From 1967 to 1994, CBS News lightened things up with a weekly feature called On the Road – Charles Kuralt and his crew would visit this little town or that little out-of-the-way corner of America and report on how Americans really lived their lives, and each instance was surprisingly pleasant. The “news” might be awful, but Americans were a good people, if somewhat eccentric, and these segments won Kuralt two Peabody Awards. The real America is in the small news stories from the middle of nowhere, the real heart of America. Everyone smiled.
That seems quaint now. In 1994 things got nasty. That was the year of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution – political and social issues would now be take-no-prisoners confrontational. The Republicans shut down the government to get cuts in Social Security, which they didn’t get. They impeached Bill Clinton, but they couldn’t convict him, and his approval ratings soared, and the Republicans got hammered in the next congressional elections. This only made them angrier. The Charles Kuralt vignettes no longer made sense in an America where we were told by half of those in office to be angry, very angry, all the time. Those on the other side were angry that America was being told to be angry all the time, for no good reason. The Charles Kuralt feature ended in 1994. His health gave out. Fox News launched two years later. Things had shifted. Charles Kuralt died the year after that.
And that was that, except the real America is still in the small news stories from unlikely places. If you want to know America, look there, but don’t expect pleasantness:
Police in Charleston, South Carolina declined to press any charges against a Waffle House customer who shot and killed a man who was reportedly trying to rob the restaurant. According to the WCSC Channel 5, police say 19-year-old Joshua Jermaine Davis of North Charleston entered the Waffle House restaurant on Dorchester Road shortly after 5 a.m. Saturday morning and pulled a gun on the staff, demanding money.
The Charleston Post and Dispatch said that a customer opened fire on Davis. Emergency responders rushed the would-be robber to Medical University Hospital where he died of his injuries.
North Charleston Police spokeswoman Lt. Angela Johnson told Channel 5 that the customer had a valid permit to carry a pistol and that officers will not be pressing any charges.
The Post and Dispatch quoted an officer at the scene as saying, “It says something about firearms… for good people with firearms being in the right hands.”
This has gotten a lot of play on the conservative side of things – as great news. Those who have a valid permit to carry a pistol can take care of the bad guys for the police, who are constrained by rules about the use of deadly force, and can also implicitly bypass the legal system and the courts, which would have had this kid go to trial, where he might get off. Now he’s gone, for good. So, see a crime in progress, any crime at all? Shoot the guy dead. It’ll save everyone a lot of time and trouble and the police will thank you for it – because they can’t do that sort of thing. Someone’s got to make the world right. That’s what guns are for.
That seems a bit odd. We have a legal system for a reason – immediate summary justice in the street with a bullet from a random stranger seems, to some, a bit dangerous – but the idea that guns in the hands of private individuals can make the world right seems to be an idea that’s in the air:
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson staunchly defended his assertion that the Holocaust could have been “greatly diminished” if Jews had been armed with guns in an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.
“It’s not hyperbole at all,” Carson said. “Whether it’s on our doorstep or whether it’s 50 years away, it’s still a concern and it’s something that we must guard against. That’s one of the real purposes of having a constitution. I think the founders were really quite insightful into looking at possibilities and understanding what has happened in other places and trying to put together something that would prevent that from happening here.”
Carson’s doubling down came on the heels of a comment on Thursday in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” Carson said. “I’m telling you there is a reason these dictatorial people take guns first.”
Some didn’t like that:
“It is mind-bending to suggest that personal firearms in the hands of the small number of Germany’s Jews (about 214,000 remaining in Germany in 1938) could have stopped the totalitarian onslaught of Nazi Germany when the armies of Poland, France, Belgium and numerous other countries were overwhelmed by the Third Reich,” Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League National Director, said in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post on Saturday.
Carson called that total foolishness – the Jews could have stood up to Hitler if they had had guns. Why is this guy complaining? There was that hint that Greenblatt might be a coward, like all Jews, but Carson never said that. He didn’t have to:
Carson has come under fire over gun rights several times recently. He posted a Facebook message on Monday that provoked controversy in his defense of gun rights, saying he “never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” He followed up the next day with an appearance on Fox & Friends, where he said he would have engaged with the gunman responsible for the Oregon’s Umpqua Community College shooting earlier this month.
“Not only would I probably not cooperate with him, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me,” Carson told Fox & Friends. “I would say: ‘Hey, guys, everybody attack him! He may shoot me but he can’t get us all.'” Carson emphasized that “guns don’t kill people” in that interview.
Apparently cowardice does, but, as a point of reference, Kevin Drum offers this:
In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles disarmed Germany. “Fearing inability to hold the state together during the depression, the German government adopted a sweeping series of gun confiscation legislation.” This was long before Hitler came to power.
In 1928 this legislation was relaxed. “Germans could possess firearms, but they were required to have permits… Furthermore, the law restricted ownership of firearms to ‘…persons whose trustworthiness is not in question and who can show a need for a permit.'” Again, this was before Hitler came to power.
In 1938, Hitler relaxed the law further. Rifles and shotguns were completely deregulated, permits were extended to three years, and the age at which guns could be purchased was lowered to 18.
Now, Hitler did effectively ban Jews from owning guns in 1938. However, this is highly unlikely to have affected the fate of the Jews even slightly. The Nazis were considerably better armed and organized, and if Jews had taken to shooting them it would have accomplished nothing except giving Joseph Goebbels some terrific propaganda opportunities. The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is a good example of this: Jews fought back, and the result was a few dead Germans and 13,000 dead Jews.
Drum says that Carson gets it wrong:
Hitler was popular. He didn’t need to take away anyone’s guns. Whatever you think about gun control, using Hitler to defend your position is a bad idea.
Yes, that does offend some folks, but Republicans never had the Jewish vote anyway, so all of this may not matter much, and there was something more fundamental in Carson’s chat with John Dickerson on Face the Nation:
“What I’m talking about is the reason we have a Second Amendment in there,” Carson explained. “In case of an invasion by foreign power, the people will be able to aid the military. And also, if we have a time when we have the wrong people in office and they want to dominate the people, the people will be able to defend themselves.”
That second point is a bit problematic. When Sharron Angle was running against Harry Reid out in Nevada a few years ago she said this:
You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every twenty years.
I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.
It sounded like she was calling for the assassination of Harry Reid, but she was actually just calling for armed insurrection if Congress keeps doing stupid stuff – she seems to have had Obamacare in mind, but Ted Cruz recently made the same argument:
The right to gun ownership in America is not just about hunting, or protecting property and person, but “the ultimate check against government tyranny,” argues a fund appeal from Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The Cruz fundraising letter echoes arguments made by militia groups, and a far-right demonstration last winter that followed voter passage of an initiative requiring criminal background checks for gun purchasers.
“The Second Amendment to the Constitution isn’t just for protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice,” said Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general.
“It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against government tyranny – for the protection of liberty.”
That’s a common argument on the right but think about what he’s saying. In a representative democracy, if a majority of the duly elected representatives of the people vote for what those who put them in office pretty much told them to vote for, and what the majority passes into law is, in your opinion, wrong, then you have those Second Amendment remedies – get your gun and change the government. You do that if you believe in freedom – or maybe if you believe that what you see as freedom is far more important than majority-rule democracy. That has been a pretty consistent theme in all the Tea Party talk. They wanted to take their country back from the wrong-headed majority, who were foolish enough to elect Obama in the first place.
That’s what Ted Cruz and Carson are saying, and it’s probably not wise to implicitly call for the violent overthrow of the government because the majority of the people agreed to implement a policy that you think restricts your freedom – to buy guns in this case. But it is bold to claim majority rule is tyranny, that democracy is the enemy of liberty, and liberty matters more. What else could they be saying?
These two, and all the others, are a bit like the sovereign citizen crowd – those who claim each of us is really a nation – we each get to make our own laws. That crowd obeys no laws of others. They’re totally free, except a good number of them are in jail, some for speeding, and driving without a license, in an unregistered vehicle, and some for tax evasion. Everyone else thinks we have laws for a reason. Laws make life a bit easier for everyone, even if they do limit your freedom to drive as fast as you want and own slaves or whatever your thing is – and laws against this or that, and others requiring that you do something or other, have been worked out by the people, collectively. Deal with it. Those folks refuse, on principle.
As for Carson in particular, in the Guardian, Gayathri Devi sees something more troubling:
By the same reasoning as Carson’s, enslavement in the American south could apparently have been avoided if Africans could have simply taken their masters’ guns. But they did revolt, and often at that, though it took the US Civil War to end the enslavement of black people in the United States. By the same reasoning, the Cambodian genocide would not have happened if the famine-wasted Cambodians had trained their guns on the Khmer Rouge. And there should be almighty peace in every active war zone in the world because they all have guns, guns and more guns on every side.
You don’t have to be Hegel or Marx to know that slavery, genocide and wars are tragic, systemic, structural problems that infect societies at the intersections of race, ethnicity, religion, class and other vectors of social and political identity. They are not passing fads that could be fixed with a trip to the gun expo. The Syrian refugees dying on European beaches and asking for refuge in European nations did not end up where they are because they could not shoot guns at the forces hunting them down. They are victims of circumstances and forces much more powerful, immoral and brutal than the apocryphal “bad man with a gun” who can be stopped by a “good man” with the same.
Gayathri Devi is associate professor of English at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania about halfway between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, in the quite dead center of the state, so Devi knows America:
Rather than identifying Americans’ easy and even vaunted access to firearms as a leading cause of mass shootings, gun rights advocates would rather blame gun violence on mental illness, bad parenting and other factors other than the cheap and easy availability of guns. There are no victims of guns, they say, just victims of circumstance – or, as Republican Congressman Trent Franks said on Friday after the campus shooting in Arizona, victims of rules that prevent everyone from carrying guns.
We don’t even let victims identify what they were victimized by. It appears to be against our “can-do” ethos. No wonder we show them so much disrespect. The term “victim” appears to some people to denote passivity, a lack of agency, the abdication of personal responsibility in putting an end to their victim status. Anti-victim talk is the dominant tone of the self-help industry: television talk show host Dr. Phil’s second “life law” in the Ten Life Laws is “Don’t play the role of victim, or use past events to build excuses. It guarantees you no progress, no healing, and no victory. You will never fix a problem by blaming someone else.”
Victims often have had something unconscionable done to them, either at random or because of systemic social failures. So we look for reasons to discount the randomness of their experiences, or reasons to mitigate the systemic forces that underlie the violence. And then, if we can’t find reason to discount their initial victimhood, we tell them to bootstrap their way out of it. We want to make them different from us, so that we can be secure in our feeling that we ourselves can never become victims.
And there’s a broader issue:
Carson embodies the trend in American politics to abandon people to the mercy of market forces with no safety net. In this kind of political climate, victimization has no sociological scaffolding; it is the result of your personal choices, and bad choices at that. Victims are self-made. They’re choosing to be victims instead of victorious.
Ask anyone in small-town or rural America about those on welfare, or even those receiving unemployment insurance funds at the moment – they’re losers, and takers, pathetic victims instead of victorious. Those with guns despise them. In 2008, Barack Obama was overhead getting it right:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Republicans howled. Obama was denigrating the real Americans. No, he was being descriptive, and the Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham covers seven years later:
On Thursday morning, Laurie Logue was among a small band of Ben Carson devotees standing outside Norton’s Classic Cafe, by Nashua’s City Hall. Carson’s “Healer Hauler,” the campaign bus emblazoned with his visage, idled nearby, on the first leg of a three-day fall foliage tour (though the candidate wasn’t in the bus). Logue waved a cut-out of Carson’s head at passing cars.
“There’s nothing I don’t like about him,” Logue said. Logue got plenty of honks. Her candidate is on fire here.
Those who cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them have found their man, even if a strange one:
He has called the president a psychopath. He said he would not want a Muslim to be president. He said Obamacare is the worst thing to happen to this country since slavery – worse than 9/11. He argued that homosexuality is “absolutely” a choice, offering as proof his observation that men go into prison straight and come out gay. Last week, he suggested that the victims in the Oregon community college massacre didn’t do enough to protect themselves (“I would not just stand there and let him shoot me.”). He said the Holocaust wouldn’t have been so bad if only the Jews had had more guns.
That doesn’t matter:
Among supporters, Carson can do no wrong. Ask them about the offensive things he has said, and his fans will say one of three things: He’s right. The media is twisting his words. Or he says things inartfully because he is not – thank goodness – a polished politician. The more incendiary he is, the more they love him.
“That’s not how he said it,” said Logue, when I asked about the Obamacare comment. On Carson’s views about the Oregon massacre, the pharmacist, who voted for Obama in 2008, said, “I don’t think he was blaming the victims at all. He was just saying if he were there he would have had enough courage to rush the gunman.” Oh, well, that’s different, then.
Larry Fournier, a postal worker, was sipping coffee in the diner with his son Joe, 17, who turned him on to Carson. They’re evangelical Christians “tired of all the RINOs,” as Larry put it. He voted for John McCain in 2008 but only because Sarah Palin was on the ticket. He held his nose and backed Mitt Romney in 2012. Carson is more in line with their thinking.
“He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, but some of his comments are not the smartest words,” Joe Fournier allowed.
That also doesn’t matter:
The Fourniers trust Carson. For them, the doctor’s biography reveals immense strength and determination, and a man untainted with the stench of the establishment. Promising you will stand outside the craven, money-soaked culture of Washington is the only way to victory with voters like Fournier.
And they have guns. Charles Kuralt spent twenty-seven years on the road, trying to discover the real America. He never uncovered that. He didn’t drop by that Waffle House place in Charleston, South Carolina, where armed citizens do what the cops can’t – and the cops thank them. Someone’s got to make the world right, right? But who?