This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's comes from me. The previous post is here.
This is very interesting. Thanks for sending it. I think that there’s a lot of truth to what he says, but I think that the two most important elements of the story of how the U.S. got to where it is with guns is missing from the author’s narrative, except obliquely. Those elements are American regional cultures and technology as symbol.
This must-read article describes numerous regional cultures in North America and their contrasting attitudes toward guns. These cultures were planted by colonial settlers from different places in Europe (including different places in Britain alone) with different objectives, different values, and different ways-of-being. Some of these American cultures became seedbeds that synthesized with each other in the Western United States to spawn second-generation cultures.
There were and are two predominant cultures in the American South, one in the lowland and one in the upland. They are pronouncedly different from one another, but one thing they have in common is a tolerance for individual violence. The Lowland South was settled by proud men with big egos and a fierce determination to defend their honor. Dueling was prevalent. The Upland South was settled by despised, exploited, paranoid people with thick family ties and profound suspicion of outsiders. Feuds were prevalent. The Lowland elite ruled their families and slaves like on manorial estates like kings and set that example for the Lowland poor. Most Uplanders were terribly poor but fiercely protective of their right to do what they wanted on their own land.
The North also had two predominant cultures (notwithstanding the outsized cultural power of Greater New York that skyrocketed through the nineteenth century to the present). Yankees and Middlers were and are also profoundly different from each other. But one thing they have in common is a strong disinclination toward violent personal revenge.
Today, persistent violence is unsurprising in the Lowland South, where colonial and antebellum elites set the standards for the rest of society. These men fought in single combat to avenge public disrespect and used savage beatings to impose their will on subjugated people.
As for Appalachia and its westward settlements, it is indeed a violent place per capita. But it has also been shown that if you manage to avoid committing adultery, it is as safe a region as any other in the United States with the added bonus that there is almost no personal theft, so you can leave your door unlocked when you’re not at home.
It should be noted that Upland Southerners were the predominant bloc of settlers in Texas and Arizona. The linkage of lethal weapons and racist anti-foreigner sentiment didn’t start after NAFTA. Some of these people hated and feared invading Northerners during the Civil War. At least as many hated and feared Confederate state governments and fought for the Union! They hated and feared invasive British during the War of 1812 and the Revolution, and before that coastal British Americans. And before that they hated and feared the distant kings of England and Scotland who savagely used and abused them as pawns in their political machinations. And all along each clan hated and feared the clan that lived over the next hill.
You’ll note that these two Southern cultures are by far more evangelical than the two Northern cultures and Greater New York. How that came to be is an even more complex story, as it was not so until after the Civil War. But rather than tell that story I want to make my other point, and that is about technology as the bearer of symbolic meaning.
I’ve lived in Dorchester, Mass., an African-American- and Irish-dominated neighborhood of Boston. One morning I woke up to discover that a teenager was shot dead by a rival at a corner two houses away from where I lived. My pastor had a long history of crusading to get guns off the street, dissolve gangs, and dispel drug dealers.
I now live in Blair County, PA. School is closed on the first day of buck season. And targets are shot with as much enthusiasm as game. One Sunday morning the demure, 100-pound-soaking-wet church pianist came in giddy with excitement. She found out that her husband was getting her her own AK-47 for Christmas. He already had one.
Unfortunately, most Americans have not had my experience. They have not been privileged to see firsthand how guns mean different things to people in different cultures in different places. This is true of all technology: it is morally neutral, but it can bear awesome meaning and shape people’s minds and hearts. If it didn’t, 80% of advertising agencies would go out of business.
Furthermore, technology is a huge component of culture, both shaping it and being shaped by it. Naturally then, different cultures define the same technological implement in different ways.
In Canada, a gun is a tool for a hobby or an economical means to harvest meat. In a Northern city, like on an antebellum or colonial plantation, a gun is a means to protect one’s reputation by asserting power over others. In Appalachia and its westward dispersion, a gun is a defiant totem of cultural integrity for a people whom distant elites despise, mock, and exploit and rapacious strangers invade. It is one physical object, but its meaning is wildly relative.
These Southern cultures are not mine—I am Middler-bred and Yankee-reared. Nevertheless—and this may be the Middler in me—I have sympathy toward Appalachian people. Part of it is proximity, as I live where Middle America and Appalachia coalesce. But there are other reasons too. I cannot read about what their ancestors suffered on the border between England and Scotland, going for centuries devastated by war every generation or two, without acknowledging that the sad reasonableness of their inherited xenophobia. I hate that “rednecks” are the only cultural group in our politically correct age that may be reviled without mercy—in fact, bigotry toward them is viewed a sign of enlightenment.
I also find myself increasingly admitting that paranoid, government-hating Upland Southerners have a point: it is good for us that so many of them were trained in the military, and that the government knows that there are lots of guns in public hands but does not know who has them. As many of the Founders believed, a government over such people would think twice before imposing its will on the mass of its citizens by force.
On the one hand, I felt sick when I learned that local gun stores here sold out of their ammo when Barack Obama was reeelected. On the other hand, his administration’s campaign to force Christians into uniformity with the national current by paying for abortifacients and laying track for similar pressure vis-à-vis same-sex marriage makes me think that before I die I and others like me will be considered public enemies. How “paranoid” Upland Southerns and Westerners seem has much to do with one’s faith in government to stay within certain boundaries and do the right thing. I think that they truly are paranoid because they think that no government will. But I sympathize with them because I fear that this particular government won’t.
Also, I am more liberal on immigration than any other issue, and I deplore the xenophobia of Upland Southerners. I appreciate their cultural baggage but that doesn’t make it right or reasonable for present circumstances. Non-stop, knee-jerk anxiety is dysfunctional even if it’s explainable. And I think that an interpretation of the Second Amendment that does not have to do with organized, drilled citizen-soldiers is a ridiculous violation of the principle of authorial intent that Supreme Court conservatives claim to revere. But it doesn’t mean that Upland Southerners are completely out to lunch with respect to guns, especially within the inner logic of their own communities.
In the end, the answer to the Post writer’s question of why there isn’t a similar gun-fetish in Canada is fairly simple: American Southerners don’t live there.