"Well, society may be in its infancy," said Egremont slightly smiling; "but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed."
"Which nation?" asked the younger stranger, "for she reigns over two."
The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.
"Yes," resumed the younger stranger after a moment's interval. "Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws."
"You speak of—" said Egremont, hesitatingly.
"THE RICH AND THE POOR."
Half a century ago, I would suggest, one could not have written that passage about the United States with a straight face. Even in the midst of continued segregation in the old Confederacy, black and white Americans belonged, recognizably, to the same culture, and could have conversed much more easily and calmly on a variety of political topics than many Americans could today. But now Disraeli's words have a new resonance--even though I would change the last line of the quote. "The North and the South" would not be entirely inaccurate, but "The Red and the Blue" probably captures it best. The contest between them is economic, political and social. Above all it is a fundamental contest of values, one that will in large measure determine the future of what we call western civilization, certainly in the United States. And this, I suspect, will be the single most important presidential election in determining how it goes.
The nature of the conflict is far too broad to handle in one post, and today I am going to focus upon one aspect of it: the Trayvon Martin - George Zimmerman case, and the "stand your ground" law that has so far allowed Zimmerman to stalk and eventually and kill a fellow human being without even being arrested or, it would seem, seriously investigated. While we do not know exactly what happened about six weeks ago when Zimmerman shot Martin, I am convinced that the case has profound cultural significance and deep historical roots--and that its resolution and repercussions will tell us some very important things about where the country is going.
Let me begin by quoting the relevant portion of Florida's law:
"Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:
(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or
(2) Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013." [That section deals with intruders into one's home and is therefore irrelevant to this case.]
What this means is that if in fact Zimmerman, the neighborhood watcher who disregarded the suggestion of the police dispatcher and went out to look for Martin and became involved ina confrontation with him, had the right to shoot and kill him if he "reasonably believed" that Martin was about to use "unlawful force" (not lethal force) against him. And since Zimmerman seems to be the only surviving witness to what happened--at least as far as we know now--only his testimony can tell us whether he had, in fact, such a reasonable belief. In short, the law is practically a license to kill any stranger one meets in public as long as no one else is looking. And as such, I would argue, it reflects something relatively new--or rather, newly prominent--in our national life.
Now Paul Krugman has already pointed out that this law and others identical to it have been promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a right-wing organization funded by the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobile, and other conservative stalwarts, and closely allied with the NRA. Although ALEC's web site claims that it did not write the original text of the Florida law it admits that it has been promoting it in other states--and it has been passed by more than twenty of them. I would like to suggest that the law represents at least two profound currents in American history, one relatively recent, one very old indeed.
The more recent one is mainly the work of the NRA, whose philosophy has altered considerably as Boomers took over its leadership. It has always been my impression that the NRA's opposition to gun control (which surfaced after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which was the Roe v. Wade of the anti-control movement) originally related to the rights of hunters and sportsmen. As late as 1981, after the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan, I read an NRA piece defending the rights of handgun owners on the grounds that handguns were sometimes essential for hunting. But in the last twenty years we have moved way beyond such arguments. As anyone who has argued with pro-gun people on an internet forum now knows, their main argument is in effect that supposedly law-abiding citizens should replace the police as our first line of defense against violent crime. They want the maximum number of people walking around with concealed weapons, and they want few or no restrictions on where they can take those weapons--onto university campuses, for instance. They are, in short, totally opposed to the model of a largely unarmed, non-violent population, with a crime rate low enough for professional police forces to cope with. And they have managed steadily to increase the proliferation of firearms in this country over the last few decades, keeping our homicide rate much higher, as I pointed out here once before, than almost any other advanced nation. And, of course, they won a huge 5-4 victory in the Supreme Court quite recently, when the conservative majority created a new individual right to bear arms, throwing out precedents as well-established and venerable as the Dred Scott decision of 1857.
The NRA, then, has been fighting for an entirely new vision of what our society should look like, one that celebrates, rather than severely restricting, the individual's right to take the law into his own hands. I am particularly struck by this because I discovered what a struggle European governments had taking that right away from the nobility in the 16th and 17th centuries, and how important their success in the eighteenth century was to creating civilization as we know it. One of the most powerful lobbies in American life wants to undo that work.
This, however, is not all. The pre-modern tradition of settling disputes violently and personally, rather than turning them over to the legal system, has always been strong on the frontier, and above all, in the American south. W. J. Cash, a southern liberal who wrote his classic The Mind of the South in the late 1930s, identified the willingness to respond to an insult with a Bowie knife or a revolver as a sign of southern manhood going back at least to the 18th century. Such threats, indeed, were common in the House and Senate on the eve of the Civil War, and I wonder if I shall live to see Republicans demand that legislators once again be allowed to bring weapons with them onto the floor. And although many of us are not aware of it, the willingness spontaneously to respond to threat or provocation with murder is also enshrined in the most famous and widely read of all books about the American South, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. There, indeed, such conduct becomes a laudable aspect not only of white southern manhood, but of white southern womanhood as well.
Chapter XXVI of Gone With the Wind takes place in the midst of Sherman's march through Georgia,with Scarlet, her sister, and the saintly Melanie Wilkes huddling together in Tara without the necessities of life. One day a lone Yankee, sporting an unkempt beard, rides up to Tara and crosses the threshold, in search, Scarlet is certain, of something to steal. He enters with a drawn pistol, but when Scarlet confronts him and he sees that he has only a woman to deal with, he puts it back in his holster. As soon as he does so, Scarlet, who has armed herself, gets the draw on him and shoots him dead in the face. She initially feels some ambivalence over what she has done, but then, dear Melanie runs into the room and takes the scene in. "In silence her eyes met Scarlet's," the book continues. "there was a glow of grim pride in her naturally gentle face, approbation and a fiere joy in her smile that equaled the fiery tumult in Scarlet's own bosom.
"'What--why--she's like me! She understands how I feel!' thought Scarlet in that long moment. 'She'd have done the same thing!'
"With a thrill she looked up at the frail swaying girl for whom she had never had any feelings but of dislike and contempt. Now, struggling against hatred for Ashley's wife, there surged a feeling of admiration and comradeship. She saw in a flash of clarity untouched by any petty emotion that beneath the gentle voice and the dovelike eyes of Melanie there was a thin flashing blade of unbreakable steel, felt too that there were banners and bugles of courage in Melanie's quiet blood."
Nor is this all. Rhett Butler could hardly have won the heart of such a woman had he not shown similar qualities himself, and Mitchell allows him to recount his own moment of glory when he encounters Scarlett after the war after a stint in jail after he killed a black man. "I'll take an oath you weren't innocent," Scarlett says, after he explains how he bribed his way out with the help of a corrupt Yankee who is "quite high in the councils of the federal government."
"'No, now that I am free of the toils, I'll frankly admit that I'm as guilty as Cain," Rhett replies. "I did kill the nigger. He was uppity to a lady, and what else could a Southern gentleman do? And while I'm confessing, I must admit that I shot a Yankee cavalryman after some words in a barroom. I was not charged with that pecadillo, so perhaps some other poor devil has been hanged for it, long since.'"
[I apologize to anyone whom I offended, but I was quoting an American classic and I remain faithful to one ideal of the 1960s, the idea that words do not kill.)
Now I do not know exactly how the NRA adopted its new philosophy of self-defense or where the wording of the Florida statute came from, but it is clear that its effect, if not its purpose, is to legalize exactly the murders that Scarlet and Rhett committed. (The laws do contain an exception protecting law enforcement personnel doing their duty, but it is very clear that neither Scarlet nor her creator see the dastardly union soldier in that light.) Rhett could claim that the black man was threatening to commit a rape and that the Yankee was threatening violence, and even his bribe would no longer be necessary. Richard Zimmerman, of course, has not appeared in court yet.
The movie version of Gone With the Wind omitted these particular episodes, partly out of the sensibilities of its producers for whom racial prejudice meant anti-Semitism, and partly, undoubtedly, because northern audiences would not have been able to reconcile them with their own ideas of Scarlet, Rhett, and especially Melanie. Yet the beliefs they represented remained strong well into the 1960s, at which time no white man had yet been convicted of killing a black man in the state of Mississippi. The question is whether there is in fact an unbroken line of thought and feeling running from the antebellum South through Reconstruction and now, all the way into the NRA in its present-day form. The Florida law is a license pre-emptively to kill anyone whom the shooter believe threatens murder, injury, or the commission of a "forcible felony." If such laws now remain on the books, much of the United States may become a very different country.
And once again, the Martin-Zimmerman case is becoming another marker of our cultural divide, rather than an attempt to re-think an important issue of public policy. We are focusing on whether Zimmerman was a bigot or whether Martin was a good or bad kid, not on whether citizens of any race should have the right to pick a fight and turn it into an excuse for murder. Thousands march for the arrest of one man, not for the repeal of the law that seems to have prevented the investigation that should have taken place. President Obama, fighting for swing states where the NRA vote is strong, mentioned that if he had a son "he would look like Trayvon," but did not dare speak against the stand your ground law itself. I hope some one does.