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From Liberal Hand-wringing to the Political Economy of Assassination: The Charleston Shootings and Mainstream Society’s Complicity in Murder (Part 1)

Wed 22nd Jul 2015

“Within the affluent democracy, the affluent discussion prevails, and within the established framework, it is tolerant to a large extent. All points of view can be heard: the Communist and the Fascist, the Left and the Right, the white and the Negro, the crusaders for armament and for disarmament. Moreover, in endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood. This pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contesting opinions must be submitted to ‘the people’ for its deliberation and choice. But…the democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge, that they must have access to authentic information, and that, on this basis, their evaluation must be the result of autonomous thought.”

Herbert Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” 1965

Background: From Herbert Marcuse to Karl Jaspers

On June 19, 2015 David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, wrote a short essay called, “Charleston and the Age of Obama.” Towards the end of his essay, Remnick wrote, “this has been the Age of Obama, but we have learned over and over that this has hardly meant the end of racism in America. Not remotely. Dylann Roof, tragically, seems to be yet another terrible reminder of that.” Remnick is not incorrect about his general observations, it’s just that his essay falls flat. So too does President Obama’s speech and even Jon Stewart’s impassioned plea for sanity and his matching sense of despair. Remnick suggests that even Obama can’t rise to the occasion because of a do-nothing Congress. Deconstructing this event as racist or terrorist is often taken to be the beginning, middle and end of the story. In contrast, we could be doing far more with power that is within our grasp. As can be seen in the photo above, across the street from the new New Yorker office at 1 World Trade Center in Manhattan, is 200 West Street, home of Goldman Sachs. It turns out that this financial giant is complicit in the division of labor between racists and rifles. Even academic leaders of liberal universities like Barnard and the New School in New York City have corporate connections to companies backing NRA politicians with extremely low civil rights ratings. The repressive tolerance which makes all opinions acceptable, without a vertical hierarchy attached to them, has led us to a state in which tragedies can unfold within the Thatcherite TINA (“there is no alternative”) framework (see: http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/60spubs/65repressivetolerance.htm). Yet, this essay will clearly show that there are alternatives, alternatives which rest on redesigning social movements’ engagements. If one looks for alternatives, one must therefore broaden one’s understanding of who is responsible.

The larger social architecture defined by the academic, political and corporate ties of the gun lobby helps explain how we could systematically take the fight to the NRA and its supporting power structure as well as the moral complacency that helps sustain that power system. In order to understand these linkages, we need to trace through several key steps related to the moral and political economy of assassination in the United States.

The appropriate response to the problematic identified by Marcuse, repressive tolerance, is a broader understanding of guilt and responsibility. Most persons look at Dylann Roof’s actions and see merely moral guilt. Yet, Karl Jaspers in his book, The Question of German Guilt, about German responsibilities in the wake of the Nazi horrors helps us see how more than Roof’s individual actions are involved. Steven Alan Samson at Liberty University nicely illustrates what’s at stake in his short essay on Jasper’s book (see: http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1230&context=gov_fac_pubs). In criminal guilt, Jasper identifies persons violating “unequivocal laws,” with jurisdiction resting in the court. Yet, in contrast, political guilt “involves the deeds of statement and implications the citizens of a state” for (in Jasper’s words) “having to bear the consequences of the deeds of the state whose power governs [them] and under whose order [they] live.” In moral guilt, the individual becomes responsible for their actions, and “jurisdiction rests with my conscience.” But with metaphysical guilt, Jaspers writes: “There exists a solidarity among men as humans that makes each co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world…especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge. If I fail whatever I can do to prevent them, I too am guilty.” Liberal to mainstream society has a very narrow conception of responsibility. Even those who acknowledge the NRA’s complicity rarely dig deeper, to ask who is responsible for and has relations with the very actors supporting the NRA. This detailed chain of causation is tied to not just criminal and moral guilt, but also to political and metaphysical guilt.

Step 1: The Assassination Network I: Racist Culture and its Champions

The users of guns in mass killings can be classified as mentally unstable, racists, or terrorists, but to a certain extent the immediate circle surrounding these persons as well as aspects of a larger culture can be said to be supportive or triggering structures for their actions. In any region there can be local racist subcultures, even in areas in which civic leaders try to reverse the institutional support system of racism.

An academic study by Mark R. Leary and his colleagues in the journal Aggressive Behavior in 2003, “Teasing, Rejection, and Violence: Case Studies of the School Shootings” examined fifteen school shootings that took place between 1995 and 2001. They found that “acute or chronic rejection—in the form of ostracism, bullying, and/or romantic rejection—was present in all but two of the incidents. In addition, the shooters tended to be characterized by one or more of three other risk factors—an interest in firearms or bombs, a fascination with death or Satanism, or psychological problems.” Another study in 2000 by Stephanie Verlinden and her colleagues in Clinical Psychology Review, “Risk factors in school shootings,” examined a host of factors contributing to risk factors for youth violence associated with school shootings. These factors include societal and environmental factors including poverty, neighborhood disorganization, media violence, and cultural norms. In sum, these two studies indicated a supporting culture that facilitated violence. This culture is also connected to a political and economic underinvestment in mental health as Mark Follman argues in Mother Jones (see: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/11/jared-loughner-mass-shootings-mental-illness).

By the same token, the State of South Carolina has ranked high among states as being relatively racist. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, in his dissertation, “Essays Using Google Data,” published in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, has promoted the use of web searches to help plot the geography of racism. In his study, he identified two racially charged search terms, from January 2004 to December 2007, using the words “nigger” or “niggers.” These terms had different frequency ratings by state. The top ranked state, West Virginia, had a rate of 100, followed by Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and Kentucky, with South Carolina ranked relatively high in eighth place, with a rate of 76 (see: http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/10984881/StephensDavidowitz_gsas.harvard_0084L_11016.pdf?sequence=1). Using a Google Trends search of these two terms on June 22, 2015, I found Mississippi ranked 1st with a rate of 100, Louisiana and Kentucky ranked second with a rate of 99, with South Carolina having a relatively high rate of 84, in contrast to the lowest ranked states of Utah (rate 38), Oregon (rate 40) and Hawaii (rate 43). On April 14 2014, Laura Dimon, published data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center giving “The Complete List of American Cities Where the KKK Is Known To Operate,” listing 110 towns and cities. Two of these were located in South Carolina, Spartanburg and Abbeville (see: http://mic.com/articles/87585/the-complete-list-of-american-cities-where-the-kkk-is-known-to-operate).

Further evidence about the racist subculture in South Carolina appears in a recent review by James Yeh. Yeh grew up in South Carolina and is cultural editor at Vice. He points to a continuing acceptance of the legacy of slavery and racism: “From the practice of enslaving African workers on rice plantations to lynch mobs led by Benjamin Tillman, a former state governor and US senator, these kinds of actions are inseparable from the cultural fabric here. Even at the statehouse today, there is a statue honouring ‘Pitchfork Ben’ and his name adorns the most prominent building at Clemson University, the state’s top-ranked public university.” Yeh, continues: “the history of racist violence includes the tale of former Confederate-scout-turned-postbellum-tax-evader Manson ‘Manse’ Jolly. As the story goes, Jolly murdered a host of freedmen Federal soldiers, dumping some of their bodies in a well in Anderson County, where there is a road named after him…in a 2009 article published by the Independent-Mail, he’s hailed as ‘legendary’ twice in the first couple paragraphs, a ‘Civil War hero’ in one breath and an ‘unreconstructed Rebel’ in the next” (see: http://www.vice.com/en_se/read/smiling-faces-terrible-racists-the-dangerous-culture-of-white-possession-in-the-carolinas- 621?utm_source=vicefbswe). There are limits, however, to the depiction of South Carolina as being soft on racism, because certain exemplary efforts have been made to turn the tide. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2011 found that South Carolina earned a B grade based on the coverage given to the civil rights movement and curriculum frameworks, putting it in the top six out of fifty-one regions studied (all fifty states plus the District of Columbia).

In sum, there are regions which condone symbolic violence and these are tied to local subcultures supportive of racism. Yet, we also need to think about how technologies can empower the most extreme racists and how to problematize the links between racists and rifles.

Step 2: The Technology Artefact I: Guns as Self-Defense

Are guns tools of self-defense, mechanisms of racist violence or both? Guns should not be considered as mechanisms of power or self-defense without considering the relations in which they are embedded. Guns are artefacts potentially tied to a regulatory system designed and enforced by the state, which in turn is affected by corporations. The ability of a group to use or not use weapons for self-defense and the decisions of the state to promote guns, the right to self-defense and the victims of gun use vary over time and by social group. Research suggests that while gun control has been used to disenfranchise African Americans, gun use has had limits in its ability to defend African Americans. Guns controlled by the state have been used to repress African Americans as well. Yet, the debate about gun use and control often side steps a discussion of the countervailing power systems that can place limits on gun violence, political repression or the underdevelopment tied to the culture of violence.

In 1991, Stefan B. Tahmassebi, then Assistant General Counsel of the National Rifle Association, published a study called “Gun Control and Racism” (see: http://equalgunrights.com/gun-control-and-racism). Tahmassebi wrote that: “the first gun control laws were enacted in the antebellum South forbidding blacks, whether free or slave, to possess arms, in order to maintain blacks in their servile status.” After the Civil War, governments in the South “continued to pass restrictive firearms laws in order to deprive the newly freed blacks from exercising their rights of citizenship.” He adds that “firearms ownership restrictions were adopted in order to repress the incipient black civil rights movement.”

Tahmassebi shows how guns served as a means for self-defense. During the latter part of the 17th Century, a fear of slave revolts in the South sped up the passage of laws which addressed African Americans’ ownership of firearms. For example, Virginia passed “An Act for Preventing Negroes Insurrections.” In the Dred Scott case of 1857 which held that neither freed nor enslaved African Americans could be citizens, Chief Justice Taney argued that making African Americans citizens “would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.” By 1868, Representative Benjamin F. Butler (R., Massachusetts), argued that the right to keep arms was needed to protect “not only against the state militia but also against local law enforcement agencies.” Butler pointed to cases where “armed confederates” terrorized the African American and “in many counties they have preceded their outrages against him, in violation of his right as a citizen to ‘keep and bear arms’ which the Constitution expressly says shall never be infringed.”

When Congress considered legislation to suppress the Ku Klux Klan in 1871, it originally had a provision when introduced to the House Judiciary Committee making persons guilty of larceny if they took away or deprived any citizen of the United States of any weapons or arms they had for protection, “without due process of law, by violence, intimidation, or threats.” Butler explained that “there were very many instances in the South where the sheriff of the country had preceded [the midnight marauders attacking peaceful citizens] and taken away the arms of their victims.” In Union County, the African American population “were disarmed by the sheriff only a few months ago,” Butler explained, “under the order of the judge.” After the sheriff disarmed the citizens, “the five hundred masked men rode at night and murdered and otherwise maltreated ten persons who were in jail in that county.”

Therefore, a division of labor between the state and racist extremist organizations inflicted violence on African Americans who had no other apparent means of defense. Yet, Tahmassebi’s argument partially depends on the idea that government authorities will act on behalf of African Americans in order to protect their rights. However, by his own admission the state often does not protect these rights. At one point he writes, poor and minority citizens depend on arms more than affluent citizens who live in “safer and better protected communities.” At the time his study was published, Tahmassebi added that “in many jurisdictions in which police departments have wide discretion in issuing firearm permits, the effect is that permits are rarely issued to poor or minority citizens.” This suggests that one cannot assume that the state will protect African American citizens’ rights as extensively as the rights of others.

If guns are needed as a counterbalance to a coercive state, one must also realize that there may be more significant barriers to a coercive state than guns. One such barrier is a state in which there is a powerful trade union movement. Yet, there is no linkage between having guns and trade union power. The Small Arms Survey of 2007 indicates the number of firearms per 100 people (see: http://www.cfr.org/society-and-culture/us-gun-policy-global-comparisons/p29735). Two countries with the most handguns per 100 persons were the U.S. (88.8) and Norway (31.3). Yet, unionization rates in 2007 were only 11.6 percent in the U.S., but 53.0 percent in Norway according to OECD statistics. Two countries with fewer handguns per 100 persons were the U.K. (6.2) and Japan (.6), yet unionization rates that year were 27.9 percent in the U.K. and 18.3 percent in Japan. In this group of states, the United States was the country with the most guns and the lowest unionization rate. The country with the second highest gun density (Norway), actually had the highest unionization rate. The country with the lowest gun density (Japan), had unionization rates that were even higher than the United States.

Another limit to Tahmassebi’s argument is to analyze what has happened when African Americans actually use guns on an organized basis for self-defense. The Black Panther Party is a case in point. While advocating “armed self-defense” as a solution to police violence and harassment, violent attacks and provocations aimed at the Panthers led some leaders in that group to abandon its earlier call for “armed insurrection.” In Black Against Empire, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. explain that in 1971 “the Party had moved definitively away from advocating insurrection.” One could easily argue that even those advocating peaceful means of protest were assassinated and that possession of guns in one’s own home is not the same as a public, collective display of weapons (one of the tactics of the Panthers). Yet, the larger point is the use of weapons for self-defense can easily trigger police violence, leading to other tactics to promote security, i.e. “alternative security measures.” For example, when the Black Panthers abandoned the call for armed insurrection, Bloom and Martin explain that they “sought to build power through other means.” These included not only a service program, but also (in the case of the Oakland Panthers) “an extended boycott of Bill Boyette, a local black businessman who owned markets in black neighborhoods and ran a black business association…but refused to donate to the Black Panther Party.” This pressure led to an agreement in which Boyette’s stores “would now donate regularly to the Party’s programs, and the Party would call off the boycott.” Another alternative line of action was the development of deeper relations with African American elected officials, like progressive members of Congress Ron Dellums and Shirley Chisholm.

Thus, while gun control can be used by the state to disarm African Americans and their right to self-defense, the mechanisms of self-defense don’t necessarily depend on guns but can be carried out by other means. These other means include mechanisms to challenge the state without necessarily resorting to guns. In fact, when guns have been used collectively to challenge the state, the resulting backlash against this defense has further triggered state violence. In other words, even if gun control were a mechanism to facilitate violence against African Americans, it does not necessarily follow that guns are the necessary or exclusive response to such problems. In any case, one has to consider a larger political formula in which racists’ use of guns reflects not simply racists linked to guns, but also the system a state uses to regulate or limit the use of guns and racist actions. This brings us to the system of state regulation (how well gun use is monitored and which guns are limited) and why such regulation is necessary.

Part 2 to follow
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