Unlike some other posts, this one is going to be a little more free-form and abstract. It’s something I’ll expand further as part of a longer project, but, for now, I just wanted to put this out here.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how in American political media we frequently hear denunciations of “identity politics.” According to one of the dominant narratives, people “play” identity politics when they either implicitly or explicitly invoke their demographic affiliations as a kind of token in a political game. For example, politicians play identity politics when they appeal to where their constituents were born and live (“Unlike my opponent, I grew up in this district! – I’m no a Washington outsider!”) or gesture to their gender and class status (“As a working middle class mother, I know what it means to raise a family, and care about what happens in our schools!”). Playing identity politics in this sense means making a claim to a specific identity in order to signal that you share a particular perspective and set of concerns with your target demographic. That identity claim serves as a touchstone for building coalitions, cementing solidarity, and turning out votes from people who identify with you.
But identity politics don’t just involve a politician making claims about their own authenticity – they just as frequently involve branding their opponents as inauthentic, or branding them as stigmatized. Unsurprisingly, then, in the contemporary landscape, the idea of identity politics as a “game” that is “played” is thus most often encountered when it comes to race. On the Right in particular, where condemnations of identity politics, like denunciations of “Political Correctness,” are most frequently encountered, this phenomenon paradigmatically takes the form of accusations of “playing the race card.” The game here, though, always seems more than a little bit rigged – Barack Obama and Eric Holder are perennially accused of “playing the race card” when they talk about events involving race, as they were in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, or in response to events in Ferguson. But while when black Democrats simply talk about race or class, they’re “dividing the nation,” when Karl Rove blasts Obama for being “a Chai-swilling, golf-playing, basketball-trash-talking, leading-from-behind, I-got-no-strategy President” or when Newt Gingrich calls him the “Food Stamp President,” they’re not “playing the race card” at all, they’re simply calling things as they see them – which of course involves no race-based blind-spots or craven identity-politics dog-whistles whatsoever.
But unpacking the nuances of “identity politics” in its various configurations in the American political landscape is far beyond the scope of this blog. What I want to reflect on is something else: the increasing prevalence of the term “gun-owner” as a term of identity politics in its own right. Americans self-identify as “gun owners” in polls and frequently vote for or against politicians based upon their supposed affinity for that identity, with numerous organizations claiming to represent “gun owners” the way organizations like La Raza or the NAACP claim to represent their constituencies. Indeed, not only does the NRA describe itself as “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization,” but Gun Owners of America, which stands to the right of the NRA as “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington,” proudly proclaims “a record of helping pro-gun candidates defeat anti-gunners in hundreds of races across the country over the past 30 years, and will continue to do so as long as our supporters provide the necessary financial resources.” “Pro-gun candidates,” “anti-gunners” – all these terms function as identity politics labels, without question. Likewise, Democratic politicians, particularly rural “Blue Dogs,” will regularly claim to be as “pro-gun” and even personally identify themselves as gun owners, often in order to avoid alienating their gun-owning voters.
But does possessing a gun automatically make you a “gun owner” in the way that a group like Gun Owners of America says it should? That is to say, does it necessarily mean that you are a member of an identity-based coalition, or even, as the NRA or GOA might suggest, that you suddenly become a member of a minority whose civil rights are under threat? Let’s set aside the complicated data on who owns guns and why, and likewise bracket the fact that many political figures who are accused of being “anti-gun” actually own guns themselves – including Joe Biden, who’s encouraged people to buy shotguns to defend themselves, and Mark Kelly, the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, who owns several guns. The question I’m asking is this: what is the status of “gun owner” as a term of identity politics? Is “gun owner” an identity in the same way as being black, female, Hispanic, or gay is?
Recently, Open Carry Texas tweeted that “owning guns is the ultimate respect for defending life” Think about that for a minute. Owning a product represents the ultimate respect for a value. Not just that, but owning a weapon (not, say, a defibrillator, or an organ donor card) represents the ultimate respect for human life. Likewise, for many folks, owning a gun represents a patriotic duty – a synecdoche for authentic Americanness. But how many other powerful political interest groups and voting coalitions are defined by the mere fact of owning a particular product?
Here’s the thing. “Gun owner” as a phrase is clearly a term of identity politics. But unlike being black or lesbian or poor or from West Virginia, being a gun owner is an identity you can buy. Only in America does spending $1000-plus on an AR-15 or $75 on a Bryco .380 not just equal expression of respect for a sacrosanct value – it gives you a claim on an identity, and not just to being a patriot, but, as we’ll see in a moment, to something much more. But buying a product does not make you a thing. It just means you bought something, laid down cash, swiped your credit card, wrote a check, whatever. You became an X-owner. If manufacturers of X branded it as whatever, and you embrace that identity, then good for you, I guess. You bought in. But the truth is that buying a gun makes you an American patriot about as much as buying a tiara turns you into a princess. This should be obvious, but just because you bought something doesn’t make you somebody. It just means you gave else someone your money.
Then again, from a certain perspective, I suppose, an identity-you-can-buy represents perhaps the most quintessential example of identity politics, American-style, that I can imagine. But there’s a rub here, too. Because although Americans arguably brand more products with patriotism than any other culture out there, half the time, gun manufacturers aren’t even American themselves – they’re multinational corporations, Italian, Russian, Austrian. Chatting with me about this over the weekend on Twitter, Ross Golowicz pointed out that Chrysler brands itself as “Imported From Detroit.” Imagine the same phrase, advertising a gun: “Imported from Detroit.” Of course, in reality, it should be more like “TEC-9. Imported from Miami. Bought at a gun show in Alabama. Smuggled to Detroit.” Or even: “The SKS. Imported from Tito’s Yugoslavia. To South-Central LA. The Ultimate Respect for the Value of Life.” But, sure, brother, that $700 you dropped on that Bulgarian AK, the $500 you spent on that Austrian Glock, that makes you a true American. And it means you respect life more the value of life than the person who didn’t, or who maybe spent that paycheck on rent or a trampoline or cocaine or a sofa instead.
And here’s the last bit – more often than not, condemnations of playing identity politics from the right are coupled with an accusation of “playing the victim.” Consider how often figures on the Right blame African Americans in particular for being duped into a culture of “victimhood.” But despite the fact that the personal right to bear arms is more secure under the Supreme Court than it ever has been in American history, the defining feature of both the NRA and GOA’s activism on behalf of American gun owners is “protecting” them – as in serving them in a civil rights struggle wherein their constituents are a deeply imperiled minority: in other words, where they’re victims. And the language of victimhood isn’t even subtle. In response to efforts in Massachusetts last year to impose legal limits on magazine size, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action issued a press release to state residents entitled “Your Governor Wants to Personally Victimize Law-Abiding Gun Owners.”
My friend Jennifer Nelson, who’s a brilliant scholar out in Michigan, has a word for tone-deaf, misguided folks who seek to position themselves as the “real” victim of imagined wrongs – they’re “fictims.” I think it’s a simply genius turn of phrase – they’re fictitious victims, with their fictimhood serving not just to deny the actual victimhood of others, but to actively prevent reflection on their own complicity in that suffering by pre-emptively co-opting it. The Men’s Rights Advocates out there who decry sexual harassment laws and complain that they’re the “real” victims of sexism when 20% of women in this country are likely to suffer a sexual assault? Fictims. The angry white folks who deny the existence of structural anti-black prejudice and bemoan “reverse racism” while never having had to have “the talk” with their kids? Fictims, the lot of them.
Frankly, I can’t think of an identity-politics based group more prone to the shrillest flights of fictimhood than some segments of the militant pro-gun movement. To take but one example – I once got some threatening mail from a man I believe to be associated with a specific extremist group, a guy who, among other things, made it pretty clear he wasn’t fond of black folks since, in his words, they represented a “large, perpetual race-grievance based dependent class.” He also wasn’t that fond of me since, according to him, the simple discussion of any regulation of the right to bear arms – not just a renewed Assault Weapons Ban (which, again, I don’t support), but universal background checks or any limitation on what any civilian could conceivably own in any possible world – not only represented the “complete and total rape” of his “human rights,” but also made anyone who might initiate such a discussion, in his words, a “slaveowner.” As he wrote:
“You’re a slaveowner because you believe the rights of others falls under your control… I just want you to know, I fucking hate you and everyone else like you. You are pure fucking slaveowning scum and I am so very, very tired of having to tell you to stop presuming you can speak about the rights of free men and how best to violate them…I hope you understand, if you and your kind keep pushing for this, it’s a war. A real war.”
This strikes me as gun ownership identity politics in its most distilled fictimhood. There’s such a huge cognitive dissonance operating here – a self-righteous and histrionic attempt to co-opt the role of righteous victimhood attributed to slaves underwriting an appeal to violence against the alternate evils of the Federal Government and government-dependent criminals and social parasites who are, inevitably, stereotyped as black. Having a black man as President, of course, allows for these two threats to fold together into a kind of perfect nightmare for these people – the ginned-up fear of roving hordes of urban blacks merges with paranoid, insurrectionist fantasies of going full-Wolverines against home-invading Federal jackboots. And all this histrionic, fear-driven distortion – a grossly warped view of the history of slavery, a skewed understanding of our current economic crisis – perpetrates yet another distortion. It frames the “real” victims of our contemporary national struggles with gun control and gun violence as those primarily white gun owners who may potentially have their consumer choices somewhat more regulated, instead of the actual victims of gun violence, who are disproportionately poor, young, and black.
One last thought. In some ways, the idea that becoming a true American hinges on owning a piece of property (in this case, a gun) seems obscene in a very modern way – hell, from a certain cynical perspective, it’s part and parcel of life under globalized capitalism, a state of affairs in which being an American is itself a brand identity, something we like to think we can export, like democracy and McDonalds and Google and Law & Order spinoffs. But on another level, if we go back to the beginning, to the documents composed at the founding of this country, we have to acknowledge that, for the framers, the ownership of property was the criterion for being a true American, for being a “free man.” And we have to admit, too, that in many cases that “property” in question included other human beings. Whom “real” Americans, “free men,” kept in line at gunpoint.
At which point, then, I have to ask, if, by buying a weapon, you buy an identity, and that identity comes marked with an attitude of co-opted, histrionic fictimhood – who’s playing identity politics now? What identity, ultimately, are you really playing at – and what are you buying into?