A lineup of hot-button issues has plagued the political life of the United States for decades, at least since the 1970s: abortion, sexualities, religion, evolution, censorship, recreational drugs, guns. An odd list on the face of it, but supposedly, the nation’s population divides into one of two camps over each issue, or so sociologist James Davison Hunter influentially claimed in Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991). If a person opposes abortion, we should be able to predict that they’ll oppose recreational drug use, GLBT sexualities, and erotic imagery in the media, and they’ll probably tote a gun.
I’m one of the few anthropologists who has actually looked for this predicted creature “in the field.” After 18 years of research, I must report that I have not found it, not yet anyway. At this point, my professional opinion is that it’s a bogeyman. Real U.S. citizens do not line up so predictably on the “culture war” front.
I’m not saying that there are no gun-toting rednecks out there, but rather that they are probably as likely as anyone to try recreational drugs or peep at porn on the Internet. I’m saying that perceiving the population through the lens of the “culture wars” reduces a vast cultural field of conservative pulls and experimental tugs in every direction, to a two-dimensional cartoon. Looking through that lens, we can imagine the worst about the people around us, and even despair of democracy altogether.
In the 1990s, as Hunter’s book was hitting the stores, I dove headfirst into the belly of the beast, setting up in central New York State, where I could study flag-waving, guntoting conservatives at close range. I expected to find the people I was educated to find, the people who blocked progressive reform, complacent, mired in the ignorance of outdated views. I reasoned that capital flight, out-sourcing, and massive job loss would surely have cracked the shell of complacency in which conservative ignorance could fester.
Instead I found working-class conservatives with long memories—informed, opinionated, and ready to talk. I found a grassroots conservatism, not dulled, but sharpened by the return of hard times and different in many particulars from the “culture wars” template.
My base of operations was Ilion, New York, a small manufacturing center in a depressed Rustbelt region. Ilion has been the hometown of the Remington Arms company since the 1820s. Nearly every adult in the region, man and woman, is a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) or a sympathizer with its aims.
As it happens in ethnographic fieldwork, the people I was studying were also studying me. They quickly nailed me as a gunhating liberal and needled me about it with what sounded like NRA boilerplate. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” they said, and “If guns are illegal only criminals will have guns.”
Over the months I observed how they handled firearms and talked about them— respectfully, even reverently. I explained it to myself in the terms I was trained to use: it’s fetishization, attributing living qualities to an inanimate object. Well, why wouldn’t they fetishize guns, considering their position? The situation for most households is unrelieved, nerve-wracking insecurity. They have no say in the decisions that govern their livelihoods. They are politically weak, and they know it. When you’re “the little guy” at the mercy of the “big guys,” guns become a symbol of strength, the great equalizer. In an area where they are readily available, guns too can be weapons of the weak. Locked up in a drawer or closet, as they usually were among the people I studied, guns symbolize a hidden reserve of power.
Then one night I found myself in an excited conversation with a group of local activists about the harassment several of them had experienced at the hands of local police and government officials. One man said in mock exasperation that he was just about ready to blow some heads off. Others chimed in with their own fantasies of decisive force, and suddenly I caught their point of view. It wasn’t exactly the NRA slogan, “If guns are illegal only criminals will have guns.” It was more like, “If guns are illegal only police will have guns.” The danger they were looking at was not from criminals but from “the government”—the State.
Reasons of State
Working-class conservatives’ suspicion of the state does not represent ignorance but conservatism, in the basic sense of cultural conservation. Anti-statism was a political cornerstone of the United States from its formation and for more than a century. As everyone knew in those days, states are predisposed to tyranny. To avoid that outcome, the founding generation insisted on adding a Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution—the list of things that the State may not do, including disarm its citizens.
States have long tried to keep weapons out of the hands of “dangerous classes” (often made dangerous by actions of said State). A sword in the belt was the mark of a “gentleman” because the State did not permit “commoners” to bear swords. Firearms law under the British Empire followed this ancient pattern, effectively limiting the right to bear arms to “gentlemen.”
In liberating itself from that empire, the United States’ founding generation turned to republicanism, the radical European political theory of the 1700s. Republicanism called for a state in which sovereignty resided not in a monarch but in “the people,” each vested with “natural rights.” These were popular political ideas in the colonies. Republican thought connected popular sovereignty with a broad right to bear arms. Cato’s Letters of the 1720s, a foundational text of Anglophone republicanism, saw “the Exercise of despotick Power” as “the unrelenting War of an armed Tyrant upon his unarmed subjects.”
In the heat of the American Revolution, “commoners” made a claim to equality with real teeth: the right of all free men to bear arms. Their claim prevailed because the Revolution could not have been fought without “commoner” soldiers, tradesmen, and farmers.
At the First Congress in 1789, legislative debate around the Second Amendment to the Constitution heated up from time to time, but never questioned the right to bear arms itself. The hot-button issue was the role of militias. Democratically inclined leaders wanted the Second Amendment to prohibit “standing armies,” that great tool of tyrants, except in times of war. “What, Sir, is the use of a militia?” demanded Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts on a hot August 14. ”It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty!”
In historical context there can be no question that the U.S. Constitution recognizes a right to bear arms for all free men (implicitly including women), both for the “natural right” of self defense, and for collective self defense against State tyranny. Bearing arms ceased to signify “gentleman” in contrast to “commoner” but it picked up another symbolic task, signifying free as opposed to enslaved, a contrast that the country’s earliest gun-control policies strictly policed.
The Gun-Rights Side
Gun-rights advocates still draw on republican tradition. At the surface of their appeals is the less controversial claim, the natural right to self-defense. This finds voice in emotional tales of crime and criminals, all to illustrate that firearms are necessary for the defense of life and property. But under the surface, just as I found in central New York, is an appeal to the controversial side of republican tradition, in which a collective right to bear arms is the ultimate guarantee of popular sovereignty. The Web site of a nonprofit called the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), for example, ends a long FAQ about crime and self-defense this way:
Finally, the founding fathers believed that gun ownership was necessary for a country to truly be free. If the government distrusted the people so much as to disarm them, then that government no longer truly represented the people. In other words, in our structure of government, the power is supposed to lie in the hands of the people.
Another example, a blog by gun-rights activist Theodore Lang, tells several hairraising stories of policing gone horribly wrong, to make a point: if you think that the police will protect you, you are “encased within the imaginary bliss of police state security.” Then the argument shifts. Contemplating “the despotic, secret and criminal activities of the present regime inside the Beltway” (he meant George W. Bush’s), Lang ends on a note of fiery republicanism:
What possible last resort is available to a people oppressed by statist tyranny if not to use its own force to throttle such despotism?
As with the SAF example, the clincher assumes that the ultimate political problem is collective self-defense against State tyranny.
A final example, found all over the gunloving Web (24,900 hits in Google on 11/12/09), pushes the collective self-defense argument to mythic proportions. “A Little Gun Control History” argues that the hidden history of 20th century genocide is the in-ability of stigmatized groups to defend themselves. The Web site reads:
“The Soviet Union established gun control in 1929. From 1929 to 1953, about 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Turkey established gun control in 1911. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Germany established gun control in 1938. From 1939 to 1945, a total of 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated.
… [likewise China, Guatemala, Uganda, and Cambodia]
With guns, we are “citizens.” Wthout them, we are “subjects.”
The Gun-Control Side
Before the 20th century, gun control laws in the United States were usually aimed at African Americans. The liminal category of free blacks was a special target for enforcement. After the Civil War all African Americans became “dangerous” in the eyes of the State. The so-called Black Codes, later known as Jim Crow Laws, effectively disarmed African Americans in the South.
In the early 20th century, the stigma spread to new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. New York’s groundbreaking Sullivan Law regulated handguns for all law-abiding citizens, but in the long effort to get it passed, proponents used images of hot-tempered foreigners to recruit support. A January 27, 1905, New York Times editorial supported a ban on all concealable weapons in these terms:
[The proposed] measure would prove corrective and salutary in a city filled with immigrants and evil communications, floating from the shores of Italy and Austria-Hungary. … Italian and other south Continental gentry here are acquainted with the pocket pistol, and while drunk or merrymaking will use it quite as handily as the stiletto. … It is hoped that this … mode of settling disputes may not spread to corrupt the native good manners of the community.
The measure, effectively a handgun ban for all but the wealthy and connected, passed in 1911, after the fatal shootings of a New York City mayor and well-known muckraking journalist David Graham Phillips seemed to establish the existence of a threat.
In those days the Left uncompromisingly opposed gun control. Socialist Labor Party leader Daniel De Leon, for example, attacked the Sullivan Law on the front page of the Daily People (October 3, 1911)—in the venerable terms of republican tradition.
The Sullivan Law is a midnight burglarious attempt upon the freedom of the citizen and residents generally, their right “to KEEP and bear” arms;—it is a backstairs manoeuvre to place the State under martial law. … Even if it were not unconstitutional, the Sullivan law should be opposed tooth and nail as a scheme of tyranny.
Federal gun control laws followed. First, under the Progressive government of Wood – row Wilson, was a 1919 excise tax that raised the price of firearms, then a 1927 ban on mail-order guns through the U.S. Post Office. (Private shipping was OK.) Both measures had the socially engineered effect of reducing the availability of guns to poor folk.
More comprehensive laws extended their predecessors’ prohibitive taxes and licensing policies. The National Firearms Act of 1934 passed in a media blitz of sensationalist stories about the machine-gun violence of Al Capone and other hot-tempered foreign mobsters. The 1968 Gun Control Act passed in the wake of the assassinations of President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, and Dr. King. Proponents focused public attention on lone gunmen misfits, although not far under the surface was a fear-mongering subtext about the danger of urban “race riots.” Gun control, to put it bluntly, has ever operated at the lowest common denominator of racial/ethnic fear mongering.
Today’s gun-control proponents are sensitive to overtly biased language but have not renounced the strategy of gaining support for the measures they propose by stigmatizing a recognizable segment of the population. A rash of recent gun-control appeals symbolically equates working-class whites, like the people I studied, with gun violence. The Web site of the DC nonprofit, Violence Policy Center (VPC), for example, warns ominously against
a palpable, growing unrest among domestic fringe groups. … It was just this sort of discontent that led to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The VPC (along with other gun-control activist groups) is waging a campaign against gun shows, portrayed on its Web site as a
readily available source of weapons and ammunition for a wide variety of criminals, including street gangs, white supremacists, would-be presidential assassins, and domestic terrorists.
They’re tarring white gunlovers with the brush of “domestic” terrorism. Isn’t “domestic” a proxy for “white”? Considering that many gun-control activists are white, the finger of stigmatization would point perceptibly to class, and indeed studies show a class gap between gun-control proponents and gun-rights proponents.
Another example from the wireless service provider, Credo, fans the same flames. Consistent with their branding as liberalprogressive activists, Credo fashioned a gun-control campaign around the fatal shootings of a medical doctor who performed abortions and a security guard at the Washington, DC, Holocaust Museum. Gone is the lone-gunman focus of 1968. In Credo’s appeal, these killings are not the acts of deranged individuals but “horrifying acts of right-wing domestic terrorism.” The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the appeal anxiously asserts, has called “rightwing extremism” the “most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.”
A final, more explicit example: journalist Yasha Levine in an Alternet article linked a nationwide-ammunition shortage to the Tea Party demonstrations and the rants of a white supremacist. After describing a Tea Party demo as “channeling the spirit of Timothy McVeigh,” Levine too cited the Department of Homeland Security, warning that
America’s shifting political landscape, the economic downturn and influx of returning vets all combined for a perfect storm likely to cause a swell in right-wing extremist organization activity.
DHS has evidence, Levine claims, that the ammunition shortage can be explained by one thing: “Extremist groups are stockpiling weapons and ammo in preparation for … something.” This is stigmatization.
Culture of Distrust
Gun rights and gun control operate from mutually exclusive premises. One assumes a tyrannical state. The other assumes a benevolent state. One fears tyranny “from above.” The other fears disorder “from below.” One bases its argument on tradition. The other argues modern progress.
But has gun control been progressive? Sociologist Gary Kleck’s 1997 book, Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control, finds defensive gun use in the deterrence of crime to be many times more frequent than official figures indicate. Economist John Lott’s More Guns Less, Less Crime (1998) argues (with abundant statistics) that widespread gun ownership actually lowers crime rates by increasing the “cost” of committing a crime for the criminal. If a possible crime victim might be armed, Lott explains, the stakes are higher—life and limb. The gun-control side of course has its own statistics: clearly gun control reduces the number of gun-related crimes. Overall crime rates, however, remain too close to call.
So perhaps, from the State’s point of view, crime rates are not the point. Perhaps the State continues to commit public resources to the legislation, adjudication, and enforcement of gun-control measures for other reasons, classic but unmentionable reasons of State. The issue’s culturally polarizing effect could itself be a boon for the State, dividing the ranks of the governed for a symbolic combat that absorbs their energies and leaves actual governing to the experts. Mutual distrust between middle-class progressives and working-class conservatives would have the salutary political effect (from the State’s point of view) of pre-empting the emergence of an overwhelming popular mandate for deep systemic change.
It seems to me that recent history gives us a good example of how this polarization effect works. The gun question, along with the other “culture-wars” issues are so-called “wedge issues.” To see what they wedged apart, we have only to consider whose feelings would have been polarized over these traditional versus modern “cultural” issues.
In this case, I think what has been wedged apart was the working-class/middleclass political coalition of the New Deal era, a political problem for the restless “globalizers” of the 1970s. Intact, the political alliance that brought us the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, and other restrictions on the flow of capital, would have been capable of impeding the progress of “globalization.”
It doesn’t take a conspiracy theory to connect these dots. It takes a longer view of history. The political alliance of middleclass professionals with the working-class, the people at the front lines of economic risk, has ever been the bane of financial schemers. Examples abound in the histories of industrial states.
The great U.S. labor historian Herbert Gutman pointed out years ago how local middle classes of the late 19th century, including constables and sheriffs, commonly allied with strikers against the aggressions of the newly forming corporate giants. Together they chose state and federal politicians to fight “the trusts,” the disreputable ancestors of today’s corporate giants. The “wedge issue” trotted out by corporate promoters then was as old as the hills, the “violent” nature of the working class or socalled “lower classes.” Given a strong enough strike, unsympathetic newspapers would invariably accuse strikers of violence, splashing page one with a giant, fearsome headline—”Reign of Terror!”—even if it took paying local toughs to stage a riot. No expense was spared. The political alliance of middle class and working class had to be broken then, and had to be broken again after the New Deal reconstructed it.
In our time, as it happened, workingclass livelihoods were spirited away in a torturous, prolonged process of global investment and local disinvestment, with no apologies and few defenders. Across the country, countless households, neighborhoods, and towns took a vertiginous fall from the brink of prosperity, and the bottom is not yet in sight. The people I studied in central New York believe that “the elite” have turned their backs on the “little guy” and on traditional American values in general. That would explain why residents were harassed for exposing the unethical schemes of local officials, or why “politically correct” administrators dismantled the High School marksmanship team at a time when hunting skills can put meat on the table more reliably than a paycheck. Along with millions of others in their position, the people I studied feel disenfranchised.
This is where the gun question has been critical to the “culture wars” intervention. Without it, the other issues lack the force to make depressed working-class whites look scary enough to be political bogeymen.
Working-class whites—and not only whites—are depressed for good reason, because they lost the homes and hopes that were theirs by generations of “sweat equity.” But they are no longer the only victims. In recent years, the risks and losses of “globalization” have ramified up the social scale, affecting even the lives of middleclass professionals.
As it was in the 1930s, hard times so widely shared can be the foundation of a reinvigorated popular politics. Then as now, the disastrous fall-out of financial schemes, executed with the full connivance of public officials, revealed that our political problem is not the people beside us but the people “above” us. Liberated from the “culture wars,” we might again agree, across the middle-class/working-class gap, that the people “above” us have gone too far.
References and Suggestions for Further Reading
Adams, Jane, and D. Gorton. 2006. “Confederate Lane: Class, Race, and Ethnicity in the Mississippi Delta.” American Ethnologist 33:288–309.
Bageant, Joe. 2007. Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. New York. Crown Publishers.
Bluestone, Barry, and Bennet Harrison. 1982. The De-industrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry. New York: Basic Books.
Doukas, Dimitra. 2003. Worked Over: The Corporate Sabotage of an American Community. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth A. 1994. Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945–1960. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Ginsburg, Faye D. 1989. Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hansen, Ed. 1995. “The Great Bambi War: Tocquevillians versus Keynesians in an Upstate New York County.” In Articulating Hidden Histories: Exploring the Influence of Eric R. Wolf. Jane Schneider and Rayna Rapp, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kleck, Gary. 1997. Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control. Chicago: Aldine Transaction.
Lott, John R., Jr. 1998. More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dimitra Doukas is a semi-retired anthropologist who continues to study and write about class cultures, politics, and local economies in the United States. She has taught at New York University, Cornell University, Dalhousie University, and the University of Denver.