The Most Dangerous Cliche

March 27, 2007

In response to my Sunday post about Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine and his conservative Wild West fantasies about the proper way to deal with one’s frustrations on the highway — simply put, he scorns calling the police and favors hauling out a pistol and blasting away, regardless of the danger to other drivers and their passengers — I’ve been seeing and hearing entirely too many “Yes, but . . .” comments.

You know the kind I’m talking about. “Yes, it was stupid and crazy to start shooting on an interstate highway during the morning commute, but tailgaters are so obnoxious,” or, “Yes, she might have put a bullet in the brain of a toddler in a child seat, but the other driver was scaring her,” or, “Yes, she might have killed another driver and triggered a chain-reaction highway pileup that would have killed and injured scores of people, but what about her right to defend herself?”

I’ve also had a couple of people smile and agree with Mulshine, citing as their authority the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, who once opined that “an armed society is a polite society.” Now, I like Heinlein’s books just fine — The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a particular favorite, and when I was a teenager I thought the potted philosophy in The Notebooks of Lazarus Long was even more profound than the lyrics of the Moody Blues.

But a great many people of the libertarian persuasion read his carefully rigged science fiction scenarios and mistake them for fully reasoned arguments about the nature of society. They’re not. They’re briskly written, highly entertaining stories tossed off by an eccentric white guy who knew a lot, but not nearly as much as he thought he did. (He brings to mind the gadgeteer father in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, described by a neighbor as “the most dangerous kind of man — a know-it-all who is sometimes right.”) And when Heinlein’s writing strays into the dodgier areas of racial and sexual attitudes, as in the novel Farnham’s Freehold, a reader unacquainted with his more appealing works might justifiably come to the conclusion that Robert A. Heinlein was as crazy as a shithouse rat. As for me, I think “An armed society is a polite society” is the most dangerous cliche in the conservative phrasebook.

Whence comes this notion that a society where everyone is packing heat will gladden the heart of Miss Manners? The Japanese have standards of politeness that are the wonder of the world, but they are not noted as a gun-happy society. Meanwhile, the residents of the conservative wonderlands of Afghanistan and Iraq are armed to the teeth, but it doesn’t seem to have done much for their manners. Cutting off noses, chopping off heads, planting roadside bombs, kidnapping and raping women are the kind of acts that wouldn’t strike me as being approved behavior in a polite society. (Gun buffs who also fantasize about how well-armed militias will prevent dictatorships have to explain how Iraq, where weapons are commoner than camels, failed to overthrow the appalling dictator Saddam Hussein.) Maybe these Heinleinites are unduly influenced by memories of long, cozy Sunday afternoons spent watching Errol Flynn movies on TV, where people called each other “sir” and insults were avenged with swordplay. If so, they should bear in mind that challenging someone to a duel on the field of honor is not the same thing as opening up with a Glock because somebody stepped on your foot in a crowded shopping mall.

A society where everyone has the power to use deadly force against others whenever he feels threatened or slighted sounds to me like hell on earth. But you don’t have to listen to me. Just ask Joe Del Grosso, the head of the Newark teachers union.

Del Grosso and the union have paid for six billboards in downtown Newark that list the number of murders in the city last year. There were 106 lives snuffed out last year, and the year-to-date total of 19 suggests that 2007 is on pace to match last year’s carnage. A fair amount of that killing was done by gang members whose sole concern is that they not look weak, and that anyone who disses them will pay in blood for the insult. A dispute over turf, an accidental bump of the shoulder, some eye contact at the wrong time, and boom boom boom. And if a passing shopper or a child in a nearby playground gets caught in the crossfire — well, that’s just too bad.

Does that sound like a polite society to you?

So, once again I invite my libertarian friends to leave the Heinlein novels at home and make the journey to Newark, or Camden, or the Bronx, or any area in the country where civil order has broken down and lots of people carry weapons. Shucks, you can pay a visit to Joe Del Grosso and tell him about the libertarian paradise that now exists in Newark.

Chances are, his reponse won’t be very polite. But even if you’re packing, do us all a favor and refrain from shooting him, okay?

He might just be telling you something you need to know.


2 Responses to “The Most Dangerous Cliche”

  1. Alison Says:

    I agree with you completely. I have never known anyone who has confidence in his ability to beat up or kill another person with any kind of weapon – fists, knives, pipes, baseball bats, or guns – to observe social conventions. Fear does not induce respect or politeness, it simply induces more fear. While leveling the playing field may work in certain forms of conflict, it’s not a good strategy when lethal weapons are involved. In cities like the ones you mentioned, it’s pretty clear that the people who are armed are not in the least intimidated by the other people who are armed. It’s also clear that these places are not bastions of courtesy. Anyone who thinks they are not examples of what would really happen in a fully armed society is practicing magical thinking.

  2. prairiefyre Says:

    It’s bad enough we have to worry about cops having guns (witness Sean Bell, Amidou Diallo, and a host of others, including my friend’s husband, shot in the head by police who fired into rush hour traffic on a congested highway while chasing a stolen car, while he sat in his vehicle on his way home from work). Actually, these examples are probably illustrative of what would actually happen in the armed society scenario, only by orders of magnitude we’d rather not think about.

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