Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Screed on Gun Love and Gun Culture
By Jonah Raskin
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz makes two startling personal revelations in her new book, Loaded, which is in part a history of violence in the United States and in part a screed about white nationalism and white supremacy, both of which have a long and fascinating past in this country.
In her Introduction, which she titles “Gun Love,” Dunbar-Ortiz, explains that in 1970 in New Orleans she and the other members of a “women’s study-action group” bought guns, rifles and ammunition. Their rationale: they had to arm themselves in order to protect themselves against attack from their enemies, real or perceived.
“We saw it as a practical step, not a political act, something we needed for self-defense in order to continue working, not at all embracing armed struggle for making change in the United States,” she writes.
Dunbar-Ortiz and her “comrades,” as one might call them, joined the National Rifle Association, practiced pistol shooting and devoted whole days to “breaking down, cleaning, oiling, and polishing our weapons.”
She adds pointedly, “We had fallen under the spell of guns.” For Dunbar-Ortiz, that spell lasted two years and in her own words “ended up distorting and determining” the “political objectives” of the group.
Dunbar-Ortiz’s second personal revelation is no less significant than the first, though it doesn’t involve guns, bullets and gun love. In San Francisco at the age of 21, which would have been about 1960—the author was born in Texas in 1939—she took a college course and learned that almost all of her heroes, including Jesse James and Belle Starr, aka “the bandit queen,” had been slave owners in the antebellum South and supporters of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
“This came as a shock,” she writes, “because I had for the previous four years taken sides in favor of the Civil Rights movement and despised racism.”
She adds, “I’ve been trying to figure out this disconnect ever since.”
Dunbar-Ortiz’s new book seems to be, at least in part, an attempt to make sense of that disconnect. Unfortunately, she loses sight of her own contradictions while she traces the history of violence in the United States, which she has no problem connecting to racism, militarism, nationalism and the idea of “white supremacy.”
Dunbar-Ortiz begins Loaded with a quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: ”I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”
As Dunbar-Ortiz indicates, King made his remarks at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. She does not explain that in his speech, which might have served as the cornerstone of Ken Burns’s recent documentary, King came out against the War in Vietnam and did so in large part to save the lives of Americans and Vietnamese, too, who were “trembling under our violence.”
King was also prompted to deliver his speech, he explained, because when he met with young men and urged them to adopt non-violent resistance, they usually pointed to Vietnam and wondered why they should abhor violence when their own country embraced it.
One of Dunbar-Ortiz’s main points seems to be that America today is a violent country because it is has waged war for hundreds of years against the indigenous peoples who inhabited the continent and against groups, tribes and nations that have stood in the way of American commerce, business and military might all over the world.
On page 141, nearly two thirds of the way through her book, Dunbar-Ortiz writes that, “A red thread of blood connects the first white settlement in North America with today and the future.”
In her view that “red thread of blood” is “the essence of U.S. history.” Her argument is based on a reading of history, but she also rejects the historical approach when she suggests that, “gun-love can be akin to non-chemical addictions like gambling or hoarding.”
Dunbar-Ortiz has a way of withholding crucial information until it comes across as an afterthought. Thus, though her book is subtitled “A Disarming History of the Second Amendment,” and though it tries to understand the meaning of that Amendment, it isn’t until half-way through the book that she explains that James Madison drafted it in 1791, and that it was not a crucial part of the national dialogue until the second half of the twentieth century when “some white men, increasingly buttressed by the National Rifle Association, began pointing to the Second Amendment as an absolute right for the individual to bear arms.”
Dunbar-Ortiz understandably has an issue with white men, from Daniel Boone and Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, Dylann, Roof who slaughtered nine people in a church in South Carolina, and Robbie Robertson, the singer/songwriter and member of The Band, who wrote that paean to the Confederacy, “The Day They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
She points out that Robertson’s mother was Mohawk and that his father was Jewish, all of which suggests that “gun love,” or at least a love of lost causes, knows no skin color and respects no ethnicity.
It’s probably worth pointing out that of the 30,000 or so people who die from guns each year in the U.S., most are white people who are killed by other white people.
Curiously, or perhaps not, Dunbar-Ortiz neglects nearly all of the history of violence that white men have carried out against other white men and women, too, whether it was during Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 and 1787, or at the Ludlow Massacre in 1914 when the Colorado National Guard shot and killed two dozen striking miners, their wives and children.
And during the Civil War didn’t white men slaughter other white men, in part to free black Americans?
She doesn’t have a problem when black men like the members of the Black Panther Party armed themselves, though she doesn’t see or say that their use of guns distorted their political objectives, much as guns distorted the objectives of the New Orleans group to which she belonged.
Like many historians, Dunbar-Ortiz selects those incidents that support her argument and ignores those that don’t support her argument.
Her book is based on research. There are twenty pages of footnotes, and notable historians, including Richard Hofstadter —who coined the term “gun culture”—appear in the text.
She devotes a large part of chapter nine, “Eluding and Resisting the Historical White Supremacy of the Second Amendment,” to an assault on two historians and their work: Pamela Haag’s The Gunning of America and Michael A. Bellesiles’s Arming America.
She also attacks historians such as U.C. Irvine Professor Jon Wiener who defended Bellesiles.
At times, Loaded reads like an assault on the profession of American historians.
Dunbar-Ortiz ends her book with a quotation from the rapper Ice-T who said, “United States is based on guns.”
It’s a long way from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Ice-T, though the author doesn’t seem to be aware of her own downward spiral. Nor does she really come to understand her own “gun-love” or the “disconnect” in her own life that she says she has been trying to figure out for the past half-century.
Dr. King looked forward to a time when “if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Dunbar-Ortiz does not see or hear that King. Instead, she hears the hail of bullets and sees the “red thread of blood.”
Jonah Raskin is the author of The Mythology of Imperialism: A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age and A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature.