Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A History of Violence, or Why Sarah Palin Knows Exactly What She Is Saying

Why are Americans so enamored with guns and violence? What is the dog-whistle code in which Sarah Palin is speaking when she urges her Tea Party followers not to "retreat" but to "reload" with the "U.S. and Alabama flags" whipping in the wind behind her? Why does she insist on using the images of crosshairs on a map on which she "targets" Democratic incumbents?

Recognizing that the question of why we are so violent and into guns is well covered ground, here are what I would consider the primary historical factors.

First, our country was born out of armed conflict with -- an insurgency against -- Great Britain. Armed revolt holds a hallowed place in our history.

Second, the land on which our country was founded, and on which it grew, was ripped from the original inhabitants at gunpoint and (often) through actual slaughter. Might equalled right of possession in early American history. The image of swarthy savages being held off and precious beacons of (European) civilization spared through the use of violence is a standard part of American mythology.

Third, our nation relied heavily, in the first half of its history, on the peculiar institution of slavery, which was policed and managed through violence. The plantation masters' monopoly on violence and weapons allowed them to contain and discipline their slaves, who of course outnumbered their European masters.

The legacy of all of this is to lend a very special weight to the Tea Partier's -- and especially Palin's -- fixation on guns and arms. They are not simply referencing the celebrated history of armed resistance against the tyranny of King George; they are also referencing the greater firepower that allowed Europeans to clear the land of the savages and the monopoly on violence that allowed Europeans to enslave Africans. That's why, I believe, Palin knows exactly what she's doing in deploying her reckless terminology.

Fear of a Black President

To the Tea Party contingent, guns represent (1) what they view as their sacred right to violently overthrow the tyranny of a government lead by a black, crypto-Muslim man; (2) the power/right with which this land was claimed by their European ancestors (i.e. "true, blue-blooded [sic] Americans"), and (3) the force with which Africans (not so different from the ones currently living in the White House) were kept subjugated and obedient. Given our current position in history, one quickly sees why Palin's choice of words has so much resonance among this crowd. The Tea Partiers represent a dwindling demographic, feeling threatened by the encroaching blacks and browns, convinced that they are oppressed by a tyrannical government (from which a good number of them are happy to receive governmental assistance) run by a socialist crypto-Muslim half-breed.

The crypto-Confederate flag of Alabama, which was flown proudly behind Palin at the Searchlight, Nevada Tea Party rally.

Considering the recent rash of violence and threats in the wake of the passage of Health Care Reform, the charges against Christian militants in the midwest, etc., I hope that the reckless incitements of Palin and her fellow travellers -- and their moral responsibility -- are not forgotten should someone inspired by her or her crowd act upon those words.


Andy said...

Don't fall for the media hype about "right-wingers." The reality is staggering - Moody's on March 15 warned that this Administration's exploding debt will cause a downgrade of Treasury bonds. By the Administration's own account, the deficit will be 12.7 trillion by 2020. Not one of the Administration's proposals reduces the deficit. This Administration is glutinous in its spending. For example, the first stimulus plan had 19.6 billion in special deal earmarks. And the first stimulus itself was 787 billion. We should not amuse ourselves with creative Sarah Palin cross-hair searches, when we should be reducing the tax and spend mentality of the current Administration before our current stagnant economy really goes in the tank.

Tom said...

There should be more pro-quinoa policy, it's gluten-free.

Tom said...

Somewhat more seriously, there is nothing amusing about Palin's use of cross-hairs and her violent discourse. The national debt was obviously not the point. But Ron, your history of violence leaps unnecessarily from the mid-19th century to the present. What about the collapse of reconstruction and the disputes between states (and citizens) who wished to regain the monopoly on violence from the federal "occupiers" and thereby reassert their means of social control? And why was Robert F. Williams so disturbing to folks in Union County, NC and beyond when he asserted his right to arm himself (and his fellow NAACP members and neighbors) for self-defense? Deep roots reach to the history you sketch out, but there are more recent patterns that are relevant too.

Anonymous said...

Her language is understandable given the movement to disarm the public. What are people supposed to do? Roll over?

In Switzerland everyone is armed, by law, and they don't glamorize guns. It would be great to achieve the same level of maturity in the US.

I don't know if you've ever lived in a police state or a corrupt regime, or if you can imagine it. History moves quickly.