Monday, June 4, 2012
If they take away our guns, how will we shoot bankers? On being a Second Amendment Socialist.
Or, as the San Francisco Anarchists collective used to declare,
When guns are outlawed, only police will have guns.
Much of the American left today is not terribly comfortable with the word "socialist," seeming to regard it as an obsolescent and rather quaint old brand that they don't use much anymore, a bit like Toasties or Grape-Nuts for Post breakfast cereals, something that had a good long run but doesn't sell much anymore except to a few nostalgic geezers.
Many of them are even less comfortable with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution: "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."
Along with disdaining to conceal our views and aims, and that word socialist, the Second Amendment used to be part of the left program, too, recognized as a key early victory in the long struggle against established power. The Declaration of Independence had called for a right of armed rebellion; there is ample evidence that many of the Framers, particularly the Anti-Federalists who are our linear political ancestors, thought of armed rebellion as a natural right; the precedent in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 was a prohibition intended to prevent what had happened just before the Glorious Revolution against James II – a Catholic King selectively disarming Protestant citizens in preparation for re-Catholicizing England – but extended much farther, to the idea that the populace needed to keep their weapons because to some extent the populace needed to retain their right of armed rebellion in general.
Armed rebellion against what? Against power that could not otherwise be held to account. Against the King and various satellite corporations to which he had handed out immense grants of special privileges and the resources of the eastern third of a continent (does this sound familiar?) the Patriots had tried petitions from colonial legislatures and private citizens' groups, organizing their own quasi-official legislatures, finding sympathetic members of Parliament, economic boycotts and blockades, peaceful marches and rallies ... pretty much everything that you ought to try before revolting.
When the British Army tried to seize the Patriot arsenal at Concord, that was "use it or lose it," and they chose to use it; there was no other way to hold the British Crown accountable for its myriad crimes against the new nation.
Armed rebellion against authority was understood to be the last resort of the people when those in power went too far through much of the first century and a half of our Republic.* Shay's Rebellion was only the beginning; Indian Wars and slave rebellions turned, all too often, on an inadequate supply of guns. The War of 1812 was a frustration for the British and the Canadians but disaster for Tecumseh and the Shawnee Confederacy: it cut off the flow of firearms to the tribes east of the Mississippi, and that spelled doom. Read through any of the accounts of slave rebellions from 1800-1850 and again and again you see a major reason for their failure was that slaves simply could not get their hands on enough guns quickly enough (and might not have had the skills to use them when they did).
"Bleeding Kansas" bled because private citizen militias of Jayhawkers stood up to slavery at a time when the slavocrats had rammed through the Fugitive Slave Law. John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, his subsequent mockery of a trial in which a cabal of pre-traitors hanged him for being prematurely anti-slavery, and that whole sad, brave story all turned around the right to keep and bear arms, and to use them as a last resort.
After the war, the Indians struggled on; the Sand Creek Massacre was possible in part because Black Kettle had largely disarmed, and the massacre at Wounded Knee was specifically triggered by the Army's attempt to disarm the Lakota who had been promised that this would not happen. Where the Indians were well armed, at Big Hole and Little Big Horn, for example, matters went differently.
The rising labor movement and the populist farmer-labor alliances resorted to the Second Amendment right frequently, and since they were mostly white males, they had access to the weapons they needed. There were pitched battles at Coal Creek and Homestead, what amounted to a guerrilla war in Colorado after the Ludlow Massacre, and so on up through the battle at Blair Mountain; until well after the Second World War, some of the workers who exercised their democratic right to strike were also exercising their Second Amendment right to shoot back in defense of it.
But somewhere around the time of the civil rights movement, and for reasons that were certainly not all bad, the left began to get squeamish; surprising numbers of leftists don't know enough of their own history to know about the role of the Deacons for Defense in making protests in the segregated South possible, and the Pink Pistols have received surprisingly little publicity (possibly because they are right – "armed gays don't get bashed" – and consequently they don't make the news).
Well, I've never had much of a gift for fashion, so I still self-identify as a socialist**, and as for the Second Amendment, my outlook is that we should never have given up the right of rebellion and of armed self-defense as one of our central tenets.
The obsession with law-abidingness and doing everything by proper policy, I think, is an unfortunate side-effect of the number of leaders of the left who were saddled with elite educations, and the gradual hardening of our radical institutional arteries caused by a strong tendency for "prominent leftist" to become a hereditary position. I sort of doubt any modern Phil Ochs would write a song as truthful as Love Me I'm a Liberal today (though Jello Biafra bravely tried, he didn't get much attention for it); the left has become far too much the side of Eat Your Organic Spinach Because Mommy Took A Course At College That Says So, and much less willing to sling the nasty green goop back in mommy's face and demand ice cream for all, now, and an openly chosen democratic shopping list with equal access to the freezer. Paleo-socialist that I am, I don't think of socialism as primarily a vehicle for teaching people better lifestyles, saving critters, or making people feel loved, though it will probably do all those things. I think of it as a vehicle for getting, as Samuel Gompers put it, More.
So let's get back to that key question in the title of this blog entry. One of the key insights of socialism, I think, is not just that the conservative love of the private/public division is skewed the wrong way, but that in fact it's mostly bogus. The federal government is sort of answerable to about 240 million eligible voters, and in fact can ignore most of them, and has a huge influence on how everyone here lives. Exxon Mobil has a huge influence on how nearly everyone in the US lives, and is answerable to 43,441 voting shareholders (as of their last annual meeting). Wal-Mart has more employed workers than Wyoming, Vermont, North and South Dakota, Alaska, and Delaware combined, but at a guess, very few of them are among its 333,604 voting-eligible stockholders. (Whereas those six states have 12 senators and 6 congressbeasts to deflect complaints and ignore workers). You can make a great deal out of private versus public ownership, and indeed the righties do, but when you come down to it, on either side of that balance we're talking about a small number of people who are theoretically accountable, and practically not, acting to preserve a system in which decisions that affect millions of people are being made without much more than a pretense of their consent.
Which, of course, is a pretty much the definition of a justification for armed rebellion, missing only the piece of an attempted peaceful redress first.
Well, look. Wal-Mart employs and supplies a lot of households and I don't see them being descended on by pitchfork-and-torch bearing mobs anytime soon. There's a certain amount of passive consent there. Exxon Mobil has ticked off more people and probably done more harm, but again, most of us are not ready to blow up the corner gas station or beat up their executives; annoying, even long term, is not the same as revolution-worthy, else half the states in the union would be up in armed rebellion right now.
But what about the big banks? The beneficiaries of the bailouts? Think about the foreclosures, the annihilated jobs, the crushed hopes of millions ... the walking away with huge amounts of taxpayer dollars, the continued bad behavior, and the battling like mad (and being able to afford it because we bailed them out) to keep all the deregulation and special privileges that got us into this.... and no meaningful indictments. No one even dragged in front of a congressional committee and made to sweat seriously.
Is it Second Amendment time yet?
Or might mentioning the possibility perhaps cause some of the bailed out bankers to think that living in a society that only rewards them outrageously might be preferable to being the much-mourned rulers of a society they totally owned?
As for whether it's Second Amendment time yet ... well, that's the beauty of the Second Amendment. The decision has been placed, not in the hands of a panel of experts or a deliberative body, but in the bell curve of public opinion.
*and it is ours, fellow leftists; if we'd let the righties of 1788 have their way they'd have pushed for a George I, and we might still be under the Adams, Jackson, or Harrison dynasties).
**People who have read my stuff tend to be surprised at this. The people I bewilder seem to be on both the left and the right:
1) on the left, the sort of transnational generic progressives who populate the boards and staffs of the coast-based nonprofits and journals, because apparently nowadays leftism is more a life style or an attitude, and my comfortable grounding in the general principles is less apparent than my awkward fit on details, and
2) on the right, people who like my science fiction novels (which often depict male characters having violent adventures) and tend to slide me into the same heap with Jerry Pournelle, William Fortschen, John Ringo, or S.M. Stirling. It seems to me that Eric Flint, Joe Haldeman, and William Barton also run into this and I suspect there are many more of us; the problem goes back to Kipling and Conrad (each of whose real-world politics was somewhat at variance with their fiction, though in opposite directions—Kipling was more left than his fiction, and Conrad more right), because if your artistic interest in any particular work is in depicting violent people on the ugly edge of society, if you're even half-trying to do your job, you'll often write from their viewpoints and in their language, and in this historic era, that will tend to be rightish.
Either way, it's a natural misunderstanding, which I try not to let irritate me. If you write what you want to write and call it as you see it, some of your friends won't like you and some of your opponents will mistake you for one of their own, and that's just the way it goes.
For any newer writers taking notes out there: there is no point in worrying about this. If you say much of anything at all, people who don't know you will call you unpleasant names. Better to hear them while you are standing on your feet, daring them to call you a liar, rather than while you are lying prone and begging to be their good doggie.