The right’s been increasingly jumping on this strategy of leveraging identity politics techniques and language for their own ends, and as frustrating as it is to hear, I don’t think it’s been particularly successful. That they keep doing it anyway shows a couple things. First, it shows that they do think of themselves as a persecuted minority, a theme that came through loud and clear in the Tea Party but also resounds in the NRA’s approach. And second, it shows that they still don’t get what the civil rights movements really meant. It wasn’t just about the most visible legalistic moves and the expansion of formal rights. It was about normalizing these groups and including them in American culture. People might occasionally buy that the right’s core groups are being treated unfairly, but they’re certainly not going to buy that they aren’t fully established within America’s self-definition.
And so arguments that they’re not being given an equal chance to have their voice heard simply aren’t going to fly anymore. Gun owners are an important group and deserve to be part of the debate about how we’re going to regulate guns just as surely as long-haul truckers deserve to be part of the debate about how we’re going to regulate long-haul trucking. But it would be far more productive to argue the policy points at hand rather than insisting that the debate shouldn’t even be taking place. They can’t do that, though, because it would betray that definition of gun ownership as a primary identity, rather than just something you do in the course of your life. As long as the right encourages itself to think of its core cultural identity as a set of specific policy stances rather than a group of shared values applied anew to each situation, they aren’t going to let themselves deviate from those policy stances, and so will drift father and farther away from the middle. A political orientation that ties itself to a material reality rather than a particular orientation to the world will grow stale very quickly, and that’s what we’ve been seeing over the last six years.
Another of the parallels between the Newtown aftermath in America and the abortion situation in Ireland right now, is the totally out-of-touch and insensitive reaction of conservative interest groups. In the Irish case, it’s the Catholic archbishops’ extraordinary statement in response to the government’s announcement that it will, finally, legislate on the narrow exceptions to the abortion ban as decided 20 years ago by the Supreme Court: declaring it would “pave the way for the direct and intentional killing of unborn children” - as if that kind of theological-moral judgement has any substantial relevance to a public health policy question, or to modern Irish politics.
Another bishop publicly stated it would be the beginning of a “culture of death”. And if anyone questions their intervention (as some have, significantly) the response is to claim a right to their opinion and free expression, as if the right is now the guardian of liberalism. The more moderate Archbishop of Dublin had it right when he noted that the Minister’s remarks above did not question their right to say anything - but by implication, the way they said it. Of course, if the representatives of a religion have strong moral views on the value of the unborn - as does our constitution, unfortunately - they have a right to express them, but some sensitivity to their position in wider society is required if they’re going to make pronouncements on such fundamental public political issues.
There’s a contrast here I think between the bishops’ statement on the abortion issue and the role of Fr. Seán Healy and the Council of Religious in Ireland in advocating for protecting the poor and raising taxes on the wealthy in government budgets. To wit, that the thundering statements from the bishops do not come out on those genuinely social, societal issues, but rather on the moral issues that illustrate the gap between previously accepted Church teaching and contemporary public and political opinion. Theoretically, the Catholic Church should be about ‘shared values applied anew to each situation’, although by their nature they’ve found it hard to share with many others; while in reality the retreat of religious influence in society has meant that the policy positions - abortion, gay marriage, and the last bastion of involvement in education - have become the totemic items of identity in a largely indifferent world. By comparison, the minority Protestant Church of Ireland has better adapted to the indifference, recognising the principle of public choice while maintaining its own stance on the life of the unborn - but in Ireland ‘choice’ has always been alien to Catholicism, which conceptualises itself as an identity - and a persecuted one at that - rather than as an ideology.
I followed the link to this piece on gun control from an equally thought-provoking blog post from the New Inquiry. It goes against the normal grain of my thought, which is that more discussion about policy is a good thing and that a ‘culture fight’ deserves to have its ideologies exposed. But for the most part those kind of issues about guns have been exposed, leaving a raw kind of debate on either side (though I think that the idea of concealed carry leading to a drop in crime rates is, on cursory examination, a statistical confidence track that deserves to be exposed as such - but then fact-checking is the new singing-to-the-choir, at least according to the New Inquiry). The above may also seem a little lily-livered, defeatist and/or passive - even if it’s a cliche that listening and engaging with opponents is often a tougher choice than simply criticising them.
Yet thinking about the parallels between the Irish abortion issue and gun control, I reckon it’s exactly the above process that has led to a shift in attitudes here - in particular increased familiarity and openness with women’s experiences of abortion, typically abroad (how one maps that onto senseless deaths by gunfire, well, I don’t know - I’ve never had personal or local experience of that, save for the legacy of the Troubles in the North and ‘gangland’ crime in modern Dublin). The ideological positions - the strict Catholic morality and effective misogyny at the heart of traditional Irish society - haven’t disappeared, but they have had to watch much of the current population drift by and away.
From the historical perspective, American gun culture may have shallower (or at least narrower) roots than the above author suggests, which may make it easier to ultimately displace, but less likely to pass in the immediate future. I don’t believe we’ll get a repeal of our pro-life constitutional amendment any time too soon here either, but I’m hopeful that necessary legislation in the present will lead to a better discussion on the topic in the future. Maybe that’s a reasonable route for gun control too?
There are a number of parallels I see between these two (potential) turning points on similarly controversial issues of gun control and abortion. Except that the former is pretty much a non-issue outside of the US, while in the latter case Ireland occupies the extreme of right-wing policy anywhere in the developed world. The result being that foreign and home-grown progressives merge disbelief with strong criticism of national qualities: Ireland’s ‘medieval’ abortion laws (even if the historian in me wants to point out that 1861 is firmly in the Victorian period), or the Guardian describing America as a ‘failed state’ when it comes to guns and violence.
In both cases some people claim an aversion to politicising tragedy, but the simple riposte is: if not now, when? As more details emerge, others will always remain unclear, and it’s easy to point to an agnosticism as the most responsible stance - but to do so ignores the sufficiency of facts as they stand, and, without minimising the tragedy (quite the opposite really) their symbolic function; the extent to which the emotional reaction to events provides the catalyst for real political momentum. There’s a good deal of scepticism over whether anything can really change in the American gun control debate, and whether action will really be taken.
Well that’s… prosaic