Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's 4/20 Somewhere

A few months back, I went to MIT's GameLab symposium, ran into old friends and new acquaintances. The content was interesting, of course, but aside from finding myself suddenly in the same room with Peter Molyneux--and becoming very self-conscious of all the smack I've talked about him all these years--I mostly remember the breaks, and the reception, and the repeated catch-ups and introductions. I was exhausted, having been up late reminiscing with an old Tori room friend until the wee small hours of the morning, and found that I lacked the enthusiasm to be embarrassed about how things were going. So when people asked how I was, I didn't find a way to change the subject, or inflate pipe dreams into viable projects. I simply answered, in as friendly and earnest a manner as I could manage, "I'm terrible. How're you?"

The feeling is strangely liberating. Doris Rusch, of Akrasia and Elude fame, advised me to write a novel. It's a tall order, but I suppose she does have credibility on the topic. Tell you what, Doris. You make a game about writer's block, I'll throw 60,000 words into something from the Goofy Vampire Shit file. Who knows, if housewives can masturbate to it, I could finally be writing for a living.

If you'll bear with me, you'll find that you've been bearing with me for the last two paragraphs, because I haven't bothered to introduce the topic of this post, which is the Newtown shooting. I begin with the symposium to bring some context to my initial reaction: shock and disbelief. Specifically, shock and disbelief that people were rending their garments over a rampage shooting in America. The fault here is clearly mine; my capacities for shock and grief have been stretched a bit thin recently. To put it succinctly, I feel badly.

The thing is, even had I not been operating from a place of sullen amorality, I think I still would have been surprised at the extent of the teeth-gnashing and garment-rending. Because, honestly, if I reacted to every rampage shooting with the pity and anger and incomprehension of Columbine, I'd have either moved out of the U.S. or stopped reading the news years ago.

I promised to post exactly two things about this, because, as noted here, I gave at the office, and don't have a whole lot to say on the subject that's either original or interesting. The first was this, because it's the logical starting point for what interests me about the current cultural moment. There are a lot of issues in play right now in American politics, but gun control really isn't one of them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it hasn't been in play for the decade or two; we'll have to see how the current kerfuffle plays out. If I'm not mistaken, the most significant changes wrought by the Columbine shooting, aside from the ongoing militarization of our schools, was a change in Wal-Mart's inventory. Since then, the most notable gun-related policy shift has been the expiration of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, commonly (and oddly) referred to as the Assault Weapons Ban. This is not the brutal, gunless dystopia we were promised, and like his failure to crash the stock market and cripple American capital, reflects badly on Obama's willingness or ability to destroy America as he promised.

This has not stopped gun control opponents from making impassioned, heartfelt, deontological arguments, but I admit that I'm not entirely certain who they're hoping to reach, because gun rights are under no real threat. Congress can barely pass popular legislation, let alone "culture war" shit. Not only are "guns"--the entire broad category of ballistic weaponry, apparently, from the flamelock onward--not going to be banned, but no congressman is going to even introduce legislation to that effect. The most that's going to happen, barring a massive sea-change in Congress' perception of the electorate, is a ban on certain high-capacity magazines, and possibly the return of the PS&RFUPA. (That law is a lot of fun to type.)

I am, as a rule, deeply suspicious of principle, so when I see people making wide, generalized deontological arguments about present-day politics, I start asking whether the application of said principle can be defended on any grounds other than the authority of the principle itself. There are plenty of reasons one might prefer to live in a society that has few restrictions on private ownership of weapons. Hunting and home-defense remain perennial rhetorical favorites. Less commonly asserted is the value of corpse-free recreational shooting itself, which is to say, pleasure. A lot of people think guns are fun. Pleasure is a legitimate social good to be considered and weighed alongside others. This is an issue that can be dealt with through standard, boring democratic means.

What I find more concerning is the obfuscatory argument-by-invocation, the assertion that the second amendment takes democratic processes off the table. We can live in a society of freely available weaponry if we want to, but the second amendment does not obligate us to. At least, nobody claimed that it did until the 1960s. Regardless, it would be disingenuous to say that this ties our hands. The 18th amendment made alcohol illegal, but we didn't throw up our hands and say that the Constitution prevented us from drinking. We repealed that motherfucker. Ok, first, we continued drinking alcohol in huge quantities, helped subsidize aggressive organized crime syndicates that would then proceed to infiltrate our law enforcement operations, and started wearing really wonderfully fashionable clothing. But then we repealed that motherfucker. We, collectively, can do what we want. Some of those things might require more than a simple majority vote, but nothing is forever off the table. That is ok. That is how republics do things. The Bill of Rights is not the Decalogue. God will not wither our souls if we make bad policy choices. We will simply have to live with bad policy choices until we decide to change them. The argument from authority is not sufficient. If the Founders are worth listening to, we can discern that fact that the policy merits of their ideas, not the fact of their capitalized mythic identity.

This is not to say that we should take constitutional restrictions lightly, nor do I mean to suggest that more restrictive gun control policies would have uniformly positive, predictable outcomes. Conversely, that is not to say that trendy nihilism is the appropriate response. Yes, it is true that we cannot prevent all violence, all evil, everywhere. It is true, it is obvious, and employed effectively, it can add a meaningful rhetorical flourish. It seems to have every quality but that of being useful. We also can't prevent death, not indefinitely. But I still take the trouble to eat every day, and I take care when I make left turns. That utopia is unavailable is not, in itself, an argument that the status quo is the best for which we may hope. Chalking it up to original sin is not a policy prescription. Despair, like hope, is not a strategy.

Related, arguing that it's in poor taste to discuss policy, that it's "too soon" and sensitivity to the victims demands that we stammer awkwardly and change the subject, is a classic small-c conservative move, the first and most beloved argument to obstruct the democratic process. Yes, the media coverage is sure to be traumatic to many. This can be mitigated somewhat by consideration on the part of individual journalists, but in wake of a tragedy of this magnitude, I sincerely doubt that our contribution to the survivors' misery is more than negligible, in terms of total abject horror. If you're interested, you can test it out yourself. Find a parent who lost a child to accident, suicide, or murder, and tell them how lucky they are that they didn't have to see references to their pain in the media. I'm sure they'll agree that they have much to be thankful for.

As nice as it would be to bend the entire culture to sympathy for the victims, there are many, many children who haven't been shot yet, and they matter too. It would be nice if we could collectively and unobtrusively sit shiva with the victims' families, but we do have stuff to do. The supplication for sensitive silence is a specific application of the more general use of "politics" as a dirty word, denoting arguments over outcomes that are meaningless to all but the players directly involved. Politics, says the meme, is for politicians, a species of humanoid insect in flesh masks. It's despicable the way people keep trying to polticize the ongoing threat of random violence, as if the means by which we make collaborative decisions about how best to ensure our well-being could possibly have anything to do with preventing violent crime.

Thankfully, we are having that discussion. Sadly, in the main, it's not going terribly well. The gut reactions seem to mostly involve "banning" things that are already illegal, a matter not helped by the bizarre insistence that a problem that is partially technological be dealt with at any level of technical specificity. Semi-automatic and automatic are not synonymous; fully automatic weapons are already illegal, and have been for some time; the term "assault weapon" is a vague term describing semi-automatics that look like assault rifles. We've been playing first-person shooters for twenty fucking years now. It's not unreasonable to expect people to know a bit about guns.

On the other side of the aisle, Prohibition and the drug war are not the only times the government has attempted to ban things. As far as similarities go between alcohol, marijuana, and semi-automatic rifles chambered for .556 rounds, the fact that people have wanted to ban them is pretty much it. The risk factors, means of production, and moral economy differ entirely. Similarly, the argument that "criminals can always get guns" is somewhat specious, in that the availability of illegal guns is a function of the availability of legal guns. I rather doubt that criminals have set up underground factories into which they import raw materials and produce illicit weapons. It seems like that sort of operation would be much easier to find than, say, a grow house. (It is worth noting that, yes, 3D printing might make this reality in a few years. The meme might be more true by then.) The trade in illegal guns does raise some concerns about the efficacy of state laws in a country with 48 easily-transgressable internal borders. It also suggests that, if such a policy were enacted carelessly, we do run the risk of disarming the criminals last.

Ah, but here we hit another vocabulary roadblock. It's not insightful to point out that only criminals use guns to commit murder; it's tautological. Unless we legalize murder, it is not possible for non-criminals to commit murder. But people do commit murder, without first conducting a syllogism to see if it's ok. It seems that our definition of "criminal" errs heavily on the identity of the "career criminal," an odious symbolic individual who, for all his faults, isn't usually interested in getting himself killed for no particular reason. Criminals--those ruthless, rational, career criminals we're concerned about--tend to want to live. If they didn't, the money wouldn't matter very much, and they could just find inexpensive ways to kill themselves, like being insufficiently deferent to police.

Right, the police. The state's instruments of democratically authorized violence, a vitally important job that we've decided should be treated as a low-skilled, low-paying position. Conservatives and anarchists alike espouse the importance of being able to shoot it out with the police; curiously, the conservatives also eagerly argue that police should have no checks on their power whatsoever. The anarchists have the edge on this one, ideologically, but it's not a solution to the problem of a culture that too frequently allows bullies, vigilantes, and psychopaths to wield coercive power. I'll head off my mother-in-law's objection early, by noting that, yes, fewer than 100% of police officers are perjurers, rapists, murderers, etc. In fact, I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I'm willing to bet that it's much, much less than 100%. The problem is that anything north of 0% is way the fuck too much. A state-authorized criminal is extraordinarily well protected, and their existence undermines public safety much more dramatically than comparably violent free agents. Furthermore, systemic problems in our legal system perpetuate rape culture, and poorly conceived, poorly implemented laws have created an underclass in which sex workers, immigrants, the homeless, etc. can expect no police protection whatsoever, putting them at an extraordinary risk for abuse both public and private. There seems to be no lobbying offensive aimed at making it easier for these folks to arm themselves, to defend themselves from violence at the hands of police, just as the shooting of Trayvon Martin did not lead to an NRA statement urging black teenagers to carry firearms to avoid street harassment. This absolute right to self-defense seems oddly haphazard in its application. But making it easier for people to shoot cops, or to shoot cops and get away with it, is not actually a solution in any reasonable sense

That the most egregious, unthinkable acts of violence cannot be entirely prevented is not a reason to give up on addressing the more prolific, ubiquitous acts of violence in American life. I think, should we actually do the work, we will likely find that the two are not entirely unrelated. I see no reason we couldn't have a sane, reasonably safe society and relatively unencumbered access to firearms for those that want them--there are fewer examples in the world than there used to be, perhaps, but, as Chesterton said, society is a human invention. "Could" is a very, very wide word. The question is what types and qualities of risk we're willing to tolerate, by binding or loosing. We can deal with this at the level of actual trade-offs, goods to be weighed against one another.

Finally--I swear--the emphasis on the more grandiose episodes conceal as much as they reveal, and aren't likely to lead to good policy. Rampage killers are, by definition, the most difficult to deter. They can be made less deadly, which would certainly be a worthwhile goal. But preventing rampage shootings is going to involve a hell of a lot more than vague generalities about mental health. It will involve dealing with the general patterns of violence in our culture, the role of privilege, and an awareness of the amount of psychopathy we're willing to let slide as long as you're a white guy from a decent neighborhood. It will involve economic justice, improved law enforcement, and a reduction of a hundred different risk factors. It will not happen overnight, and we'll need to make adjustments as we go. Fortunately, we have a technology for doing exactly that, and it works pretty well when we don't live down to our representatives' suspicions of us. It is the work of politics.