The “Gun Wage”

rush limbaughWhen President Barack Obama signed executive orders Wednesday outlining 23 actions aimed at blunting the effects of gun violence in America he urged citizens to contact their congressional representatives: “Get them on record,” he said.

“Ask your member of Congress if they support universal background checks to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Ask them if they support renewing a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. And if they say no, ask them why not. Ask them what’s more important — doing whatever it takes to get a A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?”

The response from the National Rifle Association started with an advertisement singling out the President’s daughters for having better security than “our” children. The NRA has since doubled down on this tasteless line of attack in its shrill demand (without a new tax to pay for it) for armed guards at the nation’s schools. By sneering at the President’s children the NRA’s advertisement contains an undercurrent of race baiting similar to what Colin Powell recently called a “dark vein of intolerance.”

Why are these people so threatened by background checks and limits on military-style weapons? There’s still going to be plenty of guns and no one is talking about forbidding hunting or recreational shooting. The answer to President Obama’s question, which might explain also the NRA’s fanatical rejection of any changes to U.S. gun law, is more psychological (and sociological) than it is political.

Since Bill Clinton’s second term the NRA has been riding high. Cowardly Washington Democrats shied away from arousing the gun enthusiasts’ wrath and dropped the issue sometime between losing both houses of Congress and the catastrophic presidency of George W. Bush. The NRA became so powerful on Capitol Hill that it has “captured” the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fire Arms (ATF) bureau much like Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase captured the Securities and Exchange Commission. But now in the wake of the ghastly mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the NRA is on the defensive; its honchos are starting to look like the Big Tobacco executives of the 1990s, out of step with mainstream American opinion.

As illustrated by the Koch Brothers bucking congressional Republicans on the debt ceiling, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough scratching his head about how extreme the gun lobby has become, there are signs of rifts developing between more elite right-wingers and the Republican base. The task at hand for progressives, and as many Democratic politicians that can be corralled, is to push in the discourse in ways that widens this fissure. Fifty years ago many of those who belonged to the more prosperous right-wing business class turned against Jim Crow segregation as a “common sense” step after being shamed by the thuggery of their fellow Southerners. This split in right-wing opinion helped open the doors for progressive social change on civil rights.

The first cracks in the NRA’s edifice of omnipotence are forming. Scarborough and a few saner elite right-wingers are trying to step in after being embarrassed by their fanatical ideological brethren. Fifty years ago there was a similar rift between the business-oriented right-wingers in the South who became somewhat ashamed of their alliance with the often-violent lower middle class supporters of Jim Crow.

The former NRA president Marion Hammer illustrated this undercurrent of race with her bizarre analogy where she equated discrimination against assault rifles with racial discrimination. She kind of “post-modernized” the concept to fit today’s racial norms while hanging on to a strange reverse racial connotation. Somewhere in Ms. Hammer’s viewpoint (although I don’t know where) is a twisted logic.

In November 1962, Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” We’ve reached a similar moment in the gun debate. These mild reform measures President Obama has put forth will not end gun violence and stop all deranged people from getting guns and killing people. But they’re a step in the direction for reducing the likelihood that it will happen.

Judging from the over-the-top reactions from the gun nuts like Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, Fox News, and many congressional Republicans, guns represent something deeper in the Right’s psyche. In the Jim Crow South there was something called the “race wage,” or the “social wage” (as W.E.B. Dubois called it) where racial segregation allowed lower-income whites to feel superior and more important than African Americans even though their economic conditions were not all that different. Today, the “gun wage” might give some white people who are facing a scary and uncertain economic future a sense of holding onto an artificially higher status. At least they still have their guns, while they observe around them a “threatening” number of immigrants, Latinos, blacks, women, and young people who are finding their political voice. This phenomenon might also explain the totally irrational hatred of Obama we’ve seen from the Right in this country; not only because he’s black, but because he embodies everything they fear about a changing American society. And now he wants to “take away” their guns! Obama has governed as a Rockefeller Republican yet they see him as a Kenyan Mau Mau, Socialist, radical.

Like the old Jim Crow “race wage” the “gun wage” allows lower middle-class white men to feel a little less besieged by immigrants, feminists, blacks and Others. They hug their guns to their chests as the great equalizers postponing their declining social status, while they sense the inexorable demographic shift toward becoming a minority in the United States.

All the calls we hear for “taking back” the “real America,” like Bill O’Reilly lamenting on election night the loss of “traditional America,” the gun wage compensates them for their loss in social rank. Many of these beleaguered white men hold fantasies, like radio nut-jock Alex Jones, of picking up the gun to fight a tyrannical central government. Good luck with that.

The key division within the Right is between white men of more affluent station with a bit more education who would tolerate some common sense gun reforms and the less educated lower middle class whites who feel their way of life slipping away.

It’s an old story in America. In the Jim Crow South when the racial norms of segregation came under assault from the civil rights movement (and the federal courts) even in Birmingham, Alabama in the days of Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor the more affluent white business class was open to reforming segregation. The lower class whites violently fought against any change in their “social wage.” They supported Bull Connor and Governor George Wallace, while the Alabama business elites slowly moved away from them after being somewhat embarrassed by the craziness and viciousness of the segregationists.

Perhaps the nation today can move forward understanding that the “gun wage” colors the debate on gun control. The coalition calling for sane gun laws will have to embarrass enough of the white business elites to lead them to distance themselves from the gun nuts, just as more affluent Southern whites moved against Jim Crow after their lower income brethren embarrassed them to the nation and to the world.

Maybe more tirades from people like Alex Jones and more NRA web ads like the ones the organization is currently running will help widen this fissure. Examples of extremism can galvanize mainstream Americans opinion in the opposite direction.

As we look back on the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham protests in the spring of 1963 and the travails of the Kennedy Administration in trying to deal with the extremists in the South, we might learn about how to deal with the epidemic of gun violence in this country and understand what’s blocking progress on sensible gun control.

For the past 30 years the GOP has been Southernized and the gun debate reflects this new orientation. The segregationists vilified President John F. Kennedy similar to the way the Right demonizes Obama today. They apparently see the first black president as an “existential” threat to their way of life; hence the gun wage has become sacrosanct to them. Its integral to their self-image in a changing society they neither comprehend nor embrace.

joseph palermoTrashing President Obama for having Secret Service protection for his daughters appeals to such a narrow band of dead-enders they look like the hold-outs who clung to racial segregation 50 years ago even as mainstream America, and many of their ideological allies, passed them by.

Joseph Palermo

Friday, 18 January 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on January 18, 2013
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).