Posts Tagged ‘Gun Laws’

Why No Call for Gun Control? Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

August 26, 2012

Why No Call for Gun Control?  Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)



            The anti-intellectualism that is so rampant today also makes sense when seen as an anxiety reaction.  Logically, you would think that anxious and fearful people would long for a smart person to come along with all the answers.  However, the true thinker is anathema to anxiety, because the true thinker challenges others to think.  The anxious person does not want to think; reflection only increases anxiety.  The individual thinker is a challenge to the others, presenting them with the possibility that maybe they too could wrestle with the big issues.  On the other hand, the small-minded blowhard gives everything and asks nothing.  The one who has no ideas or only bad ones does not make me feel inferior or lazy for not thinking about the world; he gives me easy answers and then reassures me that I am smart and important because I was smart enough to hand over all my thinking to him and important enough to submerge myself in a herd.  That, more than anything else, is why college dropouts with histories of drug abuse can become national heroes, and Nobel Prize winners are laughed at.  Limbaugh and Beck tell me that I don’t have to be an individual; they’ve thought it out for me, and they didn’t get a formal education either.  I can tell myself how smart I am simply because I am afraid of who they tell me to fear.  Authority takes away responsibility, fear and conspiracy theories allow me to trade in my anxiety for easily managed fears, and anti-intellectualism allows me to feel smarter than those people who challenge me to think and make me feel more anxious.  The miracle isn’t that Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh are national authorities despite manifest and documented lack of expertise in everything; the miracle is that there is anyone who will take up the challenge of being a single, reflective individual in such a fluid and anxiety-inducing age as this one.  Really, it is no wonder that Chu is laughed at when he proposes simple and reasonable solutions to combat global warming; he only has a Nobel Prize in Physics, while his critics have the sense to know that offering a solution to a problem means admitting there is a problem, which means the world has changed from before when the climate was fine.  Chu offers us anxiety and thinking and the call to solve problems; the clever self-promoter offers us self-delusion and thus the security of believing that all is as it always was and can never be different.

Anyone who finds it paradoxical that the hard-working lower-middle class people vilify the poor and idolize (I use the word deliberately) the wealthy, simply does not understand anxiety.  Logically, it makes the most sense to apply Rawls’ “veil of ignorance:” If you did not know whether you would be rich, poor or somewhere in the middle, would you choose this nation as it is or would you change things?  If you would, it is fair and just; if not, that implies it is unfair.  Today, it is increasingly difficult to move up the economic ladder, increasingly easy to fall into poverty, and increasingly improbable that any rich person will fail to get richer from the sheer inertia of interest payments.  Clearly, this is not what Rawls would call a “fair” society.  But to even take up the challenge of thinking in those terms is to admit the very real possibility of becoming poor.  On the other hand, if one holds fast to the delusion that hard work is always rewarded, one can calm one’s feeling of loss of control.  To the anxious person, the poor are a threat the same way a chasm is a threat; the best way to avoid dizziness is to not look at how far you might fall but to keep moving forward.  So we find it easier to blame the poor for being lazier or stupider than we are, rather than admit that they may be smarter and more industrious than many of the wealthy who control our economic world.  And we would rather believe that the rich are rich because they deserve to be, since then we can believe that if we too deserve to be rich it will happen.  Anxiety cannot bear to hear what reality shouts at us every day:  that wealth in America has more to do with the luck of having rich parents than with anything else.[1]  Falsely idolizing the supposed merits of the wealthy and falsely demonizing the supposed vices of the poor both allow me to reassure myself that I am powerful and in control, that my anxiety is false, and that all I have to do is work harder and everything will be fine.  To see the poor as human would awaken the possibility that I might become one.

I think that every crazy thing we see in politics today can fruitfully be understood as the fruits of anxiety.  We seek false fears that we can then conquer.  We seek false security and a false sense of power, rather than risk confronting our anxiety.  Today the news is full of the Congressman who claimed that rape victims can’t get pregnant.  What a comforting myth that is!  “We need not fear the rapist; he cannot impregnate our daughters or wives unless they themselves wish it, which of course is impossible.  And we can be sure that those who do get pregnant wanted it and enjoyed it, in which case they deserve whatever happens.  So we can be assured that our easy answers have no moral collateral damage, and we can be sure that the true horror of this evil cannot touch us or the good people we love.  Forcing women to have babies born of rape and incest is therefore just hunky-dory, since the pregnant women must have chosen to be pregnant and such a thing will never, never happen to the good women we care about.”  By embracing this myth, Akin and the many who agree with him can quiet the anxiety stemming from a lack of control over our world, and the anxiety over oneself and whether the “good” one champions is really so good after all.  What good is science, when it just makes me question my settled moral assertions?  How can I possibly get on with the important work of reforming the world, if I am constantly examining myself?

Just try looking at every irrational, self-defeating stance adopted by the American people, and try understanding it as a reaction to anxiety; I think you’ll find that while you may still be dismayed, you won’t be mystified anymore.

[1] “If a man has $100 and makes ten more, that’s work; if he has $100 million and makes ten million, that’s inevitable.”    From The Barefoot Contessa

Why No Call for Gun Control? Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

August 23, 2012

Why No Call for Gun Control?  Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

            Journalists have wondered why the massacre in Colorado has not inspired any calls for gun control, unlike previous atrocities such as Columbine.  True, there have been some pleas from die-hard activists and even from non-politicians such as Jason Alexander.[1]  Jon Stewart has pleaded with us to at least have a conversation about the need to balance gun rights and gun dangers.[2]  But politicians do not dare even discuss gun control, and Americans are more opposed to gun control than ever.  We can talk about banning costumes in movie theaters, but we can’t talk about banning guns in movie theaters.  Are we more afraid of turning our movie theaters into Castle Frank-n-Furter than we are of turning them into war zones?

A quick Internet search (Wikipedia followed by checking the sources used there) reveals some interesting facts.  First, gun violence overall has fallen significantly over the last decade.  Second, most gun deaths are suicides.[3]  When you add in the gun deaths from accidents, from lost tempers during family disputes, and from previously unarmed criminals who take the owner’s own gun and use it, it seems clear that guns are, on the whole, far more dangerous to their owners than to criminals.  And yet, despite these facts, people cling to gun ownership more tightly than ever.  Even the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse.  Why not legalize machine guns?  At least a .50 cal requires a tripod, which would be a lot harder to smuggle into a movie theater than an M-16 without being much more dangerous to the innocent.  If the 2nd Amendment is absolute, then banning any weapons is unconstitutional; if it is permissible and moral to ban machine guns, tanks and RPGs then it is not qualitatively different to ban other military hardware.  Banning guns is banning guns; if society has the right to say that heavy machine guns are too much firepower and thus beyond constitutional protection, then it has the right to make the same judgment about any military-grade weaponry.  That is not so much a plea for gun control as it is a plea for logic.  As a society, we have in fact made judgments about what weapons our neighbors and ourselves will be allowed to own, and what we will not.  It is illogical to claim that such judgments are illegal or immoral while we continue to make them.

If logic cannot explain waning support for gun control, perhaps psychology can.  Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety is a philosophical, psychological and religious analysis of anxiety as a personal and social force.  His discourse “Every Good Gift and Perfect Gift is From Above” is a theological examination of anxiety as the fruit of sin.[4]  Together, these writings present an analysis of anxiety as a primordial driving force in human life.  Briefly, anxiety is described as “the dizziness of freedom.”  Life is full of choices that are both significant and underdetermined by the facts.  We experience anxiety because of this.  This anxiety is compounded when we begin to be anxious not only about our own capacity to choose wisely and justly, but also about the world and the uncertainty of existence.  In the face of such anxiety, the common human reaction is to seek for authorities that can take the burden of freedom from us, or to transform our anxieties into fears.  Both play into the current state of the gun control/rights debate.  Logically, the idea that “I will be safer if I have a pistol, so I can stay and fight a madman in Kevlar hurling tear gas rather than running for an exit” is a stupid idea.  But as Kierkegaard points out, the person in the grip of anxiety will latch onto anything to regain the delusion of security.  The only logical, not to mention pious reaction is to admit that we live in a dangerous world and that we cannot hope to fight off all dangers; we can only commit our souls to God and then live as we are called.  The faithful person is the one who is schooled by “the earnest thought of death,” recognizing that death is both the one certainty in life and yet absolutely unpredictable, so that the only fitting response is a humble recognition of one’s own powerlessness and a commitment to live each day for values that are truly worthy.[5]  Instead, as most of us are not truly faithful, we seek a false sense of security and then turn around to devoting our time to trivialities.

Gun sales always spike after a mass shooting.[6]  Logically, what should spike are calls for gun control.  But from the point of view of anxiety, “gun control” means “I am not the master of my fate;” no control means “I can have a gun and feel safe, relying on my own power.”

In much the same way, the call for voter I.D. laws have caught the imagination of the electorate:  I say “imagination” because all the evidence is that that is where the fraud these laws supposedly will prevent exists.  Millions of dollars are being spent to prevent voter impersonation fraud, which has never taken place in sufficient numbers to affect an election.  These laws even encourage fraud by pushing more people to use the easily-faked absentee ballots instead of showing up in person.  At a time when we cannot afford to repair bridges, pay teachers what we promised them, feed the hungry, and on and on, we are spending millions to chase phantoms.  Let me repeat that, because it bears repeating:  at a time when we cannot afford to honor contracts signed with our teachers, firefighters and police; at a time when we cannot afford to fix the bridges which we cross every day, at a time when we are capable of feeding every person on the planet and yet we claim to not even have enough money to feed, cloth, shelter and provide health care for all of our own citizens—-at this time, we are ready to spend millions of dollars to fight a crime which the best evidence available suggests occurs once per state every two or three years, on average.  It is as if we were to unplug the life support system for Grandma in order to power up the yeti-repelling force field.

But from the anxious perspective, it makes perfect sense.  Those whose sense of security is invested in a certain social order find that security undermined when they contemplate the latest census.  In a few decades, whites will be a minority in this country for the first time since we invaded and occupied it.  As Kierkegaard would point out, faith is “to be out over 70,000 fathoms and yet be joyful;” but most of us don’t have faith, and want to imagine the water is only a few feet deep.  We can reestablish that sense of security first by transforming our anxiety into fear.  Anxiety’s object is really nothing; it is the possible, and thus cannot really be controlled.  Fear is fear of something actual; we feel that if we can only defeat the object of our fear we can be safe.  The fact that the whole world is changing daily and unpredictably induces anxiety; but by focusing on “illegal aliens” and convincing ourselves that if we can just control those “illegals” we can solve everything, we quiet our anxiety.  Someone comes along and says, “Don’t be anxious about the vast range of possibilities the future presents, and your responsibility to respond to them; just be afraid of illegals, and then we’ll pass laws to protect you from illegals stealing your vote and you can rest easy.”  And we jump at the offer of phony solutions to false dangers that can distract us from our real anxiety.

To be continued….

[1] Jason Alexander, reposted on Salon ( Sunday, Jul 22, 2012 04:38 PM EDT

[3] “55% of all Gun Deaths are Suicide,”  July 21, 2008 (

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 125-39

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, “At a Graveside,” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) pp. 71-102

[6] Dylan Stableford, “Gun Sales Spike in Colorado After Shooting, Just Like They Did in Arizona,” The Lookout July 24, 2012 (–finance.html )

Quick comment on voter registration

January 16, 2012

I find it curious that there are so many people who are interested in passing new restrictions on voter registration, and who it is who is interested.  Awhile ago, this story ran:  and more recently, this one:  So it’s an ongoing issue, now front-and-center in the South Carolina Republican primary elections.

On the one hand, this is presented as an example of the Federal government trampling states’ rights.  Surely, states have a right and even a duty to prevent voter fraud; requiring strict rules on who can register to vote and holding registration workers legally liable for any voter fraud is simply an attempt to prevent subversion of our democracy.  There are two problems with this argument, though.

The first point raised is states’ rights.  As Ayn Rand says, “there can be no such thing as the “right” of some men to violate the rights of others” (Ayn Rand, “Racism,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 153 in the centennial edition).  However, she also goes on to point out that “It is true that the Federal government has used the racial issue to enlarge its own power and to set a precedent of encroachment upon the legitimate rights of the states…”  So that is one issue here:  is this a necessary concern, or an unnecessary and illegitimate intrusion by the Federal government?  But the other important issue is, are these restrictions on voting legitimate and necessary, or are they illegitimate and criminal intrusions on the rights of individuals?  Anything that prevents a person from voting is an intrusion; the only question is whether it is legitimate or not.  In the case of the Florida law, the burdens placed upon voter registration workers were so daunting that one of the oldest, most respected and most legitimately nonpartisan voters’ rights organizations pulled out rather than face criminal prosecution for accidentally registering a voter who might have deceived them by registering illegally.  As a result, many people will not register to vote, either for lack of knowledge how to register, or knowledge of when the cut-off date is, or for any of the many other reasons the League of Women Voters has found its work to be so necessary for so many decades.  In the case of the South Carolina law, “10 percent of blacks don’t carry government IDs, compared with 8.4 percent of whites” (see “Partisan Feud Escalates Over Voter ID Laws…” via the link above).  That actually doesn’t sound like a big deal, although that small percentage would be more than enough to swing an election.

Again, part of the problem here is the question of where the right to vote comes from.  If, as Rand says, our rights come from our human nature— or if, as others say, our rights come from God— then denying a person the right to participate in choosing his or her government is a denial of that person’s inalienable rights.  Denying a person the right to vote is just as serious as denying a person the right to liberty; it is just less visible.  We do deny people liberty all the time, if those people are criminals or mentally incompetent or something of that sort; but to do so without a damned good reason is nothing short of slavery.  But if, as these states claim, it is state that decides who gets to vote and the individual’s rights are dependent on the will of the state, then the state does have every right to restrict voter registration.  Since conservatives generally emphasize individual liberty, you would think they would want to expand individual rights, not find ways to restrict them.

It is, of course, legitimate to restrict rights to prevent lawbreaking and fraud.  Libraries require cards, cities ban driving 70 mph through school zones, and so on to prevent fraud and protect the public welfare.  But again, conservatives are generally known as the ones who promote individual liberty, even at the expense of the greater good of society.  President Carter lowered the speed limit to 55 mph on interstate highways to lower our nation’s fuel consumption and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  President Regan raised the limit as soon as he was inaugurated.  Cars are 17% less efficient at 70 mph, 23% less efficient at 75 and the fuel use shoots up the faster you drive (source:, so Regan’s policies made us more vulnerable to the whims of foreigners (even if we produced our own oil, the costs would fluctuate as the worldwide supply fluctuates; that’s simple economics of supply and demand, assuming you believe in free markets and the rights of multinational corporations, who are people too, to sell their goods to the highest bidder).  So it isn’t enough to restrict individual liberty just to make the states’ job a little easier; there has to be an overriding concern.

Conservatives are very concerned about individual rights.  For example, when the Federal government sought to limit access to guns, the NRA and many Republican politicians campaigned against this intrusion of big government into our individual rights.  From the shooting of Ronald Regan (which inspired the Jim Brady law), to Columbine, to the shooting of Gabby Gifford, the debate has raged.  It seems there are legitimate concerns about fraud when it comes to gun ownership.  Even children and the mentally unstable are able to obtain high-powered weaponry, which they use with alarming frequency. But conservatives would undoubtably agree with philosopher Ronald Dworkin, that it is better to inflate a right than to unduly restrict it; to inflate a right inconveniences society a little, but restricting the rights of an individual is a denial of that individual’s humanity.  So even in the case of gun ownership, where fraud and criminal acts are known to occur on a regular basis with the result that many people lose their own individual right to life every day, it is wrong to limit the individual right to own a gun.  The police will simply have to work harder to prevent lawbreaking that comes from gun use.

In the case of voter registration (as opposed to gun registration) a different standard applies.  There is in fact no evidence that significant amounts of voter fraud occur (except with the collusion of the local government, as in Chicago under the Daly Machine, which these laws do not even attempt to stop).  Here, even before a person has been shown to be criminal, laws are being put into place to prevent that person from possibly committing voter fraud.  It is as if tighter gun registration laws were being passed even without any evidence that anyone was being killed by criminals, crazies and children with guns.  Instead of telling the police to invest more money and effort into finding and punishing criminals who vote illegitimately, as is done routinely when it comes to gun violence, the states (Republican, conservative states, that is) are saying that individual citizens are to be inconvenienced and perhaps even denied their rights, just to make the state’s job a little easier.  And while fraudulent gun ownership often leads to the death of decent citizens, if there were fraudulent voting it would harm no one unless it were so massive that no one could fail to notice it.

If, as Republicans routinely say, it is wrong to restrict the rights of the law-abiding just to make things easier for the State, then it is wrong to restrict voting rights with new laws and procedural obstacles.  Only big-government liberals are supposed to sacrifice the rights of the individual for the greater good of the community.