Streetwise Professor

March 10, 2018

The FT Takes Aim at My Gun Toting Ancestors, and Misses!

Filed under: Guns,History,Politics — The Professor @ 2:48 pm

I seldom read the FT anymore–with a few exceptions, it is unreadable. I never read the FT opinion pieces any more–they are unreadable, without exception.  But the photo on this FT tweet brought me up short, and compelled me to click through to the article: my relatives! Really: my mother’s grandmother’s family were Hatfields, and cousins of the famous/notorious West Virginia feud family in the picture.

The article is an attempt–kind of–to explain to superior Brits those “barking mad” Americans and their “distinctly American attitudes towards guns and family.”  Note the sneering title: America has a gun “fixation.”

The article (by the FT’s chief editorial writer, Robert Armstrong) is largely correct in its history: American attitudes towards guns are deeply rooted in history.  Irritatingly, Armstrong’s attitude is condescending and dismissive: he clearly considers this to be a barbarous atavism.

Armstrong’s take is also quite superficial, and misses something that I have pointed out in a previous post: namely, that among many Americans, the right to bear arms is the most tangible badge of individual liberty and autonomy.  Slaves are disarmed: free men answerable only to God can arm themselves. For those who value individual freedom above all, guns have an importance that post-modern people like Armstrong who do not value personal liberty so highly, and whose values are more collectivist, not only cannot really grasp, but recoil from in horror.

A couple of remarks.  The first is that while Armstrong bewails “America’s destructive gun culture,” which he claims causes the “grisly status quo,” he utterly fails to acknowledge that the toll of gun violence today is actually quite low in the precincts where “gun culture” is most deeply rooted. Indeed, the vast bulk of gun deaths in the US occurs miles away–geographically and culturally–from the hollers of the Tug River Valley where Devil Anse once roamed, and other locales where “gun culture” is the norm. This objective fact poses insuperable logical obstacles for Armstrong and his lot, because it flies in the face of his assertion that there is a link between the gun culture in Jacksonian America and the “grisly” toll of gun deaths in the US: Mingo County ain’t Fuller Park or Englewood.  If it’s a culture issue, it’s thug culture, not gun culture.

This is a major reason–arguably the primary reason–why the gun debate in the US is so intractable: “I’m not the one shooting anybody. Why should I give up my guns because of someone else’s criminality or insanity?” And this is at root a deeply philosophical divide that pits people like Armstrong against those he believes to be atavists.  It is a divide between a belief in individual responsibility and accountability vs. a collectivist mindset.

This relates to the second point. I find it deeply ironic that post-Trump the Armstrongs of the world have warned of the impending descent of authoritarianism on America all the while decrying the resurgence of the benighted Jacksonians that still inhabit the less refined corners of America–whom they also largely blame for Trump’s victory. Well, hate to break it to you, Bob, but these people are the most ardent anti-authoritarians in the US. This anti-authoritarianism goes hand-in-hand with the emphasis on the primacy of personal liberty which drives the “gun culture.”

This goes back a long way in history. My branch of the Hatfields were Whiskey Rebels in Washington County, PA, and decamped from there for points west after the U.S. Army crushed the rebellion in 1791. The Whiskey Rebellion was an archetypal battle between the anti-authoritarian and elite elements in American society that echoes in today’s struggle over guns.

What animates the resistance (and yes, this is a real resistance, not the faux virtue signalling Hillary Meets Hollywood “Resistance”) that rallies around the gun issue is an instinctive anti-authoritarianism.  It is a resistance to the the “soft despotism” that de Toqueville presciently perceived at the height of the Jacksonian Era:

Thus, After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience. I do not deny, however, that a constitution of this kind appears to me to be infinitely preferable to one which, after having concentrated all the powers of government, should vest them in the hands of an irresponsible person or body of persons. Of all the forms that democratic despotism could assume, the latter would assuredly be the worst.

When the sovereign is elective, or narrowly watched by a legislature which is really elective and independent, the oppression that he exercises over individuals is sometimes greater, but it is always less degrading; because every man, when he is oppressed and disarmed, may still imagine that, while he yields obedience, it is to himself he yields it, and that it is to one of his own inclinations that all the rest give way. In like manner, I can understand that when the sovereign represents the nation and is dependent upon the people, the rights and the power of which every citizen is deprived serve not only the head of the state, but the state itself; and that private persons derive some return from the sacrifice of their independence which they have made to the public.

It’s the better thans who presume that the country will be a better place if they lead and the great unwashed defer to their superior wisdom and virtue vs. those who don’t want to be led by anybody and who think that the presumed leaders are self-impressed asses, and often malign ones at that.

This is why Parkland has been even more polarizing than other mass shootings in the US–it is a stark example of elite failure at every level.  Armstrong notes this at the outset of his piece:

“None of the events in Parkland have taught me to trust others to protect my family. And certainly none of the events in Parkland have built my trust in government.” That is David French, of the National Review, who is in my view the smartest of the American gun rights advocates. French sees America’s last mass shooting — in Parkland, Florida — as born of incompetence and cowardice. The FBI was tipped off and did nothing. Local law enforcement knew the shooter was dangerous and did nothing. The armed officer at the school waited outside, listening to gunshots, as the rampage went on.

So for French, the massacre shows why gun rights are important, not why they should be curtailed. The government cannot be counted on to protect your family. It is up to you.

Armstrong fails utterly to confront the fact of “incompetence and cowardice.” It is undeniable that it occurred. The question is: was it was a fluke or systemic? That matters–but rather than meeting this crucial issue head on, he merely dismisses it in a conclusory fashion by saying he “rejects French’s view.” A rejection based on neither argument nor evidence, and therefore worth nothing.

What it comes down to is that the gun issue is only the most highly charged manifestation of the deeper conflict that de Toqueville identified the year before the Alamo between the supporters of soft despotism (which is often not that soft) and those who “wish to remain free.”  So yes, this is a conflict with deep historical roots.  But that does not mean that the conflict is anything like Armstrong describes it, between primitive atavists and enlightened moderns. Unless, however, you believe that individual liberty is an atavism unfit for modern times.

And if you are one of those people, you should realize–though you probably don’t–that it is precisely that attitude which galvanizes the intense opposition against you on guns.

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  1. Brexit broke the FT, just like Trump broke most of the media. The FT was always had a partisan undercurrent (Sam Brittan, etc. and their constant push for EU dominance). Now that they are losing, their true colors are coming out. It is unfortunate because for a time, it was the only rag worth reading; there was enough fairly unbiased reporting, namely it was the only business focused paper that gave a truly global viewpoint. Alas, no more, but at least I no longer have to see the name Martin Wolf and get riled up because of the token mainstream/Davos view that he inevitably would provide.

    Comment by Danny — March 10, 2018 @ 3:59 pm

  2. Just back from shooting and it’s great to see the blog back. Great piece, btw.

    Comment by The Pilot — March 10, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

  3. @Danny–I couldn’t agree more. I was about to write in the piece that Brexit had caused the FT to lose its mind but left that out because it interrupted the flow. But it is certainly true. The descent into madness can be dated precisely, to June, 2016.

    @The Pilot–Thanks! Great to be back. Glad you like the piece.

    Comment by The Professor — March 10, 2018 @ 6:36 pm

  4. Almost all discussions on American gun control which take place in Britain, Australia, and Europe is a vehicle to signal one’s sophistication, in contrast to those deeply vulgar Americans. If anyone was to use similar language about another aspect of foreign culture – say, the rather odd (to me) habit of Muslims praying five times per day – they’d be run out of town on a rail. It’s old-fashioned British snobbery, nothing more.

    Comment by Tim Newman — March 11, 2018 @ 2:40 am

  5. “Armstrong’s attitude is condescending and dismissive: he clearly considers this to be a barbarous atavism” – looks like this attitude is itself a rather pathetic atavism rooted in history. Whenever stumbling on a youtube clip with some imported British clown like John Oliver or Piers Morgan, I can never lose the impression they have not really grasped the fact that the redcoats have been shipped home (or worse) a long time ago.

    Comment by Ivan — March 11, 2018 @ 8:51 am

  6. @Ivan–I think it’s less that they haven’t grasped it, than that they still haven’t gotten over it. Resentful and bitter.

    Comment by The Professor — March 11, 2018 @ 12:14 pm

  7. @Tim–Totally. It’s a socially acceptable bigotry. Or worse–a socially encouraged and rewarded bigotry.

    Comment by The Professor — March 11, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

  8. I can’t agree that this is anything to do with the loss of the American colonies. It is, as Tim Newman says, merely snobbery: people who say this sort of thing (British or American) come – always – from the group that is quickest to disdain their fellow countrymen on Guardian-type snobbish grounds.

    And creeps like Oliver and Morgan have had such success in America because American networks are keen to pay them. You probably have a better understanding than I do of why that might be.

    Comment by Fen Tiger — March 12, 2018 @ 5:25 am

  9. I was willing to listen to the “sensible” gun control crowd. Then it devolved into gun confiscation-which has been introduced in the Illinois House and Senate. I was in California recently and was touring the after effects of the wildfires which were started because a quasi-govt agency didn’t maintain it’s power lines. It was a freak of nature, like an earthquake or an avalanche. Society broke down and people had to evacuate their homes because of the fire. Of course, as soon as they did, the looters showed up.

    When the angry person shows up at your door and wants to kick it in it’s not clear that law enforcement can get there. Especially if you are in the country, but even in the city it could take too much time.

    That’s why you need a gun. Calling 911 isn’t going to help when a natural disaster occurs.

    Additionally, not everyone wants a .44 magnum pistol. Many of these so called “assault weapons” are designed to have less recoil. Someone who is less physically able, like an older person or a female, might like the fact that their weapon they can use to defend themselves isn’t going to give them one shot at doing it.

    The final insult to injury in California was this. Because building codes have changed people that lost their homes were underinsured. They can’t afford to rebuild.

    Comment by Jeff — March 12, 2018 @ 10:19 am

  10. Oh Prof! You screwed up.

    Robert Armstrong may be writer for the FT but he’s one of your lot. An American! Possibly a Yankee. (Us rootless cosmopolitans call all Americans Yankees failing to distinguish between blue-blood Bostonians and hillbillies)

    Robert Armstrong
    Robert Armstrong joined Lex in 2011 in New York, but is now based in London. Before joining the FT, he was a senior columnist at Dow Jones Investment Banker and an equity analyst at Seminole Capital Partners. He earned his PhD in philosophy at Columbia University and a BA in philosophy at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He is also a CFA charterholder.

    Comment by Simple Simon — March 12, 2018 @ 11:49 am

  11. The gun control debate, especially its Parkland manifestation, is not about the deaths of children.

    Were people truly angered over the tragic deaths of children, they’d be shouting to ban cars. About 1200 children between ages 1-5 are killed every year on American highways. A like number in ages 6-10, and another like ages 11-15.

    That’s about 3600 children killed per year in traffic deaths; 300 per month; 10 per day. Can anyone imagine the outcry were 10 children per day gunned down?

    The demographic shows the debate is not about deaths, but about guns and about removing guns from the hands of people; nothing else but that.

    If anyone has not read it, I can recommend John Lot’s More Guns, Less Crime. Lot shows that gun owners are highly law abiding and civil. He also shows at the county level that crime decrements as gun ownership increments.

    His analysis has been disputed in the academic literature. But the the papers that dispute his results have themselves been disputed (by third parties). So I’ve not seen an analysis that definitively refutes his result. I suspect it will not be definitively refuted.

    You’ve got it right, Prof. The gun debate is really about collectivists wanting to put an end to individualists and their personal freedom.

    It’s my view that the Enlightenment was a cultural speciation event. Cultural collectivists (the parent species) is now disputing the cultural ecology with the upstart cultural individualist species. The attempt at gun control is a central part of that struggle. So is the struggle between Socialism and capitalism, and between totalitarianism and democratic republicanism. I believe the struggle is to the death.

    Also forgotten in this dispute is that no right is free from its abuse.

    Abuse of rights by some does not abrogate the rights of all.

    Comment by Pat Frank — March 12, 2018 @ 8:16 pm

  12. @Simon. Hardly. I knew Armstrong is American–it is clear from the article, namely the mention of how his family had outgrown its horrible Scots-Irish past.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 13, 2018 @ 11:13 am

  13. @Fen Tiger–because there are “elite” gits who think that a British accent conveys superior sophistication and intelligence.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 13, 2018 @ 11:14 am

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