America’s Creeping Confucianism

By now you’ve probably heard about the New Jersey antiques collector facing 10 years in prison for possessing an unloaded 1765 flintlock pistol. Earlier that day, the man and his friend had bought the gun from an antiques dealer in Pennsylvania:

On the way home, the pair were pulled over by a local sheriff. According to Van Gilder, the detaining officer told him that he wanted to search the car, and threatened him with dogs if he refused. “I didn’t mind,” he tells me, but he wanted to make sure that the officer knew that there was a flintlock pistol in the glove compartment, and that he had just purchased it. “Oh, man,” Gilder says. “Immediately, he wanted to arrest me. But when he called the undersheriff, he was told, ‘No, it’s a 250-year-old pistol; let him go.'”

The officer did as he was told, and gave the pistol back. The next morning, however, he came back — “with three cars and three or four sheriffs.” Van Gilder says, “He told me, ‘I should have arrested you last night.'” So he did. “They led me away in handcuffs” and, at the station, “chained me by my hands and feet to a cold stainless-steel bench.”

The man, Gordon Van Gilder, is a retired English teacher who lives in Millville, NJ, which incidentally is quite close to where I grew up. The geography is an added level of absurdity in this case: Millville is extremely rural and piney. By no stretch of the imagination could the pistol be considered a danger in a densely populated urbanscape; Van Gilder could probably walk out his front door and go full Aaron Burr without hitting anything besides a white cedar or a snapping turtle.

The I-told-you-so attitude of the officer highlights the growing Confucianism in American law enforcement. To Confucius, all crimes could be categorized. Context of the crime was to be eliminated and was even seen as undermining society; circumstances were to be stripped away from hypotheticals like, “Would you steal medicine to save your dying child?” leaving only the theft before the judge. What punishment to deliver was merely a matter of establishing what crime had been committed. Confucianism is characterized by its “respect for authority, hierarchy and social order,” in the words of one apologist. It is the ethics of despotism, which is why it’s been popular in China for millennia.

The fact that the officer threatened to unleash the hounds on a couple of old coots driving down a country road is reminiscent of a story Bill Lee, the cover artist for Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer, told me about him and some of his WWII buddies being boarded and searched by the Coast Guard in Bridgeport Harbor — apparently our brave USCG thought a boatload of Normandy Nazi killers was “suspicious.” The context of Van Gilder’s situation — harmless history buffs returning from an antiques dealer with an antique — is superfluous. The Confucian officer is sure a crime has been committed and it only remains to determine which one. This is precisely why police departments discriminate against hiring officers with high IQs: they want somebody with a binary mind who won’t consider bigger questions. Just like an insect’s brain is simply a series of on/off switches — is this food? is this an enemy? — the New Jersey sheriffs only care if the flintlock is contraband or not. Today a legislature could outlaw bread and tomorrow cops would arrest everyone with a loaf or baguette on their pantry shelf, never considering the sense or wisdom behind the law. Beetles and ants are not philosophers.

The icing on the cake is that the pistol will probably be destroyed — or more likely find itself on the mantel of some petty Cumberland County potentate. If only New Jersey could be more like Connecticut and put those sheriffs out of work by eliminating county governments.

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