The gun debate needs more politics, less ethics

After of the Aurora massacre, some liberal commentators wrongly blamed US culture for gun violence.

Political changes, rather than cultural debates, are needed to address America's problems [Reuters]

One of the most read commentaries on the shooting massacre in Aurora, Colo., came from an unlikely commentator — Jason Alexander, the actor best known for his role in the 1990s TV comedy “Seinfeld”. In a plea for decency and reason, he asked why the law allows the sale of assault rifles of the kind used by alleged killer James Holmes when the only purpose of such weaponry is to spray carnage fast and furious. 

The US Constitution, Alexander writes, protects and guarantees the right to bear arms, and it enshrines the link between a well-regulated militia and freedom. So the debate among people of good faith isn’t over constitutional rights, but over the wisdom of allowing madmen the freedom to harm, maim, kill and otherwise terrorise Americans.

“This is not the time for reasonable people, on both sides of this issue, to be silent,” he writes. “We owe it to the people whose lives were ended and ruined yesterday to insist on a real discussion.”

Alexander was one of many celebrities to express his views (we Americans love our celebrities!), and his was notable for its reasoning, focus and compassion, even for those with whom he disagrees. Assault rifles pose a problem we can clearly understand, he said, and that we can clearly solve if only we see past the blinding effects of political extremism, especially the radical conservatism that holds that even the smallest limit on the Second Amendment is a prelude to tyranny.

Sadly, Alexander’s liberalism was quickly overtaken by another kind.

Culture vs politics 

Michael Moore is the creator of Bowling for Columbine, a 2002 documentary about the other shooting massacre in Colorado — at Columbine High School in 1999. Moore is well known for his liberal views, and many liberals awaited Moore’s reaction to the Aurora tragedy. On his website, he wrote that Americans 1) “believe in killing as a way of accomplishing our goals” and 2) “are an easily frightened people and it is easy to manipulate us with fear.” So gun violence can’t be solved with politics or law. It’s cultural. We are a violent people.

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“Guns don’t kill people,” Moore writes. “Americans kill people.”

Moore’s view is usually understood as a classic reactionary liberalism that is often paired in the media with a classic reactionary conservatism. It is scandalised by the fact of violence, nonplussed by rightist hysteria and outraged that the US isn’t like other rich countries such as Britain, Germany and Japan, where “fewer than 20 people a year are killed there with guns –- and in 2006 the number was two!”

More precisely, Moore might be what philosopher Richard Rorty called a spectatorial leftist, a cultural pessimist who doubts the promise of America’s ideals, a self-marginalised and cynical figure happy to judge but never engage in the messy business of progressive politics.

“The cultural left find themselves to be practically powerless, but comfortable with the idea that they, at least, know better,” wrote Derek Nystrom and Kent Puckett in the preface to Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies, a collection of interviews with the late Rorty.

Jodi Dean, another philosopher, probably didn’t have Moore in mind but she might have when she suggested liberalism’s biggest problem is that it isn’t about politics. Instead, it’s a tradition of debating ethics.  “A politics without representation, exclusion, dogmatism, and utopianism is no politics at all,” she wrote. “It is instead an ethics. Is it any surprise, then, that under neoliberalism ostensible leftists spend countless hours and pages and keystrokes elaborating ethics?”

The common good?

We see this in Moore’s claim that guns aren’t the problem; we are. He writes: “My liberal compatriots will tell you if we just had less guns, there would be less gun deaths. … But this, too, has a problem. There are plenty of guns in Canada (mostly hunting rifles) -– and yet the annual gun murder count is around 200 deaths. … So — why us?” Our culture is diseased with violence, Moore essentially says, and the implication, though he didn’t intend it, is that little can be done.

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This theme of disease and powerlessness was echoed in conservative reactions to the massacre. “Unfortunately, I don’t think society can keep sick, demented individuals from obtaining any type of weapon to kill people,” said Senator Ron Johnson. “Somebody who purposely wants to harm another individual is going to find a method of doing it.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seemed to agree with Moore, saying you can’t stop mass murders from happening until you change the entire culture. “We can sometimes hope that just changing a law will make all bad things go away. It won’t,” Romney told NBC on Wednesday. “Changing the heart of the American people may well be what’s essential to improve the lots of the American people.”

Let’s be clear. To Moore, the sickness is in culture. To Johnson, it’s in individuals. Each is an ethical claim and neither can do anything about it. And to Moore, society must change. To Romney, hearts must. One of the loudest voices of liberalism is in step with currently the most prominent voice of the Republican Party (though not of conservatism). Both are culturally pessimistic; both are spectating from the sidelines.

We often hear about polarization and partisan gridlock, but what if the real problem in Washington is ideological homogeneity? Sure, there are differences in the details, but broadly speaking, Moore is saying what Romney is saying, and no one is doing anything about the problem.

The Republican Party stopped playing a role in governance at some point during the George W. Bush era, and has been completely spectating (ie, obstructing) since President Barack Obama took office. Liberalism has usually done better but not lately. As Rorty said, if liberals want a part in the “achievement of America,” then it’s not enough to watch politics. They must be practiced progressively. Part of that, as Alexander suggests, is getting down to the nitty-gritty. Hashing it out. Striking deals. Sacrificing. Compromise. And governing for the common good.

Anything short of that is ethics, not politics.

John Stoehr’s writing has appeared in American Prospect, Reuters, the Guardian, Dissent, the New York Daily News and The Forward. He is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman and a columnist for the Mint Press News.