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Friday, December 21, 2012

Is civilization in danger?

Once upon a time, modern states, defined by Max Weber as entities exercising a monopoly of legitimate force within specified territories, did not exist. The development of the modern state became the focus of the modern historical profession at least from the late nineteenth century onward, largely under the influence of Leopold von Ranke, the remarkable founder of modern history. I myself investigated this development in Europe fairly thoroughly during the 1980s, when I wrote Politics and War. The opening section of that book dealt with the period 1559-1569, a turbulent century in European history, and I argued that historians had tended to exaggerate the speed of the development of modernity, because I found the politics of every European nation dominated by powerful aristocrats, not states. It took an effort of imagination, I thought then, to picture a society in which the rich, rather than the poor, continually took the law in their own hands, riding around with armed retainers and frequently defying royal authority. Things began to change in the late 17th century, partly because of strong monarchs like Louis XIV and partly, perhaps, because the violence of the previous century had bred its own reaction. The 130 years or so between 1660 and 1790 were in many ways the most productive years of western civilization--not economically, perhaps, but culturally and intellectually.

From 1789 until 1945, the modern state became more and more powerful, both for good and for ill. Moving in tandem with industrialization and new means of transportation and communication, it achieved unprecedented feats of organization in fields ranging from education to public health to war. This process created the world in which I became a young adult, and it is difficult for anyone to realize that the world in which they reached maturity no longer exists. Yet I am beginning to wonder, as I listen to Wayne LaPierre of the NRA respond to the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, is whether that process, here in the United States at least, is in long-term, critical decline. Over the last thirty years a new coalition has emerged which denies most of the principles of the modern state--even, or perhaps I should say especially, the idea that the state should command a monopoly of force.

Now Wayne LaPierre is, ironically, calling for a vast expansion of federal power in response to the crisis: the stationing of professional security personnel in every single school in America. Even more astonishingly, he wants the federal government to pay for it. (I will be extremely interested to see if the House Republicans actually introduce and pass such a bill. I frankly doubt it very much.) What the NRA really stands for is anarchy. Over the last few decades--as Boomers took over its leadership--it has shifted from an organization focused upon the rights of hunters to an organization that believes every citizen should walk around armed, with the right and the power to settle any disputes that might arise with other citizens by force. They have also, in the last twenty years, poured their enormous political capital into allowing Americans to own assault rifles--semi-automatic weapons whose only useful purpose is to kill large numbers of people very quickly. And that is not all. As I learned on Terri Gross's program a few days go, the NRA's Congressional allies--whom it controls to a degree that only AIPAC can rival--have banned both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Center for Disease Control from keeping statistics on the impact of any weapons. This is an attack on the foundation of modern government: the idea that research and analysis can discover problems and find solutions for them. They have also prevented President Obama from appointing a head of ATF for the whole of his Presidency, something which he has not even seen fit to mention, as yet, in the ongoing controversy.

As a child in the 1950s I read a couple of landmark books about the old West, including biographies of Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. These books told how various lawmen had literally civilized the West by enforcing laws that made cowboys check their guns when they came into town to have a good time. Fortunately for those territories, the NRA did not yet exist. It is exactly that step which the NRA has fought, successfully, for many decades now--ever since gun control became a liberal priority 49 years ago after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Worse, gun ownership is increasingly a political issue. Exit polls in the last election showed that 50% of Republican households own guns, but only 22% of Democratic ones do. The rate of gun ownership (although not the number of guns owned) has fallen over the last few decades, but the decline is almost all among Democrats. Black Democrats, I was very surprised to learn, are less than 1/3 as likely to have a gun in their house as white Republicans--although black Republicans, the poll found, are twice as likely to own a gun as black Democrats.

It has now, a few days later, come to light that La Pierre's statement was riddled with hypocrisy as well. He blamed mass shootings largely on video games, but now the New York Times has reported that the most violent video games routinely show weapons readily available for purchase, and sometimes even provide links to the weapon manufacturers' catalogues. The NRA is not in fact an army of ideologues, so much as a subsidiary of the gun industry, which wants to sell assault rifles to make profits. The NRA and the gun manufacturers once again refused to comment for the Times.

A belief in gun ownership is one of the tenets of present-day Republicanism. So are a belief in the superiority of faith over reason, an almost sacred respect for the accumulation of private wealth, and a disdain for the role of government. The South began turning Republican and taking over the Republican party about four decades ago--sadly, in the wake of the triumph of the civil rights movement. Late in the era of segregation, under the New Deal, millions of white southerners became liberals on everything but race, but that trend did not survive the events of the 1960s. White southerners lost faith in government at all levels as soon as it had to look after all citizens equally. Southern friends of mine have assured me that this was not accidental.

Our new civil war is continuing, as shown by the new fight over the budget. There will be no deal before January 1, I feel quite sure, because John Boehner would evidently lose the speakership if he reached agreement with the President when the new Congress convened if there were. (I learned today, by the way, that "Morning Joe" Scarborough had spoken openly about the possibility that Boehner has a serious drinking problem. Based upon his appearance, demeanor, and frequent references to the "Merlot-sipping speaker" in news stories, I had wondered about this myself for some time.)

I'm sorry to celebrate the winter solstice with a post so lacking in holiday spirit, but these posts are driven by the news, and this is what it is. We are, as Strauss and Howe predicted metaphorically, in a political winter, and it seems that it is far from over. The election had no beneficial impact upon the Republican Party and they still control a house of Congress. Their troops are determined to continue waging dau tranh (see the post of May 19, 2012) by any means necessary. We are still at sea and our destination remains unknown.


Zosima said...

“A belief in gun ownership is one of the tenets of present-day Republicanism. So are a belief in the superiority of faith over reason, an almost sacred respect for the accumulation of private wealth, and a disdain for the role of government.”

The guns are necessary for world they have created where greed and irrationality rule. But, all is well, because their faith tells them heaven awaits, as a reward for all the hell they have created on earth. And now they celebrate the birth of Jesus, who they believe would today resemble a CEO with an assault rifle. A perfect circle of madness.

Your essay is so good, it left me speechless...but as you can see that didn’t last. Thanks again. And despite it all---Merry Christmas.

tructor man said...

Thanks for this learned analysis of the direction of our civilization and our country. I fear it is accurate.
Strauss and Howe have shown how "boomers" represent a rejection of the altruism and communal spirit that enabled the US to win WWII and build a grand public education system and begin to repair the centuries of slavery that was perhaps our "original sin". Rejection of those values by segmnents of our people after 1965 or so, has resulted in a "selfishness", a turning inward to new values of greed, me-first, and "anything goes" if it satifies this "me-ism", the 'anarchy'. That's why public schools have lost universal values of fairness and order in the classroom. Boomer parents no longer obey the rules, and they support 'little Johnny', no matter what heinous thing he does or says in school. (Liberal 'political correctness' prevented serious challenge to this surrender of tradititional values...).
Now, the NRA is on the defensive, and we have the changce to rein in their influence -- but only if we act reasonably: we can't ban all guns, but we can get assault weapo0ns not only banned, but off the streets.
I have written to President Obama this week that an assault weapon "Buy-Back Program" could do it. Renew a thorough ban on all assasult weapons (AK-47's, M-15's etc), and require that owners turn them in for reimbursement of purchase price. Give them 90 days to do so, and then impose stiff fines for those who refuse to comply.
Yes, it will cause an uproar, and cost a few hundred $$ millions (partially offset by the fines), but it will get them off the streets.
So now we should write to VP Bidn and Congress to get this done, before another atrocity happens.

steveftw said...

Thanks again for expressing more succinctly than I what I also have been feeling/observing.

I suspect there's some value in examining what appears to be the American Jihadist movement - the mirror to the "others" we apparently still have a need to combat.

I sat in disbelief listening to the NRA - I had allowed some hope that there was a turning instead of a reinforcement - but this is just another face of the new American fundamentalist fascism.

Our President appears to still have no heart for his job, Boehner cannot/is not capable of controlling his caucus, and McConnell has yet to walk back any of his rhetoric.

while I'm a decade younger than you, I too grieve the loss of civic involvement I remember existing in our recent past.

Bozon said...

Thanks for this post.

I use the term civilization in perhaps a now slightly old fashion way, similarly to how Huntington used it.

Your use reflects a still older set of distinctions, it seems to me,

similar to that of locutions like the West and the Rest, etc.

I believe civilization is a plural noun still,

but liberal and conservative market capitalistic globalization, here and elsewhere, has been trying to chip away at those distinctions.

All the best,