Arms and the Man

The gun debate and Southern history


I was in Decatur, Georgia, for their big annual book fair Labor Day weekend. Decatur is a suburb of Atlanta, prosperous and educated. Agnes Scott College is there; Emory is right nearby. But the South is the South, and as I am reminded every time I go, the South is memory. At the courthouse in the center of town is a Confederate monument erected in 1908 “by the men and women and children of DeKalb County.” “After forty two years,” it says, “another generation bears witness to the future.” I thought about that “men and women and children,” the resonance of each word, when “people” would have done as well and spared the mason 16 letters—got an image of the men that day of dedication, their womenfolk beside them and their children in front, taking in the lesson. Seven years later the Klan was refounded on top of Stone Mountain, 10 miles away. Cross burnings were regular there until as late as 1970, a couple of years before they finished carving on its side a monumental bas-relief, three acres in extent, of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee.

Around the courthouse are several freestanding panels, put up in the 1950s, that each narrate some minor skirmish or other during the siege of Atlanta. They go on at exorbitant length—some 250 words, in one case—like pages torn from a history book, and each recounts some temporary, partial, piss-ass little victory within the larger debacle. (“Wheeler’s men … drove Sprague’s troops … to the public square where, outflanked, they withdrew with the wagon trains to the North Decatur Road.”) A friend who lives there now, with whom I was discussing it all later, reminded me of Faulkner’s famous lines on Pickett’s Charge, the so-called high-water mark of the Confederacy: “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863 … and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time.” My friend also noted the shape of the courthouse monument, an obelisk—made me realize to what extent the South is driven by a sense of permanently wounded masculinity, how much its macho culture constitutes an endless compensation for defeat. It’s like fucking Kosovo, I thought, that battle in the 14th century that the Serbs are still obsessed with. Winners move on; history belongs to the losers.

I thought of all this again because of the gun debate, and it made a different sense of one of its strangest claims: that the Second Amendment is intended to enable citizens to take up arms against the government. It’s ridiculous, of course, on two counts. The part of the amendment no one ever quotes is the second phrase, right after “A well regulated Militia”: “being necessary to the security of a free State.” The security of the state, not its overthrow. Making war against the government? The Constitution calls that treason, the highest crime it contemplates. And then there is the sheer absurdity of thinking you can go against a modern army with your little rifles.

I had always assumed that the gun people, in making the argument, were evoking the Revolution. But now I wonder if some of them, at least—not most, and not outside the South, but some in that heartland of states’-rights true believers—don’t have a different war in mind. Tyranny, rebellion, just resistance to an unjust federal government, small arms against small arms in a fair fight, not to mention, recently, Obama’s insistent invocation of Abraham Lincoln. They are stockpiling guns for a battle they’ve already lost. They are dreaming of a second chance. Save your Confederate dollars, boys, the South shall rise again. We’re going to take the country back. Give a boy a gun and you make him a man. This time. Maybe this time.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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