Gunfighter Nation

Welcome, but be forewarned: a few scenes in this hour are disturbing, because we are dealing
with violence and don’t want to hide what is true about it. As you know, one year ago
this weekend, as you know, 20 school children and six educators were massacred at the Sandy
Hook Elementary School. The killer also murdered his mother, and then killed himself. 28 deaths
in all, from guns. And across America, perhaps as many as 30,000 more have been killed since
that fatal day. This is why I have asked Richard Slotkin to
join me. He has spent his adult life delving into how violence took deep root in our culture,
from colonial days to now. In his magisterial trilogy, “Regeneration Through Violence,”
“The Fatal Environment” and “Gunfighter Nation,” Richard Slotkin tells how America came to
embrace a mythology of gun-slinging settlers taming the wilderness to justify and romanticize
a tragic record of subjugation and bloodshed. His latest book, “The Long Road to Antietam,”
tells the tale of the bloodiest day in American history. In these and other works, this preeminent
cultural historian tracks the evolution of the gun culture that continues to dominate,
wound and kill. Richard Slotkin has retired now from a distinguished teaching career of
over four decades at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, just 45 minutes from
Newtown. Welcome. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Thank you. BILL MOYERS:
What were you thinking as the first anniversary of the massacre approached? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Well, I was thinking of the sadness of that day and just the idea of all those, as one
woman at the town said, “those poor little babies” being slaughtered. And I was also
remembering with some anger the way in which one of the first knee-jerk responses to that
event was a kind of rabid defense of, not only defense of gun owning, but a kind of
plea for extending the privilege of gun ownership and the number of occasions, type of occasions
on which guns could be used. And not only that the different places that
one can carry guns and also the number of situations in which it’s permissible to pull
out your gun and shoot somebody. I’m thinking about Stand Your Ground laws, so-called. BILL MOYERS:
When one of these massacres occurs, do you automatically or just habitually think about
this long train of violence that you’ve been researching and writing about for so long
Well, thinking about this Adam Lanza case, the killer in Newtown, at first it just seemed
to me a crazy kid doing something almost inexplicably crazy with a gun. As the report has come out– BILL MOYERS:
The state report recently– RICHARD SLOTKIN:
–came out a couple of weeks ago. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yeah, the state report has gone into the way in which he used videogames and obsessively
played violent videogames. And apparently did research on massacres. And there’s a way
in which in the individual case you see something that also works on the cultural level. And
that is that people will model their behavior on examples that they consider to be heroic. And that’s how mythology works in a culture.
There are cultural myths that define what for us is a positive response to a crisis.
And it’s embodied in media. And we learn it through the media and we model our behavior
on that of heroes. And apparently Lanza in the way he conducted the massacre was making
the kind of moves that are the standard moves of a person playing a violent videogame. You’d never enter a new room unless you’ve
put a fresh clip in your gun. So he would shoot off half a clip and then change the
clip anyway– because that’s what you do when you’re playing a videogame. And that image
of playing out a script that’s been written for you, that has some value for you as a
way of gaining control or being a hero is what he’s living out. And what Lanza did was really to indoctrinate
himself and train himself in a way analogous to the way we now use videogames to train
the military. BILL MOYERS:
Talk about that a moment, train himself? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yes, that is he’s obsessed with performing some validating act of violence and he does
these– he treats these videogames as training films. I could do it this way. I could do
it that way. And as I follow out the script of the videogame, the videogame validates
my actions in various ways. You triumph within a narrative, or you simply score points and
build up a score. BILL MOYERS:
There is a video game, believe it or not, it’s violent I’ll warn you, it’s violent — it
allows you, the viewer, the follow the killer of Newtown– RICHARD SLOTKIN:
–to follow Lanza, and actually shoot the kids in front of you. BILL MOYERS:
You are a cultural historian, not a behavioral psychologist, not a weapons expert. What do
you suppose the producer of that video had in mind? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Just simply exploiting the appeal of violence in a particular kind of situation. And also
in this case, there’s an appeal of transgression, of– BILL MOYERS:
Transgression? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yes, of violating everybody else’s norms and doing something that really grosses everybody
out. You think even, to take a more normative example: the videogame Grand Theft Auto, in
which you behave like a criminal, you’d think in a kind of standard videogame you’d be the
hero against the bad guys. But the appeal of that is that you get to go to the dark
side as, to use the language of Star Wars. And the dark side of the force always has
its appeal. The graphics put you in a very realistic situation
so that you’re the killer. It’s an imaginative leap that in my generation, it took a little
more difficulty to make that connection, but we made it nonetheless. I grew up with western
movies. BILL MOYERS:
And I’ll say John Wayne– he wasn’t necessarily my hero, but he’s the type of a kind of hero
that I admired. And we played guns in the street. You’d start off– guns were– you
were cowboys. You’d segue without a break into marines and you’d segue into cops and
robbers. But the gun was the thing you were playing with. BILL MOYERS:
And yet so many who would do that never went out like Adam Lanza– RICHARD SLOTKIN:
–and started killing. That’s why people are reluctant to say this causes that. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yes just to extend my example a little bit, one of the syndromes that people working with
Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD was something called John Wayne Syndrome where the young
men had internalized the John Wayne model of heroism and one of their problems was they
felt they had failed somehow to live up to that model. And that’s the psychology we’re talking about
here. You internalize a model of heroic behavior from the media that purvey the myths that
shape your society. And there’s a whole spectrum of responses you might have in relation to
that internalized model. You might not do anything yourself. You might
simply consent that the government or somebody act on your behalf, you don’t make the war
yourself, but you consent that somebody make the war for you, kill the bad guy for you. BILL MOYERS:
The report also says he used a spreadsheet to chronicle previous mass shootings and collected
articles all the way back to 1891 about school shootings. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yes. Yeah, his imagination is horribly fascinating in a way because he’s reaching for a historic–
he’s not just reaching for a model. He’s reaching for a historically validated model that will
somehow invest what he’s doing with meaning. What the meaning is, is gone with him, but
the gestures seem to me to point to that. BILL MOYERS:
So put it historically what this tells us about the lone killer. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
We produce the lone killer. That is to say the lone killer is trying to validate himself
or herself in terms of the, I would call the historical mythology, of our society, wants
to place himself in relation to meaningful events in the past that lead up to the present. BILL MOYERS:
You say “or her”, but the fact of the matter is all of these killers lately have
been males. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yes, yeah, pretty much always are. BILL MOYERS:
And most of them white? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yeah. Yeah, I think, again this is because each
case is different, but the tendency that you’ve pointed out is true and I’ve always felt that
it has something to do, in many cases, with a sense of lost privilege, that men and white
men in the society feel their position to be imperiled and their status called into
question. And one way to deal with an attack on your status in our society is to strike
out violently. BILL MOYERS:
I guess we’ll never understand this. That official report laid out Lanza’s troubling
behavior. He was diagnosed at six with sensory integration disorder. He couldn’t stand to
be touched. He had Asperger’s syndrome. He closeted himself in his bedroom with his windows
sealed by black plastic bags. He didn’t want to communicate with his mother, except mostly
through emails. What do we take away from this– knowing we’ll never know? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
I think the thing that I’m tempted to do with that is to shift away from the unknowable
Adam Lanza to the people around Adam Lanza and his mother– that here you have an obviously
disturbed young man, everybody sees it, his mother sees it. And one way of dealing with
it is to buy him guns as presents; buy him fairly exotic, well-chosen models, train him
in the use of apparently this elaborate arsenal which his mother had. And she said she loved her guns and never
made the connection to the fact that these guns are available to an extremely troubled
young man. And the neighbors never questioned that her love of guns might be putting weapons
in the hands of somebody that they found disturbing to deal with. And to me that speaks of our
mystique of weapons. Perhaps his mother thought the gun was curative in some way. We have the gun as a symbol of productive
violence in our history has magical properties for a lot of people. And I have this horrible
feeling something like that prevented anyone from seeing just how desperately dangerous
was the situation which these people were living. BILL MOYERS:
It’s almost incomprehensible that when the police went into the Lanza home after the
massacre, they found this gift she had left him, a check that was dated the 25th of December,
Christmas. And it was to be used by him to buy a CZ 83 pistol. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
She must’ve thought that the gun would do him good. BILL MOYERS:
Richard, you live close to Newtown and you followed this of course, not only because
as a citizen but because of your work in history. What did you see about the reaction of the
community in the days and weeks following that that affected you? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
The thing that really got to me most was the strength of the pro-gun reaction that came
out almost immediately, that, anticipating that of course there’d be some call for some
forms of gun regulation or gun control that there was kind of a preemptive attack on that
by a range of organizations within the state, no, it’s gun control won’t do any good. And within a couple of weeks I was on a panel
discussion in which there were four people who had been typecast as anti-gun which I’m
not really– and the pro-gun people, as if it was a 50/50 balance. And of course the pro-gun people kind of took
over the whole thing because it was– a bad moderator. So you got the impression that
the state was sharply divided. When the governor came out with a program of increased regulations,
the majority was so overwhelmingly for it that the bill passed. BILL MOYERS:
I remember that. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
And without any back and forth really about it. So that it turned out that they weren’t
even a large minority, but they were a minority, minority within the state. And yet rhetorically
their presence was very powerful. And the arguments that they were making were the kind
of arguments that resonate with our love of liberty and so on. They really to just take
this terrible incident and a situation which might lend itself to some sane regulation
and just blow it up into a life or death of the republic kind of issue which makes it
almost impossible to deal with. BILL MOYERS:
You said you were not anti-gun. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
No, I’m not. There are situations in which it is perfectly reasonable for someone to
want to own and use a gun. Hunting is a legitimate and respected and necessary aspect of the
ecology. There are many people in many places, many
different kinds of places, rural, far from police, where it makes perfect sense to want
to own a weapon for self-defense. So can’t say I’m against guns. But then when you go
beyond the rational, it gets a little crazy. Why wouldn’t you want if you’re a legitimate
gun owner, why wouldn’t you want gun ownership to be regulated in such a way that to the
extent feasible criminals, insane persons could not readily gain access? Why wouldn’t
you want a prohibition on illegal gun trafficking if your guns are legal and it’s a legal sale?
Why wouldn’t you want rules mandating some program of safe storage of weapons so that
people can’t be as careless as Mrs. Lanza seemingly was in leaving guns around where
crazy people and criminals can get their hands on it? That’s where the rule of reason has
to enter in, and that’s where it doesn’t enter in. BILL MOYERS:
There was a surge of sanity on the part of politicians again after Newtown. Truth be
told, and as we all know, very little has changed. How do you explain that? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Well, I think the extreme gun rights position, so called, some once called it “gun-damentalism”
connects on a kind of spectrum to more normative attitudes. You have, as I said, reasonable
gun owners. Then you have the American consumer. The American consumer looks at the gun as
it’s a piece of property. The American consumer wants to use his property without restraint,
wants to throw his plastic water bottle wherever he pleases, wants to drive a gas-guzzler,
wants to play his boom box loud. Which is a crude way to put it, and yet I
think there’s a lot to that. Nobody wants to be bothered registering their weapons.
Take it a level down from that or level further out from that, there’s an ideological level
which really kicks in around the time of the Reagan presidency in which gun rights is a
very powerful symbol for the deregulation of everything. If you can deregulate that,
you can deregulate anything. And then the last level is what I’d call the
paranoid level, the people who think that they have a Second Amendment right to resist
Obamacare– that the constitution protects their right to resist the government, that
that’s what the Second Amendment is about. And that’s dangerous stupidity and nonsense.
But it uses the language of liberty and rights that we’re used to thinking of in other contexts.
And if you think of all of the rights in the Bill of Rights, haven’t they been extended
and expanded over the years? Why not Second Amendment rights as well? And that’s the level at which it gets pernicious.
But their appeal, their ability to control the debate, I think, comes because their position
coincides with the interest of the Reaganite ideologue who doesn’t want to regulate anything
and the consumer who simply doesn’t want to be bothered. BILL MOYERS:
And don’t both of those strands, both of those tendencies have their roots deep in our culture,
going all the way back to the beginning? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Well, yes, I mean, the thing that’s different, that’s exceptional about American gun culture,
so called, is the license that we grant for the private use of deadly force. Other countries
have similar levels of guns in the home. BILL MOYERS:
Now, Switzerland is a militia state– RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Switzerland. BILL MOYERS:
–and the guns are kept at home. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
But the guns kept at home in those countries are not used to murder individuals. They’re
not used to settle property disputes, are not used to shoot somebody who comes to your
door trick-or-treating and you’re not sure who they are. And what we have in this country is we have
a history in which certain kinds of violence are associated for us with the growth of the
republic, with the definition of what it is to be an American. And because we are also
devoted to the notion of democratic individualism, we take that glorification of social violence,
historical violence, political violence, and we grant the individual a kind of parallel
right to exercise it, not only to protect life and property but to protect one’s honor
and to protect one’s social or racial status. In the past that has been a legitimate grounds. BILL MOYERS:
What do you mean? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Well, I’m thinking of the Jim Crow era in the south where if a black man is walking
on the sidewalk and towards a white man and the black man refuses to give the sidewalk
he can be– any sort of violence can be safely visited upon him because no jury will convict.
Cases where– another book that I wrote about in which a successful black farmer refused
to sell his crop, this was in South Carolina, for the stated price. And events escalated
from a personal attack to ultimately lynching. So we granted to private citizens the right
to police the racial boundary and the social boundary. BILL MOYERS:
You write in one of your books, “In American mythogenesis,” the origin of our national
mythology, “the founding fathers were not those eighteenth-century gentlemen who composed
a nation at Philadelphia. Rather they were those who … tore violently a nation from
implacable and opulent wilderness.” Talk about that. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Well, first of all I have to say that every nation, every nation state requires a historical
mythology, because a nation state is a kind of political artifice. It pulls diverse peoples
together. And so you need an account of history that explains that you’re actually all the
same kind of person or that your different natures have been blended through experience.
We the people? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
We the people. And the United States is a settler state. And this begins with colonial
outposts in the wilderness. And our origin has a story then, has to be how did we go
from being these small outposts to being the mightiest nation on planet earth? Well, we
did it by pushing the boundaries of the settlement out into Indian country. We did it by ultimately
fighting wars against Native Americans, driving them out, displacing them, exterminating them
in some cases. And in the process of pushing our boundaries
out, we acquired certain heroic virtues– an ability to fight cleverly both as individuals
and cooperatively, and a connection with nature which is particularly critical. As a country
really develops you get a kind of American exceptionalist notion of progress which is
that American progress is achieved not by man exploiting man, but it’s achieved by conquering
nature, by taking resources from nature, farmland originally, timber resources, ultimately gold,
minerals, oil and so on. In the American model, in order for it to work, you have to say that
Native Americans, Indians, are not quite human. And therefore they, like trees in the forest,
are legitimate objects of creative destruction. And similarly blacks, African Americans, are
legitimate objects of exploitation because they are considered to be not fully human. So what you get in this, the evolution of
the American national myth, really up through the Civil War is the creation of America as
a white man’s republic in which, different from Europe, if you’re white, you’re all right.
You don’t have to be an aristocrat born to have a place in the society. You don’t absolutely
even have to be Anglo-Saxon, although it helps. But so among whites you can have democracy.
But the white democracy depends on the murder, the extermination, the driving out of Native
Americans and the enslavement of blacks. Both of those boundaries, the western frontier,
the Indian frontier, and the slave frontier, are boundaries created and enforced by violence,
either literal or latent, potential violence. BILL MOYERS:
So that’s why you wrote something came from this mythology, something about “the land
and its people, its dark people especially, economically exploited and wasted, the warfare
between man and nature, between race and race, exalted as a kind of heroic ideal.” RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yes. That is the frontier story. That’s the western movie in a way. That’s “The Searchers.” BILL MOYERS:
The movie, “The Searchers,” yeah. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
The movie, “The Searchers.” Yeah. That’s James Fenimore Cooper. That’s Buffalo Bill.
In a curious way you can even take it to outer space, but– BILL MOYERS:
Well, space, the final frontier. “Star Trek” was originally going to be called “Wagon
Train to the Stars.” BILL MOYERS:
You mentioned Buffalo Bill. Didn’t Buffalo Bill say “the rifle as an aid to civilization?” RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yes, but that’s exactly the American myth. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett’s rifle, killing
the bears, killing the game, killing the Indians is what makes the wilderness safe for democracy,
if I can paraphrase Woodrow Wilson. BILL MOYERS:
And Samuel Colt, who gave us his famous or infamous pistol, there are many versions of
a quote either by or about him, something like, “God created men equal, Colonel Colt
made them equal.” There’s even one that goes, “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam
Colt made them equal.” On and on these variations go. What do you make of that idea? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Well, that’s the Colt, “The Equalizer,” was the nickname for the Colt revolving pistol. BILL MOYERS:
I didn’t realize that. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yeah, and it’s a curious– it represents a kind of shift if I may, that the mythologized
weapon, the rifle, is a hunter’s weapon. And it’s also a soldier’s weapon, a plainsman’s
weapon, but also a soldier’s weapon. The Colt pistol is a man killer. It’s a weapon that’s
used as much within the boundaries of society as on the borders of society. And Colt– one of Colt’s original marketing
ploys was to market it to slave owners. Here you are, a lone white man, overseer or slave
owner, surrounded by black people. Suppose your slaves should rise up against you. Well,
if you’ve got a pair of Colt’s pistols in your pocket, you are equal to twelve slaves.
And that’s “The Equalizer,” that it’s not all men are created equal by their nature.
It’s that I am more equal than others because I’ve got extra shots in my gun. BILL MOYERS:
But you write about something you call “the equalizer fallacy.” RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yes, the equalizer doesn’t produce equality. What it produces is privilege. If I have six
shots in my gun and you’ve got one, I can outvote you by five shots. Any man better
armed than his neighbors is a majority of one. And that’s the equalizer fallacy. It goes
to this notion that the gun is the guarantor of our liberties. We’re a nation of laws,
laws are the guarantors of our liberties. If your rights depend on your possession of
a firearm, then your rights end when you meet somebody with more bullets or who’s a better
shot or is meaner than you are. BILL MOYERS:
And yet the myth holds– RICHARD SLOTKIN:
–stronger than the reality? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Well, yes, the myth holds. And it is stronger than the reality. Because those guns, particularly
the Colt is associated with one of the most active phases and most interesting phases
of expansion. And therefore it has the magic of the tool, the gun that won the west, the
gun that equalized, the whites and the Indians, the guns that created the American democracy
and made equality possible. BILL MOYERS:
But there are other nations with a particular history different from ours that have been
very valid. I mean, Nazi Germany was no slacker, the Soviet Union, Europe, all white countries
contributed two wars within 30 years of each other. They have their own peculiar violent
tendencies. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
The difference in American violence– two kinds of difference. One, it’s settler state
violence, that is to say it’s legitimated when it’s directed against Native Americans,
Mexicans outside the boundaries of society or against an enslaved class within it. Eliminate
slavery and you start to make problems there. We’re a colonial society in which we’ve incorporated
elements that the Europeans never really incorporated. And the second element is this democratic
individualism that we grant the license to kill to individuals in a way that Europeans
don’t. Their violence predominately, their mass violence especially, is social, police
state violence, class warfare of a violent kind. For us the murder rate, individual violence,
lynching– BILL MOYERS:
30,000 people killed every year by gun violence. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yes, and I would take it back even further than that to the period between the Civil
War and the 1930s when you had, partly as a result of the Civil War, a society awash
in handguns, war surplus handguns, very few law, no national regulation of most things,
essentially a sort of a right wing Republican dream of the unregulated society. And what
you got was social warfare waged by individuals and groups of individuals. BILL MOYERS:
KKK. But in the south that is on the racial boundary in the south KKK, White Citizens’
Council, Knights of the White Camellia against blacks, against their white allies in the
Republican party. In the north you have labor wars in which armed strikers are opposed by
so-called private armies of detectives, we’d later call them goon squads, but called detectives
then, armed to shoot the workers. BILL MOYERS:
Homestead 1892, Ludlow massacre out in Colorado. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Right. So you have a period in the United States as I say from 1865 to 1930 of extreme
social violence in which America, a lot of Americans are armed. European visitors all
remark on the prevalence of pistols and Sears manufacturers a whole line of men’s pants
with a pistol pocket. BILL MOYERS:
What about the argument we increasingly hear that we need to have more guns because of
a threatening government? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
To me that’s the most nonsensical thing I’ve ever heard in my life. First of all, the government
isn’t the black helicopter government that they have in mind. But if it were, your guns
wouldn’t do you a bit of good. And it’s an idea that began with the big lie about the
reason that Hitler took over in Germany was because he disarmed his enemies. The communists
were not disarmed. They were outgunned. And they didn’t have the army on their side. There’s
one, in that panel discussion I was in somebody– BILL MOYERS:
After Newtown. One of the spokesmen spoke about the—that oh if the Poles had had more
widely distributed guns, the Germans would never have invaded. Right, you know, a bunch
of farmers with shotguns standing up to the Wehrmacht. The Japanese didn’t invade California
because they knew Americans were all heavily armed. And that the Japanese never intended to invade
California had nothing to do with it. It’s a pernicious lie. And the reason it’s so pernicious
is that it legitimates the idea that you have a right to violently resist the government.
Most people won’t do that. Most people when the cops come to the door, will put their
hands up if it comes to that. But there are people, some of these violent tax resistant
movements, who take that position very literally. BILL MOYERS:
We continue to hear from a lot of people, notably Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle
Association. Here’s what he said right after Newtown. WAYNE LAPIERRE:
The only way, the only way to stop a monster from killing our kids to be personally involved
and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a
gun is a good guy with a gun. BILL MOYERS:
So what kind of society do we get? What kind of social order do we get if everyone is armed? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
To me we get a very dangerous, or if we’re talking about the United States, it’s extremely
dangerous because there are so many things about which Americans feel violently. The
country is still very much divided by race. The anger that one hears about things like
Obamacare, the rage that’s expressed, the level of political rage makes me feel that
there’s anger out there looking for an object and that the more heavily armed we are and
the more permissive we are about the use of guns, the more dangerous it’s going to be. BILL MOYERS:
I hear you talking about race and wonder how that has shaped the pattern that produces
more outrage over mass killings like this one, and there should be outrage, than over
the slow but steady accretion of one on one killings in the inner cities. I mean, over
106 kids were killed last year in Chicago alone. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yeah we don’t regard as outrageous in the same way the daily killings in the ghettos
and in the black neighborhoods that we do when it’s, you know, little white kids in
a little white suburb. There’s also a difference though in that one is a kind of abhorrent
outburst of violence in a part of the society that feels immune to violence. Whereas we’ve allowed violence in our cities
to become a kind of normative pattern. And actually I shouldn’t say we’ve let it. It’s
always been that way. It goes back as far as our cities go that they’ve always been
violent places. And the culture has taken a kind of dismissive attitude towards it. BILL MOYERS:
How so? Why, historically? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Historically I think, it has to do with the way in which members of racial and ethnic
minorities are not considered to be fully human, so we expect them to behave violently
to each other. BILL MOYERS:
And a threat to jobs, a threat to our own standard of life, standard of living. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
That’s right. BILL MOYERS:
The Irish were seen as a threat to the wellbeing of the Protestants. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Now, the blacks in the cities were a threat when they were rioting in the ’60s, a threat
to white neighborhoods. And you got gun control and attempts at violence control as well as
measures of social welfare taken in order to avert that threat. But black on black violence
in isolated, in urban, neighborhoods leaves white America untouched in both the literal
and the figurative sense, even though that is the largest share of the killings that
Well, we talked about videogames. But what about movies? Here’s a group we put together. BILL MOYERS:
If we find that entertaining, are we in a societal way condoning or validating violence? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
I think it has to do with proportion. There’s so much violence and it’s so inescapable.
If you look at the– if you sort of did a genre map of the different types of films
that are now available, so many of them are violent action movies that if you’re taking
your repertoire of responses to the world from the art that you consume, violence is
the right response in, let’s say, eight cases out of ten. That’s the first thing. The second thing is
that, aside from just the sheer level of raw violence that one sees, the question I would
ask is what kind of rationale are movies now, television programs and videogames, what kind
of rationale for violence are these stories providing? The old Western movies provide
a very important rationale. And that was the principle that no moral, social, political
problem can be resolved in a Western without violence. Anyone in the Western who thinks you can get
away without a gunfight is wrong. And there, it isn’t so much the spectacular quality of
the violence, because by modern standards, it’s pretty tame. But it’s that insistent
rational: the only way to resolve the situation is violence, and anyone who thinks differently
just doesn’t understand the way that the world works. BILL MOYERS:
I have actually wrestled for some 20 years with something you wrote in “Gunfighter
Nation.” You said that central to the myth, the myth of America, the myth of how we came
to be is the belief that “violence is an essential and necessary part of the process
through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are
defended and enforced.” So we invoke violence because we think it not only saves us but
nurtures us and that we have some kind of obligation to use it in the service of spreading
democratic values? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yes, and it validates our beliefs, it validates our values, the things we stand for if we’re
willing to fight for them. Nothing validates them like combat, fighting for them. And,
you know, and the frontier myth is the oldest myth. We have a couple of others that work
with similar kind of power. One of the ones that I was thinking of when I wrote that was
what I call the “good war myth” or the “platoon movie myth.” And that’s the– it’s the newest of our myths,
it comes really out of the Second World War in which the United States, which had been
always a white man’s republic, an Anglo-Saxon white man’s republic, becomes through the
platoon movie, that ethnically and racially mixed unit now becomes a multi-racial, multi-ethnic
democracy united how? Through war against a common enemy, a good war, a justifiable
war, a necessary war, a defensive war, a war that liberates Asia and Europe through the
force of American arms so that our self-transformation into all men are created equal finally, whatever
their color or creed or national origin, is achieved through war and only through war. BILL MOYERS:
As you know so well, President Theodore Roosevelt, back at the turn of the 20th century wrote
that quote, “mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct … are
gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold
Yeah, he also said that a savage war, a war against savages, is always a righteous war.
And it was certainly what Roosevelt was doing there was taking the American past of Indian
fighting and of conquering the west by driving the Indians out, and expanding it to an international
So this idea of the frontier continues to summon us, to– RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yeah. It does, although not often in as literal a way as Teddy Roosevelt would’ve had it.
Two analogies, sort of two examples occur. One is: why is it that for liberals, I’m thinking
about Obama particularly, the war in Afghanistan was a war of necessity whereas the war in
Iraq was a war of choice. They’re both wars of choice. But the war in Afghanistan has
all of the hallmarks of savage war, a primitive enemy bent on our destruction, can’t make
a deal with them, can’t liberate them, can only destroy– I’m thinking about the Taliban
and I’m thinking about the Al Qaeda, people there. BILL MOYERS:
Bin Laden hiding– RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Bin Laden, yeah. BILL MOYERS:
–out, operating from there. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
That’s a righteous war, whereas Iraq, Iraq was supposed to be World War II, was supposed
to be a war of liberation, but it wasn’t. And it soon became obvious that it wasn’t
that. And so you’ve got a kind of public revulsion against that, among some liberals
who supported it initially, but not against– not until recently anyway, not against Afghanistan.
And the second piece of that is the economic piece of that which is that the American economy
is an economy which perpetually expands without costing anybody anything, without cost to
a lower– without exploiting a lower class. For the past 30 years it’s been perfectly
obvious that that’s not working anymore. The rich get richer, the working class gets poorer.
And yet we still hold to that. Why don’t we believe– why don’t we believe in global warning
and the consequences of that? Why don’t we believe– because nature’s inexhaustible,
has to be inexhaustible. If nature is not inexhaustible, infinitely
exploitable, then the American system will stop working. Let’s not even say whether it
used to work or– it will stop working, it will fail. And we can’t afford to believe
So we create myths that help us organize our beliefs against the reality– RICHARD SLOTKIN:
That’s right. BILL MOYERS:
–that we cannot factually deny? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
That’s right. That’s right. BILL MOYERS:
So what is implicit in this notion of regeneration through violence? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
I think it’s, for today, it’s still our belief in the validity of violence as a way of dealing
with the complex problems that as a nation, as a society, even as people, that we face.
We still trust to military action excessively in dealing with foreign affairs. And we still, it’s still a kind of predominant
mode. We’ll cut foreign aid of all kinds, but we won’t cut, or not cut as much, military
budgets. We’ll develop new ways of using force to intervene in foreign affairs, covert ops,
special operations, but force still has that critical role for– it’s almost like there–
it’s not necessarily the first resort, but sure as hell is not the last resort for us. BILL MOYERS:
I sometimes wonder if Charlton Heston will have the last word on this argument. Here
is Heston speaking in the year 2000 at the annual convention of the National Rifle Association.
Their nemesis, at the time, was Al Gore running for president as a Democratic candidate, who
they said would take away their guns. CHARLTON HESTON:
So as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want
to say those fighting words, for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to
heed and especially for you, Mr. Gore — from my cold, dead hands! BILL MOYERS:
What do you think listening to that? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
I think the man’s an idiot. If the government was actually the kind of government he somehow
fantasizes, they would take the gun from his cold, dead hands. There’s a wonderful line
in the first “Men in Black,” where the space alien comes and wants the farmer’s weapon.
And the farmer says, “From my cold, dead hands.” And the alien says, “Your negotiation is accepted.”
I mean, that kind of defiance is cheap. Because it threatens a resistance that would be illegitimate
if it was undertaken and that no one in their right mind would actually undertake. BILL MOYERS:
But mythologically, what does it represent? RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Well, it’s an assertion that you’re Davy Crocket. That you’re– well, I guess, in his case,
it could be an assertion that you’re either one of the revolutionaries at Bunker Hill,
defying the British, from the age of the weapon he was carrying, I would assume he was defying
the British. Or it could be Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. And this notion that if you don’t like the
way the… if you don’t like the outcome of the election, go start your own country. Take
up arms against the government and somehow that’s a legitimate and constitutional action.
It isn’t. It’s unconstitutional. And if you do it, the government will come and take the
gun from your cold, dead hands. BILL MOYERS:
What a conflicted country this is. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Yeah, yeah. But think of the resentment and the fear that would lead to that kind of posturing
on a public stage. That’s the, to me, that’s the menace of our time is that undercurrent
of resentment and fear and hatred that finds an outlet in the legitimated forms of violence. BILL MOYERS:
Including the killing of 26 people, 20 of them children, in Newtown, Connecticut. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
Richard Slotkin, thank you very much for being with me. RICHARD SLOTKIN:
You’re very welcome. BILL MOYERS:
Back when Charlton Heston made that defiant boast at the NRA convention – that gun control
advocates would have to pry his rifle from his cold dead hands – he must have thought
he was back in the fantasy world of Hollywood, re-living his roles as those famous Indian
killers Andrew Jackson and Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West, as he called it, courses
through the bloodstream of American mythology. For sure, Heston was not channeling his most
famous role as Moses striding down from Mount Sinai with a tablet of stone inscribed with
God’s blueprint for a civilized society, including the commandment: “Thou Shalt Not
Kill.” But the good lord seems not to have anticipated
the National Rifle Association. Its conscience as cold and dead as Charlton Heston’s grip
on his gun, the NRA has become the armed bully of American politics, the enabler of the gunfighter
nation, whose exceptionalism includes a high tolerance for the slaughter of the innocent. “Mother
Jones” magazine reports that at least 194 children have been shot to death since Newtown. 127
of them died in their own homes and dozens more in the homes of friends, neighbors, and
relatives, not strangers. 72 pulled the trigger themselves or were shot by another youngster. My native state of Texas leads the country
in the number of young ones killed by guns. While some states passed tougher firearms
legislation after Newtown, Texas enacted ten new laws against sane restrictions on guns.
Which is partly why last month, four women had lunch at a restaurant just outside Dallas.
It was a planning meeting for Moms Demand Action
for Gun Sense in America, that’s a group started after Newtown that describes itself
as the “Mothers Against Drunk Driving of gun reform.” As the four women ate and talked, about 40
members of a pro-gun group called Open Carry Texas – champions of guns anywhere and everywhere
– gathered outside the restaurant, many of them with their firearms. They said they
were there not to intimidate but to make a point. Sure, as if real men need guns to make
a point. So it goes. “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but
if you do, hide behind the Second Amendment, made holier and more sacrosanct by the NRA
than God’s own commandment. We close with a simple public service announcement,
produced by the very un-intimidated Moms Demand Action, marking this month’s Newtown anniversary. ANNOUNCER in No More Silence:
On December 14th, we’ll have a moment of silence for Newtown. But with 26 more school
shootings since that day, ask yourself: Is silence what America needs right now? BILL MOYERS:
At our website, you can revisit my conversation from earlier this year with
David and Francine Wheeler, who lost their six-year-old son Ben at Sandy Hook Elementary. That’s at I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.

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7 Responses

  1. bobthebuilder914 says:

    Hiller vs. DC from 2008.

  2. mike stratocaster says:

    My Constitutional right to arm myself is not contingent upon the good or bad behavior of others…..When I joined the Military, the government couldn't wait to put a rifle in my hands. Attempting to disarm me now that I am a civilian, betrays the real motives of the federal government. The federal government should exist to do nothing other than to safeguard my rights, but clearly there is another agenda…..

  3. cravinbob says:

    Called it a "privilege" to own guns. Says "clip" instead of "magazine" so he reveals his complete ignorance yet is allowed to talk. The killer is a human not a weapon. Speaking about "gun culture" is absurd since there is no such thing. These two are in the ozone claiming PTSD is caused by soldiers who cannot be John Wayne in battle and thus let everyone down! If the powers that be refuse to treat the ill as if they were ill then you have ill on the street. Lanza's mother hid his sickness from the father she had divorced. The father did not take an interest or concern about the lies she told. Parents fail. NRA blamed. This historian knows nothing of history. Knows nothing of humans. Suggests laws and more laws. It is none of your or their business what I do or what I own. Complete jackasses and they are a symptom of the problem. Their free speech need to be shut down. I absolutely abhor this chatterbox type of "program". Bullshit front to back. Liars and charlatans.

  4. Tsnore says:

    The 2nd Amendment is a modern day Achilles Heel in the American justice system and an embarrassing social blight. Taken as an intractable right and divorced from its 18th century "Militia" context by SCOTUS, it appears as detached anthropologists can see cultures – an inability to self-correct – and hence, a self-sentencing to strife if not collapse.

    Many countries that are quite safe when it comes to gun violence (Canada, Japan, Netherlands, Germany, South Korea) have sensible laws governing the ownership and use of firearms. Rifles for hunting are usually allowed as are pistols for home protection/collection, but repeaters and enormous magazines are not permitted, just as grenades and bazookas and tanks are of course forbidden. The UK and Australia are proof positive that gun regulations work. Simply compare the gun carnage statistics before and after.

    This speaker is sensible when he says why wouldn't you want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, potentially violent people (proven by records of such), and the insane and disturbed, and why wouldn't you want rules about safe storage, licensing, and use?

    This gun-nut notion of a slippery slope to massive government regulation (by reinterpreting the 2nd Amendment for the 21st century) and a looming seizure of firearms is as absurd as the notion that bullets protect you from a mythical evil government (of black helicopters?) out to take away your rights and freedom. Being unable to walk around your premier cities after dark in general and through numerous neighborhoods any time of day actually belie a lack of freedom. And that is not to mention the encroachment on freedom of having cops search school children and mall visitors or anywhere citizens are being subjected to scanners and the fear of active shooters in public and private locations (a psychological lack of freedom).

    Every time there is a mass shooting, actually 2-3 per day in the USA, I have little defense when people here (Asia) ask me what's wrong with America.

  5. oso polar says:

    white fear, white paranoia, white hate…USA history of genocide, take land by force,militia, myths of heroes ,superiority complex,inherence violence hate anger,superiority FEAR..

  6. oso polar says:

    Invent enemies invented fear…FOX…guns profit keep people in fear so they buy guns…hunting comes from weak people ,ignorance of spoil white people…. sick culture of toxic masculinity…military culture is a treat to people by abuse of power…..

  7. oso polar says:

    most white people don't want yo hear the t real truth because it takes away the false beliefs of Amerikka

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