It’s been nearly a month now since 17 students and staff were murdered at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and still the debate over the proper response to such shootings rages wildly. The longer the debate continues, unfortunately, the greater the risk that those in charge – on the federal, state, or local level – will do something – anything to assuage the public’s demand for “change.” And as any conservative knows, often times, doing something, particularly if that something is prompted by public outcry, is the worst of all possible courses of action. Sometimes, doing something, however well intended, simply makes the problem worse.
For decades, conservatives have been aware of and keenly interested in the ideas promulgated by the German-American political philosopher Eric Voegelin, who is best known for his classic tome The New Science of Politics. William F. Buckley, the quintessential popularizer of contemporary American conservatism, borrowed from Voegelin when he warned his fellow Americans, “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton,” a phrase that the philosopher had used to describe the impulse of modern ideologies to emulate the medieval millenarians and to try to create heaven on earth. The Young Americans for Freedom used the phrase as a slogan of sorts in the 1960s and’70s, wearing it on political pins. And, of course, Jonah Goldberg, one of Buckley’s successors at National Review, has repeatedly discussed the phrase, its origin, and its meaning.
There is more to Voegelin, however, than that single phrase. And indeed his explanation of how ideologies go about immanentizing said eschaton is what matters most in our understanding of contemporary politics. Voegelin describes those who would bring about heaven on earth as Gnostics, which is to say people who claim to possess exceptional knowledge and insight into a specific problem or set of problems. In pursuing the ends justified by their unique comprehension, Gnostics creates a dream world, which, for them, supplants reality. And this displacement or denial of reality has serious and negative consequences for the rest of us non-Gnostics, as Voegelin noted:
"In the Gnostic dream world…nonrecognition of reality is the first principle. As a consequence, types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane because of the real effects which they have will be considered moral in the dream world because they intended an entirely different effect. The gap between intended and real effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should behave according to the dream conception of cause and effect."
In terms of existing gun policy, the efforts of some localities – Chicago and Washington, D.C., to name just two – have made gun ownership extremely difficult. In the dream world, fewer gun owners means fewer guns, which, in turn, means less gun violence.In reality of course, the opposite is true. Stricter local gun regulation means that criminals and violent gangs are operating with virtual impunity, knowing that their victims are unlikely to be able to defend themselves. And, as a result, gun violence actually escalates.Likewise, in the dream world, turning schools into “gun free zones” will keep gun violence from moving from the streets into the hallways and classrooms. But in reality, these zones merely reassure would-be mass shooters that they have nothing to fear from anyone on school grounds. Mass shooters, obviously, don’t worry themselves over the penalties associated with violating laws. Only law-abiding citizens – which is to say potential victims – abide by the “gun free” boundaries.
Copious research demonstrates conclusively that higher gun ownership rates are correlated with lower violent crime rates, and yet time and again, those who presume to know better than the Founders, two-plus centuries of Americans, and the statistics themselves insist that implementation of their dream world policies is, inarguably, the only moral and practical solution to the problem of gun violence.
In the wake of the Parkland shooting, the old dream world fantasies are popping up once again, and this time are finding a more receptive audience. Walmart, for example, has announced that it will no longer sell guns to 18 year-olds, but has also announced that it will remove “items from our website resembling assault-style rifles, including non-lethal airsoft guns and toys.” This is silly, of course, but it’s also potentially dangerous, in that it lends credibility to dream world thinking, to the notion that banning the sale of toys might somehow help to address the complicated and multidimensional problem of violence in our society. And while one might be hard-pressed to discern any significant negatives from a store’s refusal to sell toys, that’s not the case with all proposed remedies to the problem of gun violence. President Trump’s much-discussed declaration that due process should be litigated AFTER weapons have been confiscated lends itself to any number of scenarios in which a threat to “public safety” is manipulated to deny or delay civil rights for countless Americans.
More to the point, none of the solutions currently on the table will do much of anything to end the gun violence that has become a hallmark of American society. And when these “solutions” fail to prevent the next Parkland, the gun controllers will not back off, but will double down, laying blame for their failures not on foolish, fantastical policies, but on “the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should behave according to the dream conception of cause and effect.” In short, they will blame the NRA and Republicans fault.Because they always blame the NRA and Republicans.
Meanwhile, slowly but surely, our political debate will move on down the road, further and further from reality.