Apparently the NRA keeps an enemies list of “anti-gun” organizations and public figures, and of the 37 journalists named on it, 14 are editorial cartoonists. As a cartoonist and an American, I find this news deeply disturbing. I am getting on that fucking list.
"Guns Are for Pussies," February 8, 201
One of several reasons why the “debate” over guns, like a lot of other debates in this country, has been so intractable for so long is that neither side trusts in the other’s honesty or good faith. Each side believes its own stated arguments to be, quite simply and truthfully, their real arguments, and sees their opponents’ arguments as transparent smokescreens for their "real," more insidious agendas.
In my more charitable moods I ascribe gun owners’ passionate attachment to these weapons to fear. Their fear is grotesquely distorted--cultivated by the media and exacerbated by their own chosen propaganda--and guns are a delusional means of placating that fear, a semiautomatic security blanket. But fear is at least a motive I can empathize with. But I also suspect that some gun owners are driven by something deeper and creepier—a kind of castration anxiety or overcompensation, for which guns serve as fetish objects.
It’s clear enough to me that gun-owners’ need for their guns is just that—not a liking or a right but a need, something irrational and scary, the sort of thing that, when you try to take it away, makes them not just sorry or mad but frantic, insane, dangerous. They remind me of those types on the other end of the political spectrum for whom the legalization of hemp is the single most important issue in the United States today. It’s not that I disagree with those guys, exactly--our nation’s drug laws are ridiculous and unjust, a waste of resources and a crime against all the people in prison for a piddling offense, and by now pretty much everyone from the President of the United States on down has done bong hits, so it obviously should’ve been legalized decades ago--it’s just that I don’t think any of those perfectly valid reasons are the real reason the issue is so important to them. It’s because they’re addicts. In fact gun advocates' behavior is scarily similar to that of addicts when you try to gently divest them of their required substance: they offer up every good argument in the world why this thing is harmless, beneficial, even, it's vitally necessary, a God-given right, and it’s none of your goddamn business anyway, until finally they abaondon all pretense of debate and bare their teeth and start foaming at the mouth threatening to kill someone.
It’s sort of a pro forma convention of editorials about gun control to insert a disclaimer about how you, the author, grew up in some backward gun-happy Red state and owned your first rifle when you were twelve and enjoyed many happy hours sitting in a duck blind with your grandpap. Unfortunately my parents were Mennonites and pacifists and I grew up thinking of people who owned handguns as fearful and weak, and of people who killed animals for fun as sick. To be fair, I have met some gun owners in adult life who’ve given me cause to moderate these judgments, like my friend Randy, who worked with me going door-to-door for the environment back in the day, campaigns for local Democratic candidates, and makes his own excellent barbecue sauce, and once shot a 600-pound boar, an animal so large there was literally not one room in his house big enough to contain its mounted head. Or Erik, who is cooler than me for many, many reasons, including, obviously, having the same name as the Phantom of the fucking Opera, as well as being the front man of a punk band, a Baltimore City public school teacher, and a collector of Orwell first editions, but also because he has a sleek steel G-man briefcase that turns out to contain several handguns cushioned in custom-contoured foam rubber, including a .357 Magnum, the kind Dirty Harry uses.
Erik once took me to an indoor shooting range in Baltimore, where I got to fire a rented Thompson gun (it’s Baltimore—you can do anything there). I was told to hold this submachine gun like a rifle, with the butt against my shoulder, and to fire only in short, controlled bursts, but once you’ve got the thing in your hands the conditioning of 800,000 gangster films takes over and you find yourself with the Tommy gun at your hip, having depleted your entire magazine, the barrel hot enough to sear flesh, surrounded by smoke. I admit I could definitely see the appeal of this sport, especially if you were screaming/laughing on the roof of a burning abandoned warehouse and Johnny Law was closing in. Eat lead, coppers!
I digress. What I’m saying is that I feel like I can see plainly what gun rights advocates’ real motives are; it’s less easy for me to understand what they think gun control advocates’ motives are. It seems to me as if my own investment in the gun debate—not wanting so many people to get shot—would be self-evident. But they seem to think there is some liberal conspiracy to Take Their Guns Away, for sinister, pathological reasons I can’t guess at–gun envy, perhaps. Or maybe it's just that, as they said about The Terrorists, "we hate freedom." The shadowy motives conservatives ascribe to what seem to me like liberals’ common-sense positions--an “anti-petroleum agenda” to describe climate change activists, for example--don’t make whole a lot of sense to me. Every time there’s a mass shooting and we plead, once more, for the most obvious and sane gun legislation—an assault weapons ban, better background checks, waiting periods--they affect disgust at our shameless opportunism in “politicizing” the tragedy. To us this seems like accusing someone of politicizing 9/11; it is obviously, inherently, a political issue. But politics are always invisible to their beneficiaries, even if they feel like shackles or instruments of torture to their victims.
To me, this disparity of evident motives is the most parsimonious way of evaluating the respective merits of opposing sides in any debate. If one side has no evident self-interested agenda beyond truth or fairness or the public good, that's the side you should probably be listening to. Climate-change alarmists seem motivated either by evidence (in the case of the few people who actually know what they’re talking about—climatologists and geologists) or by faith in scientific consensus; climate change deniers seem motivated either by naked, mercenary self-interest (in the case of the oil industry and its flacks) or by a more general hostility toward inconvenient data (in the case of the Fox watchership). Gun advocates’ fervid idealism in defense of the Second Amendment reminds me of the uncharacteristically teary-eyed patriotic sentiment with which pornographers cite the First. Yeah clearly firearms are protected, in some sense, under the Constitution, as is freedom of expression. As a cartoonist and a writer, I'm kind of a First Amendment hard-liner. But in all honesty I have to wonder whether, if Alexander Hamilton or James Madison were to hear about the mass execution of schoolchildren in Connecticut or happened to catch Busty Backdoor Nurses on hotel-room cable, they’d agree that this is just what they were envisioning.*
Both sides in the gun debate are motivated primarily by fear. The difference, I would argue, is that gun-control advocates are motivated by realistic, adult fears, and gun-rights advocates by delusional, childish ones. We’re afraid of something that actually keeps happening out in real life—innocent people being murdered or accidentally killed by firearms. Their fear is of something that mostly happens in their imaginations, in sensational tabloid stories, or in movies or on TV—a dark intruder breaks into their home with the intention of killing them, raping their wives, molesting their children, taking their things. And the comforting fantasy they indulge, derived from all the action movies and TV shows they’ve absorbed, is that they will save everyone by killing this evil man. As Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, put it with creepy little-boy innocence: “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” They imagine that in a moment of utmost terror they will react with cool, discerning precision. Whereas even police, who are specially trained to make split-second decisions using firearms with deadly force in a crisis, sometimes accidentally massacre guys who were reaching for their wallets.
Of course no one's actually talking about taking away handguns. But a lot of gun owners--or at least their spokespeople in the gun lobby--now seem to believe that any gun legislation is only the beginning of The Government's plan to confiscate Americans’ firearms as preamble to some Third-Reich-style roundup and purge of freethinking people everywhere. This is not a straw-man representation of their position. The grandiose paranoid fantasy is that they and their gun collections are the lone bulwark against a totalitarian socialist takeover, just as we left-wing cartoonists, drummers, and puppeteers like to think we're the vanguard against a totalitarian fascist takeover. I am not unfamiliar with this strain of thinking; back during the darkest days of the War on Terror I was certain that the Bush administration would find some way of remaining in power beyond their constitutionally allotted two terms. I even placed a bet on it. But real-life evil tends to be well-meaning and halfassed, not malevolently omnipotent, and the Bush cabal turned out to be as inept at managing America as they were at occupying Iraq, and history and the next election ground unglamorously on. Anyway, I hate to be the one to break it to gun owners, but The Government has satellites that can read your latest blog entry over your shoulder and drones that can blow up your backyard bomb shelter at the touch of a button from seven thousand miles away, so if it were ever to decide to liquidate its most feared subversive element, paranoid rednecks, your home arsenal will prove as formidable a defense as Wile E. Coyote’s fragile pink parasol is against boulders.
I suspect these vivid terrors of the dark intruder crawling in the window or jackbooted ATF agents kicking down the door are nightmare-symbols for all their real, more nebulous fears--fear of living in a country in decline, of an economy that's never bouncing back, that has no further use for their whole class; fear of a political tide that's turned against everything they believe in--unregulated free-market capitalism, Traditional Marriage, Christmas; and, maybe most of all, fear of that grim eventuality I once overheard foretold from a stall of the men's room in Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library: "the White Man's day is gonna come." After all, there's a black man in the White House; the fags are getting married; the illegals' kids are going to college. What left for the beseiged and cowering White Man?
This fixation on firearms as a guarantee of freedom seems like an embarrassingly crude, childish understanding of what constitutes political power. It’s pathetic, even poignant in a way--a cartoon fantasy of invincibility for people who have been deprived of any real political power for generations and have no hope of ever wielding it. They're like working joes who listen to talk-radio and think it’s “class warfare” to target taxpayers earning more than $100,000 a year--as if the truly wealthy even calculated their worth in terms of a yearly wage. It’s snobby of me, I know, but when I read some pro-gun comments on the internet I can’t help but think that if gun owners could spell as well as they can shoot they might value their First Amendment rights as much as they do their Second.** At heart, they subscribe to the homily of that great founding father who said: “All political power flows from the barrel of a gun.” But most of the successful revolutions in recent history have been accomplished by unarmed citizenries taking to the streets; the decisive moment generally comes when the military (or the police, in those places where they are one and the same) switches sides and joins the people. It is not firepower per se that ultimately determines the outcome, but numbers, loyalties, a shift in the popular will and in moral authority. Which is what the gun lobby irrevocably lost after Newtown. The revolution is already underway. The White Man's day has come.
(Note to Randy: looking forward to discussing further over beers in the Land of Pleasant Living.)
*It isn’t a blanket conservative hostility toward science that’s at work here; if some new scientific report showed that homosexuality was learned behavior or that trilobite fossils were only five thousand years old, it would be trumpeted as gospel on Fox and in the tabloids and cited with Talmudic authority by right-wing bloggers and barroom blowhards everywhere. Conservatives have historically been antagonistic to science only because, due to some insidious agenda of its own, it’s pretty consistently controverted conservatives’ most cherished beliefs.
** To be fair, free speech has about as much effect against the edifice of corporate/governmental power as a .38 does against a Stealth bomber. There's exactly one thing that affords any access to real power in this country and everyone knows what it is.
The paperback edition of We Learn Nothing is scheduled for release April 9th.
If your local bookstore, library, college, or gun club is interested in hosting a reading, they can contact my publicist, Meg Cassidy:
I'm afraid I'm not likely to make it off the East Coast for this one, but they can always ask.
Praise for We Learn Nothing
"Tim Kreider's writing is heartbreaking, brutal and hilarious--usually at the same time. He can do in a few pages what I need several hours of screen time and tens of millions to accomplish. And he does it better. Come to think of it, I'd rather not do a blurb. I am beginning to feel bad about myself."
"Tim Kreider may be the most subversive soul in America and his subversions--by turns public and intimate, political and cultural--are just what our weary, mixed-up nation needs. The essays in We Learn Nothing are for anybody who believes it's high time for some answers, damn it."
author of Empire Falls and The Risk Pool
"Tim Kreider is a writer-artist who brilliantly understands that every humorist at his best is a liberator. Because he is irreverent, makes us laugh, ruffles the feathers of the pretentious and the pompous, and keeps us honest, We Learn Nothing is a pleasure from its first page to the last.""
author of Middle Passage and Black Humor
"We Learn Nothing articulated, for me, more human truths than any book in recent memory. When you're done with it, it feels almost like finishing a textbook; you actually feel like you understand how things work a little better."
– "The Most Underrated Book of 2012," Publishers Weekly
"Earnest, well-turned personal essays about screw-ups without an ounce of sanctimony—a tough trick."
– Kirkus Reviews
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