Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Guns and the NSA Make Strange Bedfellows

Jun 21, 2013

Guns and the NSA Make Strange Bedfellows

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I was chatting with my local state legislator the other day about guns. He supported the gun control measures that passed in Colorado this year. But he took far more criticism (and lost far more campaign contributions) for those votes than any other he cast. Many of the critics are liberal on every other issue, he told me; they just won’t abide a law that limits them to “only” 15 rounds in a clip.

The gun control issue brought conservatives, moderates, and even some liberals together. And it riled people up like nothing else in his district, where nearly all the voters live in cities and suburbs, though a few live in rural areas.

The rural vs. urban/suburban divide struck him as a key to the issue. The main arguments he heard against gun control centered on self-protection: If you’re alone and attacked, you’d better have plenty of ammo. That argument might make sense, he opined, in rural areas where you’ve got to wait a long time for the police to show up if there’s trouble. But they make little sense in urban/suburban areas where “the law” is just minutes away.

I’m not convinced by my legislator’s argument about the valid needs of rural folks. But his viewpoint helped me understand why there is such powerful resistance to gun control across the nation, and not just from conservatives.

There’s a widespread belief -- whether the data bear it out or not -- that people living on scattered farms or out in the woods or up in the mountains need a lot of firepower to protect themselves from evildoers, because they are so far from the centers of population and legal authority.

But my state legislator’s district is a microcosm of the whole country: Only a vanishingly small fraction of Americans live in such isolated areas. Why then all the resistance to gun control? Part of the answer, surely, is that so many people living in urban/suburban areas view the issue as if they themselves were the “rural folks” of their imagination. 

The imagined countryside has been shaping the politics of America for a long time on all sorts of issues. No matter how urbanized we become, rural values and the rural lifestyle have always retained a privileged place. You can still find plenty of apartments in the biggest cities decorated with those sweet, pastoral Currier & Ives prints, reminding everyone who enters that the countryside -- at least in its mythic version -- is the “real” America.

When it comes to the link between guns and the rural lifestyle, I suspect the biggest influence is the endless stream of “cops vs. bad guys” stories filling our movie theaters and TV screens. They are most often set in big cities. Yet they are typically just updated, high-tech versions of the old stories of the rural frontier.

Even when the urban lawmen work for governmental institutions, they so often win the battle by acting as if they were fighting the evildoers all alone, or with one partner at best. And one of the most beloved plot lines is the lawman (or ex-lawman) who can defeat evil only by working outside the institutional structures of the state.

Urban/suburban dwellers are fed a steady diet of this kind of narrative, set in increasingly realistic visuals of neighborhoods that look much like their own. How easy it must be for them to imagine that, when it comes to issues of “law and order,” they too  are still living in the rural frontier -- reassuring them that they, too, are still “real” Americans. And out there where the mythicized “real” Americans live, you can’t depend on the institutions of the state to protect you.

Colonial historians tell us that this feature of the urban-rural divide was already evident even before there was a United States of America. Travelers to the colonial frontier -- the hills of Appalachia -- who left written records were often struck by the anarchy they saw: everyone assuming it was up to them to protect themselves, their families, and their property, since there were no agents of the state to do the job. And everyone on the frontier was well armed for the task.

These writing travelers had come from the more urbanized Atlantic coast. They may well have exaggerated; what they were really recording was the contrast between their accustomed social ways and the rather different ways of the frontier. In those days the dominant trend was to scorn the rural style. Over the centuries, though, the cultural balance shifted markedly in favor of the frontier, as our movies and TV shows remind us every day.

This rural bias extends far beyond the issue of guns. (Perhaps, for example, to the new laws that would give special treatment to undocumented immigrants if they’ve worked in agriculture, though there’s plenty of economic factors at work in that one, too.)

And it’s not just a question of the absence of state authority. The myth (and often, no doubt, the empirical reality) of the early frontier is marked by a stout resistance to agents of state authority -- most famously in the form of “revenooers,” who could try to collect taxes from well-armed moonshiners only at the risk of their lives.

At a later stage of our history the frontier gave us a seemingly opposite myth: the courageous sheriff who is appreciated, even revered, by the townsfolk for protecting them when the bad guys ride into town. But this narrative has always been counterbalanced by a certain reverence for outlaws. In this counter-narrative, the lawmen are typically cast as agents not so much of the state as of the bankers and other wealthy capitalists who victimize “real” Americans.

And it doesn’t necessarily take an outlaw to defeat these rich evildoers. Another iconic image is the poor but honest, hardworking farmer who can resist foreclosure all by himself -- because he has his gun and is ready to use it when the sheriff, doing the bidding of the banker, arrives.

The difference between the revered and reviled agent of the state is easy to see: The former protects against trouble that arrives from outside the community, whether it’s British “redcoats” or (in much later generations) “commie reds,” “outside agitators,” and eventually “terrorists.” The state lawman becomes an enemy of the people when it’s a question of troublemakers who live among us, especially those who live on the upper economic crust. The dominant tradition tells us that, unless danger threatens from beyond our borders, “real” Americans want to be left to take care of themselves -- with gun in hand.

This same tradition sheds an interesting light on the current controversy about the NSA’s data-gathering programs, which has also brought sharp protest from across the political spectrum. The politics of privacy has made left and right strange bedfellows, we are often told. True, both sides are protesting the same policy. But it’s less often noticed how different their motives are.

From the left, there’s no objection to the government collecting data about us, as long as it’s for a good reason: data about things like health care, housing, education, the environment. Most people on the left expect the data to be anonymous. But I have a hunch many would be willing to have their names attached as long as they felt sure it was serving such benign purposes.

The real objection from the left is that all this spying on us is done in the name of “national security” and the “war on terror.” The national (in)security state that spies on all of us is the same state that has hung the nuclear threat over our heads, killed millions in Vietnam and Iraq, and taken so many trillions in tax dollars that could be used for humane purposes. The paranoia, like the violence, of the (in)security state seems to know no limit. That’s the essence of the complaint from the left about violations of our privacy.

From the right it’s quite a different, and more mixed, story. Some conservatives agree with the left that the NSA’s snooping is part of a war against terrorists. But since they see those terrorists as intruding foreigners, they accept (maybe even applaud) the government agents invading their privacy.  

For others on the right, though, it’s the latest chapter in the old story of rural, “real” America -- one that would have been very familiar to those colonial pioneers in Appalachia, so disdained by eastern visitors. The NSA is the sheriff as bad guy: the nose of the state and its elite, snooping and prying into our lives; just one more set of “gummint” agents, in a long line stretching back nearly three centuries, who won’t leave us alone to live our lives -- and settle our differences -- on our own, as we please, with our own guns in hand.

From the right, then, the resistance to NSA spying grows from the same root as the resistance to gun control laws. What I learned from my state legislator is that this root has been spreading leftward (spreading largely unnoticed, as roots will do), because so many who would not call themselves conservative still prize their imagined version of rural America.

Even on the left, protests against government intrusion may be fueled by more than resistance to the national (in)security state. The myths and values of rural life work their influence, unseen, across the political spectrum. They make gun control laws harder to pass. But they also fan the flames of outrage over NSA spying on U.S. citizens.

If the ideal of the rural as the “real” America did not still wield so much cultural power, we would probably have a lot more gun control laws. But we might not have nearly so much controversy about the NSA violating our right to privacy.

Cultural myths, when they enter the political arena, can make strange bedfellows indeed.  

Of course we always have the option of recognizing those myths at work, setting them aside for purposes of policy debate, and deciding each policy issue on its own genuine merits. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

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