Your Papers, Citizen

Gun Control and the Changing American Character

February 19, 2013

A staple of American self-esteem is that we Yanks are brave, free, independent, self-reliant, ruggedly individual, and disinclined to accept abuse from anyone. This was largely true in, say, 1930. People lived, a great many of them, on farms where they planted their own crops, built their own barns, repaired their own trucks, and protected their own property. They were literate but not educated, knew little of the world beyond the local, but in their homes and fields they were supreme.

If they wanted to swim buck nekkid in the creek, they swam buck nekkid. If whistle pigs were eating the corn, the family teenager would get his rifle and solve the problem. Government left them alone.

Even in the early Sixties, in rural King George County, Virginia, where I grew up, it was still mostly true. The country people built their own boats to crab in the Potomac, converted junked car engines to marine, made their own crab pots, planted corn and such, and hunted deer. There was very little contact with the government. One state trooper was the law, and he had precious little to do.

I say the following not as an old codger painting his youth in roseate hues that never were, but as serious sociology: We kids could get up on a summer morning, grab the .22 or .410, put it over our shoulder and go into the country store for ammunition, and no one looked twice. We could go by night to the dump to snap-shoot rats, and no one cared. We could get our fishing poles—I preferred a spinning reel and bait-casting tackle—and fish anywhere we pleased on Machodoc Creek or the Potomac. We could drive unwisely but joyously on winding wooded roads late at night and nobody cared.

Call it “freedom.” We were free, and so were the country folk on their farms and with their crabbing rigs. Because we were free, we felt free.  It was a distinct psychology, though we didn’t know it.

Things then changed. The country increasingly urbanized. So much for rugged.

It became ever more a nation of employees. As Walmart and shopping centers and factories moved in, the farmers sold their land to real-estate developers at what they thought mind-boggling prices, and went to work as security guards and truck drivers. Employees are not free. They fear the boss, fear dismissal, and become prisoners of the retirement system.  So much for Marlboro Man.

Self-reliance went. Few any longer can fix a car or the plumbing, grow food, hunt, bait a hook or install a new roof. Or defend themselves. To overstate barely, everyone depends on someone else, often the government, for everything. Thus we becamethe Hive.

Government came like a dust storm of fine choking powder, making its way into everything. You could no longer build a shed without a half-dozen permits and inspections. You couldn’t swim without a lifeguard, couldn’t use your canoe without Coast-Guard approved flotation devices and a card saying that you had taken an approved course in how to canoe. Cops proliferated with speed traps. The government began spying on email, requiring licenses and permits for everything, and deciding what could and could not be taught to one’s children, who one had to associate with, and what one could think about what or, more usually, whom.

With this came feminization. The schools began to value feelings over learning anything. Dodge ball and freeze tag became violence and heartless competition, giving way to cooperative group activities led by a caring adult. The female preference for security over freedom set in like a hard frost. We became afraid of second-hand smoke and swimming pools with a deep end. As women got in touch with their inner totalitarian, we began to outlaw large soft drinks and any word or expression that might offend anyone.

Thus much of the country morphed into helpless flowers, narcissistic, easily frightened, profoundly ignorant video-game twiddlers and Facebook Argonauts. As every known poll shows, even what purport to be college graduates do not know  who fought in World War One, or that there was a Mexican-American war, or where Indochina is.

Serving as little more than cubicle fodder, they could not survive a serious crisis like the first Depression. And they look to the collective, the hive, for protection. The notion of individual self-defense, whether with a fist or a Sig 9, is, you know, like scary, or, well, just wrong or macho or something. I mean, if you find an intruder in your house at night, shouldn’t you, like, call a caring adult?

The echoes of the former America linger in commercials in commercials for pickup trucks with throaty bass voices and footage of Toyotas powering through rough unsettled country that almost no one ever even sees these days.  Mostly it’s just marketing to suburban blossoms. The number of vehicles with four-wheel drive that have actually been off a paved road is not high.

Many who grew up in the former America, and a good many today in the South and west, substantially adhere to the old values. They won’t last. We live in the day of the Hive, and in the long run there is no point fighting it.

But for these relics, who like to wind the Harley to a hundred-and-climbing on the big empty roads out west, who throw the deer rifle in the gun rack on the first day of the season, who set out into the High Desert for sheer love of sun and barren rock and sprawling isolation—the terror of guns, of everything, makes no sense.

They—we—grew up with guns. Since nobody ever shot anybody accidentally or otherwise, we accepted as obvious: that people, not guns, committed murder. Did shotguns leap into the air of their own volition, point themselves, and open fire? Or did someone pull the trigger? If a murderer shot his victim, did you put the gun in jail, or the murderer? If remote urban barbarians below the level of civilization shot people, what did that have to do with us?

A different America, a different culture. We really were free. You could come out of the house on a summer morning and let the dogs run loose in the fields, nobody ever having heard of a dog license. You could change the oil in your car or rewire your basement without the county meddling. You could shoot varmints eating your garden and no one cared. The government left you alone. This is not an unimportant part of the dispute over guns—wanting to be left alone. Nobody in America, ever again, is going to be left alone. Not ever.

Philip Francis Stanley and Grotesque Ophthalmological Malpractice