When Democracy Interferes with Freedom

No one plans a vacation in Houston – it’s a rather nasty place. There’s a reason their football team is called the Oilers – that’s what the city is about, oil and big money, and it’s hot as hell too. The baseball team is the Astros, named that because NASA put their Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston back in 1961 – but they had to build that Astrodome thing for the baseball team, an air-conditioned indoor stadium. Playing outdoors might kill you, what with all the giant refineries and chemical plants doing what they do. Those explode now and then, and now and then a hurricane barrels in from the Gulf. Then there was Enron, headquartered there. They were not nice people, but it’s a big city of big money, and no one is all that particular about how you make that big money. Lots of corporations are headquartered there and the port is always full of giant tankers – it’s kind of the petrochemical center of the universe. Perhaps that makes Houston the nation’s most important city. A dozen years ago those bad guys flew those airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but that was symbolic. If they wanted to do real damage they would have flown all three down to Houston, the energy capital of America – but three more massive fireballs there wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. It’s that kind of place. It’s even more American than Las Vegas. It’s who we really are.

That’s probably why the National Rifle Association had their big convention there. It’s Texas too, in all its in-your-face George Bush and Rick Perry glory. Don’t mess with Texas. It’s a threat. And the convention was three days of don’t-mess-with-us speeches – that Sandy Hook massacre, and the one in Aurora, and the mass killing that left Gabby Giffords with a big chunk of her brain blown away, and Virginia Tech before that, and Columbine long ago, those don’t mean a thing. Ninety percent of the country wanted to expand background checks so nuts couldn’t buy guns, the families of the victims met with senators and congressmen and were all over the airwaves, the president finally took a stand and said pass this background check bill, and said it over and over, all over the country – and the National Rifle Association stopped the whole thing cold.

It was a celebration. No one was going to push them around – not even the overwhelming majority. Every politician in America was afraid of them. Those politicians all fell in line. Those few who didn’t hated freedom, and freedom is more important than what people want and who and what they vote for. No one would take their guns, and everyone should be armed – no questions asked. How else would anyone ever feel in control of their lives? Patriots believe in freedom, not democracy.

No, that can’t be right. Those two words are supposed to go together. That was the whole problem that the convention tried to work out, so the talk moved to general principles:

A parade of conservative politicians – including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry – assailed Obama and cast the fight over gun control as part of a broader culture war.

“This is about what kind of people we are and what kind of country we want to be,” said Palin, who stood at the podium in a black-and-pink t-shirt featuring moose antlers and the slogan “women hunt.” Cruz bragged about his filibuster of gun legislation and received a standing ovation. Back in the Senate, even his GOP colleagues had urged him and others who joined him not to be too public in their protests.

Sure, but bigger things were afoot. This wasn’t about guns, as the Los Angeles Times’ Robin Abcarian notes here:

The message is: If you feel devastated about the slaughters of Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Tucson, instead of trying to prevent crazy people from acquiring weapons, you should do something constructive.

Like pray.

“Where we see tragedy,” said NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox, “Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg, they see opportunity. While we pray for God to comfort those suffering unimaginable pain, they rush to microphones and cameras, gather in war rooms on Capitol Hill and scheme about how to use that suffering to push their political agenda.”

Yeah, that makes sense.

I can definitely see where praying is much more effective than trying to pass universal background checks for gun purchases, limit the size of magazines or ban assault weapons.

And there was the queen of the convention:

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who once sipped on a Big Gulp during a speech to tweak soda-averse New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, delighted the NRA crowd when she threatened to open a can of chewing tobacco to protest Bloomberg’s attempts to limit cigarette displays in stores.

“The politics of emotion,” Palin said, are governing current attempts to enact common-sense gun restrictions. “It’s not just self-serving, it’s destructive,” she said. “And it must stop.” …

“Second Amendment rights are personal to me,” said Palin, who explained that her youngest son’s nickname is “Trigger,” her nephew’s middle name is “Remington,” her oldest son is a combat vet. “I could go on and on about the connections there.”

I bet she could.

However, if your first-grader died in a hail of bullets in the classroom, you, and the president who agrees with you about limits on gun ownership, are expected to shut up and grieve in silence.

You can’t be trusted to understand the gun debate.

You’re too emotional.

It was all very odd, and somewhat predictable, as Steve Benen notes:

The NRA presented its familiar faces (Wayne LaPierre), its familiar villains (President Obama, Michael Bloomberg), it’s friends who are struggling to remain relevant (Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin), and a whole bunch of Republicans who are likely to run for president (Santorum, Perry, Walker, and Jindal).

Of course, it also presented a sadly predictable ugly side. One vendor at the convention, for example, sold “life-sized” torsos made to look like the president, which “bleed when you shoot them.” Asked if the Obama likeness was intentional, the vendor told BuzzFeed, “Let’s just say I gave my Republican father one for Christmas.”

Looking ahead, one of the more notable developments for the organization is the election of James Porter, an Alabama attorney, as the group’s new president.

So LaPierre is gone, and David Keene, the former chairman of the American Conservative Union, has served as NRA president, but the new guy, who says this about far more than guns, is something special:

As shown by his “culture war” comment Friday and others in his past, Porter’s style is likely to be one that fans the flames of an emotionally combustible debate.

Porter has called President Barack Obama a “fake president,” Attorney General Eric Holder “rabidly un-American” and the U.S. Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression.” On Friday, he repeated his call for training every U.S. citizen in the use of standard military firearms, to allow them to defend themselves against tyranny.


That last point is of particular interest. Our friends at “All In with Chris Hayes” aired a Porter clip on Friday’s show that stood out for me: “Our most greatest [sic] charges that we can have today is to train the civilian in the use of the standard military firearm, so when they have to fight for their country, they are ready do it. Also, when they are ready to fight tyranny, they are ready to do it. Also, when they are ready to fight tyranny, they have the wherewithal and weapons to do it.”

Porter hasn’t specified who, exactly, the tyrants might be, but it sounds as if he wants American civilians to be trained to use military weapons in case they need to commit acts of violence against the United States.

Ed Kilgore takes it from there:

The National Rifle Association’s new president, James Porter of Birmingham, Alabama, likes to talk about the importance of the Second Amendment as a way to ensure the American people will be able to “resist tyranny” – i.e., shoot and kill law enforcement officers, members of the U.S. armed services, and presumably anyone else (you know, like their neighbors) who might disagree with their definition of their essential “liberties” – at some undefined point in the future. And while I’ve not yet seen evidence of him calling Barack Obama a “tyrant” (though he has called him a “fake president”) I’d be shocked if it doesn’t exist.

So let’s put it this way: Porter seems to be highly representative of the amazingly common type of contemporary “conservatives” who combine extremist language about their political opponents with violent language about their political options – who in effect point their guns at “liberals” while making it known they and they alone will decide what “liberties” to surrender, democracy or laws be damned.

Democracy and freedom somehow got separated along the way, and not nicely:

It makes it worse that Porter is one of the old boys who thinks it hilarious to refer to the American Civil War as the “war of northern aggression” (as “we” put it “down south,” he said to a New York crowd recently). Since that war, whatever else it represented, was without question an armed revolution against the government of the United States, you have to wonder if the Confederacy – or as it was commonly referred to in the north for many decades, “the Rebellion” – is Porter’s model for defense of oneself against “tyranny” (you may recall that John Wilkes Booth shouted “Sic semper tyrannus” – “thus always to tyrants”) after shooting Lincoln.

Am I perhaps being unfair to these people in suggesting that they are behaving like America-haters and are flirting with treason?

That may be unfair, and it’s quite logical too. Earlier, Kilgore had noted about this poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University reporting that 29% of Americans, and 44% of Republicans, think “in the next few years, an armed revolution may be necessary to protect our liberties.” At the time Kilgore said this:

It was taken in the context of understanding the sources of hard-core opposition to gun regulation measures, and sure seemed to indicate a subscription to Second Amendment absolutism that’s deeper than anything we’ve seen before. You can dismiss it for its sample size or its question order or its wording if you want, but I’m sorry: when nearly half the self-identified members of one of our two major political parties in any sample looks benignly on the possibility of “armed revolution” – particularly when it’s the supposedly conservative party – we’ve got real problems.

Kilgore sees trouble ahead:

I’ve preached for a good long while now that the absolute minimum the rest of us can expect from the leaders of the Republican Party and the conservative movement is to spend some serious time declaring anathemas against any talk on the Right of some “right to revolution,” particularly in the context of discussions of the possession of lethal weapons. Combine a “right to revolution” with the belief that most people voting for Barack Obama are baby-killing looters who are revolting against God’s very specific plan for America as laid right out there in the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution, and you could get some unfortunate consequences, beginning, obviously, with a lot of people whose commitment to the rule of law and democratic procedures is perpetually conditional.

We need to get right in the faces of people blandly asserting a “right to revolution” and make sure they explicitly acknowledge that “armed revolution” is not some sort of Independence Day parade, but the very tangible enterprise of taking weapons and spilling the blood and taking the lives of police officers and members of the United States Armed Forces. Even if they continue to maintain that “right” as a remote, 1% contingency if America becomes a very different place, perhaps they’ll be less likely to talk as though it’s a lively proposition that might be triggered by next week’s health care regulations or next year’s adverse election results.

But our main target ought to be the politicians and pundits and bloggers that walk the revolutionary rhetorical road because it’s “entertaining” or it makes them feel all macho (like Grover Norquist swaggering around Washington with a “I’d rather be killing commies” button after one of his trips to Angola in the 1980s), or it’s just useful to have an audience or a political base mobilized to a state of near-violence by images of fire and smoke and iron and blood.

One must be logical about such things:

You can only imagine how these self-appointed guardians of liberty would feel if casual talk of “armed revolution” became widespread on the left or among those people. There should not and cannot be a double standard on this issue.

So please join me in calling on conservatives to cut this crap out and separate themselves from those who believe in vindicating the “original constitution” or defending their property rights or exalting their God or protecting the unborn via armed revolution. If William F. Buckley could “excommunicate” Robert Welch and the John Birch Society from the conservative movement back in the 1960s, today’s leaders on the Right can certainly do the same to those who not only share many of that Society’s views, but are willing to talk about implementing them by killing cops and soldiers.

That’s not going to happen, and Kilgore now says this:

Porter and those like him could dispel this sort of suspicion instantly, any time they wanted, by just saying: “Let’s be clear: the kind of ‘tyranny’ we are arming ourselves to forestall is something entirely different from anything Americans have experienced since we won our independence – a regime engaged in the active suppression of any sort of dissent, and the closure of any peaceful means for the redress of grievances. We’re not talking about the current administration, or either major political party, as presently representing a threat of tyranny.”

I’m not holding my breath for any statements like that to emerge from the NRA, or indeed, from the contemporary conservative movement. It’s ironic that people who almost certainly think of themselves as patriots – perhaps as super-patriots – are deliberately courting the impression that loyalty to their country is strictly contingent on the maintenance of laws and policies they favor, to be achieved if not by ballots then by bullets. Republican politicians should be repudiating such people instead of celebrating them, accepting their money and support, and even adopting their seditious rhetoric.

Kevin Drum seconds that:

Normally, I’d brush this off as nothing more than a guy blowing off steam in front of a friendly audience. And to a large extent, I do. Still, Ed is right. If an imam in Brooklyn toured the country saying stuff like this, no one would just laugh it off. Ditto for a Black Panther or the head of the American communist party. Fox News would go ballistic.

This kind of stuff has gone well beyond the stage of being a joke or merely a way to rally the troops, and it’s long past time for some of the alleged adults in the conservative movement to rein it in. Enough is enough. Guns have never been a hot button for me in the past, but the NRA is sure working hard to make them into one.

But maybe it’s not guns, as Kilgore wrote this back in 2005:

In the Judeo-Christian tradition one who takes a prophetic stance believes the moral and spiritual conditions of a society have become so depraved that the faithful are obliged to step outside the normal bounds of civility and respect for authority and call down the righteous wrath of God. Taking a prophetic stance is by definition exceptional; occasionally essential, but always spiritually as well as politically dangerous. And that is why true prophets are so greatly honored, and false prophets are so feared and despised.

My guess is that the leaders of the religious right know how perilous their adoption of the prophetic stance truly is. And this knowledge explains, better than any other factor, the remarkable tone of paranoia, self-pity, and even hysteria that has come to characterize their political utterances…

The prophetic stance is rapidly leading the religious right and its political allies into contempt for their own country and their fellow citizens, because, after all, the prophetic stance is implicitly reserved as an extraordinary response to fundamentally wicked societies.

And now Kilgore adds this:

So yes, there is a moral “right to revolution” just as there is a moral obligation to take a “prophetic stance” on extremely rare occasions (particularly in a country like the United States, with its many avenues for free speech and activism). When either becomes just another lever of political or cultural conflict, it quite naturally elevates the stakes to the level of virtual warfare, dehumanizing the “enemy,” and debasing all discourse.

Kilgore is just trying to figure out why revolutionary rhetoric is becoming so routine these days:

Some of it stems from the kind of “constitutional conservatism” that elevates every political or policy dispute to a question of basic patriotism or even obedience to Almighty God. But a big part of it can also be attributed to cynical opportunists who manipulate those fearful (usually without much cause) of tyranny for their own very conventional ends – usually power and money.

Maybe this cannot be stopped, but something can be done:

At a minimum, those who toy with the idea of overthrowing our government to stop Obamacare or prevent gun regulation need to stand up to the charge that they hate America. It will make them crazy to hear it, but it’s the truth.

Yep, it will make then crazy to hear it. They’ll say America is freedom, not democracy – or they’ll try to fudge the issue.

Paul Krugman said this after the Tucson shooting:

I remembered the upsurge in political hatred after Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 – an upsurge that culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing. And you could see, just by watching the crowds at McCain-Palin rallies, that it was ready to happen again. The Department of Homeland Security reached the same conclusion: in April 2009 an internal report warned that right-wing extremism was on the rise, with a growing potential for violence.

Conservatives denounced that report. But there has, in fact, been a rising tide of threats and vandalism aimed at elected officials, including both Judge John Roll, who was killed Saturday, and Representative Gabrielle Giffords. One of these days, someone was bound to take it to the next level. And now someone has.

It’s true that the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled. But that doesn’t mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.

Last spring Politico.com reported on a surge in threats against members of Congress, which were already up by 300 percent. A number of the people making those threats had a history of mental illness – but something about the current state of America has been causing far more disturbed people than before to act out their illness by threatening, or actually engaging in, political violence.

The NRA was toying with their Houston convention, so what Krugman said more than two years ago still applies:

It’s important to be clear here about the nature of our sickness. It’s not a general lack of “civility” – the favorite term of pundits who want to wish away fundamental policy disagreements. Politeness may be a virtue, but there’s a big difference between bad manners and calls, explicit or implicit, for violence; insults aren’t the same as incitement.

The point is that there’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.

That was two years ago, and this is now:

Adam Kokesh, 31, is planning a July 4 rally of pro-gun activists openly carrying rifles from Virginia to Washington as an act of “civil disobedience.” The plan, according to his Facebook event page, is to march across Memorial Bridge with rifles loaded and slung across the back “to put the government on notice that we will not be intimidated [and] cower in submission to tyranny.”

The invite continues, stating that this “will be a non-violent event, unless the government chooses to make it violent.”

Kokesh writes that if 10,000 attendees RSVP by June 1st, “we have the critical mass necessary to pull this off.” He said he wants to have at least 1,000 actually marching in the event, and as of this writing, more than 1,400 have said they were going.

What could possibly go wrong? They’re simply patriots who believe in freedom, so don’t mess with them or tell them what the so-called “people” want. They’ve got guns.

Don’t mess with them. Don’t mess with Texas. It all fits together. In fact, it all fit together in Houston.

Houston, we’ve got a problem.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to When Democracy Interferes with Freedom

  1. Rick says:

    When you think of it, the NRA is sort of a KKK for gun owners.

    I wonder if it’s possible for the U.S. government to declare it a terrorist organization. It is, after all, a bigger threat to this country than Hezbollah ever was in its wildest dreams.

    Kilgore’s got a point when he says “You can only imagine how these self-appointed guardians of liberty would feel if casual talk of ‘armed revolution’ became widespread on the left or among those people.”

    In fact, I can almost imagine a bunch of “liberals” going out and legally buying guns — which can be done quite easily, thanks to the NRA, and since there’s no registry, nobody will even know they’ve done it — and following what the Porter dude has suggested, get themselves quietly trained as snipers, then go around hiding in bushes, picking off Wayne LaPierre and Porter and Palin and everyone who ever cheered them on, one-by-one, until all those people are gone. And maybe then we could get sensible gun control legislation in this country. But no, I’m not advocating this, even if it would serve them right.

    To the South’s credit, they’re letting all their people, even in the backwoods of Alabama, who still call it “The War of Northern Aggression” to slowly die out. Someone needs to tell Porter that up north they don’t call it that, they call it “The War in which We Kicked the Living Shit out of the Crackers and Made Them Give Up their Slaves” — or would call it that if all those Yankees up there lived in the past and still gave a flying fart.

    I find it absolutely amazing that, after 150 years, that war is still being celebrated at all, much less only by the ones who lost it.

    But the common belief that a “right to revolution” was one of the founder’s assumptions in writing the Constitution is truly disturbing. It’s so incredibly stupid that people who say this never get any push-back, any more than if they’d claimed the moon is made of green cheese. Somebody needs to find some way of educating these clowns.

    As for how these people would answer the charge that they “hate America”, I’m guessing they’d say, “No, we are the ones who love America. We’re just trying to take our country back!”


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