This March horror director Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish starring Bruce Willis hits theaters. Willis dusts off Charles Bronson’s old role as a man who turns vigilante to clean up the streets after his family is murdered. Willis is perfect casting – a conservative aging action star tough guy everyman who has carried the mantle of the American man of action in many films. First Die Hard, then Death Wish. Some have remarked that it’s a strange time to reboot Death Wish considering recent public acts of violence, shootings, and marches turning into full blown riots. Everywhere you look today there appears the citizenry’s cultural tinderbox about to spontaneously erupt into fits of violent rage over racial identities, police brutality, stand your ground and open carry laws, mass shootings, and so on. Is it really a good time for a film celebrating white guy vigilantesploitation? The timing of this remake shows again how tone deaf mainstream filmmaking is these days to social conditions. Unless, of course it’s able to handle the topic through some delicate maneuvering and satire (as Eli Roth has shown he’s capable of with the Hostel films’ blend of dark humor and satire with horror elements). The odds aren’t good – it would have to be an super savvy script to pull that off in this cultural moment.
Death Wish, however, brings to mind a larger question of the role of violence in American culture. (It was part of the initial controversy over the 1974 film that Roger Ebert called out for its cryptofascist apologetics, “It’s propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice.”) It’s something I’ve been researching all year, circling the questions of why American culture is tragically obsessed with violence, and the ways which Americans fantasize about using violence personally, socially and politically as a prime principle of cultural power. At question is how we imagine the heroic implementation of violence, and how this implementation of violence has become the bedrock of the American national identity. It reveals what Americans care most passionately about.
We often tell ourselves that America is a democracy, a republic, an experiment in self-governance. Much of that is true. But there is another America, not one written in civic documents but is rather revealed in the performance of being American. It’s another story based on power, based on capital. And it’s in this second story where America’s ethic around power and violence finds its main stalk and root. It’s here where Americans will find evidence everywhere in the heroic culture they’re steeped in – from cowboys to commandos – the cultural norms and expectations of that American power principle. It’s a cultural logic that informs us of the ways in which violence is talked about, treated, expected and valorized. It’s the sort of cultural norms of violence embedded in American society. What is the cultural logic of American violence? What do the trends of history tell us about the use of American power? What character does this power principle take on? What hopes and fears lie beneath the American death wish?
This is the first of a trilogy of essays on the vigilante character of the American Dream. The first part identifies how the logic of the gun culture is an integral feature for conservative American selfhood, usually coming to defense of the principles of private ownership. Part two focuses on the vigilante character of the conservative hero in American literature and folklore, a character type reoccurring in frontier gunfighters to urban hard boiled detectives to the enduring character Batman. Part three furthers thoughts on the vigilante character as an American rogue, who is at once celebrated by the culture but on the condition that they are outsiders, an ironic double-role mainstream culture uses to dualistically celebrate yet deny the violence that their history is founded on.
The Cultural Logic of Bullets
The nicknames historically given to firearms speak volumes. We call them our peacemakers, equalizers, and law bringers. The way Americans prefer to talk about firearms is inseparable from the valorization of the American vigilante hero and the belief that society is better off with each individual citizen endowed with the powers to adjudicate the peace. There is in this an acknowledgement that traditional law enforcement is insufficient and limited, so that American society requires a personal touch – in excess of governmental authority – that is the responsibility of the armed citizen. It shows a strong belief in wielding individual authority and it’s resulting self defense ethic, entwined with the power of packing heat.
Archetypal psychologist Glen Slater comments in his essay “The Mythology of Bullets,” that the firearm hearkens to a deep mythos where humans assimilated godlike powers, hurtling projectiles of the smith gods delivering instantaneous results. The gun wielder has in his hands the power to arbitrate life and death. To wield a gun in this culture take on ontological significance – to hold power in one’s hand, to feel secure, to feel power, to feel defended – daring to matter. Like other popular American accouterments of self – like God and gold – gun ownership itself a statement of American selfhood and entitlement. To have a gun in this culture implies the political power that one is entitled. It accompanies our goals, aspirations, and will to assert violent force to back up those goals and defend those hopeful prospects. The gun is treated with reverence – quite literally the power that framed the Western bonanza and tamed the frontier. Historically speaking, gun fighting is an integral part of the American Dream, helping to steak the claims from the virgin land, defend the white armed civilization from the others – the uncivilized and the underclassed. On the other side of it’s conservative John Wayne-esque triumphantism. It’s part of the activity of the ownership society, imposed on the virgin continent by an occupying civilization, its ethic was literally forged wholesale with genocide and slavery.
In Crime and the American Dream, sociologists Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld note that the decisions to use gun violence are generally attached to cultural attachments broadly understood as personal ambitions to get ahead, to become a winner in the proverbial rat race. The firearm, as an accouterment of this aspiration, “entail(s) a commitment to the goal of material success, to be pursued by everyone in society, under conditions of open, individual competition,” which basically chalks up the cultural logic of American violence to its buy-in to its capitalist dog-eat-dog social Darwinian experiment. It’s a heroic ethic of patriarchal capitalism focused on the preservation of one’s private honor in armed defense against losing, which would mean feeling vulnerable and humiliated. The sociology of the prison yard amplifies the language of this violent ethic of competition lurking beneath the veneer of the American dream.
This is not the version of America understood peaceable egalitarian democracy – it never was so to the disappointment of its socially progressive class. It is one of the great ironies of American history that the same time the nation promotes notions of democracy, there is all the time being created an underclass put in its place by the either the implementation of, or the threat of violence. Messner and Rosenfeld concluded their study writing that this American ethos produces a stunning effect in “an environment in which people are encouraged to adopt an ‘anything goes’ mentality in the pursuit of personal goals.” The high rate of gun violence in particular result(s) in part from a cultural ethos that encourages the rapid deployment of technically efficient methods to solve interpersonal problems.” (quoted in Slater, 6)
It’s impossible to escape the irony of America; land of the free yet founded on genocide and slavery. The American Dream is a hope for abundance based on a system of structural violence. It does its best, or course, to camouflage the violence with other totems of destiny or bountiful visions. Evidence is gleaned, however, in how we speak about violence, how violence is employed, how the law interprets different violent acts. An armed society has inherently a different discourse than an unarmed one such that a society that is part armed and part unarmed carries a great social imbalance of social influence. Gun advocates are correct in the sense that they believe everyone should own a gun, everyone having their own private equalizer. Similarly, those who wish to abolish guns completely, as was done in Australia and other places, which would be a different leveling field, likely with less bloodshed.
America’s fascination with violence, especially gun violence, has become the stuff of legend. As a nation that manufactures a great deal of arms, and has a large percentage of gun ownership. In addition to this, there is an American cultural tradition of vigilantism, a conditional acceptance of the rights of individuals to take the law into their own hands. The gun itself takes on social political dimensions.
The Right Wing Monopoly on American Political Violence
In his Nation article “Why Does the Far Right Hold a Near-Monopoly on Political Violence?” Joshua Holland notes that since the Vietnam era, almost all politically motivated violence has come from the ideological right. In America, the logic of guns is on the political right. We have never seen gun culture proliferated among the labor or civil rights movements. No, it’s always the right that is associated with guns, and ever more so as the years go on as the right’s political establishment seeks to appease the gun community.
The National Rifle Association’s influence has a lot to do with this, leading to a number of conservative politicians doing campaign commercials with machine guns. A congressional district candidate Will Brooke from Brimingham released a video of himself shooting up a paper copy of the Affordable Care Act. Other figures like Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and Mitch McConnell have cozied up with the gun lobby with commercials. Perhaps the best one is Texas junior Senator Ted Cruz who sizzles bacon with the red hot barrel of his AR-15. It’s not that the right is somehow politically angrier or more disgruntled than the left, but that the right has a different mode of expression, a different political goal. Tracking the evolving rhetoric of the NRA provides an excellent case in point. Before the 1970’s, it was a gun hunting hobby club promoting safety, then it became a trade organization lobby, and finally now it’s taken on an extremely bellicose rhetoric in recent ads, claiming that the right must take arms against the totalitarian leftists oppressing liberty, a dangerous paranoid delusion.
Social scientist and psychiatrist James Gilligan, in his book Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous than Others, noted a striking historical correlation between violence and political pendulum swings in America. Specifically, national rates of both suicide and homicide peaked nationally during Republican presidential administrations. This correlation is in no small way connected to the political right’s identification with the law and order rifle club ethos.
The American left has always been known for their marches, sit-ins, coordinating large groups of mass demonstration portraying an ideology of social collectivism that is diametrically opposed to the right’s goals. The right evokes the heroic gestures of the lone hero forging the promised land out of the virgin continent. It’s gestures of self-hood imply a struggle against its many enemies. It aligns itself with a the mythical tropes and tradition of a gunfighter nation forging progress through plumes of gun smoke. As essayist Mark Derry writes, “Because our founding myth of rugged individual demands it. As does the rough-justice ethos of our frontier heritage. And the Don’t-Tread-on-Me anti-federalism of our racist past. And the deepening distrust of Big Government, ginned up by Reagan and taken to its logical extreme by the militia movement of the ‘90s and today’s Tea Partiers.” It all comes together in the image and ethos of the gun-toting American, as common as guns in movies, as common as politicians and advocates proudly brandishing their weapons of choice.
The ideology of the gun itself has grown over the last forty years concomitant with the right’s ideological narrative that gun ownership is there to protect the individual from the tyrannical over-reach of the government. It becomes an accoutrement to tax protesters and anti-regulation hawks.
As noted in the recent book by Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains, Southern politics has a long history of this form of protest, a descendant of John C. Calhoun in the antebellum South. In a slave economy, the state governments could be easily swayed in policies by the landed gentry. The ownership class of the South despised taxes and found no purpose for taxation in the interest of the public (working class) good. There was no public in a slave economy. The public was managed. The public was owned.
The ownership class today carries this same spirit, as MacLean argues, through their anti-democratic stealth efforts to purchase influence in local, state and the federal government, fed by a new aristocratic donor class like the Mercers and the Kochs. Their aim today is to use a cause like a balanced budget amendment to call for a constitutional convention to rewrite the U.S. Constitution to severely limit federal power in perpetuity, under the banner of laissez faire economics, transferring it back to the aristocratic class, an ironic result of the worshipers of Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. But this is the path of American conservativism, which in stages has chipped away at the once powerful Keynesian liberal state, first through the anti-federalism of the Southern Strategy and then Reaganomics (documented in Edward Miller’s Nut Country: Right Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy and Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal).
What kind of citizenry does it make for in an age when politicians run on a platform of, as Reagan put it, “government is the problem.” What once was considered an edgy statement in the seventies, a era of sclerotic institutions, has become a zealous battle cry of the cynical, isolate, and armed. We are now living in a time when the prevailing ideology, the neoliberal consensus, is fixed on Ayn Randian heroic individualism that encourages every individual to be an entrepreneur striving above the ne’er-do-wells and dross and hacks of lesser humans. People are free, but not equal. To the extent that people have equal rights means here that people are free to pursue their own natural inequalities. All of this is explicitly anti-democratic, a free-for-all that manufactures resentment and no public interest, no public hope, no demos. It’s in this right wing political atmosphere that gun culture thrives, prepping for conflict, paranoid of the governmental institutions trying to take care of them.
The idea that gun ownership today is some sort of private protection against an imagined future of a socialist totalitarianism is a paranoid fantasy fueled by a hysterical fear of tribalism, socialism, communism or egalitarian collectivism – things white Americans have always been suspicious of. These anxieties fueled white supremacism during and after Reconstruction as white landowners lost a great deal of capital with emancipation and harbored resentment of federal takeover and at the same time feared a violent armed revenge from the newly liberated black class, a phenomena which had happened in the Haitian revolution, but never fully manifesting in the States. Gun ownership was a method of maintaining the divisions of race and class in the Jim Crow Era, a vital part of explicitly managing, through systematic terrorization, anti-democratic forces that reinforce the laws of the ownership and propertied classes as well as their social, racial and class hierarchies.
This is the spirit of American vigilantism from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to Death Wish. This is why the conservative/royalist class trends toward hawkishness, law and order, and a ruggedly individualistic ethic. The tao of gun ownership is symbolic of this protective/predatory ethic, an accompaniment of the dreams of an American libertarian wonderland of personal (white) opportunity.
To Bring Order
The baseline of the American character is an essentially and in the main, a politically conservative social construct. How American violence is sanctioned is not from countercultural revolutionaries, but from their opposite, from reactive social forces structured around the defense of capital and its hierarchical relations over labor. It protects individual property in defense against the unpropertied peasant class, which it fears and loathes. Restoring honor and order through acts of violence are celebrated, deemed normal, heroic acts that forge progress in the American republic. “Violence … is restorative, a way to set things right again, to return to the place where you are supposed to have been all along,” sociologist Michael Kimmel writes, following historian Richard Slotkin, in Angry White Men (187).
This restoration through violence is an essential American value. It’s violence always in low orbit around calls to restore the order laid by the ownership class. One cannot understand American history without knowing about its self-appointed ethic of vigilantism.
The entire culture heavily favors the ideal of private ownership and the hierarchy of capital. This is after all, a society that taxes wages rather than wealth, and gives tax breaks to mortgage holders rather than renters. The place people spend most of their lives – at work – is historically and profoundly anti-democratic. The workplace is a totalitarian regime, the workers don’t usually own their business, but are subject to a boss. And when it comes to blows, the political right takes arms to defend the boss culture of the ownership class. It’s a class that in the last several decades has even sought to erase the history of the labor movement and its great sacrifices to fight collectively for labor rights.
American violence has not been employed in the service of a people’s revolutionary tradition, as it has in, for instance, Mexico, Haiti, or Cuba. But violence has in overwhelming fashion, been used as the heavy force behind the hierarchical economic power of the bourgeois state, the steady privatized iron fist behind the invisible hand.
Violence also, in the logic of the ownership society, is sanctioned by the culture if it rolls down the hierarchy of ownership. If the aims of violence point up the racial and socioeconomic hierarchical ladder, it is quickly and violently suppressed, sometimes with the police, but just as often with privatized security. Industrialists who operate mining, timber, railroad or cattle operations, this meant the sanctioning of violence not only to protect their capital, but to intimidate labor. This is the predominant history of citizen-organized extra-judicial violence (documented in Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace’s American Violence).
Historically, this excess of law is designed, then to suppress striking workers; which was, in the Age of Reform, also called the Progressive movement during the first Gilded Age, as commonplace as race lynchings. Massacres at incidences such as the Pullman Strike, the Haymarket Riot, the Tompkins Square massacre suppressed organized laborers, many of whom were immigrants or people of color. In the west, this also took the form of the Baldwin-Felts and Pinkerton so-called “detective agencies,” which was really a privatized security force which infiltrated unions, fully armed and willing goon squad killers on behalf of the capitalist class and that carried out targeted assassinations against labor organizers.
This sanctioning of privatized extrajudicial violence is intertwined with not just the ideology of gun ownership, but had a lot to do with innovations in firearm technology. The tommy gun was invented in 1919 as a barrel machine gun to suppress rioters in the Progressive Era. This was par for the course in the labor wars. As Chris Hedges writes, “Across U.S. History, hundreds of unarmed labor union member have been shot to death by vigilante groups working on behalf of coal, steel or mining concerns, and thousands more have been wounded. The United States has had the bloodiest labor wars in the industrialized world.”
This excess of law is also used to defend class and racial hierarchies, fomenting around domestic terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia, which once had millions of members who ran an explicitly racist and capitalist shadow government in much of the country for decades. And there were the organized racial pogroms of Native Americans, harassment and lynching Chinese and Mexican laborers. The character of this tradition is anti-communist, anti-labor, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-elitist, anti-intellectual, anti-feminist. This is the actual history of America’s gun fetish. Guns aren’t horded by women, unions, natives or immigrants, Jews, liberals or intellectuals.
It usually comes up in more subtle ways, as American law has shown great tolerance for this privatized use of violence. So the law looks away from the brutalities committed by security agents against, for a recent example in a long line of atrocities and broken treaties, the Standing Rock Tribe’s protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. George Zimmerman got away with a modern lynching because he was on the right side of gun ownership, a neighborhood vigilante ostensibly protecting the neighborhood. State laws are now supporting open carry laws to support militia men who protect the hierarchies of the status quo. Or new laws like those pardoning people from driving into crowds “impeding traffic.” The outsourcing of violence to mercenary forces like Blackwater (or Ze, or Academi founded by evangelical billionaire Erik Prince, brother to current Secretary of Education and anti-public school crusader Betsy DeVos). The recent acquittal of Ammon Bundy, whose militia occupied federal land in Oregon a couple years ago, demonstrated the federal government’s tolerance for right wing violent posturing in the name of protecting private property and the profits that could be had from private ownership and resource extraction.
For the government, the legitimized authority, the structure of federal power has benefited from this excess of authority, however, because it has deflected the consequences of force into private matters, excusing the official use of national power on the domestic front while employing its full national force abroad in the imperialist adventuring. This is because, as Richard Slotkin argues in his Gunfighter Nation trilogy, the passion of the conservative American society is not to advance a liberal idea of democracy and equal protections, but to promote a notion of progress, of industrial civilization, which is historically hierarchical in structure. This idea of American progress means that it has its own unique destiny to improve the land, a project which for American history is white, masculine, capitalist, Christian, modernist, and valorized the rugged individualistic character tempered through violent struggle in the crucible of the American Frontier.
Next week, in the next part of this series, Koch Crusaders II: Batman and the Conservative Vigilante Hero, looks at the historical development of the individual vigilante in American ownership society. It’s about how the American archetypal law-bringing gunslinger of Western folklore became the hard boiled detective hero and conservative urban vigilante, the archetypal form that continues to dominate the American heroic imagination.