As so often happens these days, I read Peggy Noonan’s latest column with both enjoyment and mental dissent.
She wrote this week on “why Americans own so many guns.” And she got some things exactly right; in particular, a quotation from what she wrote after the Columbine attack 1999, in which she iterated the pollution kids imbibe from our corrupt popular culture. They are bombarded, she said, with “words like this, which I’ll limit to only one source, the news”:
. . . was found strangled and is believed to have been sexually molested . . . had her breast implants removed . . . took the stand to say the killer was smiling the day the show aired . . . said the procedure is, in fact, legal infanticide . . . is thought to be connected to earlier sexual activity among teens . . . court battle over who owns the frozen sperm . . . contains songs that call for dominating and even imprisoning women . . . died of lethal injection . . . had threatened to kill her children . . . had asked Kevorkian for help in killing himself . . . protested the game, which they said has gone beyond violence to sadism . . . showed no remorse . . . which is about a wager over whether he could sleep with another student . . .
This is the ocean in which our children swim. This is the sound of our culture.
That was in 1999. It has gotten worse since then. Not just children but everyone in our culture has had 18 more years of bombardment. Indeed, much of what we recognized as pollution in 1999 has become mainstream discourse in 2017. Unless you work consciously to keep your mind free of this pollution, it comes to own you.
The jarring dissonance
So that point resonated. But I was brought up short by another, very brief allusion in her column, which highlighted for me how differently she and I see these things. From that point on, interestingly, I found more and more to disagree with. The inflection point of the article was in this paragraph, part of her description of what worries Americans who are arming themselves today like never before:
Nuts with nukes, terrorists bent on a mission. The grid will go down. One of our foes will hit us, suddenly and hard. In the end it could be hand to hand, door to door. I said some of this six years ago to a famously liberal journalist, who blinked in surprise. If that’s true, he said, they won’t have a chance! But they are Americans, I said. They won’t go down without a fight.
And I was amazed. Perhaps it’s not so amazing that the liberal journalist thought average Americans “won’t have a chance” if the you-know-what goes down, although that’s really the crux of the matter. But the limitation of vision in Noonan’s response struck me forcibly.
Who says Americans will go down? Noonan’s op-ed seems to indicate that that’s her expectation. But it’s not mine.
I think her liberal-journalist friend sees things wrongly. Americans not only will have a chance; they will prevail. And I think Peggy Noonan sees wrongly because she works with that faulty premise, and imagines only a scenario in which Americans go down, but do it fighting.
That is basically the opposite of why Americans are arming themselves today. Not all of them would necessarily articulate that up front. It takes some thought to enunciate the vision: to say what you really mean about the determination to fight, if fighting becomes necessary. But it isn’t about going out in a blaze of glory. It’s about being left standing when the fight is over, and being the ones who step over the rubble, clean it up, and make a life and a world again for the people they love.
I’m not sure who the liberal journalist thinks Americans are out here. But I can assure him that they are far smarter, more ingenious, and more hopeful and determined than he seems to be. Maybe you have to have been in an organization like the military, in which you see every day the incredible strength and adaptability of the very people for whom I suspect the liberal journalist has the most disdain.
But it doesn’t have to be the military. Or the police, or fire and rescue. My middle-class, middle-aged neighbors, who come from all backgrounds and ethnic groups, are the same. Terrorists? The grid going down? They’ll figure it out. They’ll get the terrorists killed. They’ll get the power started. They’ll get their families fed, their neighbors rescued, their buddies’ wounds attended to.
Didn’t you see Houston? Didn’t you see the flooding in Louisiana last year? The devastation in Florida last month? What do you think is going on in Puerto Rico? Average Americans are there right now, clearing roads, delivering food, binding wounds.
And if there has to be a fight of some kind, Americans will organize, arm up, and get it done. Who do you think the people are, out here in flyover country?
One of the most insidious dangers of the cultural noise Noonan outlines so well is that it misleads us so badly about who our fellow men are. That stream of noise is a colossal deception. It does frame accurately some minority of our people. But it is by no means all of them.
The thinking of the unfree
Being overcome by that cultural corruption is what leads people to say things like this:
I think a lot of Americans have guns because they’re fearful—and for damn good reason. They fear a coming chaos, and know that when it happens it will be coming to a nation that no longer coheres. They think it’s all collapsing—our society, our culture, the baseline competence of our leadership class.
This only seems right. But it veers into wrong at the end, and that ending – where the thought ultimately goes – is profoundly wrong. The “baseline competence of our leadership class” is not what I depend on, or see as the guarantor of my safety.
That this is where Noonan has been headed all along is captured in the subtitle slug at the very beginning:
Why do Americans own so many guns? Because they don’t trust the protected elites to protect them.
No. That’s not it. Americans own guns because they have never thought it was the protected elites’ job to protect them.
Americans have always assumed that protecting themselves was their own job. Americans certainly think local police and county sheriffs – with a service mentality – are a dandy idea, because it’s better to distribute the responsibility for keeping vigilance, and deter bad guys as far from your own home and children as possible.
But Americans don’t see law enforcement as a top-down proposition. Americans see law enforcement as the practical arrangement of free men and women, paying some of their neighbors for a service that complements their own self-protection precautions, and that they remain in charge of.
If you don’t think about it that way, you aren’t thinking about it like an American. There is nothing so quintessentially American as this self-governing yeoman mentality. This is the thinking of free people – not fear of annihilation because your “leadership class” is increasingly unimpressive, but the assumption that you, the competent, will have to do something about it all when it gets too far out of hand, and intrudes across your own doorstep.
Americans don’t arm up because they’re fearful and desperate, but because they aren’t. They’re practical and determined. What seems odd to me is that so many in our so-called “cultural elite” literally don’t understand that.
Once you lose the thread on the self-governing yeoman mentality, you start saying things like this:
Americans have so many guns because … all of their personal and financial information got hacked in the latest breach, because our country’s real overlords are in Silicon Valley and appear to be moral Martians who operate on some weird new postmodern ethical wavelength. And they’ll be the ones programming the robots that’ll soon take all the jobs! … Our leaders don’t even think about this technological revolution. They’re too busy with transgender rights.
Raise your hand if you think you have an overlord. Yeah, didn’t think so. That’s not how Americans think. We don’t do “overlords.”
Nor do we need our leaders to be intervening between us and the technological revolution, in order to feel soothed and well-protected. Our beef with the “transgender rights” fixation is not that it preempts leaderly attention to the technological revolution. It’s that there is such a fixation at all. Apparently only we are smart enough to see that it’s not even a legitimate issue, since trans people, whom God bless, have the same rights everyone else has. We don’t want the government we pay for to spend its time looking for ways to disrupt our bathroom habits. That’s not what it’s there for.
Being in vague distress all the time about a host of social problems, and hoping to have that distress assuaged by the action of overlordly authorities, is before all else a profoundly wrong mindset about government and its relationship to us. The American project is about precisely that. It’s about not expecting the wrong things – things they can’t deliver, things they will only use to coerce and oppress us – from government, or from a leadership class, or from “overlords.”
The incessant cultural noise Peggy Noonan speaks of beats our spirits down, for sure. But Americans who arm themselves are not the ones being driven hither and yon witlessly by that noise machine. They’re the ones who aren’t. If they see where it’s all going, they have decided to be ready: not to die with their boots on, but to prevail.
It’s not chaos and death Americans buy guns for. It’s life, hope, and freedom. Guns are a tool, like your brain, your two hands, and your spirit of never quit and git ‘er done. Americans own guns because we do see a good future. We have a vision for it, emerging from the ashes of history around us. We may have to take what the Obama team used to call “kinetic” action to get to that future, at some point. If so, we’ll be ready. Like Maverick, we didn’t come here to lose.