As we roll into the actual election cycle it might be good to recall some of America’s history to help explain how we got where we are.
Arguably the most famous period in American history is the settling of the American West. The period is often celebrated in sentimental terms with movies about cowboys and Indians, gunslingers and gold rush frontier towns.
Back in the 1940s and 50s, when Americans seemed to need heroes to make them feel good about their nation’s history, cowboys molded in the likes of the singer Roy Rogers filled our TV and movie screens. We were taught to view these cowboy types as real problem solvers, rationalists and western heroes. Yet the message behind the movies was more sinister: give a guy a gun and a grin and all would be right.
But as the 1960s evolved into the 1970s, the narrative began to evolve. Along came Clint Eastwood and a series of sphaghetti westerns in which squinty sneers and gray morality was the call of the day. The men we saw on the screen never held back on shooting one another if the situation called for it. This was American justice in its most raw form. There appear to be many who still believe in it, trading in arms and politics as a matter of course. Oliver North comes to mind.
The evolution of cowboy heroes from righteous gunslingers to dark moralists took a long path of movie compromise, humor and woe. Films such as the epic buddy film Butch Cassiday and the Sundance Kid mixed heroism with a penchant for criminal behavior. And people could not help cheering the charming figures on the screen. The heroes almost always figured out how to come out victorious in the end. But Butch and Sundance did not finally escape their criminal records. They met their bloody fates in the face hundreds of guns held by the Mexican Army.
Which brings to mind as well this famous movie scene in which the authority of the Mexican Federales is called into question by a typical white guy hiding behind a rock and holding a gun. He gets an unexpected response: “Badges?” the Mexican lawman asks. “We don’t need no steenking badges…” the Federale protests when asked to show his identification.
Spirits of America Past, Present and Future
One could argue the same scenario is playing out today with angry white American citizens demanding to see identification from people they suspect of being illegal immigrants. Invited into America by capitalists eager for cheap labor, the Mexican migration basically reversed the manner in which the white population of America first occupied and then overthrew territory all across the North American continent. The racial and economic instincts that white people leveraged to conquer Latin America and steal land from Native Americans while simultaneously capturing and enslaving African people has resulted in a turnabout much like the Dark Ghosts of Christmas Past came to haunt Scrooge in his miserly misery. It’s the same story among people who say “Bah Humbug” to integration, immigration, and racial diversity. Instead, they want to Take Back America to a time before the spirits of America Past, Present and Future came around to haunt them.
Because to take America back to that version of reality would mean embarking on the ugly business of taking away rights earned through decades of justified protest, legal and political action.
To fight back against this tide of wortwhile and justified change, the anachronists and authoritarians who yearn for a more discriminatory America has endeavored to create a social environment in which their so-called values can be enforced even if they are, by Constitutional and moral standards, quite illegal.
Through Concealed Carry laws passed in all 50 states, America has become a country in which guns and criminal morality are essentially the law of the land. The political cowboys that have conspired to install Concealed Carry laws all over the country have convinced people to be so afraid of “the other” they feel obligated to carry a gun with them wherever they go. Since when is this an expression of freedom? Since when did becoming armed equate to the full privilege of American citizenship? I’ll tell you when: It happened when people sold their conscience in favor of their fears.
Racial bang ups
And let’s not lie about the purpose of those laws. They are racially driven, designed principally to arm white citizens against the perceived threats of racial overthrow.
These same advocates bitterly blame all gun crime on a black population of Americans that has all too easily embraced the vigilante lifestyle of our former heroes in the unsettled West. This fact that this narrative feels like a bit of stolen history to people claiming to be “law-abiding gun owners” is just one of the ironies of so-called Concealed Carry laws.
The balance of gun ownership was never supposed to tip in favor of minorities when guns became the law of the land. Regardless of the racial intentions of groups like the NRA, it has been fear of minorities that defined how gun power has been used to impose racial standards. And if you want to know more about how white people have operated in that context, using guns and assumptions of authority over the land, read the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee about the genocide carried out against Native Americans on the North American continent. Of course the irony is that white profiteers and traders were those who sold guns to Native Americans in the first place. Let us never forget that the love of money is ultimately the root of all evil, and the source of most escalations of violence in this world.
Militias and marketing
The fearful perception of imbalance, of minorities owning guns like white people, has spilled into politics and evolved into a potent and publicly stated distrust of the very government by member of militias, who all-too-frequently happen to be mostly white, and boldly racist. The NRA, sensing a marketing opportunity, has ably represented the commercial interests of gun and ammo manufacturers by turning racial fear into a prolonged campaign to sell weapons and bullets. install Concealed Carry laws.
The same fear drives Concealed Carry laws that have further evolved into dangerous statutes such as Stand Your Ground, a clearly warped interpretation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms because it imbues everyday citizens with the power traditionally invested in police.
And the police have proven to be a source of blatant racism and violence as well. People are being shot down in the streets by police who judge people to be threats for violent behavior based on profiling them by race.
These attitudes spill over into violent words and actions toward people of religions other than white Christian Evangelicals or Catholics. Therefore a black Muslim is automatically a threat, or an Arab citizen in general. We don’t need to go far back in American history to identify periods when attitudes evolved into actions. The incarceration of Japanese American citizens during World War II is just one such example.
Threats to the American Conscience
So the arc from prejudice to act is not a long leap. Not in American or in any other nation on earth. Which is why the angry, racially tinged words of Donald Trump are such a threat to the evolution of the American conscience. When he brands all Mexicans “rapists” or criminals his word hold weight with those waiting for an excuse to express their disappointment and rage toward those they view as invaders on their land.
And in the global context, Donald Trump issues threats against political alliances that have worked for decades to keep the peace. His version of a better reality involves nothing more than his cowboy instincts about who owns the rights to water, land or treasure. He’s a throwback for sure, an evil land baron who wields a hard hand against anyone in the town or region who would dare to resist him.
We tried that for eight years with that inept cowboy President George W. Bush. Only he was more like the town drunk with a gun than a truly evil land baron. That was Dick Cheney behind the scenes, a snarling sheriff who did not believe in mercy and would even torture people in their prison cells if he though it would bring him information about who might be riding into town. It doesn’t take much of an excuse for some cowboys to wear the black hat and do dark things while believing they stand for righteousness.
And like the Sharon Stone character in the gunslinger movie The Quick and The Dead, the Democrat Hillary Clinton has a tragic backstory that makes her the target for much public criticism and doubt about her ability to lead the fight against the evil land baron Donald Trump.
But you may recall the character played by Gene Hackman in the Quick and the Dead seemed to have everything in his control as he pitted one gunslinger against the other while keeping the most dangerous gunslinger, a compromised preacher played by Russel Crowe, in public chains.
All was confused morality until the Sharon Stone character finally helped put a bullet in the head of the Gene Hackman character. In classic movie fashion, you could see the light right through the hole in his head. Or maybe that was another cowboy movie. But you get the point. Merciless assumption of power and cruelty often backfires.
And we can expect that type of backfire to ultimately catch up with Donald Trump. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting he be assassinated. No one deserves that fate. But tell that to John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon. All were murdered in part for their principles, which resisted the cowboy belief in violence as a source of justice. The same held true for the murder of Abraham Lincoln, and even the shooting (but not death) of Ronald Reagan. The cowboy instinct is built too strongly into the American fabric, and that brand of power cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of the wrong people. Not at the top of society, nor at the bottom. Because in between, the rest of us are merely targets waiting for our role in the game of Cowboy Roulette.