An armed society is an ironic society

Robert A Heinlein, a science-fiction author that I have only a passing familiarity with, was either a melodramatic hack or a social critic of such Swiftian subtlety that he is mistaken for an ultra-conservative crank. He may be a mix of both. In 1942 he gave us the quotable axiom that “an armed society is a polite society.”1 That phrase has been dragged out regularly in the most recent ritual pantomime of social and legal debate about gun violence in the United States.

I would be neglecting my pedagogical responsibility as a student of violence if I did not try and comment with some informed opinion on this issue. While I am unqualified to discuss the peculiar American relationship with guns and their pseudo-sacred rights to personal arms, ill-defined in their founding documents, I can make an argument about the utility of arms and their relevance in maintaining social order and protecting the vulnerable as it applies to the American context. Fair warning, however, that this may get contentious.

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The rhetoric of murder

[Edited on the 16th Dec. to cull commas and sharpen the argument]

There is a rhetorical quirk that, if it were common in any other circumstances would be so irrelevant as to preclude mention, but its use in the context of violence makes it jump out and slap me in the face. I have only occasionally commented on current events, usually when it connects with my academic interest (or responsibility, depending on my mood) but I feel that vague obligation to do comment on this one detail.. There is a habit amongst commentators discussing large-scale ‘senseless’ acts of violence to add the qualification that the victims were  ‘innocent.’ It’s delivered in an unconscious, almost ritual, way but it indicates an unacknowledged sub-text behind Western ideas about crime, punishment, guilt, and the legitimacy or illegitimacy of violence.

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Tempted by trauma

The History Blog, run off the BlogSpot servers, is a good source of current archaeological news and some amusing writing. I rarely cross-post things, but this excerpt is worth the effort.

The original plan for the Leicester parking lot dig that was so astonishingly successful was to excavate two trenches over the course of two weeks which would be filled in and reverted to a parking lot at the end. That was based on everyone’s modest expectations of what they might find. Then the deities of archaeological good fortune laid giant sloppy kisses all over them so they were able to locate the Greyfriars church and abbey and, most importantly, human remains of a male with scoliosis, sharp force trauma to the skull and an arrowhead embedded in his back.

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It’s not just semantics

Rather than give my patient readers at PBS one of a half-dozen possible entries complaining about some inexplicable crap that is part culture shock and part conflict of style, I will explain what I am attempting to do despite Oxford’s best efforts. I’m sorry, one of those complaints crept in under the door. I will need to get a gripe-excluder for writing sessions. I am going to try and pace those gripes between more positive entries that people could actually read and enjoy (or tolerate). It is too easy to use a blog for laundry lists of frustrations and while I am not big enough to avoid that entirely, I do have the self control to moderate it. So, instead of a bitch-fest about higher education, you get a miniature reading list on the English gentry. Continue reading

Let them fight it out, it’s better that way (edit)

For some reason, this entry resisted clean-up through the WordPress system so I have disposed of the offending original and re-posted this one.

S. J. Payling wrote a short article back in 1998 that grappled with the unresolved problem of violence, order and the judiciary in fifteenth-century England. The problem, as it appears in many studies of Late Medieval English gentry, concerns the apparent lack of teeth in the English judicial system when it comes to the prosecution of violent crimes, especially when it concerns issues of property and inheritance. The argument is that despite all the bluster of the courts and the Crown, “coercive royal justice” was unable to “control the level of conflict through the deterrence of punishment.” Part of this failure is ascribed to corrupt local officials who had little incentive to stick to the letter of the law. Most “violent self-help” was controlled at the local, social level and the crown, excluded from the process, appears weak and incapable of maintaining order on its own authority.1

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What does not kill you is a sport

J. Ostwald at Skulking in Holes and Corners posted a very thoughtful entry on the metaphor of war and modern sport. The tendency to use the visual language of warfare in the context of sport has a long history and, as Ostwald deftly explains, it says a great deal about popular understanding of sport and war in a complex way. The cynic might say that this use of bellicose language is little more than a ploy to make something largely irrelevant (large-scale commercial sports leagues) into something both visceral and meaningful by close association with abstract martial symbolism and an audience that is predominantly a passive observer of both sport and war. I’m something of a cynic, but that rarely produces interesting writing so I’ll take a slightly different tack, down the related path of violence as sport (or sport as violence).

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On Violence

Graffito from Pompei, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image is public domain.

I try to avoid comment on current events at PBS because it’s outside the blog’s mandate and the kind of opinion is the uninformed opinion. Honestly, the internet is dangerously overpopulated with uninformed opinion as it is. That is not to say that I don’t hold opinions, only that I think there is little value in airing them online unless I am prepared to spend the time and effort to provide an informed one. For the sake of personal development, and out if a vague feeling of obligation to the mysterious readers of this blog, I have made that effort in a rare break from the usual fare at PBS. What follows are some thoughts on the recent events in the US, and its relevance to my area of growing expertise, the history of violence.

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I’m Sensing a Trend

Through no deliberate effort or plan, I have three books in my library with remarkably similar covers. That may not sound too interesting. Publishers often produce thematic collections with unified cover designs. Some topics, published by different companies, can have shared design traits as well. True-crime mass market paperbacks are almost always black with red accents. Books of the Nazis or Hitler are likewise black and red and you will need to look very carefully to find a book about Hitler that does not also have his recognizable mug on the cover.

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