Bad Things Happen When the Citizens of a Fearful Nation are Given Unlimited Access to Guns
Is it too soon to talk about the mass shooting that occurred last Saturday in Buffalo?
If it is, I’m sorry.
So let’s talk about El Paso instead. Or Parkland. Or Pittsburgh. Or Las Vegas. Or Sutherland Springs. Or Orlando. Or San Bernardino. Or Charleston. Or Aurora. Or Newtown. Or Ft. Hood. Or Virginia Tech. Or Columbine. I’d say enough time has passed to allow us to have a serious conversation about those events. Actually, probably way too much time has passed.
But before we get to that topic, let’s talk about this guy first.
That’s 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. (A beloved cartoon tiger was named after him.) Hobbes was born in 1588 as the Spanish were assembling an armada to invade Great Britain. With war looming, his mother went into labor early and he was born prematurely, leading Hobbes to remark later in life that “my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.”
Hobbes is most well-known as the author of Leviathan (1651), one of the most important works of political theory ever written. Our modern-day conception of the social contract comes from Leviathan. The idea of the social contract has been refined over time, but at its heart is the notion that both the ruled and the ruler have obligations to one another. In Leviathan, the ruled give the ruler their obedience while the ruler gives the ruled security. Kind of crude, and we can debate just how benevolent Hobbes’ ruler might be, and later philosophers like Locke and Rousseau would try to control for a ruler’s despotic tendencies, but at a very basic level it makes sense: Accept the authority of the state and follow its rules and in turn the state will keep you safe.
Hobbes would be considered a modern philosopher but I wouldn’t quite call him a liberal in the classical sense of the word.1 He’s more like a proto-liberal creature that’s crawled out of the primordial ooze of early modern Europe. The things he’s worried about, though, are some of the same things that will soon preoccupy liberal thinkers, namely how to govern and maintain peace in a society full of diverse peoples. Hobbes had lived through the English Civil War and its aftermath, which involved armed conflict over matters of religion, politics, and national identity. English society had fractured, and people with strong opinions (and deep grudges) about right and wrong and good and evil were willing to kill those they disagreed with. This was all very destabilizing, of course, but it was also psychologically traumatic. How could anyone feel safe in such a tumultuous world, where one’s standing and security in life could be completely altered when a new army or ruler rolled into town?
Hobbes called this condition of insecurity the “state of nature,” which he equated with a “state of war.” It arose when people not only lived without a common political authority, but, in a broader sense, also without a common moral, linguistic, cultural, or spiritual authority. It bred distrust and was likely to devolve into violence, leading Hobbes to write life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Bleak stuff. Hobbes’ solution was for individuals, as a matter of self-preservation, to unite behind the authority of one person who could establish laws all would have to follow. No one would be allowed to challenge the ruler’s authority; in turn, the ruler would keep everyone safe from one another. Under the protection of the leviathan, people would finally be able to sleep soundly at night without fearing their neighbors.
Hobbes is a theorist of fear. For Hobbes, fear isn’t just a byproduct of living in a lawless society but of living in a diverse society. In such a society, you may not know your neighbor, and even if you do, you may not trust if they adhere to values or beliefs you find threatening or if their allegiance is with a group you neither belong to nor trust. We may laugh at Hobbes’ paranoia today, worried as he is about Protestants and Catholics and Puritans getting along with one another, but come on, for many of us, Hobbes captures the psychological condition of living in a liberal society. We can reassure ourselves that our society has a method for working through these differences called “democracy” (how’s that going for you lately?) but when we find ourselves surrounded by the sort of diversity you find in a liberal society—by so many political points of view, by so many religions and their accompanying claims about massively important things like right and wrong and life and death and the afterlife, by so many economic choices in the marketplace (Do you trust your mechanic? Your bank? That cryptocurrency Matt Damon is selling you?), by so many people from so many different places and backgrounds—it can make people feel quite a bit antsy. That sense of fear Hobbes identified in proto-liberal England can be found in most liberal societies. It’s like the static buzzing in the background of an old analog television, the cosmic residue of the Big Bang.
The way Hobbes dealt with this fear was to grant the ruler a monopoly over it: Rather than fear your neighbor, you were supposed to fear your ruler and what might happen if you stepped out of line. In Hobbes’ mind, a tyrant was better than a neighborhood full of thieves and throat-slitters. But in the decades and centuries after Hobbes wrote Leviathan, liberal theorists would emphasize that transferring the power to instill fear (along with all that power, generally) to government wasn’t that great either. Consequently, they weakened governmental authority. Yet that still left them with the problem of social fear. To deal with that, liberals recommended adopting legal safeguards designed to assure people that no matter what group of people took charge of the government that everyone would still be free to say what they wanted to say and follow whatever faith they wanted to follow. They also promoted ideas like liberty and equality, and, soon enough, follow-on virtues like tolerance, understanding, acceptance, and intersectional solidarity.
In other words, (modern) liberal regimes (usually) go out of their way to say, “Nothing to fear here, just one big happy melting pot.” But have all those liberal governments really reduced the amount of fear that seems to permeate diverse societies or merely repressed it, just kinda, you know, swept it under the old psychological rug, so to say? After all, Americans today remain pretty on-edge when it comes to government power even though the whole point of our political system is to keep government power in check; when it comes to your fellow citizens, well, our political system barely says anything about keeping all those…other people in line and out of your way. In fact, what most people know (maybe even “fear”) about those other people is that they are free, free to move to your town, free to enter the labor market, free to vote and run for office, free to do what they want in ways that might involve you. So if we get that worked up over a government explicitly designed to alleviate our fears about it, how do you suppose we’ll tend to react to being surrounded by a bunch of people we inherently don’t trust in a society that often does little to alleviate our distrust of others?
Hobbes’ state of nature isn’t a real place. It’s more like a thought experiment, one that captures the psychological state of liberal societies. (Hobbes notes even under the rule of law, people still lock up their possessions, implying fear is not merely a characteristic of lawless places.) So in that spirit, I’ve got a thought experiment for you. Let’s say somewhere in this world there is a country, and the features of this country are as follows:
People from every corner of the world—from every race, ethnicity, religion, nationality—come to live in this country.
Its form of government is limited democracy, so that a.) The government does not interfere much in the daily lives of the people, thus providing a minimal amount of order just a few degrees removed from a state of nature; and b.) The diverse group of people who populate the country are free to choose their leaders via open political competition.
Its economic system is based on the principles of competitive laissez-faire capitalism, so that people are free to succeed or fail in the free market as they try to provide for themselves and their families without much by way of government regulation to keep people from being exploited in the marketplace or a social safety net that might catch those who fall on hard times.
The people of the country are allowed to move as much as they like within this nation. This is often described as a “safety valve” as it allows people to start over in a new place if things don’t work out somewhere else, but it also often means leaving behind family, friends, and places they’ve grown familiar with. In the early days, people were encouraged to move into the undeveloped interior regions of the country, areas filled with all kinds of economic opportunities yet populated by indigenous people who resisted encroachment onto this territory. Also, these regions lacked legal authority; it would need to be established (and eventually romanticized.)
The people of this country are free to believe whatever they want, reinvent themselves, and develop the land as they see fit. In fact, it seems everything about this place changes a lot. It’s hard to know what to expect from it. Nothing ever seems too permanent or predictable.
So this last one is a weird one, but as it turns out, some of the people who moved here didn’t actually “move” here. They were brought here. Against their will. And they were sold to other people who claimed them as property. And because owning other people contradicted the whole “freedom” thing this country was built on, the people who ran the country had to come up with degrading reasons for why these particular people could be owned. And because these people didn’t like being owned, they also had to be policed. Like a lot. But then after a few hundred years, the people who ran the country made it so these people couldn’t be owned anymore, but they still allowed these people to be oppressed and overpoliced, which was something a lot of people were fine with because all those reasons they invented to justify owning other human beings post-facto became the reasons pre-facto to oppress and police them. But then the country’s rulers made it so these people couldn’t be oppressed anymore, which is great and fixed everything, you can just go back and cross out all those references to being owned and being oppressed, we’re past that now, all those problems have just gone away (right?).
So based on this little thought experiment, I’ve got two questions for you:
Do you think most people who live in this country are predisposed to feeling a.) Calm; or b.) Anxious?
Is this the sort of country that should be inundated with guns?
After a mass shooting like the one that occurred in Buffalo last Saturday, public debate inevitably turns to matters of gun control. That’s fine because the prevalence of guns in American society is a major problem. But in a lot of ways, that debate misses the bigger problem, one that guns are actually a symptom of: That many Americans are racked with a Hobbesian state of fear, particularly fear of one another. Address that problem and we may end up addressing the problem of guns in the United States.
So how can we make America a less fearful place? It may be that fear/anxiousness is a feature inherent to liberal political systems. We could try to formulate a better political system, but (administrative details aside) no one’s been able to improve on the liberal model. That means we have to try to tweak it to make it better.
In the United States, it seems our diversity coupled with a cutthroat capitalist economic system is at the root of our sense of fear. Economic fortunes come and go. Economic security is hard to come by. Electoral outcomes threaten to confer political power and economic advantage onto some groups at the expense of others. We are conditioned to see our fellow citizens as rivals out to “steal” from us and “replace” us. Hitch that to an historical legacy of racism and xenophobia that is both a product and a cause of this anxiety, and it should come as no surprise to find American society flush with fear.
Some will say what we need to do then is reduce the amount of diversity in society so that people are more alike and therefore more understanding and trusting of one another. But liberalism’s embrace of diversity—political, religious, ethnic, racial, cultural, etc.—seems to be its defining moral feature. The more a liberal society moves away from diversity, the more illiberal it becomes.
Rather than reducing diversity, it would seem to make more sense in the United States to build trust among its diverse peoples. Make it so people don’t have a reason to be afraid of one another, emphasize how much people across the political, cultural, ethnic, racial, and religious spectrums have in common with one another, and directly challenge the racist/xenophobic/homophobic ideas that fuel that fear. This would involve teaching people to be more tolerant, accepting, understanding, and appreciative of those who do not share their backgrounds. Ironically, this sort of multicultural education is the very thing currently under siege here in the United States. The other thing we could do is adjust our economic system so there is less emphasis on individual risk and more emphasis on social security. Make sure people know that all of us are in this together, that your fellow citizen isn’t a rival but a compatriot.
The way we’re currently dealing with this fear—stockpiling guns—isn’t working. Guns may provide us with a sense of security, but they don’t keep us safe. A 2015 study by Harvard University used the National Crime Victimization Survey to find that victims of crime defended themselves with a gun only 0.9% of the time (and even that number is suspect, as it’s roughly the same percentage of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens.) In fact, you rarely hear of people using a gun to ward off an assailant, which is something we would certainly be hearing a lot about if that did indeed happen. David Hemenway, who led that study, said in an interview, “The average person…has basically no chance in their lifetime ever to use a gun in self-defense. But…every day, they have a chance to use the gun inappropriately. They have a chance, they get angry. They get scared.” [My emphasis.]
Instead, over the past fifty years—as racial barriers came down in the United States, immigration increased, and economic insecurity spread—America has been flooded with guns. This chart tracks that rise over the past two-and-a-half decades:
Beginning in 2008, the number of guns in the United States surpassed the number of people in the United States. Sixty-three percent of gun owners say they own a gun for self-defense. But again, those guns aren’t actually being used in self-defense. They’re being used in suicides (54% of all gun-related deaths in 2020) and homicides (43% of all gun-related deaths in 2020). And while it’s hard to verify instances of people defending themselves with guns, we know with certainty there are hundreds of incidents every year—at least one per day in 2020—of people accidentally killing themselves or someone else with a gun.
Additionally, with all those guns floating around in the United States, it shouldn’t come as any surprise they end up in the wrong hands and get used to shoot up a country music concert or an elementary school or a movie theater. That’s the price a mob of people driven by fear and egged-on by a gun industry that turns their customers’ anxieties into profits have made us all pay just so they can feel safe. Maybe they ought to consider the possibility that gun ownership only amplifies their insecurity.
The mass shooting in Buffalo is notable because fear is what directly motivated the shooter, who targeted a grocery store frequented by Black customers because he was afraid nonwhite people are being brought to the United States to fulfill a political agenda at odds with the interests of White people. It’s a ridiculous idea, yet one promoted by many notable conservatives, including Tucker Carlson, Elise Stefanik, J.D. Vance, Laura Ingraham, Steve Miller, Steve Bannon, Dan Patrick, Ron Johnson, and Donald Trump.
The more one reflects upon the shooting in Buffalo, the more its ironies expose just how psychologically messed-up this country is when it comes to guns. Based upon their history here in the United States, the group of people targeted by the shooter had the most reason to fear their fellow citizens, yet it was the shooter’s irrational fear of them that led to bloodshed. The security guard who used his handgun to defend the store’s customers was killed by the shooter, who wielded an automatic rifle to carry out his massacre (apparently the phrase now should be “the only way to stop a bad guy with a weapon of war and a bulletproof vest is a good guy with a weapon of war and armor-piercing bullets.”) Katherine Massey, a 72-year-old woman killed in the shooting, twice wrote a letter to the Buffalo News calling for stricter gun control. She didn’t think shoppers should have to bring automatic weapons with them when they went shopping on the off-chance they would have to defend themselves; she longed instead for a more peaceful society with fewer guns where people wouldn’t need to worry about such things.
It’s worth noting that while the number of guns in the United States has risen steadily over the past decades, the number of households with guns in the United States has actually declined (although that number may have risen during the pandemic.)
What should we make of that? Well maybe, just maybe, more and more Americans have realized the sources of our fears are baseless and we don’t have to be scared of people who are different than us. That would be a positive development.
Yet the fearful and armed have only grown more agitated in recent years, and that’s (dare I say) downright scary. Many would likely say they favor few gun regulations and have personally armed themselves in order to defend the “American way of life,” but their obsession with guns reveals their own lack of faith in the United States’ liberal experiment. Yes, Hobbes argues diverse liberal societies are inherently fearful, but one way to deal with that fear is to find ways for diverse peoples to live peacefully alongside one another. And why not do that, since that’s the whole point of living in a liberal society anyway. Those who stockpile guns, however, believe that is ultimately impossible. They think life in a liberal society is less about coexistence than survival, that at the end of the day, the things that mitigate conflict in a liberal society—things like elections, the rule of law, constitutional rights—matter less than might and strength. Where does that leave them? Not in a country defined by values they claim to support but fail to defend, but back in the state of nature they never really left, alone and afraid.
I’ll leave you with these lyrics from the 2005 song “Devils and Dust” by Bruce Springsteen:
I got my finger on the trigger
But I don't know who to trust
When I look into your eyes
There's just devils and dust…
I got God on my side
And I'm just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
Fear's a powerful thing, baby
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust
Signals and Noise
How do you know when conservatives are really vulnerable on an issue? When FOX News quits talking about it. They use the pause to recalibrate their talking points. It happened after 1/6 and it’s happening now after the mass shooting in Buffalo carried out by a proponent of replacement theory. Adam Gabbatt at The Guardian writes, “Over at Fox News, however, there was barely any mention of the white gunman’s alleged reasoning for opening fire at a supermarket, killing 10 people and wounding three more, in a predominantly Black area. The absence of coverage of the motive was revealing, given Fox News’s most popular host, Tucker Carlson, has pushed the concept of replacement theory in more than 400 of his shows – and has arguably done more than anyone in the US to popularize the racist conspiracy.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, who was elected chair of the House Republican Conference in 2021, has espoused replacement theory in the past. She ran a Facebook ad last year that read, “Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION. Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” Let’s check in with the previous chair of the House Republican Conference, whom House Republicans booted from that position because she believed Don Trump should be held accountable for stoking insurrection, to see what she thinks about all this:
David Leonhardt at the New York Times posted this graph sourced from the Anti-Defamation League.
Leonhardt writes, “Of these 450 [politically-motivated] killings, right-wing extremists committed about 75 percent. Islamic extremists were responsible for about 20 percent, and left-wing extremists were responsible for 4 percent.” Leonhardt adds, “The pattern extends to violence less severe than murder, like the Jan. 6 attack on Congress. It also extends to the language from some Republican politicians — including Donald Trump — and conservative media figures that treats violence as a legitimate form of political expression. A much larger number of Republican officials do not use this language but also do not denounce it or punish politicians who do use it; Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, is a leading example.” I think it’s also worth remembering how worked up Republicans were during the Obama presidency about the threat of “radical Islamic extremism.” Where’s the outrage against the more pressing danger?
In “Being Smart at Rocket Science and Electric Vehicles Doesn’t Make You Smart at Politics” news…In the past I voted Democrat, because they were (mostly) the kindness party. But they have become the party of division & hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican. Now, watch their dirty tricks campaign against me unfold … 🍿
“Division and hate?” Who’s going to tell him?
Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in the state of Pennsylvania, not only paid for buses to send insurrectionists to the Capitol on 1/6 but marched on the Capitol himself; bars the media from campaign events; has taken the stage with adherents to QAnon; opposes both COVID vaccines and mask-wearing; opposes abortion even in cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is at stake; and wants to decertify the results of the state’s 2020 presidential election.
One million Americans have died of COVID-19. To put that in perspective:
That’s about 333,500 more people than who died in combat during every war the United States has fought.
It would take 17 Vietnam Veterans Memorials to record the names of all those who have died of COVID.
The same number of people have died of COVID over the past 2+ years as have been victims of homicide in the United States over the past 55 years.
Each congressional district has lost an average of 2,299 residents to COVID.
A city of one million people would be the United States’ 11th largest city, ranking between San Jose (1,013,240) and Austin (961,855).
“About a third of our population is African American; African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So, if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear.”—Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy (R) finding a way to say maternal mortality only becomes a problem once you begin worrying about the well-being of Black women.
British intelligence estimates Russia has lost 1/3 of the ground forces it committed to Ukraine in February.
If you have a subscription to The Economist: “The Coming Food Catastrophe” (“Vladimir Putin will destroy the lives of people far from the battlefield—and on a scale even he may regret. The war is battering a global food system weakened by covid-19, climate change and an energy shock. Ukraine’s exports of grain and oilseeds have mostly stopped and Russia’s are threatened. Together, the two countries supply 12% of traded calories. Wheat prices, up 53% since the start of the year, jumped a further 6% on May 16th, after India said it would suspend exports because of an alarming heatwave. The widely accepted idea of a cost-of-living crisis does not begin to capture the gravity of what may lie ahead.”)
I’ve been pretty hard on Sen. Joe Manchin. Let’s say that’s unfair, that Manchin really does have a lot of valid points Democrats would be wise to heed. Jonathan Chait of New York makes the point, however, that “even if you believe Machin’s policy views are correct, he is not advancing his own positions effectively….Manchin [holds] a uniquely powerful role as the Senate’s swing vote. By dint of his position, he could have been one of the most powerful and influential legislators in the history of Congress. Instead, he has used his power primarily to pout and complain about problems he’s had every opportunity to help solve.” Damn straight. Chait points out Manchin hasn’t taken it upon himself to write a reconciliation bill he would be willing to support, that his effort to amend the American Rescue Plan did little to reduce its inflationary impact, and that his concern about inflation shouldn’t be an impediment to passing Build Back Better since that bill should at least be somewhat counter-inflationary. (Chait says Manchin’s opposition to BBB is “like canceling your child’s college education because you feel bad you splurged on a fancy vacation.”)
Rural counties in the United States keep losing population. A lot of immigrants want to move to the United States. Problem, meet solution. By Maria Sacchetti for the Washington Post: “A Rural County in Iowa that Supported Trump Turns to Latinos to Grow” (“Greene County — like much of rural America — is sinking into a demographic hole, down from more than 15,500 residents after World War II to an estimated 8,717 last year, with the population now falling by about 100 every year. Factories have dozens of job openings, schools have closed, and villages are crumbling. Deaths have outpaced births for so long that the hospital stopped delivering babies. In a series of public meetings that started last month, the community has been weighing how to stop the decline, and this mostly White, mostly Republican stronghold has concluded that the only way to grow is to recruit Latino residents.”)
Campaign finance laws prohibit candidates from directly coordinating with super PACs, which can spend huge sums of dark money on their behalf. It’s a hard law to enforce, however: There are ways for candidates to signal to super PACS how they should spend their money without technically coordinating. (You can try this on your own; for example, whenever I visit Cedar County, Iowa, in the summer, if I can, I always try to get myself some brownie pie. Just saying, that’s all.) Nowadays, candidates are barely hiding their attempts at coordination. Enter the “little red box.” From Shane Goldmacher of the New York Times: “The practice is both brazen and breathtakingly simple. To work around the prohibition on directly coordinating with super PACs, candidates are posting their instructions to them inside the red boxes on public [web]pages that super PACs continuously monitor. The boxes highlight the aspects of candidates’ biographies that they want amplified and the skeletons in their opponents’ closets that they want exposed. Then, they add instructions that can be extremely detailed: Steering advertising spending to particular cities or counties, asking for different types of advertising and even slicing who should be targeted by age, gender and ethnicity.”
In a follow-up to my article from January (see below) about Teddy Cancun asking the Supreme Court to make it easier for wealthy people to bribe wealthy politicians: Yep, Teddy won.
Finally, this interview with Prof. Nicholas Weaver of UC-Berkeley by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs is definitely worth checking out if you are interested but very confused by cryptocurrency and NFTs. I think I at least better understand how all that stuff works after reading it. Weaver is not a fan of crypto, characterizing it as an environmentally unfriendly negative-sum Ponzi scheme designed to rip off investors and fund criminal activities. He hopes cryptocurrency eventually “die[s] in a fire.”
Exit Music: “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” by Patty Smyth ft. Don Henley (1992, Patty Smyth)
For the record, from Wikipedia: “Classical liberalism is a political ideology and a branch of liberalism that advocates free market and laissez-faire economics; civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on limited government, economic freedom, and political freedom. Classical liberalism, contrary to liberal branches like social liberalism, looks more negatively on social policies, taxation and the state involvement in the lives of individuals, and it advocates deregulation. By modern standards, in the United States, simple liberalism often means social liberalism, but in Europe and Australia, simple liberalism often means classical liberalism.”