Every day brings a foreboding sense of having studied what is happening in the pages of the books of William Shirer and Richard Evans. Alt-Right might as well come out as the Hitler loving Nazis that they are.
How long will it be before they try to pass the equivalent of the Nuremberg Laws regarding LGBT People?
November 23, 2016
I wrote this piece back in July of 2016, and circulated it to a few folks for feedback before declining to publish it. It just seemed a bit too crazypants and tinfoil-hatty, with all its talk of totalitarianism and dystopia. In light of recent events, it suddenly seems a lot less out-there.
Over the course of my years-long engagement with smart people on all sides of America’s gun debate — from coffee shops in San Francisco to private suites off the floor of the gun industry’s annual Las Vegas trade show — I’ve come to believe that there are really only two broader ideological camps that people fall into when it comes to the right to keep and bear arms.
No, the two camps aren’t “blame the shooter” vs. “blame the gun” — that whole discourse is a sad sideshow, and I think both sides are probably tired of swatting each other with the same limp bromides (“the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” vs. “here’s what every entry in this catalog of otherwise unrelated horrors has in common: guns!”).
Rather, the real divide between the pro- and anti-gun camps is much deeper, and is rooted in their sharply divergent readings of the history of human relations. To use a ten-dollar word from my years as a humanities grad student, what we have here is a clash of hermeneutics.
Not only do both camps reason about the present and future on the basis of different interpretations of a shared past, but the gun control argument is so exhausting for everyone involved because it ultimately forces each side into the uncomfortable position of arguing for the truth of grand propositions that it actually hopes are false.
Despite all of this, I do believe there’s a faint glimmer of hope for finding common ground. But before we can discover what we have in common, we have to understand where and how we truly differ.
The Moral Arc vs. the Vicious Cycle
Any given gun control discussion may work its way through topics like hunting and other hobbies, or delve into theoretical questions of individual liberty and its limits, or cover the practical nuts-and-bolts of who really needs what type of firearm for which hypothetical use-of-force scenario, but all arguments over Americans and their firearms ultimately end up in one place: a dispute about the usefulness and legitimacy of the constitutional right of private citizens to keep in their homes the tools of violence as a last bulwark against tyranny.
How you view the Second Amendment — as an embarrassing relic of a barbarous past, or as a last-ditch deterrent against the rise of domestic tyranny — depends on the shape you see when you look at history: an arc or a circle.
Folks in the anti-gun camp tend to believe, with Martin Luther King Jr., that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” These are people who have faith in Progress and Perfectibility, and who will warn you in all earnestness that there is a “right side of history” and you had better get on it. These folks aren’t having any talk of a hypothetical fascist dystopia in the US; to them, that’s paranoid fantasy from a bygone era, and meanwhile there are real lives being lost to gun violence right now.
The other camp, which I confess to being a lifetime member of, sees history as cyclical, with no real long-term trajectory. We take it as self-evident that there is nothing new under the sun; human nature doesn’t change; and humans keep re-learning the same painful lessons as species. To those of us who are members of the “human relations go ‘round in a vicious, bloody circle” tribe, the concept of any sort of long-term positive trend in the way we relate to one another is not only lunatic, but actively dangerous.
In this respect, despite the fact that I’m a Christian, I find myself sympathizing with the atheists who look on in frustrated wonderment as otherwise rational people bend the knee and send their petitions up to an invisible man in the sky, as if that would solve a single pressing problem faced by humanity.
Whenever my liberal friends bring up the magical Moral Arc to buttress their argument on some issue or other, I think to myself, “how could someone so smart be so stupid? Are they really willing to put their trust in this smug, secular eschatology? How can they believe, on the basis of a few paltry decades of mostly mixed evidence, that the great Moral Arc of the Universe will eventually, over the very long term, ensure that their ‘right side of history’ wins out in the end?”