‘Jokes’ About Country Music Fans’ Taste In Music Is All I Got For Now

Because–in the wake of Sandy Hook and Las Vegas–talking about gun control, gun regulation, background checks, mental health, institutional capture by the National Rifle Association, the Republican Party’s gun lobby, gun culture, toxic masculinity, American cultures of violence, racist understandings of ‘terrorism,’ white privilege, political hypocrisy, the rural-urban divide, and all of the rest seems to have run its course. It says something about the nature of mass shootings in America–of real, live, people who then proceed to fall down dead, their vital organs perforated by bullets–that reactions to their occurrence descends so quickly into the hunt for the perfect one-liner that will capture the stupidity and futility of ‘debate’ on ways and means to prevent them. Ideologies forestall debate; they present a state of affairs as necessary and not contingent; they deny the agency of man and the historicity of our present seemingly fixed realities. By these standards ‘gun ideology’ is wildly successful; it has constructed a vision of reality that appears immutable, impervious to intervention by political and moral actors. And thus prompted the title of this post.

But we know that ‘anti-gun’ groups do real, substantive work; they are able to bring about legislative change and regulation of firearms; there is nothing magical prima facie about firearms as an object worthy of regulation and control–sure, they are big business, and a powerful lobby works hard to keep this country awash in guns, but these are not insuperable barriers; so why the pessimism? One problem, of course, is that gun-related violence is an intersectional issue of sorts; the regulation of firearms in a country like the US, while it might bring reductions in gun-violence-related deaths at roughly the same levels that strict gun-control legislation in Australia produced following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, is also likely to suffer from all-too-American problems of its own.

For one, gun-control will almost certainly be implemented selectively with many rough edges; crackdowns on already heavily policed populations will be a distinctive feature of the new regulatory regime. White suburban owners, the demographic that produced Stephen Paddock–the Las Vegas shooter–and his ilk, will get off lightly; they will ‘surrender’ their guns last in line. This supplementation of an already brutal system of mass incarceration seems ill-advised. Given that the country’s prisons also function as a replacement mental health system, this move appears even more like a very bad idea. Moreover, in this US, an increasingly militaristic nation whose police forces resemble armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary organizations, whose political institutions have been captured by a nihilistic political party, and whose economic inequality indicators continue to decline, there is a reasonable case to be made by the political radical that speaking up for the ‘disarmament’ of historically oppressed civilian populations is an act with troublesome ramifications; such moves are likely to be acts of unilateral surrendering of future political options.

These objections make it sound like gun-control is a hard task in a racist, militaristic society with rampant economic inequality running a racist mass incarceration system; which would be an accurate assessment of affairs.

Gun Control, Propaganda, and the Susceptibility of Man to ‘Unreason’

In An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), William Godwin wrote:

Show me in the clearest and most unambiguous manner that a certain mode of proceeding is most reasonable in itself, or most conducive to my interest, and I shall infallibly pursue that mode, so long as the views you suggested to me, continue present to my mind….Render the plain dictates of justice level to every capacity…and the whole species will become reasonable and virtuous. It will then be sufficient for juries to recommend a certain mode for adjusting controversies…It will then be sufficient for them to invite offenders to forsake their errors….Where the empire of reason was so universally acknowledged the offender would either readily yield to the expostulations of authority, or if he resisted through suffering no personal molestation he would feel so weary under the unequivocal disapprobation and the observant eye of public judgment as willingly to remove to a society more congenial to his errors.

As noted by C. A. Mace in his introduction to J. A. C. Brown’s Techniques of Persuasion: From Propaganda to Brainwashing (Penguin, London; 1963), these lines by Godwin are a ‘charming, if pathetic expression’ of ‘the belief that man is not only a rational animal but also a reasonable animal.’ They are charming because they are so optimistic and trusting, pathetic because the evidence of history seems to crush them stillborn. 

I write these words on the day that Barack Obama has announced ‘plans to introduce legislation by next week that includes a ban on new assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines, expanded background checks for gun purchases and tougher gun trafficking laws’ and signed executive orders ‘designed to increase the enforcement of existing gun laws and improve the flow of information among federal agencies in order to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who shouldn’t have them.’ (‘Obama Unveils Proposals For Toughening Laws on Guns‘, New York Times, 16 January 2012).

The relevance of Godwin’s quote to our current situation should be quite clear. As should the subject matter of Brown’s book. For we are now entering a phase of political discourse where the political subjects of this nation of ours will note just how bizarre the beliefs of political opponents can seem, how their susceptibility to the dark forces of unreason and irrationality can provide such plentiful cause for wonder and befuddlement. And we will be reminded, again and again, of the etymology of propaganda–which was defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘an association or scheme for propagating a doctrine or practice’–in the Latin propagare, meaning ‘the gardener’s practice of pinning the fresh shoots of a plant into the earth in order to reproduce new plants which will take on a life of their own.’ (TOP, p. 10)

PS: A rather facetious aside. As I read Godwin’s quote, I was reminded of my ‘charming and pathetic’ attempts, every semester, to regulate and render more orderly my conduct of the classes I teach by presenting a detailed syllabus–which articulates the course requirements clearly–and by talking at great length about how every student can maximize their chances of getting a good grade in the class.

Liberal Democracies and Armed Insurrections: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

Jeff McMahan has an interesting article–Why Gun Control Is Not Enough–over at The Stone today (New York Times, 20 December 2012). I agree with him that gun ownership does not have the salutary political effects that its most fervent, Second Amendment-quoting advocates claim it does, even though I don’t agree with McMahan’s conclusion that ‘the United States should ban private gun ownership entirely, or almost entirely.’  In any case, in this post, I want to focus on one exceedingly curious claim that McMahan makes in response to the former Congressman Jay Dickey, Republican from Arkansas, who is quoted as saying,

We have a right to bear arms because of the threat of government taking over the freedoms we have.

In response, McMahan says:

There is, of course, a large element of fantasy in Dickey’s claim. Individuals with handguns are no match for a modern army.  It’s also a delusion to suppose that the government in a liberal democracy such as the United States could become so tyrannical that armed insurrection, rather than democratic procedures, would be the best means of constraining it.  This is not Syria; nor will it ever be.  Shortly after Dickey made his comment, people in Egypt rose against a government that had suppressed their freedom in ways far more serious than requiring them to pay for health care. Although a tiny minority of Egyptians do own guns, the protesters would not have succeeded if those guns had been brought to Tahrir Square. If the assembled citizens had been brandishing Glocks in accordance with the script favored by Second Amendment fantasists, the old regime would almost certainly still be in power and many Egyptians who’re now alive would be dead.

Why is it a ‘delusion’ to suppose that a liberal democracy could not become so tyrannical that those subject to it might consider armed insurrection a viable response? Is this a conceptual truth about liberal democracies? Why would ‘armed insurrection’ never be the ‘best means of constraining it’? And why is McMahan so confident that the US will ‘never’ be Syria? This is a prophecy, not an argument, one that does not seem to consider what might happen if this country had been subjected to more than one 9/11 attack. One of those was enough to see a crackdown on minorities, the passing of regressive legislation, the declaration of two wars, and the commission of war crimes. What would have a couple more of those have done?

McMahan’s example of the Egyptian overthrow of their government is also curious. If the insurrection in Egypt had been an armed one, the protesters would not have congregated in Tahrir Square to present themselves as sitting ducks for the Egyptian police and armed forces. Rather, they would have concentrated on other tactics: assassinations, attempts to take over or destroy government property and so on.  The Tahrir Square assemblies took place precisely because the ‘revolution’ was sought to be conducted by public, visible, attention-gathering, solidarity-generating means.  The insurrection would have been conducted very differently once armed violence was chosen as one of its modalities.

Whatever the arguments for gun control, and I think there are many excellent ones out there, including some that McMahan uses in his piece, complacency about ‘liberal democracy’ shouldn’t feature in them.

Pistol-Packin’ Professor: A Day in the Life

In honor of those–like libertarian law professors, the last defenders of the faith–who have attempted to point out the silliness of keeping faculty unarmed in our school’s classrooms, I offer these recollections of a day in the life:

The alarm went off at 6. I sat up, swung my legs off the bed, and reached for the Glock 30 SF. There it lay, cold, implacable, loaded, right next to the stack of unread New York and London Reviews of Books. I tucked the cold steel into my pajama pocket and rose. It was time to get cracking. Brooklyn lay outside. And a full day of walking on its mean streets, lecturing in its even meaner lecture halls, and worst of all, meetings with fractious faculty, awaited.

After I had showered and shaved, the Glock visible and within reach at all times (getting jumped while I was all soaped up and vulnerable in the shower had never appealed to me), I changed into my work clothes. As always, my holster went on quickly, and I packed two spare clips of ammunition into my jacket’s roomy pockets. (I had these enlarged for easy access to the clips in case of an extended gun battle.)

Emerging from my building, I quickly checked the streets, scanning left and right, looking for concealed shooters, ready to roll to the curb and squeeze off a quick covering volley of fire if needed. All was quiet. A few schoolkids walked past and I kept them visible in case any of them reached into their backpacks. Crossing Coney Island Avenue required similar caution; the Pakistani bodega owners could never be trusted not to reach for the AK-47s that are  so common back in their land.

I arrived at the campus in time for my class. The students filed in, shuffling past me with that usual mix of insolence and boredom manifest, as I kept a wary eye on them. As always, I had the clear angles of fire for the lecture hall worked out. Contingency plans at the back of my mind, I began the class. As I paced up and down, I kept one hand on the Glock, feeling its heft even as I evaluated argument after argument. It was oddly reassuring, letting me know that not even a fallacy or two could diminish its ability to bust a cap in some philosophy major’s ass. (Only in self-defense.)

The afternoon faculty meeting went off without incident. I kept the Glock on the table in front of me in case any of the usual objections over curricular changes needed speedy resolution. I kept my chair pushed back just a little, so that I could spring to my feet, squeeze off a round or two before executing the classic ‘roll-and-rock-upright’ move into a more favorable shooting position. Thankfully, the votes went off without incident, though I had my eyes on the beady-eyed Continental type in the back. I got your Nietzsche right here, pal. This one will kill ya; it won’t make you stronger.

As evening fell, the winds sharpened, and darkness closed in, I packed up, locked the office, and headed out for the walk back home. Every day called for the same challenge: negotiating dozens of traffic crossings on the walk back home, as cars loaded with potential shooters pulled up next to me, and hooded teenagers strolled past, their baggy pants bulging suspiciously.

And then, I was home. I sprinted up the stairs, avoiding the confinement of the elevator (those kinds of enclosed spaces aren’t conducive to the quick draw), and moved into the apartment. After checking all the rooms, it was time for dinner. I ate, as I always did: the Glock next to the salad, my chair well away and out of line with the windows.

And then, time for bed, and the necessary letting down of the guard for some shut-eye. I checked to make sure the Glock was in its place, and went through my usual bedtime ritual: the quick roll-out of bed, the taking of cover next to the dehumidifier, the clip reload with the lights off.

Finally, lights out. I drifted off, as the glowing green light of the clock-radio threw into sharp relief the metallic outlines of the SF, my companion and keeper, my torch, my flame, my lodestar.

The Bushmaster Male (Man Card in Tow)

Chandra Kumar recently wrote on my Facebook page:

One other thing not mentioned in the media: all these gun-happy killers seem to be male. Lots of women have ‘mental health’ problems too but I don’t hear about them going out on mass killing sprees. Surely this fact, in a civilized society, would be cause for reflection as well.

And then, this morning, Paul Campos wrote:

Now almost literally 100 percent of the mass murders and spree killings in America and around the world are committed by members of a very well-defined and particular social group: men.  Indeed it’s nearly impossible to find an example of a female mass murderer….Men commit the large majority of violent crimes, the overwhelming majority of murders, and practically all of the most violent murders (98.2 percent of current death row inmates are men).

Speculation about possible causes is the beginning of investigation, and so in that spirit, here goes.  (I don’t doubt for a second all of this will sound very familiar to anyone that has read more than one series of analyses that follow The All-American Mass Murder.)

The perpetrators of  spectacularly violent, elaborate killing sprees, besides being male, are frequently said to have suffered from some kind of ‘anti-social’ characteristic. Even if they weren’t the kind that pull wings off flies they were said to be moody, reclusive, given to dark, borderline unhinged ramblings, and so on. They were, in short, ‘misfits’. These folks didn’t fit in. They failed to meet some standard, follow some guideline for conformity. That rejection, that repeated cuff of the ears and the slap across the face, fed back and inward, till the repressed anger finally erupted in an attention-grabbing act. Still pretty familiar stuff. But why are males prone to such acts? What makes them particularly susceptible?

Because, in part, in this hyper-masculinized society, the male of the species is often brought up–in ways distinctive to males–to be acutely conscious of the consequences of the failure to conform. The lack of ‘fitting in’ is more often than not, the failure to match some notion of masculinity, well-established and cast in stone. The relentless invocation of generic notions of power and money and sexual conquest (preferably rough and dominating) as hallmarks of ‘success’ drums into most male heads a steady, repetitive maddening litany: you aren’t man enough till you throw off every single behavioral characteristic that might possibly carry the faintest whiff of the not-masculine (sometimes this is the feminine, sometimes this is just an established vision of the successful life). And our world’s cruelty doesn’t end there: these failures are not just met with social ostracism, they sometimes provoke mockery and violence. The misfit isn’t just ignored, he is sometimes tracked down, cornered and baited. That acute sense of failure at these moments of confrontation will be felt the most keenly by those aware that it represents the greatest distance from their supposed ideal state.

What better way to retaliate than to simultaneously strike back and exit? To go with an assertion of manhood, to carry a man card (like the kind issued by Bushmaster), to show up on the nightly news, the most accepted sign in our culture of having made it?

A Couple of Reflections Prompted by Sandy Hook

Yesterday, on Facebook, I reposted a link to a post I had written here in response to the Aurora shootings in July. You could change the title of the post slightly to reference ‘Sandy Hook’ rather than ‘Aurora’ and nothing else would need changing. This morning, still clearly unable to write anything coherent in response, I posted the following three messages on my Twitter feed and Facebook page:

Guns don’t come up with half-assed arguments against gun control. People do.

Guns aren’t scared of the NRA. People are.

Guns don’t say after every tragedy: “Lets mourn, no time to talk politics’. People do.

You get the picture; I’m still not capable of making a reasoned contribution to the ‘national debate’ on gun-related violence.

But I do want to make a couple of points about the nature of the ‘debate’, such as it is.

The first is prompted by the third quip above. For an outstanding feature of the political response to the sickeningly common and soon-to-be-mundane massacres is the loudly broadcasted call to immediately seek refuge in bromides and palliatives: the usual mix of mourning, counseling, holding hands, which is supposed to bridge political divides, apply ‘healing balms’ and bring peace to all us traumatized folks. There is never, ever, seemingly any desire evinced by our political classes to prevent the recurrence of the massacres, for they are, as noted before, inevitable. This call is then faithfully parroted by the media (always at its ghoulish worst in its coverage of these kinds of tragedies). This is what I’d much rather see the next time: ditch the candlelight vigil and tell your local politician, congressman, senator, or anyone else that matters that they don’t get your vote unless they start a ‘national conversation’ about guns. Or something else. (The broad similarity of this call to the calls that electoral disputes be settled quickly so that the nation’s citizens don’t get embroiled in something as messy as a politically tinged dispute, one that might produce a little heat and light, is unmistakable and not coincidental. As always, the most important thing is to keep citizens numb, not provoked. God forbid that a difficult issue be aired in all its complexity and that the inevitable disputes it provokes be allowed to get a decent hearing.)

The second is prompted by noticing how mental health is sought as an obfuscatory factor in this debate.  That is, a familiar slogan soon starts making the rounds in two variants: one, ‘this is a mental health issue, not a gun issue’ and second ‘people will find a way to kill people, so banning a particular weapon is unlikely to bring these massacres to a halt.’   These are particularly egregious; they amount, roughly, to saying that no actions need be taken that might make it more difficult for mentally deranged people to go on brutally effective and successful killing sprees. We can control the damage done by the insane by treating them and by making sure they cannot lay their hands on dangerous weapons. The two are not mutually exclusive.

It is truly amazing that a nation, so willing to put up with the evisceration of its civil liberties in order to guard against shadowy, poorly understood threats from elsewhere, is unwilling to countenance the most minor of inconveniences in order to guard against a clearly visible threat from within.