Listen to the full discussion between Dunbar-Ortiz and Scheer as they talk about how this American ideology extends to the nation’s foreign policy. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.

—Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, an author of 15 books, largely centered around the exploitation of indigenous people in America and other vulnerable groups, based on color and race and so forth. Been a professor of history, got your doctorate at UCLA, an institution we respect, even though I teach at USC. And I just want to admit, a little bit of self-criticism here: I knew of you; I had no idea of the power of your prose. And I say this advisedly, and now I’ve gone back and reread some of your work. But when I–you know, got the idea of this book, Loaded, because I was fascinated by the title: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. And I read some of the reviews and analysis of it, and everyone’s surprised, here’s this person on the left side of things who’s actually trying to understand the Second Amendment as a complex part of American history, as a profound part of American history. And the, you know, simplistic argument is only nutcases care about having the Second Amendment, and they want to go create mayhem in churches and elsewhere, and therefore there’s no reason or rhyme for it. And the fact is, your book is the most compelling, profound analysis of why we have a Second Amendment, and it’s not all good news. It’s actually a product of settler colonialism. And by way of introduction to the big idea of this book, is that it basically defines America, not in Donald Trump’s terms of “great” or Hillary Clinton’s–he’s going to make it great again, and Hillary Clinton said we were always great. That was the big debate in the last election: do we have to be made great again, or are we a continuing exercise in greatness? And reading your book, one is disabused of that notion by the second chapter. And the fact is that we are a country, despite all our proclamations about Jeffersonian democracy and, you know, the great limited government, it wasn’t an experiment in limited government as far as indigenous people, it was an experiment in genocide. Let’s just cut to the chase of it. Benjamin Madley at UCLA has written a profound book; I did a podcast with him. But you trace the right to bear arms, the Second Amendment, not to the idea of an official state militia–yes, there’s that, which is the way people try to interpret–no! You trace it–let me just begin with the big idea here–to guaranteeing the right of angry white men, primarily, out to kill indigenous people, out to capture runaway slaves, out to assert their power, as they expand an empire across the whole continent. And you point out that, very interesting history here, that this existed in various state constitutions before we had our federal constitution. And that it was supported by people we otherwise admire in many ways, like a Thomas Jefferson. So why don’t you give us the origins of the Second Amendment in American history?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: You know, it was already in the constitutions of Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts, about five of the colonies, of the 13 colonies. You know, they were formed, the states were formed in 1775, 1776, and it was a whole decade later before the Constitution. During the war, they operated under the Continental Congress. So they already had these, and they had imported them from their colonial practices. So what you have to look at, since they didn’t really argue about the matter of the Second Amendment, why they put it in under the rights of men, individual rights–and second only to freedom of speech–is, you have to look at what was going on at the time. And this was a country, a nation state, formed as an imperialist state, as a kind of knockoff from the British empire. So you have to see it as pushing, as a split in the empire, and the beginning of another one, and not some kind of democratic–it was a republic only because they overthrew a king, and you know, they talked about having another king. But George Washington–our presidency is more or less a kind of operative kingship, the executive. But what they imported was the already practice of settler militias organizing themselves. And they were very well-regulated, with great motivation, because that’s how settler colonialism works. They take the land, and then the federal government is set up basically to then indemnify it, legalize it. And that’s the story of the next hundred years, and the United States taking the continent. It’s not that much different than New Zealand and Australia and Canada, except none of those have, well, constitutions until recently, because they’re still a part of the commonwealth. But they certainly don’t have a Second Amendment. So when we say, well, why can’t we do like Australia, you know, and confiscate all the guns after a big massacre? Which is, in the 1990s–well, they don’t have any kind of constitutional restriction on guns; it’s just whatever people decide to make up.

RS: Yeah, but I want to take you back to what your book stresses in its first chapter on the history, which precedes the Constitution. And you describe the–yes, well-ordered, in the sense I guess they can keep formations when they’re marauding around. But the existence of bands of armed white men, conquering, pushing people out, terrorizing people–that’s the pre-constitutional history, where the Second Amendment comes from. And so when they are surrendering to a new federal power, which is what this Constitution is, the reason they want in the Bill of Rights, which is supposed to be a check on that federal power, is the guarantee, particularly the slave-owning states, or states that are bordering on Native American communities, the right for these white men to continue to go out and kill people and grab their land. Is that an oversimplification? Because that’s what–it’s a history that, to me, was shocking in its clarity, and yet your book is well-documented, it’s very thoughtful. And as a result, I couldn’t put it down, for that reason. I thought I’m, you know, a pretty sharp and maybe cynical observer of our history; I don’t think I’m naive about, you know, how violent it has been. But reading your book–and again, the tone of it, the logic, the, how informative it is, was compelling. In the same way that I would bring up Benjamin Madley’s book on the genocide, primarily against California, of the northwestern indigenous culture. So why don’t you take us through that whole earlier period first?

RDO: Yeah, and Benjamin Madley’s very important, because he’s taking the endgame; you know, the Pacific, when they reached the Pacific, and those militias in operation in northern California. Basically, the Second Amendment is about killing Indians, taking their land, and increasingly, slave patrols. Because the cotton kingdom immediately–once they clear out, ethnically cleanse the whole eastern part of North America to the Mississippi, all of the native peoples, who were all agriculturalists, and force them into Indian territory, that’s when the cotton kingdom–and that wasn’t complete until 1845–but during that process of pushing them out, that the cotton kingdom blossomed. So that was where the Indian militias then, that had operated, moved west. And the militias east of the Mississippi were used for slave patrols. And I have a whole chapter on slave patrols, and that’s probably–I think, you know, when they’re making the Second Amendment, given that almost all of them are, if they’re not slave owners like Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Monroe–they’re slave traders. Or land–they’re all land speculators, including the good ones, John Adams, and all–they’re all involved. There’s no way to get out of it. Just like those of us now who oppose capitalism, we’re still–we’re still, it’s still a part of our lives every day. So this was, the slave system was the basis of the economy, and land. So the slave patrols are very important in the present because the police that exist now in the United States police forces, sheriffs, are direct descendants of slave patrols. So I have the whole genealogy–I didn’t make this up; there’s a wonderful book on slave patrols and how they came about. They started in this late, the late 17th century, 1680 or so, whereas the Indian militias existed from day one, 1607, John Smith, you know, organized the very first kind of–he had been a mercenary in Turkey, you know, fighting the Muslims, and then came to America. So, yeah, it’s basically for Indian-killing, and then repurposed for slave patrols, and continued as Indian-killing with the army of the west, once the Civil War was finished.

RS: So, OK, just to cut to the chase here, when they wrote the Second Amendment, they knew this was going to be a license for a lot of angry white men to go out and kill innocent people who happened to be indigenous or were runaway slaves or whatever, just to grab land. That it was a lawless concept from day one; it was not–and I think a strong point you make from a legalistic point of view, you didn’t need a Second Amendment to guarantee the right of states to have militias. That was not the reason for the Bill of Rights; the Bill of Rights was about individual rights and restraint on government. And that Second Amendment is telling these basic, you know, these guys who want to hop on their horses and go out and kill Native Americans and grab their land, you’re telling them that there’s nothing in this new government, this unity, that’s going to prevent them from doing that. Lawlessness was actually–I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but the way I read it, and it shook me up, is that lawlessness, in the sense of hurting, exploiting innocent people, was built into the very writing of the Second Amendment. And you point out it existed before the Bill of Rights; it was in the other, what, four or five other state constitutions, right?

RDO: Yes, and it is, it’s a legalization of lawlessness, like slavery. But it was law; it was legal. You know, it was mandated. In fact, early on, when they first started these citizens’ militias, they actually required colonists, white men, to be armed all the time. If they stepped out of their home, they had to have arms, and measured so much gunpowder, so many shells to load. That they had to be in good condition, and if they couldn’t afford that, they got subsidies. These were the colonies. And even to go to church or go into the field. And what was around, these were cleared territories; this was where they already had killed the Indians off, you know, in Virginia and in South Carolina. There’s nothing else around except native people trying to get their land back, or to keep the colonists from coming. There were no bears around; there was nothing else, it was completely, you know, farmland, agricultural land. There were no enemies, not even creatures, animals, to require that kind of requirement, to be armed. So when you look in those documents, you see that it was required, and then it became a kind of, it morphed into a right, you know, by the time of the independence. Because these colonists wanted to make sure that they kept these rights that had already been granted to them, without any kind of laws, that it be made law. But one thing that really bothers me, my own congresswoman, Nancy Pelosi, keeps repeating, as do most democrats and most people, even gun-rights people who should at least read the Constitution and see what the Second Amendment is about–is they say it was meant for National Guard, what is National Guards now. But that’s provided for in Article 8 of the Constitution. Why would they then put it as an individual right, when it’s already created? State militias, they’re called, in the Constitution. That’s what became the National Guard. So that’s a completely–it mystifies me, you know, that they would say this. And I’m pretty sure they think it’s true, but I don’t know why. Didn’t they take constitutional law when they went to law school, you know, and read it?

RS: Well, I don’t think–I think you’re being too charitable. I think it’s, you know, too good to check. They have a theory that works for them, because first of all, it does not force an examination of the ugly aspect of American history, that it is a settler colonialism. That slavery was the norm, that destroying indigenous people was the norm. So whether you’re a democrat or republican, if you’re an establishment thinker, this idea that America was always great, or was great and now we have to make it great–you’re really talking about power of a minority, a racially constructed minority of–because it wasn’t just white people, but they had to be somewhat prosperous. You know, they couldn’t be indentured servants, or what have you. And it’s an entitlement program for such people. And I don’t think they want to examine the Second Amendment. But I want to connect it with another part of American mythology. That most children in America, until quite recently, were raised on a variant of cowboy and Indian mythology, where the Indians were the bad guys, the treacherous, the sneaky, and the cowboys were the good. And in your book, you discuss that. And that’s–the role of mythology in the support of empire is very critical. If you’re not a superior people–and it’s very difficult in a society that claims to be egalitarian and democratic to hold on, we held on to the idea of white superiority right through World War II; we had a segregated armed forces, we had a segregated South. And by the way, the Democratic Party was only successful because it was the part of segregation in the South. Everybody manages to forget that. But mythology here is really critical, and in your book you do remind us that the virtue of the cowboy, as defined as a white gun-bearing person, as opposed to the indigenous, was assumed in the education of most Americans. Right? There were very few people who objected to that narrative. And the reason I’m pushing this on the Second Amendment is that mythology still governs the thinking of a lot of people who support the Second Amendment. They want these guns, not so they can have the right to shoot squirrels–you mention somewhere when you finally had the affection of your father was when you could shoot a squirrel in the eye. I don’t know if you could do it, but the goal was to shoot a squirrel in the eye at 400 yards, I think you said? Some long, is it 400 yards or feet, I don’t know. It seems to me a very difficult thing to do. But that was a rite of passage that your own father, finally you had some common ground that you could do this. But the point is, the reason the Second Amendment remains a vibrant issue is not because they want the oddball nutcase to shoot up a church and then discredit the NRA. They actually believe that there are black people, and foreigners, and brown people, that are going to threaten their individual sovereignty, and they better have a gun, or eight guns. And you have some statistics in your book, and I’ve been reading other books about gun control in preparation for this. But I think we have an average of eight guns in the house of each gun owner, or something. And there is an extension of that settler mentality. They are still besieged. Even though we think of the U.S.–that’s the, the pro-gun-control people say, oh, well, you need that, you have the police, you have–well, they don’t see it that way. They see these foreigners and black people and brown people and poor people and so forth as an enemy that has to be kept at bay, right? And that’s why they want, you know, to be able to strap a gun and go to church. Well, as you point out, that’s as American as apple pie. Racism.

RDO: Yup. It’s white nationalism. This is why I really decided to write the book. I’ve been irritated for years, myself knowing what the Second Amendment was about, these arguments. But I kind of ignored it; I said, I’m not going to get into that, you know. And I got into it in another book, and that’s actually why I decided to write this one, as one editor paid attention to that and said, why don’t you write more about that. So I said, OK, I guess I will.

RS: The publisher this time is City Lights Books.

RDO: City Lights, yes.

RS: A great publisher.

RDO: Great publisher.

RS: And so people should get this book. I should give you the title again. It’s called Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. It’s not disarming in the sense of being disingenuous; it’s incredibly well-documented and logically worked out. It’s disarming in that it goes against the prejudice of many liberal people, that somehow only nutcases would want this thing, or that it’s misinterpreted, because after all it’s only about the right of states to have militias. As you point out, that right was guaranteed in the Constitution without the Bill of Rights. And so it’s really something else. And it’s something very current. That we have a large number of people in our society, correctly or incorrectly, who feel besieged by the other. We are not a melting pot, and that is simply nonsense; we are a fragmented society. And people are holding on to the Second Amendment because they think that the upheaval will come. And whether they believe it in biblical terms or they believe it in terms of, you know, you can’t go into New York City, it’s very dangerous, white nationalism–who would have ever thought, this late in the day of this republic, that white nationalism would be potentially a dominant force?

RDO: Yeah, and you know, 70 percent of those who are polled in the population actually say they honor the Second Amendment. And when they’re interviewed, they say, but–you know–yeah, well, the “but.” But the thing is, they really shouldn’t honor it. That’s the main point of my book. You should not honor the Second Amendment; you should do away with it, because of its sources. And secondly, I think there is a definite relationship, and statistically, between those who own guns–and they do own an average of eight each–70 percent of our population does not own a single gun, not one. Seventy percent; that’s only 30 percent of the population that owns even one gun. And the average gun owner owns eight. So if we put that in perspective, you know, that we’re leaving the police out of that particular–and it’s important to also deal with disarming the police, but–there’s 30 percent. So that’s exactly the basic, hard core support for Trump. Which I think is white nationalists, at its very base, you know, the support for Trump. It always, it never goes below 30 percent, even in the worst things that he does, you know. It’s that 30 percent, which is a huge, hegemonic power in the kind of electoral democracy that we have. Because they all pay attention, and they pay attention to one thing, and that’s the Second Amendment. And that’s–of course, there are the evangelicals, but they overlap a lot, too. So those 30 percent, 30 percent of the population owns guns, and probably half of them own 40, 50 guns. You know, not just eight. Because a lot of people just own one gun. So I think we’re talking about not just white nationalism rhetoric, which is bad enough, or taunting people, or doing racist acts, or mass killings, but actually being an armed force. So when I hear Trump, like he did today, say that he needs two more years because these last two years have been wasted, taken away from him, and he wants two more years. And Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeting that that’s true, and his whole base getting behind that, I’m thinking in my mind, these are armed people. And part of it is I come from rural Oklahoma, and I know these people; they’re my relatives. So I–I know–you know, anger is, I don’t think it’s the right word. I think there’s, you know, D.H. Lawrence had this thing about the cold soul of the American male. That he really nailed it, I think, that hardened character, you know, of this genocide, and slavery. And we don’t face these kind of nightmarish, this kind of nightmarish past, and bring it out in the open. Only African-Americans, you know, tell these stories; Native Americans tell, and a few friendly allies listen. But it’s so miniscule compared to the whole culture.

RS: What was the phrase you used, the cold soul of–

RDO: Yeah, the cold–I don’t have the quote right now, I have it in the book. But it is, like, something like a soulless character. And it’s sort of like William Burroughs in The Place of Dead Roads.

RS: [omission for station break] We just were talking about the soulless character of a certain part of America, at least. But I think in your book you’re really on to something, because the Second Amendment is treated as a cartoonish idea by most liberals. They don’t have guns, they don’t know why you need them, they think the police work for them, they don’t expect the country to be taken over by people who are going to be alien to their interests, and so forth. They–and what some people have referred to–Hofstadter, who you take on in your book, but had the, I think he had the paranoid imagination, or was that someone else. But there’s a strain, a strain in America–and you trace it brilliantly, I think, in this book, that, and that’s why it relates to ownership of guns–is the idea you can’t really trust the commonweal. You can’t trust even your neighbors too far. You certainly can’t trust your government, because it’s basically a fight for individual survival and power, right? And then sometimes you have your posse, your groupings, your people of common class, and race, and religion. Sometimes not; sometimes you’re just the lone nut. But at the heart of it is a certain soullessness, a lack of charity, a lack of affection, a lack of reaching out. And the cowboy-Indian image, which we take–somehow we treat it as a game; it wasn’t a game, it was a game of genocide. Genocide’s not a game. The idea was to eliminate a whole bunch of people because they were living on land you thought god had given you by virtue of your skin color, right? Or the language you spoke. And it goes into, like, the Daniel Boone myth, the myth of–

RDO: The hunter.

RS: Jesse James, the whole image of the strong white male is basically an image of a killer.

RDO: Right.

RS: Sometimes that killer is transformed to doing charity, like Jesse James, leaving some money for the widow, or something. But it’s basically a killer culture, based on the gun, based on extreme violence, disproportionate violence, because you’re assuming that the indigenous people that were killed by these heroic white men, you know, did not have the same kind of guns, same kind of firepower. So one white man could wipe out hundreds of them, you know. And there’s something very sick at the heart of our culture. There are a lot of healthy things at the heart of our culture, too; that’s why we have a women’s movement, that’s why we’ve had a civil rights movement. And we do have assimilation, we do have foreigners coming in. But we never want to–and this goes back to your Nancy Pelosi point–we don’t want to examine the past. Nancy Pelosi is an idiot when it comes to thinking about our history. And I say that without meaning to be unflattering to her personally. We have an idiotic culture. You know, and then I read a book like yours, and I realize I have fallen for these myths. Among other things, I have–I early on fell for the myth of Thomas Jefferson. Early on I believed, yes, you know, somehow in that primitive, technologically primitive society, with candlelight, were these wigged men who had brilliant ideas, you know? Well, actually, most of those ideas, I should have known from reading Charles and Mary Beard a long time ago, really were self-serving. Sustained their power, allowed them to keep their influence and wealth, as some people, you’ve pointed out George Washington was the richest guy in the country at one point. And yet, in that mythology, there’s the savior of the white man, almost descended from god, empowered by a god, who can kill endless numbers of these people. And which is, of course, our foreign policy; we bomb with impunity. No one questions bombing people all over the world; that’s just sort of all right. And you know, I’m going to wrap this up, but I mean the power of your book is you put us in touch with a soulless history related to the Second Amendment. So it’s a challenge to pro-gun-control people; it’s a challenge to liberals to think, yes, the Second Amendment should be eliminated, you know. However, you cannot do it without examining why we have a Second Amendment, and challenging that this was basically something put in to empower people catching runaway slaves. Catching freedom fighters, catching people trying to have control over their families, right? That was the main purpose of it. And if Nancy Pelosi will not understand that, she will not understand why it is so supported in the mythology of America.

RDO: Yes, that’s a–it is really gun control advocates that I, you know, wanted to direct this to, but also to us on the left, that I think we have stayed out of this argument a lot. Because we have mixed feelings; we wouldn’t mind an armed revolution; I really wouldn’t, you know. That’s not the same as, I don’t have to have the Second Amendment to help with an armed revolution. Because I would be, you know–you’re going to be criminalized anyway. You say, oh, they gave me the right to overthrow them–you know, it’s an absurd argument that you need the Second Amendment to make a revolution. That, you know, that’s a contradiction in terms. So that–I think that’s because we’ve ignored it, that we have not put our minds to how can we offer something to this endless debate that goes nowhere, and people keep getting killed. Because there are huge gun deaths, and half of the gun deaths in the United States are suicides. Because of this proliferation of guns, and people having them in their homes, or being able to go, and without any, really anything, or go to a gun show, and get a gun and then kill themselves, you know, on the spot. I know three people who have committed suicide that way, who weren’t gun nuts at all. They went and got a gun, and then shot themselves. Suicide. And there’s no other weapon–I mean, you know, you could try to hang yourself, someone will catch you or interrupt, or you might change your mind. But with a gun, it’s final.

RS: Let me wrap this up by saying I want people to read this book, Loaded–City Lights Books–A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. But it’s not disarming as far as underscoring the danger of white nationalism, and how it’s informed by this gun culture. And I think liberals are kidding themselves; I mean, we’ve been arguing about gun control forever, and every time you have a mass shooting, often–most often–they’re racist in tone. Or they’re aimed at a vulnerable group, you know, whether black people or Jews in a synagogue, or Muslims, you know, in a mosque. But the fact of the matter is, we’re missing the main point. Why is America so violent? And the violence grows out of a settler–I want to get back to the big idea of your book. The big idea of your book is you cannot understand the American experiment in strictly Tocquevillian terms. That that is a romance. You have to understand the dominant strain of a settler culture, of a superior people. Even when they are laced with immigration and different religious and so forth, there is a notion of the superiority of a certain dominant culture. And it invests in that dominant culture the right to kill people anywhere in the world, anywhere in the world wantonly, without much justification, with great contradictions, and sometimes genocidally, as was done with Native Americans in this country. And the Second Amendment represents that, in a tight set of words, in represents that arrogance of our culture. So if one wants to get rid of violence in America, one has to go back to its source, which was exploitation of the other. Is that not–?

RDO: Absolutely, that–if we go back to what, how the country was formed, and for what purpose, in settler colonialism, it’s inevitable–genocide is inevitable. It was successful, settler-colonialism, because it’s replacement; replace people, and the land itself is more valuable than the people. Then import enslaved Africans to also replace, to create the workforce. So it’s a–you know, people say that the, a lot of leftists now want to say the U.S. is not exceptional. You know, it’s just as bad as others–well, it is exceptionally–it is exceptional as sort of like all good families are the same, and all bad families are different, but in different ways. And the U.S. is different, in many different ways, than any other countries in the world. And I think that should be scary to us, because this chanting always that it’s the greatest country in the world, is a kind of–we have to look at the reverse of that. Why do we have to say that all the time? I don’t hear French people saying oh, France is the great–they’re always complaining, you know. And the Brits don’t say, oh god, Britain’s the greatest country in the world. I don’t–no other country I know of–I mean, some pitiful little countries like to say, well, we’re not as bad as you think we are. But the United States, this is the greatest country in the world. So it makes you think, you know, in psychological terms, well, what’s the opposite of that? You know, and to look into that. Because it’s shrouding–otherwise you sort of, you slice and dice it; well, some things are good and some things are bad. You know, and rather than getting to that core–

RS: It’s a particularly dangerous notion, because we are in the same moment the most powerful country militarily that the world has ever seen. At a whim, we can send drone attacks and destroy whole villages and so forth. So nothing, nothing in human history compares to the military power of the American empire. And at the same time, we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated into thinking it’s a benign power. So anything bad happens, it was a mistake, it was an accident, or a few bad apples got in and tortured some people at Abu Ghraib. Or you know, we had to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because we made some calculations about how long a–but it’s always benign, or it’s accidental, or so forth. And what your book reminds us–I’m going to end on this–the book is Loaded. And the history it tells, and it uses the Second Amendment as the organizing idea, is that settler colonialism, ramped up to the level of American power or the American empire, is a truly frightening spectacle. Because it’s righteous, it’s uncritical, it’s endorsed by even liberal people like Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton. And its extreme behavior goes unexamined and unchallenged, beginning with the genocide against Native Americans. And I guess the lesson of this book is if you don’t go back and look at the genocide, and then follow, that you don’t understand your current culture. You’re just whistling Dixie in the dark. So I’ll leave you on that note, and say goodbye to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

RDO: Thank you, Bob.

RS: Thank you. And our engineers at KCRW in Santa Monica are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. Joshua Scheer is the producer of Scheer Intelligence. And here at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, the North Gate Studios, we’ve had an able assistance from William Blum. Thank you, and see you next week with Scheer Intelligence.




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