Welcome to the Wide Left Podcast, if you’re new here. We discuss politics from a further-than-left frame of mind.
Ben mentioned two organizations at the end of the show that you can contribute to and support. One is JFREJ, which you can find here. He also mentioned PSL and their GoFundMe for migrant children, which you can find here.
White Nationalist Radicalization
There are a number of citations I want to get through for the historiographies of modern, internet-fueled white nationalist violence. The first is Robert Evans at Bellingcat, who I mentioned put up an analysis of this particular type of white supremacy and its relationship to online white supremacy culture. He also had a piece on the Christchurch shooting and does a good job detailing the distraction and enticement potential of those manifestos.
I mentioned a couple of case studies, too. The New York Times has one of Caleb Cain, now known on YouTube as Faraday Speaks. His personal testimony, “My Descent into the Alt-Right Pipeline”, is fairly powerful. Adam Serwer at the Atlantic has a very complete one that ties into the entire thread of American history, while Jane Coaston at Vox has done one specific to online radicalization. It’s also worth listening to her podcast appearances, where she goes into the internal logic and contradictions of “international white nationalism.” This is one appearance she did with WNYC studios after the Christchurch shooting, and this is one she did with Jonathan Metzl, who I mentioned was the author of Dying of Whiteness and where I grabbed the anecdote about rejecting Obamacare despite its lifesaving potential.
I mentioned a video by YouTube personality shaun on the Great Replacement, which is excellent. You can find it here. He does his own history of online radicalization for younger white men. He also has a relevant video on the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and a good video titled “European History is not White History”. That dovetails nicely with this video by Vox on the racist history of immigration policy.
Speaking of YouTube, it serves as an alarming entry point into white nationalism and far-right radicalization. There have been studies into how YouTube’s algorithm accelerates and deepens right-wing radicalization. That study has been contextualized and substantiated by this video from Three Arrows, who I mentioned in the previous episode.
I don’t want to ignore the unique cultural history of El Paso, which was targeted specifically — the El Paso shooter drove ten hours, 600 miles, from Allen, Texas to El Paso. El Paso has long stood as a product of American and Mexican policy, war, environmental destruction and as a refutation of common border narratives. It also serves as a stark reminder of how cruel immigration policy can be.
As anthropologist Jason De León writes in his book The Land of Open Graves, the wall has pushed most migrants away from urban areas like El Paso and into deadly unwalled places, like the Sonoran Desert where, between 2000 and 2014, the bodies of 2,721 migrants were discovered in southern Arizona. Dehydration is the number one cause of death for migrants in the region. The U.S. federal government, as De León writes, has turned the desert into “a massive open grave.”
It also remains the site of some of our most horrific crimes on the border.
Some saw El Paso as the “future of the US border,” because of its successful cultural melange and what many think a “border town” will look like. Indeed, it looks a lot like border towns in Alaska and Minnesota, with free movement of dual nationals and collaborative culture. And that is likely why this city was targeted.
Rep. Veronica Escobar: This is an individual not from here, who came here to do us harm. He came here to hurt us. For me, it’s important to stress that we’ve got to wait for the investigation to run its course. If this manifesto was his, I certainly hope that law enforcement looks at this as a domestic terrorist act.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Among those who have been confirmed killed are three Mexican nationals. El Paso is right on the border. The community is very intertwined with Mexico.
Rep. Veronica Escobar: Right. And the Mexican consulate was on-site to help at the hospitals. And El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are very intertwined, connected by family, connected by history. We share the same air. We share the same water. And it’s not unusual that there would be Mexicanos shopping and spending money here in this community, just like it would not be unusual for us to do the same in Ciudad Juarez.
It was considered the Ellis Island of the Southwest, and the shooter knew that.
Trump’s Role and Modern Blackshirts
Ben also mentioned Blackshirts, and the phrase often used to describe public figures stoking violence in a manner that allows them to distance themselves is called “stochastic terrorism.” There’s a discussion of the concept at The Quartz and at The Intercept.
This piece at the Washington Post details the passive and active effect that the administration’s approach to white nationalism has on the FBI, who feel hamstrung by both policy and politics — a chilling effect — that prevents them from investigating white nationalist violence. There’s also a New York Times piece on how a DHS report from 2009 was sanitized to avoid right-wing violence as a source of violence. As Parker Molloy puts it, “DHS warned about the threat of things like eco-terrorism, which they classify as left-wing — people nod and go about their business DHS put out the same thing about threats on the right: OUTRAGE.” The DHS failed when they didn’t classify Dylann Roof as a right-wing terrorist, and they couldn’t claw that back. This piece also details the chilling effect this has had on how the DHS deals with right-wing violence.
Speaking of, there’s a discussion of William Fears, a white supremacist who was charged with attempted murder after firing at anti-racist protestors — he, too, was radicalized in part through YouTube.
It’s been reported before, but the LA Times re-reported the fact that Trump diverted resources away from programs intended to counter violent extremism among far-right groups. As the Atlantic detailed at the time, likely Nazi Sebastian Gorka spearheaded the effort to defund programs that could or would investigate white nationalist extremists. This is at the same time the FBI reported that white supremacists killed more people than any other domestic extremist group from 2000 to 2016. As a former senior State Department official told Buzzfeed, “Gorka played a significant role in denying CVE grant funding to groups that work to de-radicalize neo-Nazis and other far right extremists.” Since 2017, white nationalists were responsible for 100 percent of terrorism-related deaths on American soil.
Yet by other measures, the threat of white nationalist violence appears to be rising. Between October and June, there were about 100 arrests of domestic terrorism suspects — and if that trend continues, the total for 2019 would outpace the prior year, when there were about 120 such cases. The year before that, about 150 domestic terrorism suspects were arrested.
That all comes back to the Sydney Morning Herald piece that Ben mentions.
Essentially, the gunman’s alleged manifesto reads as a carbon copy of that espoused by those who carried out the recent and respective attacks on the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“This is a response to the Hispanic invasion,” it reads, according to the FBI. It then goes on to accuse the Democratic Party of “pandering to the Hispanic voting bloc”, while also expressing his contempt for “race mixing” and support for “sending them back.”
That piece goes into some detail about all the race-baiting that was done on the Trump campaign. We also brought up the fact that racism and racist violence existed before Trump, and that Trump took advantage of cultural threads that already existed before he arrived. It’s no mistake that Trump voters were primarily motivated by a fear of diversity.
A lot of this will be a re-paste of what we posted for Episode 016, but I’m also adding in this Politico piece that does a good job detailing the positive role that guns play in people’s lives, and how policy that doesn’t meaningfully account for this will fall short. Guns serve a cultural and social function that people on the left, like ourselves, often underplay or ignore.
But culturally, guns aren’t just a reaction to anxieties. In a way gun control advocates rarely consider, but gun owners may find obvious, they’re a meaningful social asset for their owners. In a fragmented society, guns connect people at a time when making connections is ever more difficult.
In part because of their danger and allure and in part because they’re the center of a sporting culture with deep American roots, guns draw adherents together in contexts like expos, gun ranges, and online chatrooms. At the recreational level, participants can indulge in hobbyist debate and discussion; on a political and cultural level, they can also forge a shared commitment to armed citizenship.
Gun owners bond over their shared fear of diffuse and unpredictable threats of contemporary life. The Pew survey concluded: “Many, but not all, gun owners exist in a social context where gun ownership is the norm. Roughly half of all gun owners say that all or most of their friends own guns. … In stark contrast, among the non-gun owning public, only one-in-ten say all or most of their friends own guns.”
I mentioned that the internal history of the NRA is a little tragic, but it’s important to point out that the NRA started out as a group advocating for marksmanship training and gun restrictions.
It is hard to believe that the NRA was committed to gun-control laws for most of the 20th century—helping to write most of the federal laws restricting gun use until the 1980s.
That history, we mentioned, is deeply steeped in racial politics.
The nation’s white political elite feared that violence was too prevalent and there were too many people—especially urban Black nationalists—with access to guns. In May 1967, two dozen Black Panther Party members walked into the California Statehouse carrying rifles to protest a gun-control bill, prompting then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to comment, “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
An internal revolt in the late ’70s to change the NRA’s organizing principles was a big part of the reason the NRA is now an organization attempting to expand access to guns instead of restrict them.
Using the NRA’s parliamentary rules, the rebels interrupted the agenda from the floor and revised how the Board of Directors was chosen, recommited the NRA to fighting gun control and restored the lobbying ILA. Harlon Carter became the NRA’s new executive director. He cancelled a planned move of its national headquarters from Washington to Colorado Springs. And he changed the organization’s motto on its DC headquarters, selectively editing the Second Amendment to reflect a non-compromising militancy, “The Right Of The People To Keep And Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”
This new arm of the NRA perpetuated the fraud that the Second Amendment generally armed the citizenry:
in 1977, new articles on the Second Amendment appeared” in American Rifleman, Burbick noted, “rewriting American history to legitimize the armed citizen unregulated except by his own ability to buy a gun at whatever price he could afford.” That revisionist perspective was endorsed by a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee chaired by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch in 1982, when staffers wrote a report concluding it had discovered “long lost proof” of an individual’s constitutional right to bear arms.
You can read more about that internal political takeover at the Washington Post. It’s not only a compelling narrative by itself but deeply important American history.
In gun lore it’s known as the Revolt at Cincinnati. On May 21, 1977, and into the morning of May 22, a rump caucus of gun rights radicals took over the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association.
The rebels wore orange-blaze hunting caps. They spoke on walkie-talkies as they worked the floor of the sweltering convention hall. They suspected that the NRA leaders had turned off the air-conditioning in hopes that the rabble-rousers would lose enthusiasm.
The Old Guard was caught by surprise. The NRA officers sat up front, on a dais, observing their demise. The organization, about a century old already, was thoroughly mainstream and bipartisan, focusing on hunting, conservation and marksmanship. It taught Boy Scouts how to shoot safely. But the world had changed, and everything was more political now. The rebels saw the NRA leaders as elites who lacked the heart and conviction to fight against gun-control legislation.
And yes, it’s a fraud. The Second Amendment as we know it didn’t carry the significance in jurisprudence it does now for the vast majority of the nation’s history. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Supreme Court ruled that it even meant citizens had rights to a gun. And we know it wasn’t the founder’s intent for individual gun rights, either.
There is not a single word about an individual’s right to a gun for self-defense or recreation in Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention. Nor was it mentioned, with a few scattered exceptions, in the records of the ratification debates in the states. Nor did the U.S. House of Representatives discuss the topic as it marked up the Bill of Rights. In fact, the original version passed by the House included a conscientious objector provision. “A well regulated militia,” it explained, “composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”
Though state militias eventually dissolved, for two centuries we had guns (plenty!) and we had gun laws in towns and states, governing everything from where gunpowder could be stored to who could carry a weapon—and courts overwhelmingly upheld these restrictions. Gun rights and gun control were seen as going hand in hand. Four times between 1876 and 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule that the Second Amendment protected individual gun ownership outside the context of a militia. As the Tennessee Supreme Court put it in 1840, “A man in the pursuit of deer, elk, and buffaloes might carry his rifle every day for forty years, and yet it would never be said of him that he had borne arms; much less could it be said that a private citizen bears arms because he has a dirk or pistol concealed under his clothes, or a spear in a cane.”
There’s arguments from the conservative sphere that the Court had recognized the individual right to bear arms in nonbinding errata in the Dred Scott decision. That’s a fairly unusual argument—actual court precedent countermands this, and other errata in the Scott case are also not opinions of the Court that conservatives recognize—like the persistent, but no longer enforced, argument that the federal government has such a limited set of powers that they can only engage in action explicitly in the Constitution.
That would kill federal drug laws, which are only justified through the interstate commerce clause—justifications for which Justices Rehnquist, Thomas and O’Connor do not hold up to scrutiny in the first place. It would eliminate federal civil rights protections, eliminate food stamps, allow companies to offshore, eliminate Social Security, eliminate Medicare, and so on.
When conservatives want the federal government to restrict access to abortion, a Dred Scott reading would hurt them. Same with federal public lands, which is an enormous political issue in the western United States. It may even end things like VA hospitals, which are not statutorily part-and-parcel to maintaining a standing military.
It would prevent the public collection of data in every scientific field, particularly the naturalistic ones: geology, meteorology, biology, ecology, climatology, economics, epidemiology and so on.
Moreover the part of the dicta of the Dred Scott decision that conservatives cite as reason for pre-Parker/Heller understandings of individual rights to carry doesn’t make sense in the context Taney is providing—he is (erroneously, as it turns out) describing how states do not recognize the citizenship of blacks in the United States and that doing so would ascribe them rights provided in individual states. In that section of Scott, he references Connecticut and Rhode Island state law.
At the time, many states allowed open gun ownership, but most particularly in the South, as a method of preventing slave uprisings. Ironically, they prevented concealed carry, only open carry. On the other hand, some states severely restricted gun ownership and did not face challenges in the Supreme Court because of those.
In fact, the legal tradition that the founders drew upon allowed officers to arrest anyone who was openly armed.
As a North Carolina jurist, James Davis, put it in 1774:
Justices of the Peace, upon their own View, or upon Complaint, may apprehend any Person who shall go or ride armed with unusual and offensive weapons, in an Affray, or among any great Concourse of the People, or who shall appear, so armed, before the King’s Justices sitting in Court.44
Many states restricted the right of individuals to carry arms in public at all, for the simple reason that police officers existed.
Massachusetts was not alone in its broad regulation of public carry. Over the next several decades, Wisconsin, Maine, Michigan, Virginia, Minnesota, Oregon, and Pennsylvania passed laws modeled on the 1836 Massachusetts statute.61 While modern regulatory schemes, such as the “good cause” permitting policy at issue in Peruta, do not operate in exactly the same manner as these regulations passed primarily outside the South in the nineteenth century, they are a logical analogue given present-day circumstances. Significantly, both regimes presume that the state’s police power justifies limiting the right to carry arms in public to circumstances in which there is a clear justification, such as a heightened need for self-defense.
That some states allowed individuals to carry arms does not mean the federal government guaranteed that right.
There’s a lot that connects modern gun culture to slavery. But more important than its connection to the slave trade is how important guns were to maintaining slavery. While we’ve discussed the legal precedent, it’s also important to discuss the cultural impact it had, which the Atlantic does well. Slave patrols play a big part in modern gun culture and hunting is a relatively recent phenomenon with regards to how guns are treated as cultural objects. While it’s true that hunting has spun off into its own culture, the threads are still there. Slave hunting was a popular activity, and bloodhounds were raised to hunt slaves. Most importantly, modern gun culture has much more to do with latent racist fears than it does with hunting. What’s amazing is that hunting culture is in part a product of corporate marketing, like Ben mentions in the episode, and substantiated here.
“Contrary to the popular image, few people in the United States owned guns prior to the 1850s,” Bellesiles said. “Probate and militia records make clear that only between a tenth and a quarter of adult white males owned firearms. Massachusetts counted all privately owned guns; at no point prior to 1840 did more than 11 percent of that state’s citizens own firearms, and Massachusetts was, along with Connecticut, the center of U.S. arms production.”
But Colt managed to create the perception of a need for guns in the minds of urban males. His task of selling firearms to settlers was far easier; Colt had to convince city folk they needed guns for protection even though crime rates were so low that no police force in the country-other than slave patrols in the South-carried anything more deadly than a billy club.
“The public seemed indifferent, when not actively hostile, to gun ownership,” Bellesiles said. “Even hunting was held up to ridicule, and it was mocked as the play of insufficiently grown-up boys. Those who prized hunting followed the British lead in seeing it as a gentleman’s sport, one which should remain free from the taint of the lower orders.”
But Colt changed all that, masterfully using the press to play off people’s fears