I’m just sayin’ ...

Mr. Neff is senior editor of The Last Ditch


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It's a libertarian commonplace: The purpose of the Second Amendment is not to protect the right to hunt, to put food on the table, or to enjoy the sport of shooting. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to protect the right to self-defense, and specifically defense against the tyranny of the state.

The idea is that an armed citizenry will rise up and ...

Before I continue, a few disclaimers: (1) I am, of course, not advocating violent revolution. (2) I am not advocating any form of regulation of gun ownership or of diminishing in any way the right to own guns. Of any sort. What I'm going to be doing is asking a question. And at the end of my question, I will even allow that I may be wrong about all that I am saying. So are we clear on that?

To continue.

... rise up and defend itself against the tyranny of an overreaching state.

And the question I want to ask is: "Who's kiddin' who?"

(I know. It should be "Who's kiddin' whom?" But somehow I doubt that the grammar of the matter is going to be what's at issue here.)

To put it bluntly, I do not for one moment believe that the American public is going to use its guns to resist the tyranny of this government.

A few here and there will, I suppose, but the armed populace as a whole? Give me a break.

First of all, of course, there is the sheer unlikelihood of success. One considers that the rebels of Syria have been at it for two years. They're a pretty well-armed bunch. But their weapons are simply not enough, and the Syrian government continues to hold its own and make life miserable for everyone else (not that the rebels are at pains to make life pleasant for anyone else). My point is not that the rebels are losing. Or may lose. Or will win. My point is that they keep appealing to the world for more weapons. What they have just doesn't seem to be any match for fighter jets and tanks.

But beyond the realities of armed combat, I have some reasons to doubt the American public's ferocity or their commitment to their liberties. One is that, so often, when I read a libertarian alerting his readers to some ongoing tyranny, I can be pretty sure that by the end of the article I'm going to read some variant of "Unless the public wakes up / Unless these measures are curtailed / As long as popular opinion is silent ... Americans are in real danger of losing their freedoms."

In other words, "Your freedoms aren't in real danger yet, folks. There's still time."

Which translates into a sentence that I see every now and then: "I am not, of course, advocating violent revolution."

I remember that Ayn Rand called John Kennedy's New Frontier program fascist. And good for her. Here we are 50 years later, and her followers and others influenced by her still seem to think that Americans are still in danger of losing their freedoms. Do they really think that things haven't gotten worse in the past 50 years? If the state was fascist 50 years ago, what is it now?

Of course, Rand herself said that it was not yet the time for revolution. Her reason was that as long as she had the right to speak freely, it was possible to effect change peacefully, a view voiced also by Leonard Read of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Murray Rothbard noted in his characteristically sardonic manner that he was pretty sure that as long as Rand and Read were advising their followers not to resort to revolution, their right to speak freely would never be in jeopardy.

Please keep in mind that I am not, of course, advocating revolution. I am merely thinking my way out loud through a question I have, and I may be wrong about it.

Consider some of the famous American riots of the 20th century, especially, say, those related to school busing in the 1970s. If ever there was a tyrannical act, what we saw in Boston was it. A judge actually took control of a school system there against a decisive (democratic!) vote from the public and ruled by decree. The National Guard was called out (and the 82nd Airborne put on Boston duty). And at some point the angry parents who had been so heroically vociferous in their opposition just bowed their heads and said that the law is the law, and submitted.

I do not blame them for submitting. After all, they had been defeated. That is what a defeated people do.

But I should like to draw attention to one or two facts. As I do so, remember that I am not, of course, advocating violent revolution. Just asking some questions here.

There was no actual armed confrontation. There was some violence, to be sure, but nothing that looked like some of the better-known armed confrontations of the 18th century that the Boston area is known for. Not even the threat of such.

The other thing is that the Boston public school system continued to survive in South Boston. But you know, it was legal (and I believe still is) for parents to pull their children out of the government schools and send them to private schools. If every parent who was out there shaking a fist against school busing had taken his children out of the government system and placed them in a private school, I wonder what would have happened next. (A fair number of them did, but by no means all, or even a majority. And certainly not enough to bring the system to its knees — or even threaten to.)

"But Neff," you may say, "private schools are expensive. Most people — and certainly most people in South Boston — could not afford to do that."

I don't doubt it. I'm not going to argue that they could. Or even should. But I will observe that a people who can't afford to send their children to private school do not sound to me to be made of the stuff that revolution calls for.

Every year, nearly all Americans docilely fill out tax forms (some of them pay other people to do it for them) and send them to the state. George Lichty's "Is Party Line, Comrade" series of cartoons contains one gem in which a Soviet underling is showing a document to his boss and saying, "Is confession every American is forced to sign. Is called IRS form."

Yes, I know ... failure to fill out this confession carries great risks, and I do not condemn anyone who weighs the costs and concludes it is safer to fill the form out and to send in the required filthy lucre than to be a tax rebel. It just seems to me that a person who has submitted to this tyranny year after year for 30 years or so is not likely to take up arms against a tyrannical state.

I am not, of course, advocating that anyone take up arms. I'm just sayin'.

Then there is the census. There are plenty of people who dislike the decennial nosiness of the state who nevertheless answer the questions and return the form. Or who refuse to answer the questions and return the form blank. I do not advocate any form of law-breaking, of course, so I do not recommend that anyone refuse to return the form. I will note, however, that it is easy for a person not to return the form at first. The worst that happens is that a person who refuses will be pestered a few times to return it. Most people do not make the state pester them. They do not make the state put itself out at all. They just fill the damn thing out when they first get it and return it. Or just return it blank. No inconvenience to the state at all.

It seems to me that a people who can't be bothered to cause the state any inconvenience — even if they own a few guns — are unlikely to take up arms against it.

Not that they should. Again, just thinkin' out loud here.

In fact, if anything, I should probably be condemned for saying to the state, "Come on in, boys. The water's fine. You really don't have anything to fear from this populace."

Let's think a moment about a group that did put up some armed resistance: the Branch Davidians at Waco. It probably would have been the better part of valor if they had put up a white flag at some point. I am not really thinking about them. I just want you to. I'm thinking about the rest of the American public who watched the matter unfold and who watched its denouement. Didn't most people side with the state in that confrontation?

And when a movie about the event was put on television, wasn't it a pretty distorted account that favored the state? Sure, there are videos that take a critical view of things. They don't reach a very large audience. And that audience they reach? Well, they fill out their 1040 confessions every year and comply with decennial nosiness. And send their children to government schools.

And aren't the people who seem even remotely likely to be part of an armed resistance seen by most Americans as semi-literate (they were able to read The Turner Diaries but not To Kill a Mockingbird), motorcycle-riding or pickup-truck-driving rednecks (we're still allowed to say that word, aren't we?) who have non-Thomistic ideas about God (or at least non-Crossanian views), who are racists (whatever that means), who probably practice polygamy (unlike the characters in beloved TV series who never cheat, never move from one partner to the next, and never give it up on the first date), and who almost certainly have child pornography stashed away somewhere? Basically an unsympathetic bunch, wouldn't you say?

In other words, no one you would want to stand shoulder to shoulder with at the barricades ... you know, if there were barricades anywhere.

Not that there should be barricades anywhere. Still just thinkin' out loud here.

Now, maybe we've all been just so inspired by the life and teaching of the unspeakably and incomparably Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior Holiday (his last name was "Holiday," right?) that we think that violence is a bad thing, and that nonviolent protest is the right and proper thing to do.

Okay. I can buy that for now. So where are these nonviolent protests? against Obamacare — against tax increases — against the wars — against anti-tobacco, anti-sugar tyranny? Sometimes I think the only people who are serious about being against anything are the folks who protest abortion on a regular and somewhat continual basis.

Every now and then you get a bunch of big frogs in some small pond or other who publish some brave words that the government is illegitimate (for example in the neocon publication First Things). Or there is the mighty Manhattan Declaration. And they always say that the Right Thing to Do is to engage in nonviolent protest and go to jail and stuff. But none of the signers of these brave declarations seems to be going to jail. Or even doing much in the way of nonviolent protest. In other words: Big Talk! Give me MLKHoliday any day.

(By the way, please note that we have had to link to the archive.org edition — the actual declaration and all the huffing and puffing surrounding it seem to have disappeared from the Internet proper.)

But look. If you think nonviolent protests are going to bring down tyranny, if you are a real Gandhi-type ... then what do you need with the Second Amendment? Gandhi himself may have thought it was a terrible thing for the British to have disarmed India (but see "What Gandhi really thought about guns"), but what he would have wanted his countrymen to do with arms when it came to opposing tyranny is not at all clear.

(I confess that it seems reasonable to me that an empire that had experienced a Mutiny, as Britain did in 1857, showed good sense in having second thoughts about letting its subject populace have guns. I mean, keeping people with that kind of history disarmed is the sort of thing sensible empires do, isn't it?)

Over on the Left, of course, there is no possibility whatever of resistance of any kind against the state. Well, not unless the Republicans manage to get control of the presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, anyway. And even then, I wouldn't count on it. After all, if any such thing ever happens, I suspect all that we'll see are George Bush types and John Boehner types, and the Left — after making a de rigueur show of outrage and pious objection, weeping and wailing and declaring that they should all move to the Åland Islands — recognizing that the premises of the one are not all that different from the premises of the other and that accommodation (e.g., the Bush/Kennedy "No Child Left Behind" initiative) is always possible.

And then there is the simple response to the fuming and fussing of the administration and its allies in the Senate over gun ownership. For all the Left's protestations to the contrary, clearly they want to deny gun ownership to Americans. (Well, not to American policemen, of course. Or soldiers. Or other — what was that word Dan Rather used? oh, yes — "peace officers.") Those who say they are not opposed to gun ownership — "why, I myself own a .22 rifle" — are making a necessary obeisance to lobbies that have power to affect later elections. We all know that. Is anyone fooled? Don't we all know what the point of the program is?

NPR recently broadcast a feature on gunshot injuries that quoted a doctor (female, of course) who said, "I hate guns. If I could snap my finger and get rid of all the guns, I would. I think they're evil. I think people are making money off them and people are dying. And at some point, when we see what we see, I don't really care what the other side of the argument is. I don't care. I just don't want to see another three-year-old come in and be shot in the head. I don't care what your argument is, it's not going to trump that."

"I don't care what your argument is." Well, that about sums it up. You know, NPR didn't just happen to interview a doctor who said that. It wasn't just by chance, you know.

But let's not be too critical of NPR. Objective news outlet that it is, it carried this muscular, Jeffersonian defense of gun ownership from another doctor: "I don't think we need new laws; we just need to make the ones we have work better."

I, of course, despite what I said above, do not believe that the state wants to disarm its citizenry. That's what happens in other countries where you can't escape seeing large posters of the head of state in imposing postures, sometimes in odd colors. If I really believed that the state was out to disarm the citizenry, I suppose I would have to borrow some passages from one of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels, the one in which Helm gives a woman he is protecting (but must leave unattended for a short time) a gun and instructs her not to listen to anyone who tries to talk her into giving it up. He warns her, "Don't give it up to anybody; and if somebody tries to take it, figure that's all the proof you need of his hostile intentions, and blast him to hell right then."

Lest she not fully grasp what he has told her, he adds, "If you shoot it, do a good job. Use both hands ... hold steady, keep firing, and really perforate that target. Never mind the Cossacks attacking from the left flank and the Apaches galloping in from the right, whooping and hollering. Get that guy in front of you and get him good.... Just don't fall for that line about how we're all reasonable people here and just hand over that gun, you know you're not really going to shoot it, my dear, so please pass it across and let's talk things over in a civilized manner.... Don't give it to anybody."

If I really believed the state was out to disarm the citizenry, that's what I would have to say. Or something like it. But I'm not advocating any violence here. Really, I'm not.

Well, anyway, that's my question: Would Americans really resist tyranny with their weapons? Really?

There is a possible objection to my suspicion that they will not. I will voice it here, and state that I am not just doing it for show. Maybe I really am wrong about what I've been saying. Maybe the American public really would — in the end — resist with all their might. And the objection to my counter-suspicion is this: The state seems to think there is a problem with total disarmament. Otherwise, why does it take all these halfway measures? Why not just go for broke?

By the way, just as I was saying that I wasn't advocating violent revolution, I want to say to the state, I'm not advocating that you go for broke, either.  Ω

March 28, 2013

Published in 2013 by WTM Enterprises.

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