Today in takes that I never expected would require levying: emotional teenagers are not going to redeem American politics. Surprisingly, I’m not enough of an asshole to criticize school shooting victims, so I’ll start by pointing out that they’re not actually doing anything wrong. They experienced a traumatizing event caused by a failure of policy, so they’re raising the issue to the people who have the ability to do something about it. This is precisely the role that citizenry is supposed to play in a society that’s supposed to be a democracy. The problem is with everyone else.
First of all, the media is completely full of shit here. They’ve had the ability this entire time to emphasize gun violence as a relevant political issue, and they’ve chosen to ignore it. They try to blame politicians for not responding to the fact that large majorities of people want more gun control, but what those numbers actually mean is that the media should already have been on top of this issue, because the numbers demonstrate that people care about it. One of the problems with the gun issue specifically is that the pro-gun forces are myopic zealots about it while the anti-gun forces recognize that there are other more important problems in the world, so the people who vote based on guns are overwhelmingly the former group. One of the jobs that the media is supposed to perform is to balance out coverage such that it accurately represents the distribution of opinions in the populace. Of course, what actually happens is the opposite: the media reliably locates the most psychotic available representatives of any given position and portrays them as the norm. (And this doesn’t even get into framing; for example, any discussion of the Second Amendment here is a complete red herring, because the Second Amendment was not understood to protect an individual right to bear arms until literally 2008. If you take the “well-regulated militia” thing seriously, the Second Amendment is actually compatible with banning individual gun ownership.)
Furthermore, now that they’re being forced to notice the issue, they’re doing it in exactly the wrong way. The overwhelming majority of gun violence takes the form of suicides or accidents – school shootings are its least representative example. So not only should a properly functioning media be making this clear, but because the real causes of gun violence have been ongoing and are not based on dramatic spectacles, they should have been doing that this entire time. The fact that it falls to teenagers to shoulder this burden should be the furthest thing from a point of pride: it’s a source of deep, irredeemable shame. I mean, I’m not actually on an anti-media rant here; there have been plenty of people contextualizing the issue properly and pointing out that a lot of the proposed solutions would be deeply counterproductive. But the fact that the media is indulging in spectacle here, as well as the fact that they required a spectacle in order to get off their asses, illustrates the fundamental failure: the media doesn’t actually “investigate” or “raise issues.” They chase trends.
But the fact that we’re talking policy at all here is also its own problem. There’s nothing condescending about pointing out that most people have no fucking idea what would or wouldn’t be a good gun control policy. It will always necessarily be the case that most people don’t know about most things, because there are only so many hours in the day to spend reading up on shit. It’s natural for people, especially people who have been directly affected by an issue, to come up with objectively asinine solutions like this:
“Why don’t we have Kevlar vests in classrooms for our students? Why don’t we build our walls with Kevlar so that kids aren’t being shot through their own walls because they’re so cheaply built?”
Having people who specifically know stuff about policy and whose job it is to come up with effective solutions is not “elitism,” it’s just, like, people having different jobs. Everyone can’t be an expert on everything. So, again, the role of the general citizenry is to raise the issue, which should then lead the people whose job it is to both understand the issue in its proper context and come up with good solutions. Yet it’s pretty much a constant in political discourse to ask random assholes off the street to start opining about policy details, which is at best a complete waste of time and usually actively counterproductive. It’s not their job. Indeed, the failure in the above quote belongs not to the person who said it, but to the person who framed the issue such that the quote was produced in the first place. Shoving a camera in a grieving person’s face and asking them to elucidate policy prescriptions on the spot is exactly how you don’t do political journalism.
But of course we don’t actually have “elites” in this country, in the substantive sense of the term. We have a ruling class, but it very rarely includes anyone who’s any good at anything. What we actually have is elitism without eliteness. Our op-ed columnists are all anti-intellectual hacks, our philanthropists have all the philosophical sophistication of teenage Randroids, and our think tanks are all either partisan hackeries or nepotist sinecures. The role of think tanks here is especially important. The actual function they perform is to take the existing ideological biases of the ruling class and develop policies that satisfy those biases. The increasing salience of healthcare is making this particularly obvious. Everyone knows that the only real solution here is to take the profit motive out of medicine, but we’ve had to deal with decades of nonsense about “market-based solutions” or fucking whatever for no reason other than the ruling class having already decided that only solutions that preserve the ability to extract profits out of people’s illnesses were acceptable. An actual good-faith effort to develop a better healthcare system would have had single-payer implemented almost immediately, but instead it’s only just now becoming a credible option due to literally everyone in the country clamoring for it. Which is, you know, nice, but there’s no excuse for making us push that boulder all the way up the hill. It is, indeed, the exact opposite of the way that our society is supposed to be organized, and it gives the lie to the entire notion of having “qualified” people in charge. Not only do we have politicians who pick their own voters, but we also have policies that pick their own advocates.
And the thing about politicians really does bear repeating: the American political process fundamentally does not respond to what people actually want. The things that are supposed to function as democratic inputs to the system are almost all distractions. It doesn’t matter if some goober like Marco Rubio goes on TV and “gets his ass handed to him,” because after that he just goes back to Washington and keeps voting for more guns. It’s all just a day at the office for him. And the fact that it’s entertaining for us is a problem, because it focuses our attention in the wrong place, and makes us feel like something’s happening when it isn’t. It seems like a politician being humiliated on an important issue ought to matter somehow, but it just doesn’t. It’s empty catharsis. The reason people want this to be a watershed moment is, ironically, because they want to believe that they live in a functional society. They want to believe that a strong enough emotional appeal is enough to change things. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support this assumption. There’s no necessary connection between what people care about and the actions the ruling class chooses to take.
Worse, our general understanding of how to change things is similarly flawed. It’s beyond cliche to assert that “real change” is made by “ordinary people” going “out in the streets,” but there’s no necessary reason for this to be true. Politicians are just as capable of ignoring protests as they are of ignoring news stories and adversarial interviews. We’re still sort of razzled and dazzled by the mythology of the Civil Rights Movement, which is understandable, since that actually did result in unbelievably sweeping changes and it actually was powered by protests. So that really makes it seem like protesting is the thing to do. But even Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized that his commitment to nonviolent protest was as much a tactical choice as it was a moral one: it was the thing that happened to be effective at that time. It’s obvious that this wouldn’t have worked at earlier points in history – nobody would have given a shit if the slaves had “protested” – and it can’t simply be assumed that it’s going to continue working at this point in history.
It’s important to emphasize here that the point is not whether protesting is “good” or “bad,” but simply that it’s not magic. It has specific effects at specific times. For example, the first Women’s March last year actually turned out to have important effects, which I’ll admit I didn’t anticipate. Due to the combination of Trump’s inauguration being underattended and the immediately proceeding marches being overattended, they had the effect of creating the narrative of an embattled presidency from day one. This wasn’t necessarily going to happen. The first time Trump gave a speech off of a teleprompter and exploited a war widow, the media fell right on his dick. All those hacks are thirsty as fuck for legitimizing whoever the big man wearing the suit happens to be, so there was a real danger that Trump was going to become the new normal. Consistent and indeed obnoxious opposition made this not happen. (Worryingly, though, only half of this is actually due to the opposition – the other half is because Trump really is that much of a clueless bumblefuck. It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to just “act presidential” while doing all of the exact same things, but he’s just plain too incompetent to hack it. This has been said before, but what we’re really learning here is how deeply vulnerable America is to a competent fascist.) The second march, on the other hand, had no such contextual focus, so it didn’t do anything. It came and went. Even striking only works when you actually have your ducks in a row. The exact same tactic can just as easily be effective or useless depending on when and how it’s deployed.
And there’s still a very real danger that this is going to backfire. I mean, if you’re demanding “action” from the current administration, that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” theory still holds up pretty well here: whenever there’s cause for change, the ruling class uses the opportunity to make the changes they want. The NRA responds to literally every situation by calling for more guns, because that’s what they want, and they’re the people who are capable of getting what they want. It’s not at all surprising that we’re now seeing calls for constant police presence in schools: this is exactly the thing that we should expect to happen, given the current parameters of the society that we live in. This is the real threat that requires our opposition.
So there actually is a problem with what the teens are doing here: they’re making this about “safety.”1 It’s not. You can’t ever fully prevent things like mass shootings. Like, it’s appropriate to say “never again” to something like the Holocaust that has a lot of moving parts. Everything had to go wrong in order for it to happen, so as long as we remember to stay on guard against it, we should always be able to stop things before they get to that level (though that’s obviously a heavy “should”). A mass shooting is the opposite type of event: only one thing has to go wrong in order for it to happen, which means something like that is always going to be a possibility (even if you actually ban guns, there are still cars and homemade explosives and what have you). Obviously, things can be made safer; reducing the raw number of guns present will naturally reduce the number of gun-related accidents, and reduce the probability that the wrong person will have access to a gun at the wrong time. But there’s always going to be a chance that a gun is going to get through somewhere, which means, if you’re fully insistent on safety, that you have to institute a safeguard against that . . . and it has to be more of a threat than the gunner is capable of providing, or else it won’t be a deterrent . . . and it has to be everywhere, since you never know where the breach is going to occur. There’s only one conclusion: the logic of safety leads inexorably to a police state.
Thus, the quietist argument is in fact the best argument to be made against gun control. The rate of school shooting deaths is extremely low, and the rate of other deaths is comparable to other everyday threats, so the problem simply does not merit bothering with. If preventing deaths is what you’re after, you’re better off looking just about anywhere else. But there’s a better argument to be made on the other side: because guns don’t do anything useful, we might as well just go ahead and ban them. More than that, guns themselves already have negative utility, even before anyone gets shot. The whole “guns don’t kill people” thing is really the worst argument ever made, because of course guns kill people. Killing people is the only thing that guns do; it’s the entire reason they exist. Guns are objects, but nothing is “just” an object, because objects aren’t neutral. Without a gun it’s pretty fucking difficult to kill a person on accident, or even on purpose, but with a gun it’s trivially easy. This is a direct result of what type of object a gun is: it’s an object that kills people as effectively as possible.
The police state response at least honestly accounts for this: it acknowledges the fact that guns are extremely dangerous, and therefore advances an equally dangerous countermeasure as the only way to stop them. And this is a pro-safety argument: it is precisely not based on the idea that gun violence is “the price of freedom,” but rather the idea that safety must be preserved at any cost. It’s exactly the logical conclusion you get from following through on statements like “we cannot allow one more child to be shot at school.” The problem with this conclusion isn’t that it’s unsafe, it’s that it sucks. The threat of school shootings is better than a police state – and it’s also better than owning guns in the first place. That is, if it really were that case that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” we should still be opposed to guns, because guns are bad. We should accept the threat of gun violence for the sake of getting rid of guns.
That is: let’s grant the NRA their empirical argument. It may in fact be that case that, in a gun-saturated society, a lot of people who would otherwise do bad things won’t do them, but the reason for this is that they’re afraid of getting shot. And the only way this works is if everyone lives in that state of fear, all the time. A society where everyone constantly carries guns with the intent of using them to stop crimes is just a distributed and untrained police state. So the empirical issue of whether this type of society is “safer” or not is ultimately beside the point, because it’s an undesirable way to live regardless of the specific consequences that ensue from it. The cure is worse than the disease. The other alternative is that we remove as much violence as possible from everyday living, which will necessarily make us more vulnerable on those occasions when violence does end up occurring. Obviously, we’re not going to make ourselves naively vulnerable, reasonable safeguards are still reasonable, but it is within our abilities to focus on living well rather than jumping at every shadow and cowering around every corner. This is the argument that actually disarms the NRA, because it takes away the only real motivation they have, which is fear. What the NRA truly stands for is cowardice, so it’s important for those of us who oppose them to ensure that we do not make the same mistake.
An excessive focus on safety will always eventually resolve itself into illusion. There isn’t really anything that’s perfectly safe, but there are things that look that way, so doing something that looks safe is your actual practical option. If you’re scared of violent immigrants, there isn’t any real approach you can take to ensure that you’re never victimized. But you could, hypothetically, build some kind of big symbol that represents safety, such that looking at it and knowing that it’s there makes you feel safe, even though it doesn’t really do anything. I mean, living in denial really is a real choice you can make, and it’s the choice that most Americans make most of the time. So this isn’t a trivial dilemma. We really do have to decide what our values are. A magical Care Bear society where nothing bad ever happens is not one of the options, because there’s no such thing. The actual options are a society of constant violence where all problems are solved through further repression, or a society of civility where we accept the threat of tragedy for the sake of preserving human dignity. This is a real choice that has honest advocates on both sides. It’s clear to me what the right choice is, and if it’s clear to you, too, you shouldn’t hide behind facile invocations of “safety” and “responsibility.” You should say what you really believe.
And the extent to which the teens aren’t doing this is simply the extent to which they’re acting the way they’ve been taught to. They watch the news and they know that you’re supposed to say things like “this is not a political issue” and ask “tough questions” and make histrionic statements about “living in terror,” so that’s what they’ve been doing. But their initial emotional response was the right one. If the same number of kids had died as the result of a bus crash or something, it wouldn’t have had the same galvanizing effect, because there wouldn’t have been anything obviously “wrong” with it. But a society swimming in guns is, to these kids, obviously wrong, which is why they’re not standing for it. They actually do have a strong grasp on the relevant value claim here. The only problem is that the rest of us are doing our damnedest to pry it away from them. The potential negative consequences of their actions are simply a result of their being filtered through a society that gets literally everything wrong.
Violence is always a political issue, and there are more than two sides to every story. Getting your own story straight – making the right argument instead of the easy one – is the only thing that gives an ordinary person any real power. Doing the opposite, saying the easiest thing, or the thing that attracts the most attention, is how you ensure that society will be able to resolve your passion into support for the status quo. Most importantly, any issue of substance is not merely a “mistake” or an “inefficiency,” but a real value contest, with someone on the other side who is genuinely opposed to what you believe in and is pushing against you as hard as they can. They’ll act like they aren’t, like they “want what’s best for everyone” and are “just trying to find a reasonable solution,” but the fact that there was a problem in the first place – that you felt that scream in your heart insisting that this is wrong – is what proves them to be liars. The task of creating a real society is precisely the task of identifying your enemies and figuring out how to kill them. None of the easy targets here matter. Indeed, the reason they’re easy targets is because they don’t matter – they’re decoys. The thing we need to call BS on here is America.
We’re never going to be able to return to innocence, because innocence was an illusion in the first place. There never was a Garden of Eden, there’s just the regular kind of garden, where sometimes things grow and sometimes they don’t – which, of course, makes it all the more important to apply our full efforts to the task. But the real threat we have to watch out for isn’t that young lives might be cut short. It’s that they’re going to grow up shaped by the confines of the same system that killed their peers, and, in so doing, become just like the rest of us.
- Yeah, I know, I’m an asshole. Surprise! ↩