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


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Low-wage white Anglos are not the only folk who can sometimes be bought off – or anyhow have to settle for – the like of guns or other harassing power-trip instruments in place of real money. Here in parts of Southern California we have a more homely example – only in this case comprising mostly Latinos rather than Angle whites. In place of more significant work and wages they are given loud polluting dust-blowers (allegedly for blowing leaves but far more effective at raising particulates and exhausting toxic gases) – which gives them the power to destroy neighborhood quiet and degrade air quality.

  2. ronwf says

    About that last – according to the FBI, approximately 200,000,000 guns are in civilian hands in the U.S. They are used for sustenance (some hunters), recreation (other hunters as well as target shooters), self-defense, suicide and homicide. Based on numbers from the CDC and presuming that every homicide was committed by a different gun (not necessarily true), 0.0055% of all guns were used for homicide, 0.0095% were used for suicide, and 99.985% were used for the other purposes. So don’t try the argument that guns are mainly used to kill people. it’s just not true.

  3. ronwf says

    They also see you adopt the term “gun violence” and see that it, too, is a rhetorical trick. About 350 people were killed in 2011 with rifles – all rifles, including both “assault weapons” and all others. More than 500 people were killed with hammers. About 11,000 were killed with cars driven by intoxicated drivers. That’s more than were killed by murderers with guns. So, then – do we talk about “car violence” or “hammer violence”? Of course not. That would be absurd. it’s absurd because the proper focus is on the people who did the killing, not the tool they used, especially when the vast majority of people who use those tools – hammers, cars and guns – use them for perfectly legitimate purposes.

  4. ronwf says

    “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.

    Simple. They would do little to nothing to stop what has happened. The recent shooters would have PASSED background checks. And we HAD a ban on “assault weapons” for 10 years and it had absolutely NO EFFECT.

    This tortured fantasy you put forward as a “race wage” is absurd. You want to know why people are up in arms about these proposals? Because they look at the facts, understand that the laws being proposed would not and will not have the effect you claim they will, and understandably figure that you are therefore lying about why you want them passed.

  5. Ryder S says

    I guess facts don’t matter any more.

    When an article, like this one, where the FIRST SENTENCE has two glaring factual errors, I kinda lose interest.

    Obama signed NO executive orders. None. Zero.

    There is a “list” of 23 “things” floating around, which is not a document of any weight, and was also never signed. By anyone.

    It was merely a press hand out.

    All Obama signed was a request for health agencies in the federal government to study “gun violence”, and how those agencies might be able to have an effect on it. That’s it. Nothing more.

    Of course Federal health agencies have long been studying gun violence, so it’s a big dose of nothing.

    Yet our author has managed to paint Obama as a man of action signing long lists of executive orders with the weight of law, when all he did was send a memo to the Department of health services saying “look into this, ok?”

    Is is any wonder that the press is generally seen as the media relations arm of the Democrat party?

    If this writer wants to have a *real* discussion about things… then why not hit the basics?

    Human rights.

    Shouldn’t that be an important topic for a Progressive?

    This author suggests that we now issue human rights out to people based on “background checks”.

    You don’t need a background check to become president with your finger on “The Button”, deciding the fate of all humanity, and the world generally, but if you want to have a simple tool, like a firearm, for protection of self and nation… that basic right that we ALL have… suddenly we don’t. You get it only with a “background check”. A check that has NO DEFINITION.

    It can be and become *anything*, changing again and again. How can human rights be attached to fluctuating “checks”, issued at the whims of power elites?

    We can agree that you can LOSE your rights, after violating those of others. Your right to walk free can be lost if you murder, for example.

    But how does that translate into a process forced on everyone else?

    Sex offenders can’t go near schools.

    Does this mean that YOU have to be checked, as you approach a school, to be sure you are not on a sex offenders list? Your “background check”?

    Somehow “background checks”, used to “hand out” your unalienable rights, seems a bit twisted, don’t you think?

    Progressives USED to believe in a presumption of innocence.

    Now, that idea seems to have been turned on it’s head. Now you are assumed a felon, unless you can prove you are otherwise.

    Progressives have lost their way.

    And their minds.

    “Assault rifles” are used in only a few hundred murders a year. Far more are murdered by HANDS. More are murdered with hammers or clubs.

    Tens of *thousands* are killed by cars each year…

    Some amount of perspective has to creep back into the progressive mind at SOME point…. right?

  6. Brian Knowles says

    “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.” Then, someone shot him…

    I was never much impressed with MLK, who was preachy and derivative. I was more impressed with Malcolm X, who, coming out of prison for something or other, said that in prison, he’d come to the conclusion that “the only thing in the world that I can change is my mind.” Then, someone shot him…

    Chairman Mao said “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”, and I remember that even better..

    Some bitter clinger…

  7. Reverend Draco says

    The NRA commercial about Obama’s kids is perfect. It shows, in living color, the utter hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of anti-gun bigots.

    Elitists know that mass shootings almost always occur in Gun Free Zones Victim Disarmament Zones (I can think of only one that didn’t – Ft. Hood) – and so, their children get schools with armed security, while our kids just have to take their chances. . . Politicians are the worst of the bunch, as their kids get 24/7 armed security paid, not out of their own pockets, but out of the pockets of those whose children have been thrown to the wolves.

    Reasonable people keep a fire extinguisher handy, just in case there’s a fire. “Nuts” rely solely on the fire department.
    Reasonable people keep a first aid kit nearby, just in case someone gets hurt. “Nuts” rely solely on ambulances and hospitals.
    Reasonable people keep guns close at hand, just in case criminals decide to prey on them. “Nuts” rely solely on the police.

    There is no such thing as a “gun nut.” The nuts are those who are so fearful, they’d use other anti-gun bigots’ guns to control the self-defensive choices of reasonable people.

    Gun control was born of racism – as a way to allow an armed KKK to prey on unarmed blacks. It truly is an old story in America – bigots of all types relish the thought of unarmed minorities unable to defend themselves. . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *