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Guns: the Fantasies, the Fear

Two perceptive observers of modern America comment on the psychology and ideology of  the gun cult, which includes our heavily-armed police. 

First, Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

To imagine something different, we have to understand the ideology that created our current legal regime. It was constructed on a foundation of fantasy and terror, one that elevates imaginary threats and decrees that our response to those threats can only be confronted by each of us alone, never through the institutions we create or the government that represents us.

No, only the isolated, heavily armed, perpetually terrified individual can hope to keep his family safe — so don’t even think about changing the laws, unless it’s to put more guns in more people’s hands.

What kind of fantasies are we talking about? The most important is that the U.S. government — the one designed by those sainted Framers whose genius conservatives praise so often — is always moments away from devolving into totalitarian oppression, and all that keeps it from happening is its fear of an armed populace ready to start killing soldiers and cops.

So after the killings in Uvalde, Tex., a Florida state representative tweeted an explicit threat to kill the president of the United States: “I have news for the . . . President — try to take our guns and you’ll learn why the Second Amendment was written in the first place.”

This idea is not unusual at all; gun advocates are forever claiming that their gun rights are the only thing that keeps America from turning into Nazi Germany. Or as Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters puts it in an ad, “Without gun rights, before long, you have no rights.”

Oddly, they never explain why countries such as England, France, Denmark, and every other liberal democracy haven’t devolved into brutal dictatorship despite their relatively unarmed populations.

The next fantasy, the one that guides so many of those deeply immersed in gun culture, is that of an impending assault that can only be met with sufficient firepower. Why do I need all these semiautomatic rifles, weapons designed to kill human beings in war? Because of the home invaders, the terrorists, the gangbangers coming to kill me and my family.

This idea of a world of chaotic violence saturates conservative media (where antifa and Black Lives Matter are forever burning down cities and coming to destroy your community) and the rhetoric of gun groups and gun enthusiasts. It’s absolutely central to that message that no collective or governmental response will protect you and your family. The cops won’t get there fast enough, laws don’t stop “the bad guys,” and in the end you are atomized and alone, left to either kill or be killed.

The tragic irony is that when this fantasy is the guiding principle of law, it creates its own justification and a version of its own reality. Since it’s so easy for anyone to get an AR-15, you need one too. Since you never know when somebody might cut you off in traffic or be rude to you at the Starbucks, everyone should be allowed to carry a gun, no permit or training required.

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. If that turns out not to be true — as it wasn’t in Buffalo or Uvalde — then the answer must be more and more guns.

The political implication is obvious: It’s not worth even trying to craft any kind of policy solution to gun violence. As Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — allegedly the state’s top law enforcement official — said after the Uvalde massacre, laws are pointless. . . . Though in fact, the Uvalde shooter did follow gun laws: He waited until his 18th birthday to legally purchase the rifle he used to kill those children. . . . 

It’s their fantasy world of horror and fear that gave us the laws we have now. And they’ll do everything they can to keep it that way.

Next, journalist David Roberts:

US police culture and training are perfectly tuned to attract and empower reactionaries. Reactionaries are cowards. They show “strength” and “manhood” by abusing the weak: black kids selling cigarettes on the street. Unarmed protesters. “Suspected drug dealers” asleep in bed.

This is not a matter of “people I think are bad for one reason are also bad for this other reason.” They are connected, part of the same mentality. The reactionary mind is driven by fear and that’s what you see in cops and cop training these days, the deep conviction that they’re always in danger, that every civilian is a threat, that they can’t go anywhere, into any situation, without *overwhelming* force, including a bunch of military gear. For fucks sake, they were scared to confront a lone school shooter.

The flip side is, when they’re in a situation where they DO have overwhelming force, when they do feel safe and in control, all that fear comes out as violence and abuse against the helpless. The violence is an attempt to purge the fear. Thus sitting on George Floyd’s neck for 8:46.

All of this is true in one way or another of all reactionaries, not just cops. T____ was happy to put the kids of asylum seekers in cages, but he was too chickenshit to fire people to their faces.

The ugly cruelty and the cowardice are flip sides of the same coin.

So yeah, we need to reform police funding and equipment and unions, but the deeper (and infinitely more difficult) reform is to change the training and culture to attract grown-ass men, not frightened bullies trapped in adolescence.

The sight of all those hopped-up, body-armored, automatic weapon-wielding cops standing around outside a school building while a teenager slaughtered children inside should be seared in our collective memory forever. . . .

The mentality that seeks to heap misery & suffering on defenseless trans kids and the mentality that waits outside an active school shooting because cops “might get hurt” are the same mentality.

As If What’s True Matters to Them

Charles Pierce of Esquire covers one more case in which the truth couldn’t compete with right-wing fantasy and paranoia (as originally reported in more detail by The New York Times). Mr. Pierce’s conclusion regarding who is ultimately responsible for this nonsense is important:

. .. . Some local boosters in the central part of Montana wanted to arrange for the area to be declared a National Heritage Area. This, they believed, would boost the tourist economy in that beautiful, but lonely, place. It also would bring in some much-needed FREE MONEY! from the federal government. This sounded like a plan to many of the people living there, and especially to the local mover-and-shaker communities. But they did not reckon with the power of the Intertoobz, and one citizen’s willingness to believe anything she read there. . . .

For seven years, beginning in 2013, the proposal went along swimmingly behind the work of a retired Forest Service officer. There were town meetings, and the process was largely peaceful. And then D____ T____ ran for re-election and hell followed after him.

Rae Grulkowski [a 56-year old businesswoman who had never been involved in politics] heard a local candidate speak against the proposal, and she thereafter went so far off the diving board that said candidate disowned her and her work. Like that even matters.

At the time, [Grulkowski] was becoming engrossed in the online world of far-right media. From her home on 34 acres in Stockett, a farming community of 157 people south of Great Falls, she watched videos from outlets like His Glory TV, where hosts refer to President Biden as “the so-called president.” She subscribed to the Telegram messaging channel of Seth Keshel, a prolific disinformation spreader. And she came across a vein of conspiratorial accusations that national heritage areas were a kind of Trojan horse that could open the door to future federal land grabs.

When Ms. Grulkowski, who owns a septic cleaning company, tried using Ms. [Jeni] Dodd’s group to push the idea that Montanans’ property rights were at risk, Ms. Dodd kicked her out for promoting lies. “I’m not happy with people saying it will seize your property, because that is disingenuous,” Ms. Dodd said. “I said to her, ‘I think you need to be careful about the message. It isn’t actually the way that it works, what you’re saying.’”

But Ms. Grulkowski plowed ahead.

. . . She collected addresses from a list of voters and spent $1,300 sending a packet denouncing the proposed heritage area to 1,498 farmers and ranchers. She told them the designation would forbid landowners to build sheds, drill wells or use fertilizers and pesticides. It would alter water rights, give tourists access to private property, create a new taxation district and prohibit new septic systems and burials on private land, she said.

None of this was true.

Like that matters anymore.

Grulkowski found powerful allies to support her fantasies. The head of the Montana Farm Bureau, a muscular lobbying group, signed onboard. . . The Farm Bureau guy sounds like a real prize.

In two hours of talking at his farm, Mr. Bandel could offer no evidence to back up that claim. He said he distrusted assurances that there were no such designs. “They say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to do it right. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. I think Adolf Hitler said that, too, didn’t he?” Mr. Bandel said. “The fear of the unknown is a huge fear.” Mr. Bandel said he trusted Ms. Grulkowski with the details.

And why wouldn’t you? I mean, it’s not like Ms. Grulkowski would believe anything that comes out of the pixelverse, right?

Outside of a poultry coop, as her chickens and ducks squawked, Ms. Grulkowski ticked through the falsehoods she had read online and accepted as truths in the past year: The Covid vaccine is more dangerous than the coronavirus. Global child-trafficking rings control the political system. Black Lives Matter was responsible for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The United Nations is plotting to control world population and seize private land. Mr. T____ was the rightful winner of last year’s election. Even in Cascade County, where Mr. T____ won 59 percent of the vote, Ms. Grulkowski argued that 3,000 illegal votes were cast.

We didn’t believe in any of that stuff until last July,” Ms. Grulkowski said. “Then we stumbled on something on the internet, and we watched it, and it took us two days to get over that. And it had to do with the child trafficking that leads to everything. It just didn’t seem right, and that was just over the top. And then we started seeing things that are lining up with that everywhere.”

She started seeing things. I have no doubt of that.

Pretty soon, . . . thanks to the cowardice and stupidity of the Montana political establishment—right up to and including Governor Greg (Body Slam) Gianforte and U.S. Senator Steve Daines—there were power players joining the fight against this non-existent threat.

Yet it soon became accepted as truth by enough people to persuade Montana’s leading Republican figures and conservative organizations, including the farm bureau, Gov. Gianforte and Senator Daines, to oppose the proposal and enact a state law forbidding the federal government to create any heritage area in Montana.

It is a ban that the state has no authority to enforce.

Like that even matters any more.

The dispute has split communities, become a wedge issue in this fall’s political campaigns and left proponents of the heritage area flummoxed at their collective inability to refute falsehoods once they have become accepted wisdom. “We’ve run into the uneducable,” Ellen Sievert, a retired historic preservation officer for Great Falls and surrounding Cascade County, said. “I don’t know how we get through that.”

I have a Pro Tip for these folks: you can’t defeat the imaginary with either logic or reason. Delusions have their own physical laws, and you don’t know what they are.

Rae Gulkowski is not the problem. Rae Gulkowskis have been with us always. I wrote a book once that had as one of its central themes that the United States is the best country in the history of the world to be completely out of your mind. It is the powerful interests—political, social, financial; local and national—who are willing to pretend to swallow any fantastical codswallop for their own dark purposes who are the real sources of peril to the republic’s existence. It’s the people who should know better, and who clearly don’t, and worse, who don’t give a damn.

Unquote.

It doesn’t look like taking Fox News and Facebook out of the picture would have made a difference in this case, but unless we do something about the way Facebook and Fox News feed right-wing fantasy and paranoia, it’s fair to conclude that the Republican Party will become even more divorced from reality and Republican politicians will become even worse than they are now.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War isn’t going well at all. His young son, Willie, has died, devastating Lincoln and his wife. At night, alone, the President visits the cemetery, retrieves his son’s body from its crypt and holds it in his arms. 

The President doesn’t know it, but he is surrounded by ghosts or spirits. They are denizens of the bardo:

Used loosely, “bardo” is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan [Buddhist] tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena [Wikipedia].

The phenomena the ghosts experience are strange to say the least. Their incorporeal selves take on bizarre shapes, they are merged with other ghostly beings against their will, they enter Lincoln’s body and know his thoughts and memories. They sometimes disappear amid sound and fury, presumably emerging somewhere else. The conversations they have with each other make up most of the novel. 

The more I read Lincoln in the Bardo, the more I enjoyed it. It’s understandable that it won last year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Nostalgia Once Removed, or Stardust Memories

Chinatown is a wonderful movie. One of the great things about it is how it portrays Los Angeles in 1937. The city looks so shiny and new. Watching Chinatown always makes me nostalgic for Los Angeles, even though I lived there decades after the 1930s. 

What’s odd is that I don’t have especially happy memories of Los Angeles. Living there, it often seemed as if the really good stuff was happening on the other side of town.

My nostalgia, my “bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past”, my “wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to some past period”, is mostly for the past that didn’t happen. It’s for the past that might have been, a longing for missed opportunities in a setting that promised something wonderful.

The Germans could have a word for it: “Sehnsuchtnacheinervergangenensie hattennie”.

Sehnsucht nach einer vergangenen sie hatten nieNostalgia for a past you never had.

We might also call the phenomenon “stardust memories”.

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