Sunday, February 24, 2013

“Come and Take It” - Arrested Development Armed to the Teeth

Tea Partiers and Technology 

I was stopped in my tracks this week when I opened one of the many current issues sites to which I subscribe and was confronted by this image. The photo illustrates an article at Mother Jones’ online site which discusses how a Tea Party rally for guns was organized by an online site described as a “data harvesting site.” The point of the article is that Tea Partiers were being ripped off by their own online organizers and as a result their credit accounts and personal information had been jeopardized.

Image by aken from Stephanie Mencimer article, Tea Party Group Behind Saturday's Gun Rallies Under Fire found at

Clearly this is one of the many problems a culture experiences in an age of Technopoly (see Neil Postman). Indeed, this story comes on the heels of revelations Friday that Chinese hackers have been busily tapping into virtually every aspect of American life from national security to individual consumer transactions. 

When a culture operates out of the presumptions of a technopoly, all technological innovations must be seen as progress. If such innovations can be created (and marketed) they must be used. Their presumed technological utility will inevitably outweigh any ethical questions regarding the use of that technology. As such the ethics of technology is always a consideration after-the-fact, often seeking to mitigate damage already done.

 What struck me about the article was the photo. Of course, the invitation to “Come and take it” is hardly original. It is one of the many guises of the “You make me!” taunting that we see in middle school boys desperately intent upon proving their budding manhood to their peers. At some level it could be seen as charming in adolescents, an expectable stage of development enroute to a mature adulthood which comes in part from realizing the childishness of such bravado.

But when we hear this kind of childishness in adults whom we presume should know better, it’s not so charming anymore. And what makes this image particularly chilling is the weapon of war which adorns the center of the flag. The resulting combination of a defensive, immature adult with access to a weapon of war in a society which is neither threatened by invasion nor civil war is quite chilling.

Some guns are less dangerous than others

In years past, I was much more of an absolutist about gun control than I am today. I knew that places like Australia had dealt with mass shootings by banning automatic weapons like the one depicted above. It also created a tight system of permitting and restricted ownership that has dramatically decreased gun violence in that country. In my younger days, I simply wanted all guns off our streets with guns relegated to shooting ranges or hunting preserves where they could be used and stored on-site. The “shooting clubs” in the UK, many of them operated by the UK version of the National Rifle Association, is a good example of how limited access to guns could work.

But as I’ve thought about this over the years, I have changed my mind a bit. I am hardly convinced by the determinist arguments that “You could never collect the guns from Americans” (of course we could, the question is at what cost). But I’ve come to believe that some guns in some contexts are less dangerous than others. And I’ve become more convinced that all-or-nothing approaches to public policy often exacerbate the problems they sought to address, paralyzing the potential for any progress on this crisis which demands redress.

While I’ve never been a hunter, I have come to understand the primal urge among many rural men to engage in a modern day version of their paleolithic ancestor’s practices of “bringing home the bacon.” Of course, I hardly have bought into the description of such slaughter as a sport. There’s no actual sport in a lopsided fatal encounter between two species of animals, one armed with superior weaponry (including night vision lenses and hovering helicopters in some cases) and the other totally at their mercy. As my Great-Aunt Louise always said, “If you armed the deer and taught them to shoot back, that would be a sport!”

Even so, I have come to see little point in trying to pry these symbolic self-reassurances of manhood from the hands of rural gun owners. At some level that would be about as pointless as trying to ban the American flag or close the churches across the country and just about as bloody. This is an ingrained, assimilated aspect of self-understanding among rural men in America, many of whom see themselves as the self-reliant inheritors of a mythical rugged individualist frontier legacy that defines them. Insisting that these folks critically reconsider that socially constructed understanding is no doubt a waste of time and energy.

But indulging hunters in the woods with rifles is not the same thing as tolerating assault weapons in school rooms and movie theaters. Nor is it the same thing as assuming the potential presence of multi-round hand guns in convenience stores or office buildings to simply be expectable. In such cases, the arguments for access to such weapons by the average American are simply not compelling given the overwhelming dangers they present to the general public on a daily basis. That the advocates of the unlimited weaponry currently saturating our culture are driven by an almost palpable fear does not somehow create a privilege for them to place the rest of the public in fear.

Of course, the childish slogan under the image of an assault weapon on the flag is hardly the only understanding of guns in American society possible. This photo evoked memories of my trip to the United Nations in New York City years ago. On the grounds of the UN is a sculpture by a Luxembourg artist featuring a handgun with its barrel twisted into a knot. The artist found his inspiration for this vision in the senseless killing of John Lennon just across town in NYC in 1981. Sadly, Lennon would have stood a much lower chance of being mowed down on the street in front of his home in the artist’s homeland of Luxembourg whose tightly regulated access to guns by their citizenry is 41st in the world.

Adolescent Reasoning + Weapons of War

What is troubling about the “Come and Take It” flag is not the juvenile nature of the slogan. Much of American politics is conducted in such adolescent sloganeering these days, i.e. the childish “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” slogan in the gay marriage debate. While we should be able to expect adults to conduct their social relations in terms that reflect adult levels of maturity, such expectations are not always realized in a culture pounded daily with the consumerist mantra of “It’s all about you”  evincing the moral reasoning of children. 

Where the problem arises is when adult men who evidence signs of arrested development by utilizing the reasoning of middle school boys are granted unlimited access to the weapons of war. While I would say that no one needs weapons of war in countries which are not, in fact, at war, this is precisely the person who should NEVER have access to weapons of any kind, much less high powered killing machines.

The failure – or refusal - to recognize any kind of social duties to others evidenced by this slogan, beginning with the safety of the community in which one lives, suggests that allowing such persons to become armed with weapons of war is a very bad bet indeed. And the recent history of our country provides more than enough evidence of the truth of that assertion.

Just ask the parents of Newtown.


Post-scriptum – As I wrote these words this morning, the following “breaking news” was filling my in-box at my email account:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was on lockdown after a gunman was reported on the campus Saturday morning, but police called the report "unfounded" after searching the campus, according to Boston TV station WCVB.

Maybe the time has arrived to simply come take them.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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