As the bodies of the Newtown children begin to decompose in their graves, so the prospects for meaningful reform to America’s gun culture appear to recede. The NRA’s confidence that assault weapons will remain legal has been bolstered by several signs of fearful obedience from federal legislators who remain more moved by campaign contributions than by the blood of innocents. Of course, in their telling of events, Senators like John McCain are merely resisting the deceptive allure of unwise, knee-jerk policy reactions – you know, like they did after September 11th, 2001, when the United States degenerated into a vicious psychopath abroad and an officious Big Brother at home. Who would have thought that the modern, twisted interpretation of the Second Amendment would be defended with more vigor than long-standing Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, the ancient tradition of habeas corpus, or the quaint notion that countries that present no threat to our national security ought to be left unmolested? Such principled displays are enough to make any American want to pop off a few rounds in celebration of national greatness.
Of course, defenders of our constitutional trump card do not care to be mocked. They consider themselves the last bastion of American liberty, the manly bulwark against the ever-present threat of government tyranny. The framers, we are told, wanted rednecks to fill their pick-ups with firepower so they could protect their vulnerable compatriots from a civil authority run amok. There are just two small problems with this argument, other than its sheer egotism. First, the framers of the Federal Constitution most emphatically did not intend to empower the people to effectively resist their government. Second, there is no evidence whatsoever that the membership of the National Rifle Association is capable of recognizing government tyranny that takes any form other than confiscation of their dangerous toys. And we say that with total confidence, for the evidence of encroaching tyranny is all around us, but the NRA is nowhere to be seen.
From Hard Currency to Hard Liquor: Nourishing the Tree of Liberty
At a time when the American elite enjoys increasing control of both the state and the economy, a reading of the causes of Shays’ Rebellion – an uprising in rural Massachusetts just before the Constitutional Convention of 1787 – contains several familiar themes. Shays’ Rebellion stemmed from the refusal of Massachusetts’ foreign trading partners to accept anything other than hard currency after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution. The east-coast merchants who dominated the state’s government required their own customers throughout the state to pay them in hard currency, which was in short supply after the war. Although Governor Hancock mitigated the impact of the merchants’ demands, it was not long before ordinary people were unable to pay the debts and taxes that were being demanded of them. Daniel Shays, a former soldier who had been wounded in the war and left the army – like many others – without being paid by the state, was only one of several men who decided to organize and forcibly close the state courts where their fellow debtors were being ruined.
Shay’s Rebellion was eventually broken up by a combination of a privately-funded militia bankrolled by the eastern elites and the state’s own efforts to organize ordinary men to fight against their fellow Americans in the western reaches of the state. From the point of view of the rebels, the government’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and criminalization of seditious speech amplified their conclusion that the government of Massachusetts had become tyrannical. But for the elite, the rebellion was truly frightening. The desire of debtors to pay their debts in paper currency threatened to erode the wealth of creditors. Although not involved in this particular conflict, the opinion of General Washington, expressed in a letter, perfectly summed up the mood of the moneyed elite:
You talk, my good sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is not government. Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.
Shays’ Rebellion reinforced the growing conviction among the elite that a stronger central government – one which might be able to meet such threats to the administration of the laws that protected their property – was now essential. It was not long before the federal government created by the Convention of 1787 would have a chance to show how effective it could be.
In 1794, now President of the young republic, Washington was alarmed to find that the policies of his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, were being met with active disobedience. One of the key parts of Hamilton’s financial plan was the assumption of the various states’ war debts, a policy that greatly enriched the many speculators who had bought up near-worthless war bonds prior to the announcement of the plan. In order to pay for this assumption, Hamilton needed revenue; this came to include an excise tax on whiskey. The tax fell hardest on farmers who used the results of grain distillation as a form of currency, and western Pennsylvania erupted in a similar fashion to western Massachusetts during Shays’ Rebellion. Federal tax collectors were met with intimidation and violence. Washington responded with a predictably firm hand, calling on several state governors to mobilize militia forces and then personally riding at the head of this large force, prepared to crush the rebellion. As it turned out, the rebels denied the wealthy president the satisfaction, disbanding before he arrived, and the tax remained difficult to collect, eventually being abolished after Jefferson replaced the Federalists in power. Nonetheless, the point had been made: armed resistance to the new government would not be tolerated. The men of property had secured their rights.
Viewed in this context, the proposition that the framers of the Federal Constitution of 1787 would have countenanced, let alone enshrined, the arming of the population with military-grade weapons capable of inflicting serious harm on federal forces is absurd. The Constitution, simply put, was written and imposed on the nation to secure the sanctity of property. For the Antifederalists who opposed it, the new order was tantamount to a return to the distant, centralized, imperial authority from which the country had just rebelled. The poor farmers of the West saw themselves being taxed without real representation. Their spirit would live on.
Contemporary gun nuts who argue that the framers are on their side have their history backwards. And that confusion is one of the factors which renders them unfit to the task of defending liberty from tyranny.
Where Are the Gun Nuts When We Need Them?
This site is replete with abuses of government power, and we see no reason to recite another laundry list today; interested readers may explore the archives. Instead, we shall focus on one recent example of highly disturbing federal activity, an example that captures the concerns of the Shaysites and flashes them in bold relief above our modern plutocratic landscape. Alas, this case comes not from the media campaigns of the National Rifle Association; it is not their kind of tyranny.
Chris Hedges’s latest column in Truthdig exposed the FBI’s surveillance tactics against a Florida woman who became involved in the Occupy Movement. Files obtained from a Freedom of Information Act suit should give any genuine defender of liberty much food for thought:
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the PCJF [Partnership for Civil Justice Fund], said in a written statement about the released files: “This production [of information], which we believe is just the tip of the iceberg, is a window into the nationwide scope of the FBI’s surveillance, monitoring, and reporting on peaceful protesters organizing with the Occupy movement. These documents show that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity. These documents also show these federal agencies functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.”
The FBI documents are not only a chilling example of how widespread this surveillance and obstruction has become, they are an explicit warning by the security services to all who consider dissent. Anyone who defies corporate power, even if he or she is nonviolent and acting within constitutional rights, is a suspect. These documents are part of the plan to make us fearful, compliant and disempowered. They mark, I suspect, a government attempt to end peaceful mass protests by responding with repression to the grievances of Americans. When the corporate-financed group FreedomWorks bused in goons to disrupt Democratic candidates’ town hall meetings about the federal health care legislation in August 2009, Eric Zuesse of the Business Insider notes, “there was no FBI surveillance of those corporate-organized disruptions of legitimate democratic processes. There also were no subsequent FreedomWorks applications for Freedom of Information Act releases of FBI files regarding such surveillance being used against them—because there was no such FBI campaign against them.”
The combination of intimidation tactics by right-wing fringe groups, which speak in the language of violence and hate, with the state’s massive intrusion into the personal affairs of the citizen is corporate fascism. And we are much farther down that road than many of us care to admit.
This, dare we say it in a world where Facebook posts ruin careers, is the state of the Union. It is a state that makes peaceful protesters wonder if they might need to join the NRA themselves. But they would find cold comfort there, for the NRA is part of the corporate system that is suppressing liberty while pretending to protect it. The liberty that really matters in our republic, if it survives at all, will be sheltered by real patriots, not frauds.
Shortly after this post was written, The Leesburg Daily Commercial published an op-ed from Reg Henry, who used the Whiskey Rebellion to make essentially the same point that we did. Then something truly horrendous happened.
Long-time readers of this website (all three of you) may have noticed that while we obviously feel no fondness for the conservative columnists in the Daily Commercial, we save our strongest contempt for the blowhards masquerading as progressives while excusing, ignoring, or encouraging acceptance of the corporate state.
Reg Henry, perhaps too eager to dismiss the NRA’s hysteria as irrational, asserted that there was nothing remotely tyrannical about the government of the United States under Barack Obama. Furthermore, he contended that anyone accusing the government of tyranny was effectively committing treason.
Reg, are you not the least bit troubled by Barack Obama’s assertion of a legal right to kill anyone, anywhere, anytime, United States citizen or not? Are you not disturbed by the indisputable fact that the United States has a two-tiered justice system? Have you ever heard the phrase, “surveillance state”? Are you too drunk on Foster’s to perceive the reality of the plutocratic power structure that hides behind democratic rituals, eviscerating the public interest in the name of corporate profits? Do you not understand that Barack Obama – he who weeps for dead white children in New England – is a murdering bastard who deserves to be tried in The Hague for war crimes (along with most of his predecessors)?
What a sorry sack of shit. Now we know why Reg Henry has a career in the American corporate media: this is the kind of “dissent” the system needs.