, everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential menace that must be guarded against. And of course the danger they pose is greatly amplified if they are bearing arms. So peace is achieved through mutual intimidation, and at best a respect based on threat and fear. Under these circumstances, there is no solid foundation for political action based on consensus and cooperation, let alone social cohesion. With All against All, the potential for action taken by All against One is minimized.

Reducing if not eliminating the potential for All against One is central to the ideology of the NRA, for whom the All is not so much everyone else as it is our representatives in positions of authority. Armed private citizens are the good guys with guns, and it is not only the "criminals and crazies" who are bad guys, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the government. Ignoring the fact that historically, the second amendment was understood as granting individual states in the union the right to create militias in the absence of a standing federal army, gun advocates invoke "the right to bear arms" as a check against government tyranny, insisting that they are entitled to the same right to revolution that was claimed by the founders of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. That the Confederate states invoked the same right in seceding from the Union, igniting a debate settled by the most violent of means, is of little import it seems. The Civil War apparently did not end with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but merely underwent a transformation into a subtle insurgency movement that continues to this day. This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast majority of American citizens, including the multitudes that flocked to movie theaters in recent months to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

Arendt drives home the point that violence exists in inverse relationship to power.  Power is derived from the All, from the consent and agreement of the governed, the source of political legitimacy. Power is the ability to achieve goals without the use of violence. When governments are forced to resort to violence, it reflects a loss of power, one that is difficult to reclaim, and may ultimately result in that governments demise. Violence can destroy power, that is the lesson of revolution, but it cannot create power, only political action can. It follows that gun advocates see the second amendment as curbing the power of government, thereby empowering the individual. That sense of power is something of a chimera, however, for as soon as firearms are used, their power dissipates. If they are used against another private citizen, even a so-called bad guy, the user will have to answer to the legal system, and may be found guilty of unlawful action, or subject to civil liability. If they are used against a government official, the user will sooner or later discover that he (or she, but almost always it is a he) is outgunned, that One against All may only succeed in the short-term but will eventually fall to the vastly superior firepower of organized authorities.

American society, like all societies, looks to a set of values that, upon close inspection, holds logical contradictions, values that, from a distance, appear to be psychologically consistent with each other. We value the individual, and adhere to the most extreme form of individualism of any western society, but we also value the community. We seek a balance between the two, but ultimately they come in conflict with one another, the One vs. the All.  And we value freedom, but we also value equality. Both seem fundamental, but freedom includes the freedom to excel, to dominate, to gain an advantage, enforce and reinforce inequity, while any effort to be truly egalitarian requires restrictions on those freedoms. Moreover, we believe in capitalism, free enterprise as it were, but also in democracy, the American way, politically-speaking, and we assume the two can co-exist without discord. But capitalism is inherently undemocratic, favoring oligarchies and the absence of government regulation and oversight, whereas the exercise of democracy extends to policies that affect and constrain economic and financial activities, and the organization and conduct of business.

In the past, Americans have slightly favored the individual, freedom, and capitalism, all of which are aligned with one another, over the community, equality, and democracy, although the emphasis has shifted somewhat depending on circumstances (for example, during wartime, we become increasingly more likely to rally around the values of community and equality, and belief in democracy). To put it into Arendt's more succinct terms, we try to find a balance between the One and the All, but to the extent that the two are in conflict, we lean a bit towards the One.

In favoring the One, we tolerate the One against All, the result being that we are scarred by gun violence to a degree vastly out of proportion with other western societies. For gun advocates, gun ownership is an individual right and an essential freedom that must not be abridged. Never mind the fact that "the right to bear arms" is rarely found on any listing of basic human rights, as opposed to the right to live in safety and security, free from fear and threat, a right that gun ownership jeopardizes at least as much as it protects. And never mind the fact that our first amendment freedoms are subject to significant limitations and governed by legislation, and those freedoms are listed in a clear and unequivocal manner, in contrast to the second amendment's convoluted and confused diction ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"). It is also interesting to note that gun advocates like LaPierre do not hesitate to try to shift the focus onto the first amendment, blaming violence in film, television programming, and videogames for incidents like the Newtown shooting. And what is often downplayed is that the gun lobby, in resisting all attempts at gun control, are defending the interests of the gun industry, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms. Of course, it is hard to play up the importance of free enterprise in the wake of the murder of elementary school children.

In their radical views on the second amendment, and their absolute embrace of individual freedom and capitalism against the interests of community, equality, and democracy, gun ideologues like LaPierre insist on the supremacy of One against All, and it is not surprising that the result is an extreme form of violence.  And, as I noted earlier, leaders representing the interests of the All against the One tend to speak, naturally enough, in the language of practical politics operating within a democratic form of government, the language of negotiation and compromise, but find themselves confronted on the other side with the abstract absolutes characteristic of the language of ideology. You might say, what we got here is a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, although the two sides probably understand each other better than they let on.

The ideologues know that if they refuse to blink first, the compromisers will most likely give up and move on to more pressing matters. And the compromisers know that the ideologues refusal to negotiate gives them an excuse to turn away from a divisive issue that may cost them a measure of support in the next election, and deal with more pressing matters with a greater probability of reaching a successful conclusion. Only now, after Newtown, is there talk of having reached a tipping point in public opinion, one that may pressure the compromisers to insist upon a settlement, and may force the ideologues to accept the pragmatic need for negotiation. The likely outcome is that the ideologues will make some minor concessions, allowing for some small progress on gun control, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a far cry from the measures needed to curb the high incidence of gun violence in the United States.

Change will come, because the alternative is intolerable. To the extent that we live in increasingly denser populated areas, in urban sprawl rather than rural isolation, so that the consequences of violent action become increasingly more catastrophic, we require more civilized, more civil living conditions, the insurance against violence that can only come from the power of organized authority subject to political oversight, not private citizens responsible only to themselves. To live in a society of All against All is ultimately regressive, and can only make sense if the social system disintegrates, a remote possibility that cannot be balanced against the actuality of incident after incident of gun violence.

Change will come, but it may only come gradually, given our cultural bias towards the One against All, and it may only come generationally.  Over the past half century, Americans have become increasingly more risk aversive, as more information about potential risks to health and safety have been made available through the electronic media. However, as Henry Perkinson argues in No Safety in Numbers, it is the risks that we have no control over that we are particularly averse to. When the risk is perceived as a matter of individual choice, an expression of personal freedom, we are less averse to it than when it is understood to fall outside of our locus of control. Prohibition is often invoked as the archetype of failed measures to eliminate harmful behavior, and the word prohibition is often thrown into discussions on gun control and similar measures in order to summon up those negative connotations. Despite the potential risks to health and safety from alcoholic inebriation, over-consumption, and addiction, drinking was seen as an exercise of free will, and therefore acceptable. It was only with the campaign against drinking and driving that the locus of risk was shifted from the individual consuming intoxicating beverages to the innocent victims of drunk driving, accident victims who had no choice in the matter, whose freedom was in fact curtailed by the drinker. The same is true of tobacco.

Once medical research established that smoking causes emphysema, heart disease, and cancer, modest change in American smoking habits ensued. It was not until the findings about secondhand smoke were established that real cultural change took place, a truly extraordinary shift in attitudes and behavior about smoking. The key was that secondhand smoke exposed individuals to risks that they had no control over, risks that they were subjected to against their own volition.

While this form of risk-aversion is relatively recent, a more basic understanding that permeates American society is that individuals can exercise their freedoms as long as those freedoms do not jeopardize others. The early assertion of a right to own slaves could only persist insofar as individuals were willing to view the enslaved as somehow less than fully human; otherwise the freedom to enslave clearly cannot justify the denial of another individual's freedom. Similarly, free enterprise and free markets, the freedom of individuals to engage in any kind of business and labor practices they might chose to, eventually was understood to conflict with the rights of labor, of workers and employees, as well as the rights of consumers, so that the freedom of capitalism is subject to constraints imposed in the interests of the community and democracy.

In the face of the violence of One against All, what is needed is the power, in the positive sense of democratic political action, of All against One. The power of public opinion and a growing consensus will serve as a bulletproof vest to protect the body politic from assault by the weapons industry and gun ideologues. And the best place to begin is by talking about the dangers that uncontrolled access to firearms pose to citizens who do not choose to live with these instruments of violence, citizens whose freedoms and rights and very lives are put at risk without their consent, citizens who all are victims of secondhand gun smoke.

-Lance Strate

 

18Dec/121

Arendt & Gun Control

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.

-RB

28Sep/120

The Crisis Must Matter

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".

-RB