*A Bonfire of Guns:  De-arming America and the Social History of the Dukhobors


The United States is conservatively estimated to have at least 300 million firearms in private ownership, though the actual number may be considerably higher.  The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey put forward a figure of 270 million in 2007, nearly ten years ago, but this estimate is based largely on recorded sales and information furnished by individual gun owners. However, gun registration is not mandatory across the United States, and trafficking in firearms is a lucrative business.  What is unequivocally true is that every study ranks the United States as number one globally in the per capita ownership of private firearms.  It is, of course, far from being the only trigger-happy country in the world.  Other countries that place in the top ten are Iraq and Yemen; though officially Afghanistan was placed only 102nd in the 2007 Geneva survey, the country is known to be awash with private firearms.  Indeed, the Pathan has long had a reputation, whether deserved or otherwise, for a love affair with his rifle.  But these are not the countries with which the US likes to be compared, though it is a telling fact that the US often finds itself—for example, in the matter of adhering to capital punishment—in the company of countries, among them Iran and North Korea, which it otherwise describes as “rogue” states.

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First Group of Dukhobors Arriving in Halifax, Canada, by ship. Source: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca

So just what is it that is to be done with all these guns? Assuming, as I have had occasion to remark on my blog on several previous occasions, most recently in my essay posted yesterday, that the measures—background checks, placing a ‘reasonable’ limit on the number of firearms an individual might own, initiating a waiting period—that are from time to time proposed in the US, varying only in degree rather than in kind as one moves from one state to another, are nearly worthless, what lessons might be drawn from other countries?  To pose a question in this fashion itself often invites opprobrium in the US, since many Americans, and not merely those who are not well-educated, hold dearly to the view that America has little to learn from the rest of the world.  To take one illustration, the late Justice Scalia, whose sudden departure to another world led to a rather mysterious, indeed I should say herd-like, outpouring of grief, held firmly to the opinion that American justices had no business citing the opinions of courts in countries such as India since American jurisprudence was self-sufficient, supreme, and trend-setting.  Michael Moore’s late 2015 film, Where to Invade Next?, dwells precisely on these forms of American insularity and exceptionalism, though as he points out some of the most progressive social innovations were the consequence of American ingenuity but were later abandoned in the US even as they came to be adopted in other countries.


Australia offers perhaps the best illustration of how private gun ownership might be limited while not outright eliminated.  Japan’s rate of homicide by private firearms is practically zero; there have been years when there have been fewer than ten fatalities on account of gun violence in an entire calendar year.  But once one moves beyond the iconic Japanese brand names and the taste that a certain sector of the white population has acquired for Japanese cuisine, Japan is construed as much too alien to the American sensibility.  Most Americans would take offense at the suggestion that their country might consider emulating Japan.  Australia, on the other hand, shares with the US an Anglophone culture, English common law traditions, and much else—even if cricket and Australian Rules are not quite akin to baseball and (American) football.  In 1996 and again in 2003, Australia initiated a gun buyback program.  The 1996 program, precipitated by a massacre in Tasmania that took a toll of 35 lives, required Australians to surrender certain firearms, among them some semi-automatic rifles, long guns, and pump-action shotguns.  This mandatory buyback program provided owners with “just compensation” and was financed by an increase in the Medicare levy from 1.5% to 1.7% of income for a period of one year.  The NRA and its various mouthpieces, among them the National Review, have not surprisingly contested the efficacy of this program; however, more scholarly studies have established that the firearm homicide rate in Australia fell by an astounding 59% while the firearm suicide rate decreased by 69%.  Australia’s gun ownership rate is presently about 21.6 per every 100 residents; its gun homicide rate is less than 1 per 100,000 in contrast to around 11 per 100,000 in the United States.  Gun buyback programs have barely been tried in the US; where at all they these feeble measures have been grudgingly attempted, they have been on a voluntary rather than mandatory basis.


If, however, the US is going through a period of mass delusion, then Americans will be impervious to reason.  When rational argument cannot prevail, we should at least permit ourselves some stories.  The social history of one radical anarchist community, the Dukhobors, also known as the “Spirit Wrestlers”, has been little told.  Even chroniclers of nonviolent resistance are unfamiliar with them:  there is no mention of the Dukhobors in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Resistance (2000), or in Mark Kurlansky’s short but engaging NonviolenceTwenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (2006).  Arising from the great 17th-century schism that shook Russia, the Dukhobors were a mystical evangelical group that faced intermittent persecution from 1773 onwards.  The Dukhobors rejected all external authority, the Bible not excluded, and viewed their own leader as a reincarnation of Christ.  The convoluted history of the Dukhobors, among whom the adherence to nonviolent resistance to oppression, egalitarianism, vegetarianism, communal ownership of property, and the repudiation of conscription is common if varying in degree, need  not be rehearsed at this juncture.  A series of exiles—to the Caucasus, Siberia, then to scattered villages in Georgia—eventually brought them, with the financial assistance of Leo Tolstoy and English Quakers, to Canada.  The bulk of the Dukhobors, some 25,000, are now settled in western Canada; there is a small population, numbering not more than 5,000, in the US; and estimates of their numbers in Russia vary immensely, from a mere few thousand to something like 30,000.


Russian Dukhobor settlers on ship, enroute to Canada, 1898. Source: Canadian Archives.


It is the Dukhobor practice, very much alive today if only in the form of symbolic remembrance, of creating a bonfire of guns that is of supreme interest.  7,000 Dukhobors first engaged in the burning of weapons in 1895, on June 29, at three different sites in the Caucasus, to protest conscription in Tsarist Russia.


The Doukhobors’ “Burning of Arms”, 29 June 1895, painting by Terry McLean. Source: http://www.doukhobor.org

This act of defiance is one of the more remarkable chapters in the history of human awareness, an affirmation of the dignity of every human life and simultaneously an expression of an adamantine refusal to kill another person.  One need not idealize the Dukhobors:  they have been implicated in previous years in Canada in acts of arson and dynamite, even if such acts were directed at their own properties to signify their repudiation of material possessions.  In all the discussion that is presently taking place in the US on gun violence, and amidst all the bravado about the intent to be unified and to prevent terrorists from dominating the narrative, there is barely any reflection on the philosophical and ethical implications for the human spirit when killing becomes a sport.  It is not for nothing that the Dukhobors have been known as the ‘spirit wrestlers’ or ‘spirit warriors’:  they call to mind, with unmistakable urgency, the simultaneously necessity to tend to the spirit and to take arms against arms. The call to nonviolent resistance is heard loud and clear in the Dukhobors’ burning of weapons.


*The Evisceration of Democracy: More Good Days for the American Corporation

Nero fiddled while Rome burned.  Whatever else Nero may have accomplished, and some historians will tell us it was not wholly insignificant, this is the most enduring story that has survived from the reign of Nero.  The great fire that engulfed Rome broke out in mid-July AD 64.   The fiddle may not even have existed in 1st century Rome; the instrument that is associated with Nero’s Rome is the lyre.   But no new ‘facts’, or claims to tell us the ‘real truth’, can undo the popular understanding that Nero fiddled as good chunks of Rome were reduced to ashes.

Many years hence, it is entirely possible that people will mull over the present-day evisceration of the little that remains of American democracy while the Supreme Court went gallivanting.  Among the more hallowed of democratic institutions anywhere in the world, the United States Supreme Court has on occasion furnished grounds for optimism even to the most tried cynics.   Some of the court’s most memorable days may have been when it struck down Jim Crow laws, outlawed segregation, enhanced prisoners’ rights, and otherwise acted in the interest of a freer, open, and just society.   Others more familiar with the history of the court will no doubt go as far back as the early days of the Republic, when the Marshall Court, in a memorable series of decisions, established the principle of judicial review (Marbury v. Madison, 1803) or, to take another notable achievement, prevented states from taxing federal institutions (McCulloch v. Maryland, 1819).  For the last couple of decades, however, the Supreme Court has been singularly unimpressive, and most of the appointments of the last twenty years, from Clarence Thomas to Chief Justice Roberts, are not calculated to inspire confidence in those who would like to look to the court as the keeper of democracy.

If the court can be described as the preserver of liberties, the liberties are increasingly those of robbers and criminals often masquerading as politicians, bankers, financiers, and CEOs.  With its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to remove corporate campaign limits, and allow corporate America a free hand to influence the course of politics, the Supreme Court has sounded the death knell of democracy.  Some will proclaim this an exaggeration, and point to the alleged self-correcting tendencies of American society; others will submit that the US remains the most successful example of the capitalist model, which might even be rejected were it not for the circumstance that it is better than all other available and tested models of political society.  Since, apparently, corporations have not been permitted a free run for their money, and they have much the same rights that are permitted to individuals – in the bizarre language of the majority, “Government may not suppress political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity” – the court in its wisdom has proclaimed that the protocols which permit the oppression of corporations must be brought to an end!

Most likely more than anywhere else in the world, candidates for high office in the United States have generally come from exceedingly affluent backgrounds.  The Supreme Court is packed with millionaires, and Roberts came to office as Chief Justice with an estimated wealth of $6 million.  While the liberals scanned his records to assess how he might vote on the question of abortion, his corporatist leanings were given scant attention.  The US Senate is often characterized as the most exclusive club in the world, and not only merely because its 100 members wield extraordinary power; indeed, a substantial majority of its members are millionaires, some obscenely so, and its four wealthiest members are all Democrats.  A campaign for a Senate seat can run in excess of $75 million; the cost of the last presidential election was in excess of $1 billion.  The lesson in this is clear enough:  only the heavily propertied classes should aspire for high political office, and they should understand that sanctioning the theft of the nation’s resources is among their principal obligations as office-holders.

In the eighteenth century, in which I live for some part of my life as a teacher of the history of British India, Englishmen returned home with some of the plunder from Bengal; they attempted to buy seats, much to the acute discomfort of those with landed wealth.  Now electoral triumphs are hard-fought gains – but such triumphs appear very much like the attempts to buy seats in the 18th century, even if our language has very much changed.  Lincoln went from a log cabin to the White House, and the rags to riches narrative can always be summoned to illustrate the infinite possibilities in the land of promise.  Yet, the inescapable reality is that money determines to an overwhelming degree the outcome of elections, and the Supreme Court decision has laid bare the uncomfortable fact, transparent at least to a few of its critics, that the US has long been a plutocracy.

Justice Stevens, in his dissenting opinion, rightly describes the Court’s understanding of the corporation as akin to an individual, as the bearer of the rights of free speech that are granted in the First Amendment, as both a repudiation of common sense and a mockery of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. “While American democracy is imperfect,” writes Stevens, “few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”  In 2009 the US Chamber of Commerce spent $144 million in attempts to influence the US Congress and state legislatures, and financial companies spent close to $5 billion over a decade pursuing deregulation and other policy outcomes that would lead to the economic collapse of 2008.  The entire economic recovery appears to have been undertaken through the eyes of the bankers, whose ineptitude and greed continue to be rewarded.  The time is not so distant when Supreme Court justices, much like the occupants of some chaired professorships, will be known by the name of the corporation that has agreed to patronize them.  We are only left to imagine what kind of future is in store for the US with Exxon Chief Justice Roberts, Mobil Justice Scalia, Chevron Justice Thomas, and others of their ilk at the helm to guide the ship of justice to its shores.