The new normal


Every bartender in every movie ever made has a gun behind the bar.  Sometimes it is decoration.  Sometimes it is is a veiled threat.  Sometimes it comes out, and becomes a part of the story. And sometimes it kills people.  But it is always and forever there, waiting.

In the new normal, after Newtown, maybe every school will have a shotgun behind the front office desk.  Maybe every movie about a school will feature black steel in the background, evidence of these days and times, released only to spit fire and lay low whatever threat appears.  After all, the idealism required to imagine – and to make – a world without guns is sorely lacking. We’ve been here before.  We will be here again.  And, at the recent rate, in the not-so-distant future.

A gun is a phallus, first and foremost.  We don’t hunt for food.  We don’t fear tyranny or overlordship.  Or at least not in the way that we did in 1789.  In law enforcement and the armed forces, we have professionalized, in a way, all of our safety concerns.  So if we say we need a gun – whether it is to go hunting or to protect the home and hearth – we’re overcompensating and projecting at the same time.  Nobody needs to hunt.  Nobody needs to guard the keep.  So many other things have gone by the wayside since 1789 – too many to list  – that our desperate love affair with the gun seems, globally speaking, outlandish and strange.  Outside of law enforcement and the military and a handful of lonely farmers and park service agents, guns are metal “truck nutz,” ego-enhancers for those whose “egos” need prosthetic, permanent hardness.

Others have said this before, but most of those have stressed, as President Obama did today, “support” for the Second Amendment, and respect for “the nation’s strong tradition of gun ownership.” That tradition is disturbingly pockmarked by race and class and gender.  A recent Pew study from 2010 revealed great disparities between whites and blacks over whether the state should regulate firearms.  It showed only slightly less difference between the well off and the working poor, with the latter group being decidedly in favor of more permissive “traditions.” Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural folks, all fell into predictable camps.  But most tellingly, the report highlighted that married men feel strongest about protecting their broadest rights to gun ownership while single women care the least for such rights.  It should bother us – a lot – that the men who wish to be “the protectors” are far, far more eager to own guns than the women who, these men wrongly presume, need both their chivalry and a mate

Obviously, this is a tradition that only a dwindling segment of the population cares much for.  Yet, it is treated so reverently, with such great gentleness, even by a President who is – except for his marital status – outside of every category in the Pew study that supports the most expansive reading of the second amendment, and who has been routinely demonized as a socialist jackboot, determined to beat into submission those who “cling to guns or religion.”

It is telling that white maleness – when marked as “crazy” or “wounded” or “unwell” – doesn’t focus on revenge killings as catharsis, but on the spectacular slaughter of innocents.  It is equally telling that your garden-variety married white man – marked as “sane” and “normal” – believes that his “personal safety” and “liberty” is dependent on the purchase of a faux black phallus.  Critic June Stephenson once suggested that “men are not cost effective,” but just as often, one might add, they don’t even work properly.

This is the new normal.  We spent decades complaining about metal detectors in schools, only to realize that we should worry not only about the kid who wants to sneak a gun into school, but also about the proto-man who doesn’t care whether the bells and buzzers go off, who is clad in body armor, who is carrying three weapons, and who is trying to “score” higher than the last guy.  We need to worry about copycats, usually in the most idyllic, suburban settings.  And we still are morally obliged to wrestle with the decaying public school system in big cities, which was the last big problem. We failed to fix that, of course, just as we have failed, time and time again, to do away with this notion of a “tradition of gun ownership.” Traditions are what we call things we are afraid to change.  And we are nothing if we are not fearful of losing our precious traditional prosthetics, purchased – as if they were porn – without a trace.

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