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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review of "The Gunning of America"

American Gun and Book Reviews
Brian Anse Patrick  

The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of the American Gun Culture. Pamela Haag, New York: Basic Books, 2016, 496 pages.

This book recalled for me an incident of acute moral posturing that I was exposed to back in graduate school at the University of Michigan in the late 1990s. 

For politeness sake I had invited a fellow Ph.D. candidate to shoot at targets with a pistol, who declined for what he called “moral reasons.” Apparently mere possession, touching or association with a firearm was inherently evil. I had not known this. I was also to understand, so I gathered, that by sheer dint of this virtuous expression this sensitive soul had established himself as my moral superior. Forever. Absolutely. At this point in the semiotic exchange I declined and still do. Prissiness is not in my world an acceptable medium of exchange for moral worth.  

The parallel? From Dr. Pamela Haag’s history one gathers the impression that Oliver Winchester and other “gun capitalists” snuck up on the American playground in the mid-19th Century and immorally beguiled innocents into a culture of firearm addiction. Until then, she seems to imagine, America’s children enjoyed a largely bucolic existence, and while they might murder with ax, fists, knife or bludgeon, they had existed in a largely gun free safe zone. The emergent “gun capitalists” simply lacked the social conscience of more enlightened beings; sociopathically they ignored collective moral accountability and grasped for personal profit at human expense.

Transcending mere history to speak as the voice of anachronistic conscience, Haag views American gun culture as somehow inorganic or unnatural, a synthetic product or chimerical trick; it is not a true social growth but an immoral business enterprise that created its own fog of cultural dissimulation. In advancing this case, however, she takes some highly impressionistic flights.

A first set of fancies might be called assumptive. Haag’s work is not the first attempt by a publisher to package a sermon on the phenomenon of American Gun Culture as counterintuitive scholarly analysis. One is reminded of historian Michael Bellisiles’s allegation of a rarity of guns in colonial America (Arming America, Knopf, 2000), which was withdrawn by its embarrassed publisher after historian Clayton Cramer showed that Bellisiles cited nonexistent sources and selectively misquoted others (Armed America, Thomas Nelson, 2007).  Early on in her book Haag makes a crucial elementary mistake identical to Bellisiles, the assumption that because American revolutionary armies experienced difficulties in obtaining firearms, that guns were therefore rare in the colonies. No, there were many guns, but the differences were immense between a ragtag collection of fowling pieces and blunderbusses appropriate to farm life, and the uniform stands of arms necessary for a modern colonial army. The colonies were inadequately industrialized for European style war. This doesn’t equate that guns were unpopular or rare. Too much historical and cultural evidence suggests otherwise, e.g., all those spent lead bullets that litter old settlements came from somewhere.  She also assumes axiomatically, that firearms are teleologically murderous. There is little demonstrated understanding of possible positive benefits—the firearm as a tool, a necessity, a device to liberate or preserve self or social unit from coercion and violence. She sees Oliver Winchester as a sociopath for all the murders/killings committed by his guns by individuals and governments, even though his conduct suggests elsewise. In the same way we learn as the sermon thunders up, that modern gun industrialists must be held accountable for their lethal products. She appears to believe she has made the case to hold them accountable in an emerging era of social collective conscience and justice.

Just an annoyance, but she repeatedly misidentifies the Union Metallic Cartridge Company as the United Metallic Cartridge Company.

A second set of flights might be described a highly fanciful tropes, speculative in nature. In many ways this book appears to be a fusion of Creative Writing 101 and an initial graduate class in historical methodology. Haag uses terms in virtually idiolectic fashions derived in creative digressions along the way, suggesting little understanding of the conventions or mechanics that she attempts to describe, e.g., repeatedly referring to the lever action Winchester rifles as “semiautomatic” and even “automatic.”  She uses the terms “bullets” and “ammunition” interchangeably. She weaves a huge romantic moral tale based on pure conjecture. Sarah Winchester, the wealthy reclusive and deeply spiritualist widow of Oliver’s son, the tuberculin Will, whose children had died in infancy, moves to the California coast where, provided for by the immense Winchester fortune, perpetually builds and rebuilds a bizarre 200-room mansion with parquet floors, an organ, blind stairways, ghost cabinets (popular with spiritualists), minarets, and with chimneys, windows and balconies opening to nowhere. The isolated insomniac Sarah ghostlike flits through the rooms after midnight and furiously plays the organ, sort of, maybe, like in that old Don Knott’s film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Haag speculates that the purpose of this incessant building was some form of spiritualistic atonement for the legions of Winchester-manufactured ghosts. Was Sarah’s mysterious house a spirit house, built on spiritualist principles, meant to wash away or protect herself from the Winchester blood legacy? Pages are dedicated to an imaginary meeting between widow Sarah and a prominent spiritualist of the era. Haag evokes the stories of Persephone and Demeter to amplify Sarah into a tragic mythical figure. (Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, by the way, recommended use of such classical tales when the orator needed to amplify or celebrate some figure about which there might not really be all that much to say.)  At some point all this becomes absurd, although I suspect it may play well on daytime television talk shows where it would be treated more or less as a slogan. Now, the legend of Sarah vies with the legend of Oliver Winchester, so we are told. Yeah, right. (Nevertheless, I would like to someday visit the mystery house of Sarah, as it still stands as tourist amusement site, and see what the poor rich woman had built for herself.  So I am grateful to Haag for telling me about it.)  

As a scholar of propaganda, I must agree that history may resemble creative writing more than any sort of historical reality. We live daily with Orwellian revisionism.  But just as Haag accuses Winchester and Colt’s of manufacturing a gun culture mythos, Haag appears to be engaged in the business of manufacturing an antipodal Sarah mythos by the decidedly ahistorical methodology of free association.

Several excellent chapters are usefully straightforward, informed by numerous archival sources. We learn of Winchester’s well-organized aggressive marketing efforts; the company leaders’ realization that guns did not just sell themselves on a civilian market; the early reliance on sales to foreign governments that established the brand and financial footing; the reorganizations, the overbuilding and collapse as a result of production in the Great War, a time when Winchester officials wondered that the U.S. government might nationalize their plant if they didn’t cooperate with demands for armaments.  Soon after the war demand fails, the family connection in Winchester Repeating Arms Company is gone, sold out, and the business was in receivership.

We also learn that the Wild West wasn’t all that wild; a setting-to-rights chapter is called, “The West That Won the Gun.” Buffalo Bill was a fraud and all that Wild West Show stuff, hokum, Hollywood westerns, too. But I suspect everybody older than about ten years of age already knew this. I think that the measured version of the Western hero offered in books such as The Virginian is more true to the actual ideal of the West. And yes, the gun merchants stimulated demand, but could not create it out of nothing. Demand was and remains real, despite “gun cranks,” whom may fetishize firearms along any number of dimensions.  

The above mentioned, well-grounded chapters read as if they were written for a different book or occasion, for soon we are back to the heavy handed interpretive overlay. This may have been an editorial decision: market the book with drama. The penultimate chapter is “Merchants of Death,” wherein Haag pulls out all the stops on her whacky organ. She even references an early Superman comic book to support her argument. Enough said.

Haag also drags the Pope into her picture, quoting his denunciation of those who manufacture weapons. But the Pope is surrounded by a machine-gun toting Swiss Guard, lives in a walled city (i.e., gated community), travels about in a bulletproof Pope-mobile, and should not be throwing stones. Others may not be so insulated from those who would do them harm.    

Haag’s imaginings run for nearly 500 pages.  That’s a lot of imagining; sandwiching some good history at times. The moral of her story is corporate accountability. She dismisses efforts to control individuals.  Just control the manufacturers, the Evil Olivers of the world, and the problem of American gun pathology will be solved.  A chain of accountability is all we need, manufacturer to aorta, as she quotes from a source. She has made this case, or so she seems to think.  She mentions a gun control movement a few times, but who cares about the modern NRA and the millions of people who comprise the new American Gun Culture social movement that has arisen steadily since about the late 1960s?  To Haag, such people apparently seem to be dupes of the gun industry mythos-making machinery, and therefore lacking in political and mythos validity. She has explained them away.

I suggest also she might consider taking a law class in torts to understand, if nothing else, the notion of proximate cause.

Casting about for paradigms to support her concluding argument, she cites Chicago as an example of a successful approach to the gun problem. Say what?  As of May 2016 Chicago police reported that 318 shootings had occurred so far in 2016, and accounted for 317 victims, 66 of them dead. These shootings were attributed almost entirely to gang-related violence among blacks. Corporate accountability? Whose?  When? Where? How? Are the killers just victims, too, of what Haag keeps calling an “agnostic” gun industry?

Who then is to blame for the excesses in this book? Gutenberg seems a likely candidate, although is perhaps too remote to be convincing.  It can’t be the author, who labors presumably under the influence of organized corporate outpourings on the nature of books and scholarship, and is therefore a victim too. Maybe it should be those Merchants of Books who run a publishing industry that produces luridly simplified accounts of impossibly complicated reality in order to cater to the ego-defense needs of people to feel smart and empowered.  Or superior.

Enough.  I decline this semiotic offering.


2 June 2016 

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