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PROFESSOR MEETS GUN Part Six: ARMING OBAMA
June 21, 2008 - 9:39am

By

UD

I've taken my headline from a piece in today's Wall Street Journal about Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, about whom people are talking as a strong candidate for Obama's Vice-Presidential running mate.
UD is single-handedly responsible for Webb's Senate victory, so she has a special interest in his political future. It was her defense of Webb's free speech rights in the Washington Post -- after his opponent condemned passages in some of Webb's novels that contained explicit sex -- that put the man over the top.

The Post quoted UD (under her nom de actuality, Margaret Soltan) dismissing Webb's opponent for lacking culture, and saying that "Webb's novels [should not be seen] as indicative of his views, any more than voters in England should have been deterred by some of Winston Churchill's more shocking writing." Immediately thereafter, Webb pulled ahead in the race....

So now UD's man makes another possible move - onto Obama's ticket: "A highly decorated war veteran who opposes the Iraq war, Sen. Webb is considered by many Democrats to be the best person to go into battle against another war hero, expected Republican nominee Sen. John McCain," reports the Journal.

Webb's latest Senate victory - the expected passage of a bill providing college money for veterans - is particularly appealing to the author of University Diaries.

Yet how will Obama's backers respond to a "self-described redneck" who "carries a concealed pistol"? Will they recall the incident last March in which one of Webb's aides entered the Capitol building with a concealed loaded pistol -- belonging to Webb -- plus extra ammunition? As the Post notes, "D.C. law bars people from carrying handguns and concealed weapons without licenses." (The law will probably be struck down by the Supreme Court, which returns to the bench on Monday.)

Webb's quite the gun enthusiast. UD might well have seen him the other day at the NRA: "Webb, a first-term senator and former Marine, regularly uses a gun for target practice at the National Rifle Association shooting range." That's, like, his hangout....

The more reading UD does about the issue of guns, the more clear it becomes that many thoughtful people on the subject believe policy divisions about guns rest on deeply rooted cultural differences -- that this is really about the culture wars -- and that therefore, in the words of legal theorist Mark Tushnet, "any gun-related policy likely to survive a political process deeply affected by the culture wars will not do much to reduce violence." Indeed, Tushnet (an acquaintance of Mr. UD's) suggests that "advocates of gun control might actually be impeding the adoption of more effective policies for reducing violence. The reason is that when gun control becomes politically important, a battle in the culture wars occurs. Even when advocates of gun control win such battles, they typically find it difficult to enact or sustain strong gun control policies.... Take the issue of gun control off the political agenda, and those interested in reducing violence might win more elections - and then enact anti-violence policies other than gun control that might actually accomplish something." (I'm quoting from page xvii of Tushnet's book Out of Range: Why the Constitution Can't End the Battle Over Guns.)

The whole culture war thing, Tushnet says, has to do with "the cultural theory of risk," in which you're going to be gun control or gun rights depending on whether you're an individualist who resents outside interference in your life and believes that (Tushnet's quoting a couple of sociologists here) "it would be a cowardly and dishonorable concession to our own physical weaknesses for us to disarm all private citizens in the interest of public safety," or whether you're an egalitarian who believes that "it would send an unacceptable message of mutual distrust in each other's intentions, of collective indifference to each other's welfare... to rely on each citizen's decision to arm herself as a means of keeping the civil peace." [115-116]

Yet as UD ponders these distinctions, things get muddy. At least for her.

Start with the non-muddiness. She and Webb do seem to embody stark cultural differences. Tushnet notes that "Whites, Protestants, men, and people who live in rural areas are substantially more likely to oppose gun control than African Americans, Catholics and Jews, women, and people who live in cities."

UD's a lifelong blue stater raised by urban liberal democrats. She's a Jew and a woman. Webb's a lifelong red stater raised by rural military people. He has a Protestant background and is a man.

Looked at more closely, though, UD and Webb crucially share the individualist rather than egalitarian orientation. UD may have strong left libertarian leanings as opposed to Webb's right, but they both have that American thing where you distrust big government and where the attainment of personal autonomy is among the greatest of goods.

Our biographies are strangely similar in some respects. Webb was a literature professor at the Naval Academy. He's a fiction writer. He's been a journalist. UD's read some of his novels. They're formulaic, to be sure, but all of them reflect a highly literate -- I'd say sensitive, but don't want to embarrass him -- sensibility.

Actually, where I suspect Webb and I most interestingly, deeply differ in regard to guns lies in the amount of risk we've experienced in our lives, and our subsequent appraisal of how risky life is in general. It's not clear that the cultural theory of risk Tushnet cites goes to this, but let me see if I can express some of what I have in mind.

UD has never really for one moment in her existence experienced serious risk. Her father had a permanent government job that paid well. She always had a comfortable stable life. She's a tenured professor. Her husband's father was a tenured professor, and her husband is a tenured professor. Her town, Garrett Park, where she grew up, and where she still lives, was America's first nuclear free zone. UD has stayed married to the same man.

Webb's military family moved twenty times during his childhood. He's been married three times. Lots of people around him, including of course Webb himself, saw military combat. Webb's son recently returned from duty in Iraq. Webb's an anxious, somewhat humorless guy: As Navy Secretary he didn't laugh along with everyone else when a commander in Iceland, asked by Webb to explain extremely high pregnancy rates among enlisted women, said, "What else is there to do in Iceland?"

I mean to say that UD's relaxed -- unarmed... disarmed... because she can sort of afford to be. She was raised in privilege, security, and ease. She's reading two books right now, one of them Tushnet's, and the other, much more typical for her, a prettily written meditation on gardens, a book full of praise for the values of "stillness, repose, beauty, and harmony with the cosmic order." She's always lived in affluent, pretty safe neighborhoods. The world doesn't present itself to her as a place in which she needs to carry a gun... Though, under the pressure of recent campus massacres, that attitude is changing.

Webb's not relaxed. He's an intense and possibly mildly paranoid guy. But he has his reasons.

I do wonder where Webb stands on the emergent open carry movement in America, where people wear their guns openly wherever they go. One reporter comments: "The Open Carry movement is a mystery to me. What kind of psychology - overcompensation, paranoia, antisocial personality - is behind that thinking?"

Steven Gunn, an attorney and board member of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, believes it's pure ego.

"We have inconsiderate boors walking around on the street carrying firearms openly," says Gunn. "I don't think they are truly afraid for their safety. Most of them are trying to make a statement about the 2nd Amendment."

Anthropologist Charles Springwood says open carriers are trying to "naturalize the presence of guns, which means that guns become ordinary, omnipresent, and expected. Over time, the gun becomes a symbol of ordinary personhood."

"Second Amendment questions aside," says [...] a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, "the real debate seems to me a cultural and social one: Do we want a society in which it is an unconscious emblem of everyday life that folks move about with 'portable killing machines' strapped to their bodies?"

Back to the culture wars.

 

 

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