A quarter-century ago, while casting about for a dissertation topic, I decided to write about alcohol prohibition.
In a nation of so many drinkers, banning booze was obviously futile. So why did we try to do it?
Then I encountered a book by a University of California, San Diego, sociologist named Joseph Gusfield, who convinced me that Prohibition wasn’t aimed at ridding America of beer, wine and whiskey.
It was instead a Symbolic Crusade — to borrow Gusfield’s book title — by native-born Protestants, who seized on prohibition to affirm their historic dominance over immigrants and Catholics.
I’ve been re-reading Gusfield in the wake of the Oct. 1 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., which has sparked renewed controversy over guns on campus.
A week after the Umpqua rampage, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law barring concealed weapons on the state’s campuses.
Nineteen other states have passed similar measures, while 23 leave the matter up to individual schools, and eight explicitly allow “campus carry.”
But this controversy isn’t really about guns, any more than Prohibition was about drink. It’s about different ways of seeing the world and — most of all — about who will gain the symbolic upper hand.
Consider Texas, which passed a law in June letting people with concealed gun licenses bring guns into college buildings.
They were already allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus, but the new law, which will take effect in August, lets them pack heat in classrooms and offices as well.
Proponents say the new law will help people protect themselves.
In recent years, however, Texas campuses have been almost entirely free of gun violence. Of the 18,536 homicides in Texas between 2001 and 2013, only five occurred on or near college campuses.
So whatever the June law is about, it surely isn’t about keeping Texas’ students, faculty and staff “safe” from gun attacks.
But neither is it likely that the measure will make campuses less safe, which is what the other side keeps saying.
Their hero is Daniel S. Hamermesh, an emeritus economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin who resigned this month “out of self-protection,” as he wrote in a letter to university President Gregory Fenves. Hamermesh said that the risk of being shot by a “disgruntled student” was “substantially enhanced” by the new law.
In a subsequent interview, Hamermesh said the law might also lead faculty to inflate student grades. “Who wants to give a student a bad grade if they are afraid they’ll shoot at you?” he asked.
“Substantially enhanced”? Grade inflation as a defense against homicide? Students were already allowed to carry concealed weapons across UT’s lawns. None of them shot a professor, and it’s hard to imagine how the new policy will make that more likely.
If this gunfight isn’t really about safety — or, for that matter, about guns — what’s going on? Why so much sound and fury over something that will make little or no practical difference?
The question brings us back to Gusfield, who told us that political battles are for symbolic as well as material advantage.
Even if alcohol prohibition could never make America “dry,” it made its adherents feel as if the country was still theirs. That’s why they invested so much energy into passing the 18th Amendment.
Likewise, the concealed-weapons law allows its advocates to reclaim a kind of rough individualism that they think the U.S. has lost.
Meanwhile, opponents of campus carry can seize the mantle of logic and science. And they get to cast their foes as simple-minded “gun nuts” blinded by their passion for guns and oblivious to the mayhem they’ve caused.
And let’s be clear: Guns do cause mayhem in America — just not on Texas campuses, where both sides imagined a problem that doesn’t exist.
The problem is in our minds and in the ways that we ridicule and denigrate one another. And the goal isn’t “safety” but victory.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University.