Weird Internet Ideas: When the Right Quote Hannah Arendt

The shootings in Las Vegas are an appalling event. I won’t rehash gun control arguments as, to be honest, I think everybody knows them all now. However, when it comes to gun deaths in general and mass shootings, in particular, a basic issue has to be acknowledged: the USA is exceptional. No other industrialised democracy has the levels of gun violence as the USA does. None of the culturally most similar English speaking nations do.  In this regard the US is exceptional. However, we should grant, rationally, that the US is exceptional in other regards so maybe, America’s exceptionality in gun violence is due to some other aspect of its exceptionality other than the glaringly obvious one (lax gun laws).

BUT rationally we can at least dispense with explanations of mass shootings that rely on elements of USA’s politics, culture or economic system that are NOT exceptional. If, as a strawman, somebody were to argue that speaking English was a cause of mass shootings it would be easy to dismiss that as a very implausible explanation. As noted before William of Ockham is our friend and an explanation should avoid descending into epicycles.

Yet here we are and US conservatives and libertarians have run out of arguments as to why disproportionate levels of gun violence in the US is not due to the disproportionately lax levels of gun control. I say “run out” but that doesn’t mean they don’t try.

Here is a new one.

“Intellectual Takeout” is another one of those attempts to recast rationalisations as rationality. In it’s “about” section it says:

“Like you, we are deeply troubled by the growing divisions within America. Discussions today quickly become heated, emotional yelling matches that drive people further apart. Many of us even fear making our opinions known, lest we be ostracized, threatened, fired, or even physically assaulted.

How did the land of the free and home of the brave come to this? Frankly, we see a couple of significant contributors: Breakdown of the education system and the collapse of family and community.

Decades ago, parents could count on the local schools to train students in logic and ensure that they would be historically and culturally literate. No more. Meanwhile, the ongoing collapse of community, family, and faith leaves a large and growing number of Americans feeling lonely and insecure.”

Yup, it is another case of the right presenting itself as the poor persecuted section of society, so starved of chances to speak that it controls the US Presidency and both chambers of the US legislature, not to mention multiple media channels. Ah but if only students were trained in logic! Which would be an appropriate point to insert an Inigo Montoya talking to Vizzini gif, but you all know the line I mean so I’ll let your imaginations deliver the image.

I’ll grant the article this, the writer (Jon Miltmore – apparently a former intern in the GW Bush administration) casts his net a bit further than usual and lands on Hannah Arendt.

Arendt is a complex figure, who experienced 20th-century history first hand. Her most notable work is The Human Condition but she is most widely famous for coining the term “the banality of evil” in her book on the Eichmann trial.

Miltmore’s analysis of America’s gun violence focuses on Arendt’s essay “On Violence”. I can think of worse places to start and Miltmore begins with what could be an interesting point:

“True power, Arendt says, doesn’t require violence. It belongs to a group (never an individual) and it remains so long as the group stays together and can exert its will. Violence, on the other hand, is an instrument. It’s most often employed by those who lack power (a ruffian on a dark street) or by a group that feels power slipping away.

If Arendt is correct, violence is an instrument most likely to be used by those who lack power and feel powerless. And this is where she critiqued modern society.”

“Or by a group that feels power slipping away”. Did you all feel a tinge of hope at that point? That subtle tension of when a person thinking out loud seems to be on the cusp of revelation?

Sadly, having coming close to following an idea that might provide some insights, Miltmore collapses into familiar territory. It is the state! Hmmm, OK, maybe, I *can* think of many ways in which the US as a state has issues – particularly in terms of militirisation…but…no. Miltmore goes to…


To be fair to Miltmore that is where Arendt went as well but then Arendt wasn’t trying to explain away mass shootings. While the role of a feeling of powerlessness within modern society may be an interesting factor in all sorts of elements of violence (including state-sanctioned violence) it fails a basic test when considering US gun violence. Whatever role it might play, it must play the same role in any modern society.

While Miltmore may be unhappy with the US as it stands he is not going to assert that countries like Canada, Australia, the UK, France or Germany are LESS bureaucratic or that the citizens of said countries feel MORE empowered in the face of their respective governments than US citizens. Or, if he does, he isn’t demanding that the US becomes more like those nations in terms of their citizens’ relationship to the state.

Five out of five for effort, zero out of five for logic. Logic requires us to consider the IMPLICATIONS of our hypotheses. You can’t just stop when you find an idea that you like.


29 thoughts on “Weird Internet Ideas: When the Right Quote Hannah Arendt

  1. Gaaaaaaaah.

    I’m just about to leave the house, so I’m not gonna take the time to dig up facts and figures right now, but what these sorts of “good old days” folks continually ignore is the fact that violent crime rates in the US have actually FALLEN immensely over the history of this country.

    The most troubling trend right now is not the overall rate of shootings — which, aside from a (hopefully temporary) turn upward last year, has been decreasing for a couple of decades — but the upward trend in MASS shootings. Although shootings overall have trended downwards, MASS shootings (definitions vary, but basically a mass shooting is a single incident with four or more people shot) have had a huge increase in recent years.

    And, obviously, that’s a big problem. But it isn’t the type of problem that “back to the 50s” folks like to pretend it is.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s almost as if its a problem not with the killers per se, but their access to means of killing en masse…


  2. Hmm. I wonder if he came out of an Evangelical educational background. I say this not because of his conclusion, but because of his method — they are literally trained to problem solve and argue by going to a Bible Concordance, looking up verses that contain the relevant key words, and citing those verses only. The context, those verses’ role in the larger argument the author of the section (or the Author of The Book, if you so believe) is building, what cultural and historical nuances the translator had to address (and the political forces acting on the translator) — none of these matter. Just look up the verse and cite it.
    Fred Clark at
    talks about this failing frequently and with much feeling.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. 1. militirisation s/b militarisation.

    2. The link about parsimony leads me down a rabbit hole to another semipro cherry picker, abuser of reasoning and all around weird guy John C. Wright. I shudder to think what he wrote about this all (I bet wrote about the shootings).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The U.S. is exceptionally violent due to its carefully cultivated cultural image of being rough, intrepid and independent pioneers. That myth worked to get people in the U.S. and slaughtering the indigenous populations, and to get at least a third of the country willing to participate in rebellion against the British crown, and particularly over two hundred years to have them “conquer” the West of the country (again slaughtering the indigenous populations and seizing territory from the Mexicans.) While the age of the Old West was going on, that “frontier” was endlessly romanticized in books, pamphlets and early photography. When we came into the 20th century, the Old West continued to be romanticized in an entire genre of books (westerns,) and in photography, radio plays, movies, television, comics, etc., romanticizing using violence to get what you want. It is linked to the romanticism of the Southern swampy frontiers where intrepid settlers slaughtered the indigenous and enslaved black people — and wanted to branch out into the Old West with that slave economy and wrangled extra control of the government based on it.

    It is a point of pride to every western, rural state, and every rural community in the U.S., that rugged individualistic white (male mostly) pioneer with a gun on the hip, free from the soft bureaucrats in the cities, building a fortune from nothing but his bare hands through cattle, gold, oil, etc., whom no other man can threaten because he’ll get a blast of buckshot. The white man bringing civilization, authoritarian order and prosperity to the wilderness. It is built in to the entire American, white supremacist identity. It is all a lot of them have and if you take it away, they consider that death. They love that image of themselves (which is why they love American football, rodeos, and small — frontier — towns.) There’s been no American frontier since the 1920’s, but they are still obsessed with that image, a century later, and it is an image carefully cultivated by the wealthy and conservative politicians for political leverage. All that shucks, I’m not a politician but I have common sense stuff? That’s the Old West frontier image. It’s what Trump used to help get elected.

    If they don’t have the guns and the fear they create, they lose control of the POC population, who then get to change the image of real America from the Old West white dominion. (Americans continually worried about slave up-risings, Amerindians attacking, and immigrants taking over cities.) If they don’t have the guns, they don’t see themselves as intrepid, righteous, independent pioneers who get it all done over their enemies. If they don’t have the guns, then their rationale for being in power, for leading America to its true intrepid destiny, is shown as empty air. For those white men who then despair, committing suicide by taking out a whole bunch of people — a last stand like on the old frontier — has tremendous appeal. And the guns are easy to access in the U.S. because the gun companies have worked at it and marketed to that frontiersman image relentlessly, even as gun sales have declined in the U.S. and violence and violent crime has declined for nearly forty years likewise.

    It’s often pointed out that Canada and Australia have similar set-ups and had their frontiers. And that’s true and some of the ethos and its problems are in their cultures too. But both are much smaller countries with much less arable land and both were in the British empire for a much longer time while developing their countries and were able to separate without a bloody rebellion. They weren’t fighting for ownership of territory with Mexican brown people. They did not have a civil secessionist war over slaves. So the cultures are different. The fundamental divide between authoritarianism, white supremacy flavor, and civil rights democracy became enormous in the U.S. because of the idea of the intrepid frontiersman. Right now, the civil rights democracy side is desperately organizing numerous, active civil rights efforts and agriculture and industry have consolidated and shrunk, moving the focus to the cities. And that in turn produces a backlash from white supremacy authoritarianism that involves violence. They see it as manifest destiny — we never lost that idea, and our participation in two World Wars confirmed the idea that the image was true and right.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ironically, a lot of the Wild West places had fairly strict gun control rules. IIRC Dodge City made visitors check their guns with the sheriff while you were within the city limits. Likewise Tombstone, Deadwood, and other famous places, where openly carrying guns was forbidden (You could keep them inside your own home, strictly for home defense, if you were a resident). They realized it was bad for business.

      The 20th century fictioneers greatly exaggerated the use of guns in settling the West; like so much of right-wing “history”, it’s simply not true.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A lot of what we see in westerns is highly embellished and white-washed. A pity, because the actual West seems to have been much more interesting. Coincidentally, I probably also would like westerns more, if the were truer to history and less to racist myth.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Most people in the west didn’t have guns — they were very expensive. Money they had went for seed and tools. If they did have a gun, they used it mainly for protecting herds from predator animals and for hunting to supplement their food stocks. If a band of natives or anyone else came for your farm, having a gun wasn’t going to save you. People instead relied on the threat of the army to keep human attackers at bay or they collected in the towns where there was usually some sort of law enforcement. And people out in the west helped each other — barn raisings, collective tool ownership, they took government money. They weren’t independent and a lot of them weren’t white.

        But the idea of the gunman, the lone lawman, the romantic outlaw, the intrepid settler, etc. were all used in songs, books, magazines, plays, etc. A cowboy was a cattle rustler, not a ranch hand, but that got changed in all the fiction they made up. And the myth was used by politicians for policies, wealth and power building and as justification for atrocities, slavery, and so forth. All that stuff about American exceptionalism, which is always white exceptionalism, comes from the American frontier mythos, particularly the Old West version. In the twentieth century when story-telling mediums rapidly expanded, it became the center of American culture — we’re the (white) explorers, defenders, inventors, the people you can count on, self-sufficient, tough, white hats, free from imperial rule of aristocrats. They do not want to give up that image and a more equal, multi-racial, multi-ethnic change of the picture means that image is gone to a lot of them. That image has also been the poster child for the far right backlash movements that started in the mid-seventies with considerable success.

        The Vegas shooter interferes with the myth, so they’ve got to blame it on American culture “straying” from the myth into a more diverse society that supposedly doesn’t have those intrepid values of the past — when they could more easily repress people into playing along with the fantasy. Trump’s entire presidency is built on the myth (New York tough guy version.) It’s why he keeps trying so hard to keep his base riled up on it — it’s all he’s got and they’ve got, so they will cheer anything he says. That and he’s promised the theocrats power and they will use whatever tool they can get. W. Bush did the same thing, in a more traditional manner. Miltmore is just doing what he sees as his job — saying that abandoning the myth ruins America, that the true America is under siege from enemies who won’t get with the myth and the intrepid frontiersmen who are real America must bring order (authoritarianism, bigotry, violent repression,) back to society. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense as long as it sticks to the narrative. It’s not just a U.S. narrative but it is the central struggle of U.S. culture.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. I can see and appreciate the notion of the frontier lawman and white masculinity as protector from the darker Other as part of the complex cultural matrix that leads to US gun fetishism, but I don’t necessarily agree with the overall thrust of the argument. It’s ironic that the criticism of American exceptionalism is made via an argument predicated on the idea that American culture is somehow exceptional. Plenty of Anglo-Am cultures have had a tradition of romanticized outlaw heroes (the British highwayman, pirates, and Robin Hood, for example; Ned Kelly and prisoner-settlers in Australia etc). There are examples elsewhere in the Americas of colonial experiences that produced similarly racialized frontier contact zones marked by indigenous removal, reservations, enslavement and outright genocide to clear arable land. These experiences also led to the creation of gun-toting outlaw cowboy frontier heroe archetypes: the bandeirante in Brazil’s southern provinces, the gaucho in Argentina and Chile. I’m sure something similar existed in Australia, the land of Mad Max.

        If pressed, rather than attributing the gun fetishism to the Frontier, or outlaw-hero archetype, or even the legacy of African slavery (which Brazil and Cuba had on a scale far larger per capita and in straight up numerical terms and for a longer time than the US) I’d guess it comes from a founding ethos based in a particular 17th c Puritanical reading of salvation, behavior, success, and righteousness. That form of religiosity, hitched to a concomitantly-emerging belief in white supremacy apparent in everything from colonial captivity narratives through to 19th c Manifest Destiny and right into the 20th c KKK makes it a toxic cultural brew not necessarily found elsewhere. It’s the prosperity gospel and Reagan with his praise for the Shining City on the Hill. The US is the country of Cotton Mather more so than Wyatt Earp, at least to my way of thinking. It goes without saying, though, that the real practical issue is seriously lax gun laws with a well-funded gun lobby.

        Liked by 3 people

      4. So many of the cowboys were black — escaped or former slaves. They got written out of history, naturally. And of course the original cowboys were vaqueros, Native guys with some Spanish ancestry… you know, Mexicans.

        Kat is right about most people not having guns, or at best a shotgun or small rifle to kill varmints.

        However, the problem is clearly the NRA. We wouldn’t have mass shootings if they hadn’t bought so many politicians. Most Americans are actually in favor of not letting people carry around military-grade weapons, and not letting mentally ill people have guns, and other sensible measures well short of “takin all ar GUNZ!”

        Liked by 1 person

      5. KR: Prosperity gospel and Puritarianism are different, and it’s not just the religion. We don’t actually have very much church going in the U.S. right now, and a quarter of the population is atheist/agnostic. (When we started the country, only about a third of the colonists were particularly religious.) If religion was the fuel for the gun fetish, then it should have died down, not ramped up. And religion is not the main cause for our deep racism, just sometimes a handy excuse for it. As I said, other countries have had similar situations and frontiers ethos to their culture. But the U.S. has its own cultural toxic stew, as you put it, which includes religion as an excuse for authoritarianism, genocide to control and take land, and slavery, etc.

        And what binds it all together in American identity — the theocrats of different flavors, the militias, the atheist alt righters bringing machine guns to their protest march, etc., is the idea of the American white “alpha male” — the John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, riding through the West with a gun on the hip. It’s not a unique image to the U.S., but it’s just indoctrinated into American culture that declares ownership of the western as a concept, even more widely than far right Christianity. It certainly has its roots in Puritainism of the colonial days, but it developed in the culture of the new country as uniquely American manifest destiny — developing the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. For many Americans, the frontier settlers were the only Americans who count as “heritage” and as that frontier died out, many Americans have continued to cling to the image much more fiercely than they have their actual churches. (And that in turn helped the prosperity gospel develop.)

        Again and again, conservatives talk about how they out in rural true America are the real American identity in frontier talk — pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, having common sense over the soft city folks with their educations and multiculturalism, self-reliance and self-sufficient, killing and growing their own food, do the real work, strict father, being out on the frontier with no government regulation and taxes, etc. Being seen toting around a gun, being a defender who sneers at any enemy who dares challenge them — that’s not a U.S. thing alone but it is fundamental to the U.S. identity put forth in the culture. As the U.S. shifted from agriculture/frontier to industry/town and then from industry to tech/city, the more the far right and men in particular need to prove their bonafides by appearing and talking as “real” men, real Americans — frontiersmen who are like the heroes in all the westerns — which then went on to be the heroes in American action movies like Death Wish. Regan used it, George W. Bush used it, Sarah Palin used it, Trump uses it threatening North Korea — tying it into what Americans supposedly are and what they can do.

        The image of ordinary, frontier tough Americans ready to take on invading forces because they haven’t gone soft like city liberals is central to the entire conservative movement. And you can’t have that image without the guns, really tough guns, macho guns. The open carry activist groups who wander around Buger Kings with M-1s want to be seen, want to be intimidating, want to be considered tough and uber competent, not intimidated by any criticizing them. The militia who want to help far right ranchers and miners take over and destroy public lands make the argument that those wealthy men are the real frontier Americans who know what’s best and won’t be intimidated by the government. The anti-immigration talk is the defending the land for the folk destined to have it against invaders, the Confederate flag was for them about southern soldiers guarding their land against invaders, etc. The groups like the Proud Boys — atheist mostly — showing up with guns in Charlottesville, saying that they have them to defend themselves, that they wont start something but if someone comes at them, they’ll end it — that’s all frontier John Wayne talk. They think that’s how you be American, how you be an American man. It goes well beyond strict religion or straight authoritarianism. It’s an identity. It doesn’t have to be an accurate identity for them to have faith in it.

        This article, which is about what happened with hunting and the NRA in American culture touches on this:

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I’m having a very interesting flashback at the moment.

        Back in the big B&W comics boom of the 1980s, one of the comics that came out here in Canada was a book called ‘New Triumph’, with a lead story featuring a superhero called Northguard. The main character had an energy weapon based on some vaguely-defined technology (even in story, the designers weren’t exactly sure what energy they were tapping into), was selected because he could match the cybernetic interface which had been designed for another agent who had been killed, and made the ‘superhero identity’ part of his price for joining.

        The main villains of the story were a conspiracy called ‘ManDes’, after ‘Manifest Destiny’, which was a fairly blatantly American theocratic/white supremacist group attempting to subsume Canada and take it over, through corporate espionage as well as other means.

        There was one letter to the editor that was printed, late in the run, around 1989… from an American who said something along the lines of “When I first found this series, I wasn’t happy about the portrayal of Americans there, and the whole idea that ‘ManDes’ would be something that would work out. Then I saw my country elect Ronald Reagan three times (yes, I said three times).”

        Of course, Reagan was one of those people who relied pretty heavily on the ‘cowboy’ image to get himself elected…

        Liked by 3 people

  5. “Decades ago, parents could count on the local schools to train students in logic and ensure that they would be historically and culturally literate. No more.”

    Paddock was 64. He was educated in the “good old days”. Somehow he still turned into a mass shooter. Somehow I think that John Miltmore didn’t really think this through very well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Breakdown of the education system and the collapse of family and community”

      These are longstanding and tiresome conservative dogwhistles. “Breakdown of the education system” translates to blame for people of color (integration of schools, changing content of curriculum etc) and relies on the trope of educators as liberal brainwashers (damn university profs with their area studies and media programs!). “Collapse of family and community” translates to blaming feminists and working mothers, along with the fecund, feckless racialised underclass who have lots of baby mommas and don’t stick around to raise them.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. And of course the single/working mothers are often divorced women, who had the effrontery to leave their husbands. Never mind if the husbands were abusive, addicts, drunks, unemployed — those darn wimmin were supposed to stand by their man and talk about running into doors a lot.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. “Many of us even fear making our opinions known, lest we be ostracized, threatened, fired, or even physically assaulted.”

        yeah, you can’t even talk about the child-like intellectual capacity and dangerous aggression of non-whites, or the unnatural degeneracy of homosexuals, without people getting angry at you. what about our right to question other people’s humanity*?

        * the only free speech that truly matters.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Concerning the feeling of powerlessness, right-wing nutjob version:

    Some weeks ago in Germany, internal chat protocols of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party were leaked. In those chats, with fellow party members guffawing and cheering him on, AfD politician Holger Arppe fantasized about raping children, killing his political opponents, and joining forces with armed preppers. At the end of last month, Arppe published a statement in which he said that indulging in sadistic fantasies was a psychic necessity for him, because he was so intensely powerless in the face of the massive acts of aggression that the Merkel government is conducting against its own people. (At the same time, Arppe somehow managed to say that the leak was fake news and he had never seen those chats before—logic zero it is.)

    I detect a pattern here, and it is gruesome.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Arppe clearly had one of those mythical computers that type racist crap all by themselves. Quite a few AfD members seem to have these computers.


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