Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Courage, Cheerfulness, Resolution

In my last post I noted that one of the uglier aspects of tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombings was the immediate exploitation of the events by low-class ideologues and I cited John Dickerson's recent article in Slate. In making his case, Dickerson recommended that politicians and pundits heed the instruction of the (now ubiquitous) British World War II propaganda poster that advised its readers to "Keep Calm and Carry On."

Good advice. Everyone loves that poster. I think, at least in part, the slogan has become so popular—it is now reproduced on everything from hoodies to iphone cases—because it brings to mind that splendid equanimity that served the British so well in the adversity of the war years. There is great comfort in the memory of the indefatigable Londoner taking cheer, as the bombs rained down, in their afternoon tea. Sure enough, after Boston a host of slogan spin-off images, the same font on Celtic green, made their way around facebook, "Keep Wicked Calm and Carry the Hell On."

Less well known is the curious minor history behind the poster, which was in fact never publicly distributed by the British Ministry of Information during the war. It was only discovered in the year 2000 as the third in a series of propaganda posters:


Although the other two posters were produced and widely circulated (earning a fairly negative reception from the British press, who considered the posters a waste of money), "Keep Calm and Carry On" was held in reserve by the Ministry to be used in the war during a moment of great crisis. The story is well told in this lovely three-minute film by Studiocanoe:


(Sidenote: I love the trains in the bookstore.)

It is the messages on the other two posters I find most interesting this week, not so much because of the Boston bombings but because of the collapse of gun control legislation in the Senate. For the rabid defenders of gun rights, the second slogan, "Freedom Is in Peril; Defend It with All Your Might" is exactly how they see the discussion—any discussion—about gun control. Their politics exists in a tautology of conspiracy and reckless liberalism. Government is nefarious, always drifting towards tyranny, and citizens require guns to prevent the hegemony of the state. Any attempt to limit gun rights is prima facie evidence of the tyrannical intention of the government. The response to such encroachment of liberty must be extreme: defend it with all your might. Were they aware of the fuller meaning of the term jihadists, Wayne LaPierre and his NRA allies might recognize that that's precisely what they are.

The question that gun control advocates—and by that I mean the ninety-odd percent of people who support background checks—have been asking since the Manchin-Toomey amendment failed is how gun control of any kind can ever get passed if so popular a measure went down to defeat? Some people blamed the four Democrats who voted no, although I tend to agree with Dave Weigel that that is an unpersuasive reading of the politics. The bottom line is that Republicans filibustered a bill that has enormous popular support. There may be electoral fallout from the vote, but that is unlikely... pro-gun Republican Senators remain safe in their relatively uninhabited red states. Only a few right wingers have called out these Senators for their extremism. (Adolphus Busch resigned from the NRA over the vote, in a letter reminiscent of George H. W. Bush's resignation from the organization in 1995.)

So we are left with the status quo: gun deaths every day, no hope of legislation in the near future, and the same question, where do we go from here? One part of the answer seems to me to be this: if substantial movement to the most moderate of positions on gun control, expanded background checks, was met with a filibuster, then in the future there appears to be no reason to concede much ground at all. Having offered nothing to Democrats or, indeed, the nation at large in the way of compromise, they have committed themselves to fighting this battle again and again and again. And when they lose, they will lose far more than if they had bargained in the first place, a lesson they ought to have learned from health care.

In the meantime, "Courage, Cheerfulness, Resolution." Let those be the watchwords for those in pursuit of a sane policy on guns.

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