A hole in the head

Obama did a thing about guns. It was very serious and emotional, because Obama is very serious about this issue and he’s seriously going to take serious actions about it, while also having emotions about it.

(Quick hit about the crying thing: Gawker’s headline for this was “Barack Obama Just Cried on National Television“, which falls squarely into the category of Not Helping. Gawkeristas are presumably the type of people who believe that crying is normal human behavior and that we should allow public figures to be honest with their emotions, but by making this the lede, let alone hamming it up for the headline, they’re implicitly portraying it as aberrant behavior. The way you help normalize something is, by definition, by not making a big deal about it.)

Obama is better than most politicians at saying the right thing, and the right thing he’s said about gun violence is that this is a problem that exists in America and in no other comparable nation.

Here’s Obama in the New York Times saying this, and another right thing:

“Every year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents.”

These things are how gun deaths actually happen in the numbers that they do. Roughly 60% of gun deaths are suicides. This makes suicide alone the primary issue with gun violence – more important than all types of homicides and accidents combined. Mass shootings specifically are not actually a big deal, policy-wise. As with terrorism in general, the threat from mass shootings is subjectively dramatic but statistically negligible.

And this is why all of Obama’s proposals are useless at addressing this issue on the level of the epidemic that it actually is. Specifically, the four proposed actions are: the usual shibboleths of “background checks” and “mental health,” “making our communites safer,” which apparently consists of, um, a phone call from the Attorney General, and “safety technology,” which is a particularly bizarre thing to focus on, for reasons we’ll get to later.

The great volume of talk about “background checks” and “reasonable restrictions” to keep guns out of “the wrong hands” is all a massive dodge. Let’s be serious. When politicians yammer on about “mental health,” they aren’t talking about depression. They’re scapegoating people with mental health issues as crazy killers, as though the only possible explanation for arbitrary murder is “craziness,” as though a proper patriotic American could never dream of doing something as unseemly as taking a life. They don’t want to admit that killers are in fact acting in accordance with American values.

It bears repeating that people with mental health issues are not more likely to commit violence; there’s no entry in the DSM for “psycho killer.” Mental health as politicians talk about it has fuckall to do with gun violence. As for depression and suicide, they’re never seen as real issues, since the only harm they do is to remove unpleasant people who we’d rather ignore anyway.

Now, regarding this, one of the actions is:

The Administration is proposing a new $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care.

Which is great. Money well spent (and it should of course be done regardless of gun violence). Except for the word “proposing,” and the fact that $500 mil on the federal level is chump change (it’s about 0.013% of the total budget, and 0.05% of expenditures on health care. Can you name 2,000 issues that are more important than mental health care? Probably not, seeing as suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America). The issue isn’t that any of these proposals are bad things. Assuming they actually result in some sort of action, they will save a nonzero number of lives. But Obama is pushing these tepid policies while simultaneously playing up the dramatic horror of the issue. You don’t treat an epidemic with aspirin.

There are two real things that could be done. One is to treat guns like cars, dangerous objects that we allow people to own under the condition that they are licensed, trained, and insured. This is a perfectly reasonable course of action that is well within the confines of neoliberal political discourse. The fact that it is 100% impossible for this to happen in America illustrates the way in which American society is actually deranged.

But this still wouldn’t solve the problem. It would reduce gun deaths somewhat, just by making it slightly more onerous to actually get a gun. Actually, the most effective thing would probably be the insurance part, since it would actually create a corporate disincentive to spread guns around, and corporate incentivization is the only thing that actually makes things happen in America. But all you need to kill yourself is whatever the weakest type of handgun is and one bullet for it (and this applies at basically the same strength to killing other people; the “assault weapons” angle ignores how fantastic even basic handguns are at killing people), so any proposal that still allows people to get any kind of gun under basically any reasonable conditions will not solve the main issue.

This is why the second thing that could theoretically be done is the only way to actually improve the general situation. That thing is to ban guns.

The most charitable version of the argument against this is: you can’t uninvent guns, and a person without a gun is helpless against a person with a gun, so allowing gun ownership is the only thing that provides the possibility of self-defense. This isn’t wrong, argumentatively speaking, but it’s practically irrelevant. It’s not just that perfect safety is a fantasy, it’s that you really can’t protect yourself at all from the overwhelming majority of lethal threats that you face every day. You’re in far more danger driving a car onto the freeway than you ever will be from gun violence.

Also, there’s no need to argue hypothetically; we already know that this isn’t a real problem. As Obama didn’t quite get all the way to pointing out, other countries have banned guns and they’re doing just fine. We know for a fact that it is not the case that British cities are controlled by roving gangs of gunhavers while ordinary law-abiding citizens desperately try to defend themselves with kitchen knives.

The other accidental point that gun advocates make is that gun violence is the cost of a free society. This is true, assuming you count “freedom to own guns” as part of what “free society” means. You don’t have to do that, though. There’s no comprehensive definition of “freedom” such that a society that meets it is “maximally free.” Every freedom entails a corresponding restriction. Free speech entails people being harmful assholes. Free trade entails economic exploitation. And free ownership of lethal weapons entails death.

There’s a popular liberal saying, “my rights end where yours begin,” but this doesn’t actually mean anything, because defining where that line is is the entire question. A society where face-punching is illegal is a society where you are free to walk down the street without the threat of being punched in the face, but you are not free to punch somebody in the face if they’re annoying you. A society where face-punching is legal is a society where you are free to punch people in the face for arbitrary reasons, but you are not free to avoid the possibility of being punched in the face yourself. The question of which of these freedoms we value more is a real question that we really have to answer. In this case it’s not particularly controversial, but the issue with guns has exactly the same dynamic.

This is the real point that is missing from the mainstream debate about guns: we are choosing what kind of society we want to have. Everyone pretends like the issue has a “solution,” like if we find just the right combination of regulations we can have a society where everyone owns a gun but there’s no gun violence, or at least not so much that we have to read about it in the paper sometimes and get sad. But the truth is that it is a choice; the truth is that we’ve already made this choice, and we’ve chosen guns.

But it’s not just guns, this same point is missing from literally every mainstream debate about everything. The idea of choosing values does not enter into the neoliberal conception of politics as a process of optimization. This is why neoliberalism is the invisible ideology: it only talks about means, pretending that it doesn’t have ends.

This is where the technology bit comes in. The proposal here is that we can develop “smart guns” that have fingerprint locks or whatever, and this will prevent thefts and accidents and soforth. Let’s assume that this is true, that we can develop guns that are 100%, uh, “safe” (see, just talking about this is bizarre). The actual effect of this will be basically dick. First, there are already an unbelievable shitton of non-magic-robot guns floating around, and they aren’t going anywhere unless we, you know, ban them. Furthermore, there will obviously continue to be a demand for non-magic-robot guns, since being dangerous is the point of guns and because guns are overwhelmingly bought as fetish objects (since they do so little for actual security); buying a safe gun is almost exactly like buying censored porn.

This is why technology cannot solve political problems. Political problems are problems of competing interests. All technology can do is give people more capacity to fulfill their desires (the fact of your desires becoming fulfillable can also change them, which is an actual problem with technology, but let’s keep this simple); it does not resolve conflicts, because nothing can fulfill competing desires simultaneously. It is to obscure this point that neoliberalism so zealously imports the language of technology into political discourse. As another example, some politicians have called for the development of new encryption technology that is more secure but also allows the government’s intelligence agencies to do whatever they want with it. This is not possible; encryption is either secure or it isn’t. The point of such a proposal, of pretending that there’s a technological “solution” that addresses all concerns, is precisely to elide the fact that the government wants to be able to spy on people, because politicians would rather not have to actually make that argument.

In the same way, this is the actual function of the Constitution in American political discourse. It provides us with a readymade set of values, such that we never have to think about issues on that level. You see this all the time in gun control debates: the Second Amendment is always the stopping point, and we poke and prod at the exact meaning of its comma placement as though that matters, as though the question were not precisely whether we agree that gun ownership ought to be constitutionally protected. There is only one serious gun control position: repeal the Second Amendment.

Of course, this applies just as well to the entire Constitution (notwithstanding the fact that the Ninth Amendment exists; you’ll never hear that one brought up in a political debate). By setting unassailable limits on political discourse, the Constitution acts as a bulwark against radicalism. It allows us to pretend that we’ve got it all figured out already, that a bunch of rich slave-owning rapists solved the problem of values for us, that all we have to do is flesh out the implementation details. This is why Constitution fetishism is another of neoliberalism’s weapons of choice.

And this is why Obama, who is in many ways the apotheosis of American politics, raises big issues but only ever talks about them in terms of reform. It allows him to avoid the responsibility of actually advocating for a system of values – which would, of course, entail attacking those with opposing values instead of fantasizing that every issue can be solved through compromise. I recently read Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech for the first time, and I realized why everyone got so pissed about it: he actually had the audacity to suggest that Americans examine their values and modify their behavior accordingly. (Of course, he got the direction wrong: he thought the problem was that Americans needed to commit more strongly to their traditional values.)

As convenient as it is to pretend otherwise, there’s actually no such thing as not having ends. If you’re not consciously aiming your actions at chosen ends, your ends will by default become whatever the actual results of your actions are. So if neoliberalism actually succeeds and we end up locked into an optimization process without an awareness of what it is we’re optimizing, the end result really will be a perfect society – one that is perfectly in accord with a value system that no human would ever have chosen.

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