25 May 2014

Another Armed, Angry White Man


At the Daily Beast, Cliff Schechter has a piece titled "How the NRA Enables Massacres", which, despite some hyperbolic language, is worth reading for the general information, as is his piece on a visit to the recent NRA convention. Schechter isn't reporting anything new, and the pieces are superficial compared to some earlier writings on all this, but it's always worth reminding ourselves that gun massacres in the US are part of a culture that has been carefully manufactured, protected, nurtured, enflamed.

I've written a lot about guns and gun culture here over the past few years. Writing those posts from scratch now, I would change occasional wording in some of them, clarify a few points, etc. (the hazards of writing on the fly), but you could take almost anything I've written previously and apply it to the latest massacre.

The place of hegemonic masculinity in this type of event is especially clear this time, but it's been present before and is a common component to why this sort of thing happens. It's a racialized hegemonic masculinity, too, the deadly scream of the angry white man — a sense of entitlement thwarted. In the book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, Michael Kimmel writes: "As men experience it, masculinity may not be the experience of power. But it is the experience of entitlement to power" (185).

The NRA and the gun manufacturers have become experts at stoking that sense of entitlement and profiting off of it. At every possible moment, the NRA, the manufacturers, and their minions point out as many threats to power as they can imagine, and then they offer their commodities as tools for stabilizing and strengthening that power.




The patterns have been in play at least since the 1980s. James William Gibson's Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America was published 20 years ago, but it's at least as relevant today as it was then. Consider, for instance, his discussion of mass murderers:
Although several of these paramilitary killers went after former co-workers and bosses, and some even killed their families, most targeted a distinct social group... Thus, Huberty seems to have considered the Latinos at the San Ysidro McDonald's to be Vietnamese. Patrick Purdy was found to have been a white supremacist; his choice of Asian schoolchildren was not an accident. Canadian Marc Lepine shot only women. (237)
Gibson's chapter "Bad Men and Bad Guns: The Symbolic Politics of Gun Control" is useful reading for these conversations, and reminds us of the deep history here. Most importantly, it helps show why so many past efforts have been ineffective (though profitable for both the NRA and the gun control organizations). What would have stopped the mass shootings? he wonders. Most of the proposed and enacted legislation would not have. A more accessible and effective mental health system might have helped in some cases. But:
Most of all, stopping the madmen would have required understanding that they were not isolated "deviants" who simply invented their mayhem out of thin air and looked and acted completely differently from the "ordinary" people in the mainstream of American culture. On the contrary, in their killings they gave expression to some of the most basic cultural dynamics of the decade — in the face of either real or imaginary problems, declare an enemy responsible and go to war....

To argue, then, that many of these murderers could have been stopped solely by increased gun control is to pretend that the social and political crises of post-Vietnam America never occurred and that the New War did not develop as the major way of overcoming those disasters. Paramilitary culture made military-style rifles desirable, and legislation cannot ban a culture. The gun-control debate was but the worst kind of fetishism, in which focusing on a part of the dreadful reality of the decade — combat weapons — became a substitute for confronting what America had become. (263-264)
A year after Gibson's book was published, Timothy McVeigh drove to Oklahoma City and showed exactly what the angry white male paramilitary culture stood for.


Siege imagery pervades and energizes that culture, as demonstrated with the Cliven Bundy affair.  One shift it has taken after the end of the Cold War is toward a more general apocalypticism. Instead of yearning for war with the Russians, now the paramilitarists yearn for the breakdown of contemporary society. Like the world's most overzealous Boy Scouts, they are prepared. This is a power fantasy and a religious fantasy: all the "bad" people will be wiped from the Earth, and the "good" people (prepared, armed, ready) will inherit it and thrive. Or something. The details of eschatology don't matter as much as the process of preparation, because that process is a way of reclaiming some sense of power and protecting a feeling of entitlement: I will survive because I deserve to. There's also a sense of revenge in apocalyptic yearning, too: Once the apocalypse comes, you'll no longer be able to laugh at me, dismiss me, devalue me. You'll need me, because I will be ready and you will be miserable.

What's really under siege is the sense of entitlement. That sense is part of a mythology, one killers feed on. Here's part of a conversation between Bill Moyers and the historian Richard Slotkin, whose work has done a lot to delineate the history of the murderous mythology:
RICHARD SLOTKIN: We produce the lone killer. That is to say the lone killer is trying to validate himself or herself in terms of the, I would call the historical mythology, of our society, wants to place himself in relation to meaningful events in the past that lead up to the present.
BILL MOYERS: You say “or her”, but the fact of the matter is all of these killers lately have been males.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, yeah, pretty much always are.
BILL MOYERS: And most of them white?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yeah. Yeah, I think, again this is because each case is different, but the tendency that you've pointed out is true and I've always felt that it has something to do, in many cases, with a sense of lost privilege, that men and white men in the society feel their position to be imperiled and their status called into question. And one way to deal with an attack on your status in our society is to strike out violently.
American gun culture has always been racialized and gendered. From later in the conversation with Slotkin:
RICHARD SLOTKIN: ...And Colt-- one of Colt's original marketing ploys was to market it to slave owners. Here you are, a lone white man, overseer or slave owner, surrounded by black people. Suppose your slaves should rise up against you. Well, if you've got a pair of Colt's pistols in your pocket, you are equal to twelve slaves. And that's “The Equalizer,” that it's not all men are created equal by their nature. It's that I am more equal than others because I've got extra shots in my gun.
BILL MOYERS: But you write about something you call “the equalizer fallacy.”
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, the equalizer doesn't produce equality. What it produces is privilege. If I have six shots in my gun and you've got one, I can outvote you by five shots. Any man better armed than his neighbors is a majority of one.
And that's the equalizer fallacy. It goes to this notion that the gun is the guarantor of our liberties. We're a nation of laws, laws are the guarantors of our liberties. If your rights depend on your possession of a firearm, then your rights end when you meet somebody with more bullets or who's a better shot or is meaner than you are.
BILL MOYERS: And yet the myth holds--
RICHARD SLOTKIN: And yet--
BILL MOYERS: --stronger than the reality?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, yes, the myth holds. And it is stronger than the reality. Because those guns, particularly the Colt is associated with one of the most active phases and most interesting phases of expansion. And therefore it has the magic of the tool, the gun that won the west, the gun that equalized, the whites and the Indians, the guns that created the American democracy and made equality possible.
The angry white men may be a minority of gun owners, and just one of the audiences for the NRA and the manufacturers, but they are the audience most valued, because they are the people who will keep buying no matter what, the people who will, from fear and anger, amass a hoard of deadly tools. The NRA and the manufacturers have cultivated that audience, have encouraged that fear and anger, and have profited greatly from the murders. We should give no credence to their crocodile tears; every massacre means they can return to their favorite profit lines: Now the liberals and feminists and Obama-lovers will come for your guns. Now you will lose your power. Now you will be robbed of what you deserve. Stock up. Prepare. Defend yourself. Be a man. Ready — aim — fire—


Update 5/26: According to this essay by Lucy Inglis, the killer responsible for the massacre identified as of mixed race, thus my title here and some assumptions may be inaccurate. How much of what I've written is invalidated, I leave to you to judge for yourself, as teasing out all of the possible implications and imbrications would move us away from my central point here and put too much emphasis on the killer's identity and psychology. I'm really not interested in him as an individual, but rather the pattern to which he contributed.


It seems to me that Inglis works too hard to remove the killer from the discourse of rape culture and misogyny. Whether she intends to or not, the effect of her writing (particularly the final paragraph) is to remove the massacre from a broader context and to make it too much a random event from a lone killer. The outlines of this massacre are too familiar for us to make it a singular event, unconnected to other forces. She's right that all sorts of influences and circumstances led to it, but that doesn't mean we should ignore the most visible and tragically familiar ones.

Kimmel's Angry White Men is useful here, particularly the chapter titled "Targeting Women" (similarly, Gibson's chapter "Black-Widow Women"):
Men's violence toward women does not happen when men's power over women is intact and unthreatened; rather, it happens when men's power breaks down, when his entitlement to that power is threatened and insecure. Violence is restorative, rataliatory. It springs from that sense of entitlement to women's domenstic services and to their sexual favors. When that sense of entitlement is aggrieved, they don't just get mad; they get even. (183)
That sense of aggrieved entitlement is a pretty accurate description of what seems to have been a primary motivation here. (I would adjust Kimmel's point to being about men's perception of their power and their desire for a feeling of power over women. It's that desire that must be addressed, that perception of a need for such power — the idea that to be a whole man, you must dominate women. These nuances come through in Kimmel's chapter, but excerpting just a few sentences here warps it a bit.)

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