Ahead of the one year anniversary of the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in which Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 school children and six educators, Bill speaks with cultural historian and scholar Richard Slotkin about the role of guns in America’s national psyche.
Slotkin has spent his life studying and writing about the violence that has swirled through American history and taken root deep in our culture. In his works of history and fiction, Slotkin tracks how everything from literature, movies and television to society and politics has been influenced by this violent past including the gun culture that continues to dominate, wound and kill.
Slotkin talks about Lanza’s apparent obsession with violent video games and mass killings — as outlined in a November report issued by Connecticut’s Division of Criminal Justice — and examines the roots of violence in America. “The lone killer is trying to validate himself or herself in terms of … what I would call the historical mythology of our society. He wants to place himself in relation to meaningful events in the past that lead up to the present.”
BILL MOYERS: Welcome, but be forewarned: a few scenes in this hour are disturbing, because we are dealing with violence and don’t want to hide what is true about it. As you know, one year ago this weekend, as you know, 20 school children and six educators were massacred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The killer also murdered his mother, and then killed himself. 28 deaths in all, from guns. And across America, perhaps as many as 30,000 more have been killed since that fatal day.
This is why I have asked Richard Slotkin to join me. He has spent his adult life delving into how violence took deep root in our culture, from colonial days to now. In his magisterial trilogy, “Regeneration Through Violence,” “The Fatal Environment” and “Gunfighter Nation,” Richard Slotkin tells how America came to embrace a mythology of gun-slinging settlers taming the wilderness to justify and romanticize a tragic record of subjugation and bloodshed. His latest book, “The Long Road to Antietam,” tells the tale of the bloodiest day in American history.
In these and other works, this preeminent cultural historian tracks the evolution of the gun culture that continues to dominate, wound and kill. Richard Slotkin has retired now from a distinguished teaching career of over four decades at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, just 45 minutes from Newtown.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: What were you thinking as the first anniversary of the massacre approached?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, I was thinking of the sadness of that day and just the idea of all those, as one woman at the town said, “those poor little babies” being slaughtered. And I was also remembering with some anger the way in which one of the first knee-jerk responses to that event was a kind of rabid defense of, not only defense of gun owning, but a kind of plea for extending the privilege of gun ownership and the number of occasions, type of occasions on which guns could be used.
And not only that the different places that one can carry guns and also the number of situations in which it’s permissible to pull out your gun and shoot somebody. I’m thinking about Stand Your Ground laws, so-called.
BILL MOYERS: When one of these massacres occurs, do you automatically or just habitually think about this long train of violence that you’ve been researching and writing about for so long now?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, thinking about this Adam Lanza case, the killer in Newtown, at first it just seemed to me a crazy kid doing something almost inexplicably crazy with a gun. As the report has come out—
BILL MOYERS: The state report recently—
RICHARD SLOTKIN: —yes—
BILL MOYERS: —came out a couple of weeks ago.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yeah, the state report has gone into the way in which he used videogames and obsessively played violent videogames. And apparently did research on massacres. And there’s a way in which in the individual case you see something that also works on the cultural level. And that is that people will model their behavior on examples that they consider to be heroic.
And that’s how mythology works in a culture. There are cultural myths that define what for us is a positive response to a crisis. And it’s embodied in media. And we learn it through the media and we model our behavior on that of heroes. And apparently Lanza in the way he conducted the massacre was making the kind of moves that are the standard moves of a person playing a violent videogame.
You’d never enter a new room unless you’ve put a fresh clip in your gun. So he would shoot off half a clip and then change the clip anyway— because that’s what you do when you’re playing a videogame. And that image of playing out a script that’s been written for you, that has some value for you as a way of gaining control or being a hero is what he’s living out.
And what Lanza did was really to indoctrinate himself and train himself in a way analogous to the way we now use videogames to train the military.
BILL MOYERS: Talk about that a moment, train himself?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, that is he’s obsessed with performing some validating act of violence and he does these— he treats these videogames as training films. I could do it this way. I could do it that way. And as I follow out the script of the videogame, the videogame validates my actions in various ways. You triumph within a narrative, or you simply score points and build up a score.
BILL MOYERS: There is a video game, believe it or not, it’s violent I’ll warn you, it’s violent — it allows you, the viewer, the follow the killer of Newtown—
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, I—
BILL MOYERS: —to follow Lanza, and actually shoot the kids in front of you. You are a cultural historian, not a behavioral psychologist, not a weapons expert. What do you suppose the producer of that video had in mind?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Just simply exploiting the appeal of violence in a particular kind of situation. And also in this case, there’s an appeal of transgression, of—
BILL MOYERS: Transgression?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, of violating everybody else’s norms and doing something that really grosses everybody out. You think even, to take a more normative example: the videogame Grand Theft Auto, in which you behave like a criminal, you’d think in a kind of standard videogame you’d be the hero against the bad guys. But the appeal of that is that you get to go to the dark side as, to use the language of Star Wars. And the dark side of the force always has its appeal.
The graphics put you in a very realistic situation so that you’re the killer. It’s an imaginative leap that in my generation, it took a little more difficulty to make that connection, but we made it nonetheless. I grew up with western movies.
BILL MOYERS: So did I.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: And I’ll say John Wayne— he wasn’t necessarily my hero, but he’s the type of a kind of hero that I admired. And we played guns in the street. You’d start off— guns were— you were cowboys. You’d segue without a break into marines and you’d segue into cops and robbers. But the gun was the thing you were playing with.
BILL MOYERS: And yet so many who would do that never went out like Adam Lanza—
RICHARD SLOTKIN: No—
BILL MOYERS: —and started killing. That’s why people are reluctant to say this causes that.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes just to extend my example a little bit, one of the syndromes that people working with Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD was something called John Wayne Syndrome where the young men had internalized the John Wayne model of heroism and one of their problems was they felt they had failed somehow to live up to that model.
And that’s the psychology we’re talking about here. You internalize a model of heroic behavior from the media that purvey the myths that shape your society. And there’s a whole spectrum of responses you might have in relation to that internalized model.
You might not do anything yourself. You might simply consent that the government or somebody act on your behalf, you don’t make the war yourself, but you consent that somebody make the war for you, kill the bad guy for you.
BILL MOYERS: The report also says he used a spreadsheet to chronicle previous mass shootings and collected articles all the way back to 1891 about school shootings.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes. Yeah, his imagination is horribly fascinating in a way because he’s reaching for a historic— he’s not just reaching for a model. He’s reaching for a historically validated model that will somehow invest what he’s doing with meaning. What the meaning is, is gone with him, but the gestures seem to me to point to that.
BILL MOYERS: So put it historically what this tells us about the lone killer.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: We produce the lone killer. That is to say the lone killer is trying to validate himself or herself in terms of the, I would call the historical mythology, of our society, wants to place himself in relation to meaningful events in the past that lead up to the present.
BILL MOYERS: You say “or her”, but the fact of the matter is all of these killers lately have been males.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, yeah, pretty much always are.
BILL MOYERS: And most of them white?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yeah.
Yeah, I think, again this is because each case is different, but the tendency that you’ve pointed out is true and I’ve always felt that it has something to do, in many cases, with a sense of lost privilege, that men and white men in the society feel their position to be imperiled and their status called into question. And one way to deal with an attack on your status in our society is to strike out violently.
BILL MOYERS: I guess we’ll never understand this. That official report laid out Lanza’s troubling behavior. He was diagnosed at six with sensory integration disorder. He couldn’t stand to be touched. He had Asperger’s syndrome. He closeted himself in his bedroom with his windows sealed by black plastic bags. He didn’t want to communicate with his mother, except mostly through emails. What do we take away from this— knowing we’ll never know?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: I think the thing that I’m tempted to do with that is to shift away from the unknowable Adam Lanza to the people around Adam Lanza and his mother— that here you have an obviously disturbed young man, everybody sees it, his mother sees it. And one way of dealing with it is to buy him guns as presents; buy him fairly exotic, well-chosen models, train him in the use of apparently this elaborate arsenal which his mother had.
And she said she loved her guns and never made the connection to the fact that these guns are available to an extremely troubled young man. And the neighbors never questioned that her love of guns might be putting weapons in the hands of somebody that they found disturbing to deal with. And to me that speaks of our mystique of weapons. Perhaps his mother thought the gun was curative in some way.
We have the gun as a symbol of productive violence in our history has magical properties for a lot of people. And I have this horrible feeling something like that prevented anyone from seeing just how desperately dangerous was the situation which these people were living.
BILL MOYERS: It’s almost incomprehensible that when the police went into the Lanza home after the massacre, they found this gift she had left him, a check that was dated the 25th of December, Christmas. And it was to be used by him to buy a CZ 83 pistol.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: She must’ve thought that the gun would do him good.
BILL MOYERS: Richard, you live close to Newtown and you followed this of course, not only because as a citizen but because of your work in history. What did you see about the reaction of the community in the days and weeks following that that affected you?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: The thing that really got to me most was the strength of the pro-gun reaction that came out almost immediately, that, anticipating that of course there’d be some call for some forms of gun regulation or gun control that there was kind of a preemptive attack on that by a range of organizations within the state, no, it’s gun control won’t do any good.
And within a couple of weeks I was on a panel discussion in which there were four people who had been typecast as anti-gun which I’m not really— and the pro-gun people, as if it was a 50/50 balance.
And of course the pro-gun people kind of took over the whole thing because it was— a bad moderator. So you got the impression that the state was sharply divided. When the governor came out with a program of increased regulations, the majority was so overwhelmingly for it that the bill passed.
BILL MOYERS: I remember that.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: And without any back and forth really about it. So that it turned out that they weren’t even a large minority, but they were a minority, minority within the state. And yet rhetorically their presence was very powerful. And the arguments that they were making were the kind of arguments that resonate with our love of liberty and so on. They really to just take this terrible incident and a situation which might lend itself to some sane regulation and just blow it up into a life or death of the republic kind of issue which makes it almost impossible to deal with.
BILL MOYERS: You said you were not anti-gun.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: No, I’m not. There are situations in which it is perfectly reasonable for someone to want to own and use a gun. Hunting is a legitimate and respected and necessary aspect of the ecology.
There are many people in many places, many different kinds of places, rural, far from police, where it makes perfect sense to want to own a weapon for self-defense. So can’t say I’m against guns. But then when you go beyond the rational, it gets a little crazy.
Why wouldn’t you want if you’re a legitimate gun owner, why wouldn’t you want gun ownership to be regulated in such a way that to the extent feasible criminals, insane persons could not readily gain access? Why wouldn’t you want a prohibition on illegal gun trafficking if your guns are legal and it’s a legal sale? Why wouldn’t you want rules mandating some program of safe storage of weapons so that people can’t be as careless as Mrs. Lanza seemingly was in leaving guns around where crazy people and criminals can get their hands on it? That’s where the rule of reason has to enter in, and that’s where it doesn’t enter in.
BILL MOYERS: There was a surge of sanity on the part of politicians again after Newtown. Truth be told, and as we all know, very little has changed. How do you explain that?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, I think the extreme gun rights position, so called, some once called it “gun-damentalism” connects on a kind of spectrum to more normative attitudes. You have, as I said, reasonable gun owners. Then you have the American consumer. The American consumer looks at the gun as it’s a piece of property. The American consumer wants to use his property without restraint, wants to throw his plastic water bottle wherever he pleases, wants to drive a gas-guzzler, wants to play his boom box loud.
Which is a crude way to put it, and yet I think there’s a lot to that. Nobody wants to be bothered registering their weapons. Take it a level down from that or level further out from that, there’s an ideological level which really kicks in around the time of the Reagan presidency in which gun rights is a very powerful symbol for the deregulation of everything. If you can deregulate that, you can deregulate anything.
And then the last level is what I’d call the paranoid level, the people who think that they have a Second Amendment right to resist Obamacare— that the constitution protects their right to resist the government, that that’s what the Second Amendment is about.
And that’s dangerous stupidity and nonsense. But it uses the language of liberty and rights that we’re used to thinking of in other contexts. And if you think of all of the rights in the Bill of Rights, haven’t they been extended and expanded over the years? Why not Second Amendment rights as well?
And that’s the level at which it gets pernicious. But their appeal, their ability to control the debate, I think, comes because their position coincides with the interest of the Reaganite ideologue who doesn’t want to regulate anything and the consumer who simply doesn’t want to be bothered.
BILL MOYERS: And don’t both of those strands, both of those tendencies have their roots deep in our culture, going all the way back to the beginning?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, yes, I mean, the thing that’s different, that’s exceptional about American gun culture, so called, is the license that we grant for the private use of deadly force. Other countries have similar levels of guns in the home.
BILL MOYERS: Now, Switzerland is a militia state—
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Switzerland.
BILL MOYERS: —and the guns are kept at home.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: But the guns kept at home in those countries are not used to murder individuals. They’re not used to settle property disputes, are not used to shoot somebody who comes to your door trick-or-treating and you’re not sure who they are.
And what we have in this country is we have a history in which certain kinds of violence are associated for us with the growth of the republic, with the definition of what it is to be an American. And because we are also devoted to the notion of democratic individualism, we take that glorification of social violence, historical violence, political violence, and we grant the individual a kind of parallel right to exercise it, not only to protect life and property but to protect one’s honor and to protect one’s social or racial status. In the past that has been a legitimate grounds.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, I’m thinking of the Jim Crow era in the south where if a black man is walking on the sidewalk and towards a white man and the black man refuses to give the sidewalk he can be— any sort of violence can be safely visited upon him because no jury will convict. Cases where— another book that I wrote about in which a successful black farmer refused to sell his crop, this was in South Carolina, for the stated price. And events escalated from a personal attack to ultimately lynching. So we granted to private citizens the right to police the racial boundary and the social boundary.
BILL MOYERS: You write in one of your books, “In American mythogenesis,” the origin of our national mythology, “the founding fathers were not those eighteenth-century gentlemen who composed a nation at Philadelphia. Rather they were those who … tore violently a nation from implacable and opulent wilderness.” Talk about that.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, first of all I have to say that every nation, every nation state requires a historical mythology, because a nation state is a kind of political artifice. It pulls diverse peoples together. And so you need an account of history that explains that you’re actually all the same kind of person or that your different natures have been blended through experience. So what—
BILL MOYERS: We the people?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: We the people. And the United States is a settler state. And this begins with colonial outposts in the wilderness. And our origin has a story then, has to be how did we go from being these small outposts to being the mightiest nation on planet earth? Well, we did it by pushing the boundaries of the settlement out into Indian country. We did it by ultimately fighting wars against Native Americans, driving them out, displacing them, exterminating them in some cases.
And in the process of pushing our boundaries out, we acquired certain heroic virtues— an ability to fight cleverly both as individuals and cooperatively, and a connection with nature which is particularly critical. As a country really develops you get a kind of American exceptionalist notion of progress which is that American progress is achieved not by man exploiting man, but it’s achieved by conquering nature, by taking resources from nature, farmland originally, timber resources, ultimately gold, minerals, oil and so on. In the American model, in order for it to work, you have to say that Native Americans, Indians, are not quite human. And therefore they, like trees in the forest, are legitimate objects of creative destruction. And similarly blacks, African Americans, are legitimate objects of exploitation because they are considered to be not fully human.
So what you get in this, the evolution of the American national myth, really up through the Civil War is the creation of America as a white man’s republic in which, different from Europe, if you’re white, you’re all right. You don’t have to be an aristocrat born to have a place in the society. You don’t absolutely even have to be Anglo-Saxon, although it helps.
But so among whites you can have democracy. But the white democracy depends on the murder, the extermination, the driving out of Native Americans and the enslavement of blacks. Both of those boundaries, the western frontier, the Indian frontier, and the slave frontier, are boundaries created and enforced by violence, either literal or latent, potential violence.
BILL MOYERS: So that’s why you wrote something came from this mythology, something about “the land and its people, its dark people especially, economically exploited and wasted, the warfare between man and nature, between race and race, exalted as a kind of heroic ideal.”
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes. That is the frontier story. That’s the western movie in a way. That’s “The Searchers.”
BILL MOYERS: The movie, “The Searchers,” yeah.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: The movie, “The Searchers.” Yeah. That’s James Fenimore Cooper. That’s Buffalo Bill. In a curious way you can even take it to outer space, but—
BILL MOYERS: How so?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, space, the final frontier. “Star Trek” was originally going to be called “Wagon Train to the Stars.”
BILL MOYERS: You mentioned Buffalo Bill. Didn’t Buffalo Bill say “the rifle as an aid to civilization?”
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, but that’s exactly the American myth. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett’s rifle, killing the bears, killing the game, killing the Indians is what makes the wilderness safe for democracy, if I can paraphrase Woodrow Wilson.
BILL MOYERS: And Samuel Colt, who gave us his famous or infamous pistol, there are many versions of a quote either by or about him, something like, “God created men equal, Colonel Colt made them equal.” There’s even one that goes, “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal.” On and on these variations go. What do you make of that idea?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, that’s the Colt, “The Equalizer,” was the nickname for the Colt revolving pistol.
BILL MOYERS: I didn’t realize that.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yeah, and it’s a curious— it represents a kind of shift if I may, that the mythologized weapon, the rifle, is a hunter’s weapon. And it’s also a soldier’s weapon, a plainsman’s weapon, but also a soldier’s weapon. The Colt pistol is a man killer. It’s a weapon that’s used as much within the boundaries of society as on the borders of society.
And Colt— one of Colt’s original marketing ploys was to market it to slave owners. Here you are, a lone white man, overseer or slave owner, surrounded by black people. Suppose your slaves should rise up against you. Well, if you’ve got a pair of Colt’s pistols in your pocket, you are equal to twelve slaves. And that’s “The Equalizer,” that it’s not all men are created equal by their nature. It’s that I am more equal than others because I’ve got extra shots in my gun.
BILL MOYERS: But you write about something you call “the equalizer fallacy.”
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, the equalizer doesn’t produce equality. What it produces is privilege. If I have six shots in my gun and you’ve got one, I can outvote you by five shots. Any man better armed than his neighbors is a majority of one.
And that’s the equalizer fallacy. It goes to this notion that the gun is the guarantor of our liberties. We’re a nation of laws, laws are the guarantors of our liberties. If your rights depend on your possession of a firearm, then your rights end when you meet somebody with more bullets or who’s a better shot or is meaner than you are.
BILL MOYERS: And yet the myth holds—
RICHARD SLOTKIN: And yet—
BILL MOYERS: —stronger than the reality?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, yes, the myth holds. And it is stronger than the reality. Because those guns, particularly the Colt is associated with one of the most active phases and most interesting phases of expansion. And therefore it has the magic of the tool, the gun that won the west, the gun that equalized, the whites and the Indians, the guns that created the American democracy and made equality possible.
BILL MOYERS: But there are other nations with a particular history different from ours that have been very valid. I mean, Nazi Germany was no slacker, the Soviet Union, Europe, all white countries contributed two wars within 30 years of each other. They have their own peculiar violent tendencies.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: The difference in American violence— two kinds of difference. One, it’s settler state violence, that is to say it’s legitimated when it’s directed against Native Americans, Mexicans outside the boundaries of society or against an enslaved class within it. Eliminate slavery and you start to make problems there.
We’re a colonial society in which we’ve incorporated elements that the Europeans never really incorporated. And the second element is this democratic individualism that we grant the license to kill to individuals in a way that Europeans don’t. Their violence predominately, their mass violence especially, is social, police state violence, class warfare of a violent kind. For us the murder rate, individual violence, lynching—
BILL MOYERS: 30,000 people killed every year by gun violence.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, and I would take it back even further than that to the period between the Civil War and the 1930s when you had, partly as a result of the Civil War, a society awash in handguns, war surplus handguns, very few law, no national regulation of most things, essentially a sort of a right wing Republican dream of the unregulated society. And what you got was social warfare waged by individuals and groups of individuals.
BILL MOYERS: KKK.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: KKK. But in the south that is on the racial boundary in the south KKK, White Citizens’ Council, Knights of the White Camellia against blacks, against their white allies in the Republican party. In the north you have labor wars in which armed strikers are opposed by so-called private armies of detectives, we’d later call them goon squads, but called detectives then, armed to shoot the workers.
BILL MOYERS: Homestead 1892, Ludlow massacre out in Colorado.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Right. So you have a period in the United States as I say from 1865 to 1930 of extreme social violence in which America, a lot of Americans are armed. European visitors all remark on the prevalence of pistols and Sears manufacturers a whole line of men’s pants with a pistol pocket.
BILL MOYERS: What about the argument we increasingly hear that we need to have more guns because of a threatening government?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: To me that’s the most nonsensical thing I’ve ever heard in my life. First of all, the government isn’t the black helicopter government that they have in mind. But if it were, your guns wouldn’t do you a bit of good. And it’s an idea that began with the big lie about the reason that Hitler took over in Germany was because he disarmed his enemies. The communists were not disarmed. They were outgunned. And they didn’t have the army on their side. There’s one, in that panel discussion I was in somebody—
BILL MOYERS: After Newtown?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: After Newtown. One of the spokesmen spoke about the—that oh if the Poles had had more widely distributed guns, the Germans would never have invaded. Right, you know, a bunch of farmers with shotguns standing up to the Wehrmacht. The Japanese didn’t invade California because they knew Americans were all heavily armed.
And that the Japanese never intended to invade California had nothing to do with it. It’s a pernicious lie. And the reason it’s so pernicious is that it legitimates the idea that you have a right to violently resist the government. Most people won’t do that. Most people when the cops come to the door, will put their hands up if it comes to that. But there are people, some of these violent tax resistant movements, who take that position very literally.
BILL MOYERS: We continue to hear from a lot of people, notably Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association. Here’s what he said right after Newtown.
WAYNE LAPIERRE: The only way, the only way to stop a monster from killing our kids to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
BILL MOYERS: So what kind of society do we get? What kind of social order do we get if everyone is armed?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: To me we get a very dangerous, or if we’re talking about the United States, it’s extremely dangerous because there are so many things about which Americans feel violently. The country is still very much divided by race. The anger that one hears about things like Obamacare, the rage that’s expressed, the level of political rage makes me feel that there’s anger out there looking for an object and that the more heavily armed we are and the more permissive we are about the use of guns, the more dangerous it’s going to be.
BILL MOYERS: I hear you talking about race and wonder how that has shaped the pattern that produces more outrage over mass killings like this one, and there should be outrage, than over the slow but steady accretion of one on one killings in the inner cities. I mean, over 106 kids were killed last year in Chicago alone.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yeah we don’t regard as outrageous in the same way the daily killings in the ghettos and in the black neighborhoods that we do when it’s, you know, little white kids in a little white suburb. There’s also a difference though in that one is a kind of abhorrent outburst of violence in a part of the society that feels immune to violence.
Whereas we’ve allowed violence in our cities to become a kind of normative pattern. And actually I shouldn’t say we’ve let it. It’s always been that way. It goes back as far as our cities go that they’ve always been violent places. And the culture has taken a kind of dismissive attitude towards it.
BILL MOYERS: How so? Why, historically?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Historically I think, it has to do with the way in which members of racial and ethnic minorities are not considered to be fully human, so we expect them to behave violently to each other.
BILL MOYERS: And a threat to jobs, a threat to our own standard of life, standard of living.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: The Irish were seen as a threat to the wellbeing of the Protestants.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Now, the blacks in the cities were a threat when they were rioting in the ’60s, a threat to white neighborhoods. And you got gun control and attempts at violence control as well as measures of social welfare taken in order to avert that threat. But black on black violence in isolated, in urban, neighborhoods leaves white America untouched in both the literal and the figurative sense, even though that is the largest share of the killings that go on.
BILL MOYERS: Well, we talked about videogames. But what about movies? Here’s a group we put together. If we find that entertaining, are we in a societal way condoning or validating violence?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: I think it has to do with proportion. There’s so much violence and it’s so inescapable. If you look at the— if you sort of did a genre map of the different types of films that are now available, so many of them are violent action movies that if you’re taking your repertoire of responses to the world from the art that you consume, violence is the right response in, let’s say, eight cases out of ten.
That’s the first thing. The second thing is that, aside from just the sheer level of raw violence that one sees, the question I would ask is what kind of rationale are movies now, television programs and videogames, what kind of rationale for violence are these stories providing? The old Western movies provide a very important rationale. And that was the principle that no moral, social, political problem can be resolved in a Western without violence.
Anyone in the Western who thinks you can get away without a gunfight is wrong. And there, it isn’t so much the spectacular quality of the violence, because by modern standards, it’s pretty tame. But it’s that insistent rational: the only way to resolve the situation is violence, and anyone who thinks differently just doesn’t understand the way that the world works.
BILL MOYERS: I have actually wrestled for some 20 years with something you wrote in “Gunfighter Nation.” You said that central to the myth, the myth of America, the myth of how we came to be is the belief that “violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced.” So we invoke violence because we think it not only saves us but nurtures us and that we have some kind of obligation to use it in the service of spreading democratic values?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, and it validates our beliefs, it validates our values, the things we stand for if we’re willing to fight for them. Nothing validates them like combat, fighting for them. And, you know, and the frontier myth is the oldest myth. We have a couple of others that work with similar kind of power. One of the ones that I was thinking of when I wrote that was what I call the “good war myth” or the “platoon movie myth.”
And that’s the— it’s the newest of our myths, it comes really out of the Second World War in which the United States, which had been always a white man’s republic, an Anglo-Saxon white man’s republic, becomes through the platoon movie, that ethnically and racially mixed unit now becomes a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy united how? Through war against a common enemy, a good war, a justifiable war, a necessary war, a defensive war, a war that liberates Asia and Europe through the force of American arms so that our self-transformation into all men are created equal finally, whatever their color or creed or national origin, is achieved through war and only through war.
BILL MOYERS: As you know so well, President Theodore Roosevelt, back at the turn of the 20th century wrote that quote, “mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct … are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.”
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yeah, he also said that a savage war, a war against savages, is always a righteous war. And it was certainly what Roosevelt was doing there was taking the American past of Indian fighting and of conquering the west by driving the Indians out, and expanding it to an international stage.
BILL MOYERS: So this idea of the frontier continues to summon us, to—
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yeah. It does, although not often in as literal a way as Teddy Roosevelt would’ve had it. Two analogies, sort of two examples occur. One is: why is it that for liberals, I’m thinking about Obama particularly, the war in Afghanistan was a war of necessity whereas the war in Iraq was a war of choice. They’re both wars of choice. But the war in Afghanistan has all of the hallmarks of savage war, a primitive enemy bent on our destruction, can’t make a deal with them, can’t liberate them, can only destroy— I’m thinking about the Taliban and I’m thinking about the Al Qaeda, people there.
BILL MOYERS: Bin Laden hiding—
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Bin Laden, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: —out, operating from there.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: That’s a righteous war, whereas Iraq, Iraq was supposed to be World War II, was supposed to be a war of liberation, but it wasn’t. And it soon became obvious that it wasn’t that. And so you’ve got a kind of public revulsion against that, among some liberals who supported it initially, but not against— not until recently anyway, not against Afghanistan. And the second piece of that is the economic piece of that which is that the American economy is an economy which perpetually expands without costing anybody anything, without cost to a lower— without exploiting a lower class.
For the past 30 years it’s been perfectly obvious that that’s not working anymore. The rich get richer, the working class gets poorer. And yet we still hold to that. Why don’t we believe— why don’t we believe in global warning and the consequences of that? Why don’t we believe— because nature’s inexhaustible, has to be inexhaustible.
If nature is not inexhaustible, infinitely exploitable, then the American system will stop working. Let’s not even say whether it used to work or— it will stop working, it will fail. And we can’t afford to believe that.
BILL MOYERS: So we create myths that help us organize our beliefs against the reality—
RICHARD SLOTKIN: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: —that we cannot factually deny?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: That’s right. That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: So what is implicit in this notion of regeneration through violence?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: I think it’s, for today, it’s still our belief in the validity of violence as a way of dealing with the complex problems that as a nation, as a society, even as people, that we face. We still trust to military action excessively in dealing with foreign affairs.
And we still, it’s still a kind of predominant mode. We’ll cut foreign aid of all kinds, but we won’t cut, or not cut as much, military budgets. We’ll develop new ways of using force to intervene in foreign affairs, covert ops, special operations, but force still has that critical role for— it’s almost like there— it’s not necessarily the first resort, but sure as hell is not the last resort for us.
BILL MOYERS: I sometimes wonder if Charlton Heston will have the last word on this argument. Here is Heston speaking in the year 2000 at the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. Their nemesis, at the time, was Al Gore running for president as a Democratic candidate, who they said would take away their guns.
CHARLTON HESTON: So as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words, for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed and especially for you, Mr. Gore — from my cold, dead hands!
BILL MOYERS: What do you think listening to that?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: I think the man’s an idiot. If the government was actually the kind of government he somehow fantasizes, they would take the gun from his cold, dead hands. There’s a wonderful line in the first “Men in Black,” where the space alien comes and wants the farmer’s weapon. And the farmer says, “From my cold, dead hands.” And the alien says, “Your negotiation is accepted.” I mean, that kind of defiance is cheap. Because it threatens a resistance that would be illegitimate if it was undertaken and that no one in their right mind would actually undertake.
BILL MOYERS: But mythologically, what does it represent?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, it’s an assertion that you’re Davy Crocket. That you’re— well, I guess, in his case, it could be an assertion that you’re either one of the revolutionaries at Bunker Hill, defying the British, from the age of the weapon he was carrying, I would assume he was defying the British. Or it could be Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy.
And this notion that if you don’t like the way the… if you don’t like the outcome of the election, go start your own country. Take up arms against the government and somehow that’s a legitimate and constitutional action. It isn’t. It’s unconstitutional. And if you do it, the government will come and take the gun from your cold, dead hands.
BILL MOYERS: What a conflicted country this is.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yeah, yeah. But think of the resentment and the fear that would lead to that kind of posturing on a public stage. That’s the, to me, that’s the menace of our time is that undercurrent of resentment and fear and hatred that finds an outlet in the legitimated forms of violence.
BILL MOYERS: Including the killing of 26 people, 20 of them children, in Newtown, Connecticut.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yep.
BILL MOYERS: Richard Slotkin, thank you very much for being with me.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: You’re very welcome.