Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.”
― Matthew 26:52
Beware, my body and my soul, beware above all of crossing your arms and assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of griefs is not a proscenium, and a man who wails is not a dancing bear.
― Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
Stupid is is stupid does
When I was growing up, our Mother prohibited us calling anyone “stupid.” I’m not at all sure why, but I’d speculate this epithet was used against her when she was a child, and she remembered the hurt. So even though I sometimes use the term now that I’m—shall we say—an elder, I am still more circumspect than many about when and how I apply it.
I know the word gets used in a broad range of ways in an assortment of contexts. I know some people who use it lightly as a synonym for silly. Others to mean senseless, or foolish. Many people whose texts I read online refer to people who disagree with them as stupid, and what’s wrong with that is fairly obvious. Less directly, some refer to others who are uneducated or use street grammar or are ignorant of particular facts and ideas as “stupid,” being fallacious and offensive at once. “I’m smart and you are not.” Maybe Mom had an effect.
When I use the word “stupid,” it has nothing to do with one’s native cognitive capacities nor one’s education nor one’s class. I associate stupidity with intentional obduracy, with that dig-in-your-heels, stubborn-assed refusal to do something or not do something when you already know better. Without that element of intent, using the term as an epithet or accusation strips the term of any moral content. Doing something or not doing something “because I can” is a species of stupidity. None of this may accord with Merriam-Webster; I just want it be clear how I’m using the word here.
I grew up with the things. Our Dad taught us to shoot very young with .22 rifles and .410 shotguns. He was born in 1906, an excellent shot and a skilled hunter who never ever kept trophies. He had some Olde School rules about guns and hunting: never kill it if you won’t eat it; and never point a gun—real or toy—at another human being. That’s right. If we got caught pointing toy guns at each other or anyone else, we were in deep doodoo. All guns were real; and all guns were loaded; and the guns we had around our house were not intended to be used on human beings.
On the other hand, I was born in 1951, and we were the first generation to be raised on television. So we were awash in gunplay, predominantly Westerns. In television and movie stories, people pointed guns at each other all the time; and they shot each other, a lot. Gunsmoke (GUN smoke) ran weekly, and the opening shot for every episode (pun intended) was a deadly quick-draw contest in the middle of a dusty city street. One of the things that these stories taught us about shooting—aside from the fact that it was the only way, ultimately, to ensure justice—was that God favored the good white guys (with guns) with more talent for marksmanship than God did the bad guys (this good and bad thing was crystal clear). Bad guys always missed at the crucial moment, and good guys could drop a bad guy (or a “hostile Indian”) from a cliff two hundred yards away, shooting from the hip with a post-Civil War revolver. This correspondence between masculine moral superiority and markmanship underwrote the most overt teaching of the show or film—that violence is redemptive and that, in the end, only violence was capable of midwifing redemption.
The exception to the pointing guns rule in our house was permission to pop over green rubber army soldiers—bought by the bagful—with BB guns. We learned that payoff, that instant of satisfaction when your round hit its mark.
Then I joined the Army. There, all we did was practice shooting human beings. We did our marksmanship qualification on human-shaped targets that would actually fall when you hit them. And we played war games with blank-adapters on our assault rifles, so we could shoot at one another and get the feel of associating the trigger squeeze and the noise with an actual human (dressed in black “pajamas” then to simulate being a “bad” Vietnamese).
In Vietnam, I carried an M-16 assault rifle for a couple of months (an AR-15, the kind favored in mass shootings now), then I was assigned an M-60 machinegun. These were not Daddy’s .410 rabbit gun or .22 squirrel gun. When you saw, smelled, disassembled, assembled, cleaned, aimed, and shot these weapons . . . when you felt their solidity and weight in your hands and pushed the high-powered rounds down into a magazine, you also felt the power of life and death. That M-16 fired a round that left the barrel at 3110 feet per second. The M-60 has a muzzle velocity of 2800 feet per second, rounds that are linked into belts of 100.
In the nanosecond it takes for these projectiles to pass through a human body, there are effects on that body that are summed up clinically in something called “terminal ballistics.” I won’t review these effects except to say that they are devastating, more than merely something that pierces a body, but something that causes a phenomenon called “cavitation,” and all the messy physics of projectiles that are misshapen or shattered on impact with muscles, organ tissues, bones.
My first glimpse of real gunshot wounds from real assault rifles on real people wasn’t in Vietnam, it was at McChord Air Force Base waiting to go to Vietnam, when some of the returnees would share their death photographs—pictures of dead Vietnamese with limbs blown off or skulls emptied. This wasn’t what I’d seen in the Westerns, and those who shared the pictures proudly, almost gleefully, were not the Men I had idolized as a child in front of the TV. They were in some parallel moral universe, where the measure of cruelty was the measure of manhood. So much for “heroes.”
What I brought back from Vietnam was fear, suspicion, and the intimate and visceral knowledge that I could inflict this kind of devastation—that I could end a life—by properly aligning the sights of a firearm and applying pressure with one trigger finger. I was a skinny little lad with big ears and freckles; but fuck with me and I had the experience and the hardware to utterly erase you. I’d become like those young men—as young as nineteen—coming back with their trophy shots. I had been empowered, but at a cost to my soul. That thing in my hand, I knew the terrible power in that thing, that weight, that peculiar tool that can change everything in a split second. That’s why our Dad didn't even allow us to play-shoot each other. He didn't grow up with TV and toy guns. He grew up with guns.
In 1982, I was selected for membership in the Army's counter-terrorrist unit. I was specially trained as a gunfighter. Not an infantry grunt, but a precision shooter of pistols, submachineguns, and sniper rifles. We fired thousands upon thousands of rounds in practice, and we were conversant in the variety of gun technologies. We could quick-draw, rapid-reload, discriminate “targets,” hit sequence targets, and shoot with precision from a series of positions. We learned the art of the “double-tap," two quick rounds in succession to the thorax to double the damage. I was not merely a man with a gun, but that man who can effectively fight other men with guns at close range and survive. Here is the thing about constant practice.
Practice it long enough, and you will want to actually do it.
That’s precisely what many of today's “gun nuts” do. They spend untold sums to practice, practice, practice. The hardware and ammo are mad expensive, but they idolize, fetishize, obsess about guns.
I’ll tell you a little secret about many of them who are white guys and members of the National Rifle Association (the largest white nationalist militia in history). They’ve confided in me, because I am a white man. Their predominant shooting fantasies are about shooting black people, especially black men—of whom they harbor an immense fear. But with a gun, one need not fear, because one has the power of life and death literally at one’s fingertip. Bang! Threat eliminated. And yes, they identify guns with their penises. Yes, it is a powerful phallic symbol.
I recently heard a news story that revealed that in my state of Michigan, there are now more than 400,000 people with permits to carry concealed firearms. Most of them are men, and most are white, and many of them live in a fantasy where they will—like Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke—get their chance to prove themselves (as Men) and deliver justice by killing another human being with their guns.
[For the record, there are more and more women nowadays—mostly white women (Stand By Your Man)—who are falling into the same fantasy, and who are practicing, practicing, practicing with guns. But it’s still far more essential to the construction of masculinity.]
As someone who used to carry, I can say that—when I was armed—I would go anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted, respond to anyone any way I wanted, be as rude as I wanted, as inconsiderate as I wanted, and meet those little non-verbal challenges that strange men throw at each other because it’s a man-thing any way I wanted, and respond to rudeness and idiocy (to which I could choose not to respond) . . . because I could. There it is! The criterion for stupid. I have a damn gun, and I know how to use it. I can put two rounds in your thorax in less than a second. I can erase you.
I used to claim it was for self-defense; but for quite a few years now, I’ve gone unarmed and miraculously survived. I do avoid certain people and places, i.e., drunk people (the most dangerous of animals) and places with a lot of drunk people. These were the people and places that most often put me at risk back in the day. I don’t do that anymore just “because I can.” I am also deferential, courteous, and friendly (when possible) with strangers; I don’t do the dominator-stare-down thing with other men. Common decency/common sense stuff, that you can abandon—stupidly—when you pack heat.
The memes for gun nuts are pretty stupid, too. Gun people already know, when they post things like this . . .
. . . that their ammunition can penetrate walls when they miss, pass from one (intended) body to the next (unintended) one when they don’t, ricochet around the house and into the kids’ bedrooms, and that in the event that someone breaks in while they are home, they are likely to lose the gun to the assailant. Moreover, and far more likely than an armed confrontation with an invader, having guns around the house increases the probability of suicide, accidental shootings, or one family member shooting the other during a drunken argument.
Few things jump as high on the stupidity-meter as openly carrying a gun. Because most of us are understandably not comfortable knowing that some total stranger—who may have the judgement of a six-year-old for all we know (open-carrying has already cast suspicion on you)—has the power of instant life and death on his hip in a grocery store where people are pushing their baby-strollers. The guys who do that are doing it “because they can.”
The portable power of life and death means there are lots of things you can do simply “because I can.” This stupidity has another name—masculinity (calling it “toxic” masculinity is redundant—the existence of masculinity is toxic).
The reality is, this fixation on guns is rooted in irrational fear, not of actual dangers—but of two other kinds of fear really: fantasy dangers (often racialized), and fear of being too effeminate.
Guns in America
This collection of reflections was triggered (gun metaphor) by the latest in a string of mass shootings at public schools, and I can still turn on the television and see guns as instruments of redemption. American cops kill around a thousand people a year in the US; and there is the development of the Redneck Revolutionary movement—supposedly antifascist, even though fascism is significantly about armed men and their fragile masculinity—in which ostensibly antiracist white people remain rooted in, and celebrate, gun culture. “Racism no – Guns yes” is their mantra apparently.
American culture is Baudrillard on steroids, Baudrillard on acid. The simulacra has taken over as we withdraw into our electronic life-support and hallucination dens. We come to believe that what we read and see in audiovisual media is true, in part because we have eschewed real experience as too troublesome or risky.
The Army disabused me of simulation.
When I was at my old counter-terrorist unit, we thought about ammunition a great deal, especially how it passes through targets (terminal ballistics) and ricochets. Because, if you are supposed to be ready to rescue hostages, it kind of defeats the purpose if you shoot the “bad guy” and the bullet passes through him and enters the body of a rescu-ee. This was a special concern for aircraft hijacking scenarios, because everyone is lined up tightly in seats like human sardines. One’s shooting sector is a long, linear tube.
We decided to test ammunition, and we spent a week testing it at an "aircraft graveyard" in the Arizona desert. Terminal ballistics were tested using gelatin blocks to simulate human bodies. We made gelatin blocks that were body-sized, gelatin blocks that were super-sized, and even gelatin blocks that were supplemented with ribs from a local butcher. We lined up the blocks in frames on aircraft seats, in frames that were lined up outside, and in frames that were separated by variable distances. And we shot them, again and again, photographing and recording data along the way.
We found that the most common pistol round (and our submachine gun rounds), the 9mm, when fired from various pistols, would pass through around three blocks and seat backs before coming to rest in the fourth gelatin block. Okay, this was not so good. Fortunately then, our own standard sidearms were souped-up M1911 45 calibers, firing a fatter, slower round than the 9mm; and when we tested the 45s, they only went through one block, one seat back, and partway into the next block. Combining this subsonic round with careful shot placement (in split seconds) might at least minimize collateral damage. Shotguns were better the lighter the load, so the 00 buckshot that was our standard went into a second block, whereas the substitution of #6 or smaller “birdshot” kept the projectiles in the first block unless one was almost at point blank range.
Cops use 9mm ammunition for the most part. Assault rifles (AR-15s) as long guns (usually 5.56mm or .223 caliber), and 00 buckshot in their shotguns (they also have “bean bag” loads for “riots”). Think about that, and you’ll see why places like UK don’t have every cop running the street armed.
Gun nuts like assault rifles and 9mm or other hot (supersonic) loads for their sidearms. NRA type gun nuts love to talk about the technics and ballistics; and they fantasize about killing home intruders, rescuing white damsels, fighting bad governments in the woods, and shooting black people, “Mexicans,” and Muslims. I’ve been to a couple of guns shows and shooting events, and they talk about this quite openly.
Now we have the Redneck Revolutionaries, who may have different fantasy targets, but they are still mostly boys who can’t relinquish the fantasy of proving their manhood by shooting “the bad men” (in the fantasies, the targets are mostly men, because killing men is more probative of masculinity than shooting women, unless you’re going for the full-on Ted Bundy masculinity).
Kill the bad men. Camera angle from below, sun on face, wind blowing that masculine causcasion hair, True Heroes. Because they are fantasists and paranoids, gun nuts are looking for a fight; and the immediate possession of a gun, carrying that is, amplifies this pugnaciousness . . . a lot. The quest for masculinity is fundamentally predicated on (deep, unconscious, sexual) fear, and the possession of a firearm is not merely an antidote to fear; it generates that belligerent “courage” that can only originate from a deep, unconscious fear. So guns don’t only make people physically more dangerous; they make people psychologically far more dangerous. Stupid.
An armed society is not a polite society. I’m not talking about hunters in Canada or Iceland who keep a deer rifle in the closet. I’m talking about the exploding mass of sexually-insecure white males who are carrying their Sig Sauers and Berettas into Walmarts and Krogers and middle schools to pick up their kids. At the most extreme, the Preppers—Lord, have mercy, who are armed to the teeth even as they’ve lost their collective mind.
I’ve proposed elsewhere that Just War theories lost their raison d’etre with the advent of modern war, in no small part because automatic weapons, cannon fire, and bombs of all sorts cannot distinguish friend from foe, and even were they able to, their impact areas/bursting radii are too large to use these weapons without accepting in advance that they will kill bystanders. And soldiers inevitably kill civilians on purpose, quite often; but we’ll stay with bystander casualties.
In World War I, 7 million combatants died alongside 6.6 million civilians. Fatality counts exclude the even larger numbers of combatants and civilians who are injured, often in ways that cause permanent suffering and disability. In World War II, some 70 million died, and even excluding the ethnic cleansing campaigns, bystander deaths outnumbered combatant deaths by nearly three to one. Sixty-seven percent of Korean War casualties were civilians, and with Allied operations against the North, North Korea lost fully twenty percent of its total population. Around 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed during the US invasion and occupation, compared to around half that number in combatants. Four out of every five casualties in Afghanistan since 2001 have been civilians; and two of every three casualties in Iraq since the 2003 invasion have been non-combatants. Drone strikes, which are called “surgical,” kill ten non-combatants for every combatant—if you believe the remote operators can really distinguish such a thing through a flying camera. So there’s my point, in brief, about “just” war.
My point about guns is similar, if on a smaller scale. Modern rifled firearms and, at close range, shotguns, have been refined toward a telos of ever-increasing efficacy—and by efficacy, we mean lethality at various ranges. They are designed for the instant destruction of enough living tissue to cause death in another human being. That was the specific design telos for the AR-15.
In 2011, there were around 34,000 fatalities from firearms and around 74,000 non-fatal injuries in the US. We use guns in 67 percent of homicides, 50 percent of suicides, 43 percent of robberies, and 21 percent of aggravated assaults. I myself survived eight conflict areas in the Army without sustaining a gunshot wound, and was finally shot outside a bar in 1991 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. These statistics can be deceiving, because when we compare homicides with suicides, the percentages lie.
We kill ourselves more often than we kill others here, and 60 percent of suicides use firearms. Suicides account for 65 percent of suicide deaths—in part because the shooting is more effective, and in part because successful suicides, while the numbers compared to attempts are unknown, have a high correspondence to the method used. Firearms, at above 80 percent as far as we know, are the absolute most successful method. So, all other things being equal, a firearm in the house dramatically increases the odds that it will be used for some confused, sick, broken, humiliated, and-or lonely person to extinguish themselves. In 2013, 41,149 US suicides were successful—men far more than women, because men choose firearms, naturally. By comparison, just over a thousand home invasions were ostensibly repelled by the threat of a firearm, and actual burglary-homicides in the US are around 100 a year nationwide. Do the math: 1/3,200,000. You are quite a bit more likely to have a suicidal person among family or friends in the house than a lethal burglar.
Or kids. We kill more kids per capita with guns than any country in the world, and around 320 kids are snuffed out each year here in home gun accidents, more than three times the probability of repelling an actual homicidal intruder with a gun. (Not to forget, if your home is intruded upon by a killer—which is about twice as likely as being killed by lightning—the best course of action is to leave and call 911. Burglars look for guns, because they have a great resale value.)
All that aside now, however, let’s get down to the creepy business of what exactly gunshots do. A contained explosion sends missiles down a barrel at speeds that can go through the average elm tree. When a bullet hits a body, it doesn’t simply punch a hole and slice through a tiny column of skin, organ tissue, bone, etc. At high velocity, projectiles have brand new physical properties. Three of the immediate outcomes are in-flight deviation, distortion of the projectile, and cavitation. The projectile begins responding to its environment as soon as it leaves the barrel—so it might tail-drop ("yaw"), or wobble, or turn. The projectile is distorted by the impact with material (like the flesh and bone of a human being) and loses its sleek, perfect cylindricality. The projectile pushes a shock wave through the air around its flight path which enters the body and tears through the tissues surrounding the bullet path in a nanosecond “cavity,” leaving behind extensive damage not only along the path, but through tissues distal to the path. That’s why entry wounds can be quite small, but exit wounds can look like bomb craters in meat. If it hits the upper arm, for example, it might break the bone without ever touching is, or tear up the brachial artery (fatal), or destroy large amounts of muscle tissue (resulting in shock, future infections, permanent disability). A small caliber, subsonic round like a .22 might leave the gun your three-year-old has found, enter the head of your eight-year-old, then ricochet around inside the skull until all its kinetic energy is gone. In a nanosecond. No do-overs.
All this is true if you’ve just shot Hannibal Lecter; but it is equally true if you missed old Hannibal and the bullet passed through a sheetrock wall and hit the lawyer Hannibal has tied up in the next room for tonight’s dinner. Or you may shoot at that fourteen-year-old heroin-addicted home intruder, miss the “bad” child, have the bullet strike your stone veneer, ricochet, and end up in the lumbar spine of your niece who’s come to visit and sleeps in the spare bedroom. If you fire ten times, maybe you can hit the bad child, too, and punish the kid-burglary by blowing holes in his skull and abdomen. That should make you feel better.
Even if you are a crack shot at the range where you hang out with your buddies and talk about how you’ll “double-tap” the bad guys, when something actually happens that provokes you to draw your weapon (instead of the smart thing to do when there is danger, which is to haul ass out of there . . . but the gun has made you stupid now), another person will not be standing still like a target in good light with a range master to ensure no one is downrange when you fire. You cannot, not under any circumstances, guarantee that you will not miss, that you will not hit a bystander, that you will not overreact. Trained cops hit their targets in street confrontations about 18 percent of the time. And for that reason, no one should be allowed to carry firearms around with them, because they are already, knowingly or not, accepted that they might shoot someone unintentionally. I include armed cops in this calculus.
Anyone who calls oneself a Christian and carries a firearm—given our absolute inability to control outcomes in the employment of firearms—ought to be ashamed and turn in your Jesus credentials. You cannot follow Jesus with a Glock.
No matter what cockamamie scenario you construct to justify carrying a gun (not talking about someone hunting) for “protection,” you cannot escape the reality of this inability to control what happens when a firearm is used, because you cannot predict the circumstances of its use.
Your penises will not fall off, boys, when you refuse to carry. And you are far less likely to have that unpredictable instant that saddles you with a lifetime of howling regret.
White masculinity in crisis
American Sniper, the stylized biopic of a SEAL sniper who killed more than 200 human beings, was Clint Eastwood’s directorial paean to the (re)inscription of a national masculinity by the (re)narration of history.
I have never seen, nor will I ever see, American Sniper. Nonetheless, I have the screenplay here at hand, which I recommend to others, because screenplays pull back the curtain on the abracadabra audiovisual hypnosis of film. One can see their constructed-ness.
EXT. STREET, FALLUJAH, IRAQ – DAY
The sun melts over squat residences on a narrow street. The MARINE COMPANY creeps toward us like a cautious Goliath. FOOT SOLDIERS walk alongside Humvees and tanks.
COMMANDING OFFICER (OS)
(radio chatter) Charlie Bravo-3, we got eyes on you from the east. Clear to proceed, over.
EXT. ROOFTOP, “OVERWATCH” – SAME
Sun glints off a slab of corrugated steel. Beneath it-- CHRIS KYLE lays prone, dick in the dirt, eye to the glass of a .300 Win-Mag sniper rifle. He’s Texas stock with a boyish grin, blondish goatee and vital blue eyes. Both those eyes are open as he tracks the scene below, sweating his ass off in the shade of steel.
Fucking hot box.
GOAT (24, Arkansas Marine) lies beside him, woodsy and outspoken, watching dirt-devils swirl in the street.
Dirt over here tastes like dog shit.
I guess you’d know.
This is the opening scene in the second draft. The scriptwriter, Jason Hall, sets a tone with his own language—“dick in the dirt”—so the director and actors are cued into the appropriate affective register. This is a film about tough guys, so he uses tough guy talk, white male bonding talk. This is a film about Real American Men—a man-movie. Rosemary Hennessey writes,
As one of the most pervasive forms of cultural narrative in industrialized societies, commercial film serves as an extremely powerful vehicle of myth. The mythic status of Hollywood films is of course enabled and buttressed by corporate endorsement and financial backing for distribution and promotion. To some extent the scripts that do get picked up manage to be supported because they already articulate a culture’s social imaginary—the prevailing images a society needs to project about itself in order to maintain certain features of its organization.
Clint Eastwood is a veteran actor and director, so he knows what works, which film conventions are recognizable by the American public, especially the males. He understands the “social imaginary” at work here. He launched his career through Westerns, that American mythic genre that revolved around the conquest of the frontier and the men with guns who were unafraid to sally forth into untamed places as the dusty paladins of white civilization. American Sniper is a transplanted Western, “based on a true story.”
“Men with guns” is a Hollywood staple. American Sniper is unremarkable in this regard, though this film is part of a sub-genre that taps into gun culture, that peculiar version of white masculinity in the United States that idolizes guns. Modern snipers actually grew out of that subculture, which was promoted by the National Rifle Association at the turn of the twentieth century, with strong support from the Progressive Movement and its militaristic white supremacist leader, President Theodore Roosevelt. Prior to that period, marksmanship was a rare gift for which the technology didn’t exist until the American Civil War. It was only after gun culture gained a foothold in the American male imagination, that a history could be constructed about the United States that put the steely-eyed marksman at the center of a national myth.
In truth, during the Westward expansion of the U.S., armed men were generally soldiers, law enforcement, criminals, and semi-official thugs. Men who hunted with guns, as they do today, would dust off the rifle or shotgun that was stored in the house. Gun control laws in the Olde West, that is, legendary towns like Dodge City, Tombstone, and Deadwood, were actually far stricter than most gun control laws today. Municipal law enforcement generally required that any firearm inside city limits had to be stored at the local law enforcement office. Films reconstructed the history of the “Old West” in the American male mind. Films like Last of the Mohicans and The Patriot have reconstructed history with American male marksmen (no phallic associations between sex and aggression there) at the center of the Revolutionary War, which is utter nonsense.
In truth, during the latter eighteenth century in the thirteen colonies, not one in a hundred men had a gun, and the guns they had were muskets, barely capable of hitting another man beyond twenty feet. A dozen colonials once ambushed Major Pitcairn of the British Army at ten yards, all firing, and neither Pitcairn nor his horse received a scratch. It took up to four minutes to reload a musket. A soldier could run a third to half a mile in that time, the reason bayonet charges followed infantry volleys. The single most effective combat weapon after artillery was the bayonet. The reason the Revolutionary War dragged on as long as it did was the extreme shortage of weapons. Successful hunters employed traps, not guns, and Americans overwhelmingly consumed livestock for meat. Only white male Protestant property owners were allowed by law to have firearms, and most of them opted against it. A decent gun cost as much as a skilled laborer made in six months.
American Sniper, “based” as it may be on a true story, has adapted that truth to a set of well-worm film conventions that—as Hennessey said—“articulate [this] culture’s social imaginary—the prevailing images [we] need... to project about [ourselves] in order to maintain certain features of [our] organization.” But it has done more than that in its (re)construction of history. It has turned a brutal invasion that killed, maimed, or displaced more than a million human beings, destroyed the infrastructure of an entire society, poisoned their environment, and left what was once Iraq split into bloody, competing militia fiefdoms—including ISIS—into a “war story.”
Susan Jeffords, in her essay, “Telling the War Story,” notes, “This trend away from the war itself to the people who fought in it shifts the war form a national to a personal experience, making it possible for viewers to forget the specific historical and political forces that caused the war.” Chris Kyle is the story, told with pathos, hitting all the resonant notes, and the utter criminality of the whole enterprise that was the U.S. invasion of Iraq is made to disappear. What is left, strengthened yet again, is our idolatry of the military, our idolatry of the nation, and our idolatry of an idealized, hegemonic, and violent armed masculinity.
Opposition to male supremacy, to white supremacy, has repeatedly engendered backlash; and the backlash of crisis-wracked white masculinity bore its weird political fruit in the US in 2016 with the election to the presidency of a man who celebrates the most venal form of white male stupidity, Donald Trump.
The Roman Genn cartoon of Donald Trump (above) was published with a David French article in the conservative National Review, entitled “Donald Trump’s Counterfeit Masculinity: Feminism’s Dream.” The thesis, trading on the “toxic” masculinity notion, is that Trump’s unrefined masculinity threatens to legitimate the “failed ideology” of feminism.
Aside from the failure of the article to distinguish between “feminisms,” an indication that the writer is not actually familiar with feminism, the thrust of the article is that Trump's uncivilized construction of masculinity is dangerous to conservatism, because it reinforces David French’s caricature of what feminists have to say about men like David French. French and his National Review partisans, within the intellectual wing of conservatism, are threatened by Trump’s open display of a hypertrophied and undisciplined version of masculinity—that in-your-face, entitled, frat boy machismo.
How did this particular construction of masculinity come to be? What about masculinity was Trump channeling? How big a factor was masculinity in the election? Based on what we can discern about these questions, how does this look four years from now? How did this particular construction of masculinity come to be?
Trump’s particular manifestation of one particular masculinity has a history of some kind, a genealogy. David Clines can help with his five basic rules for being masculine in the modern West.
First, do not be like a woman.
Second, be successful. While the meaning of success has changed, over time, from accomplishments of various kinds to the making of money, it relates in every case to “winning.” Be a winner.
Third, be aggressive. This can be conflated with, and even overlap with, courage, but it also and primarily has something to do with demeanor. Get in some faces. Don’t back down. Don’t be a pussy.
Fourth, be sexual. By that Clines means displaying a constant interest in sex that suggests you are always “up” and ready for it. It also generally suggests the objectification of women, understood as a primal male drive.
Finally, be self-reliant. Real men don’t need other people.
With these points of reference, we can readily see them in ourselves, and amplified in the puerile performances of Trump.
Clines establishes the coordinates for understanding what he calls a “hegemonic masculinity.” Masculinity is more than just a set of disembodied ideas. It is comprised of clothing, mannerisms, positions, privileges, attitude, language, and most of all, strict boundaries—physical, symbolic, imaginary, and affective. A crisis of masculinity begins as some kind of social change that destabilizes former constructions of masculinity. That destabilization translates into fear and the sense of crisis. There is a fightback, a reaction. Masculinity reinvents itself for the new conditions, always and invariably with an eye to the preservation of male prerogative.
With the growth of the feminist challenge, as well as technological change, the veil between the spheres of men and women has been torn and torn again. The distance between the clothes, works, spaces, languages, and practices of men and women has progressively closed and in places burst over the breach. Law schools, as a key example, as well as medical schools, are full of women, smart women.
Destabilizations hit men (and their masculinity) by eliminating what had formerly been male prerogative, and each destabilization produced its own brand of backlash. Computerization of many jobs is just one of many examples of the ways the work space—as well as work availability—more and more female and male (the externalized exceptions defined or pathologized to reinforce the dipole).
At one point, masculinity was the man measured against the boy. Totally separated spheres between male and female.
At one point, well at most actually, masculinity is idealized in war. War makes the man.
Men are protectors, and women come to exchange obedience for protection in the marital contract—the sexual protection racket. Women fear all men, and need the protection of one man from all the others. That protection is bought as the price of obedience, what Carole Pateman called the “sexual contract.”
The way we think about masculinity, including the way Donald Trump thinks about masculinity, has to be understood symbolically. Everything is a metaphor for everything else. The symbolic universe of gender changes, but again male prerogative is either defended or retooled for new realities.
The Catholic masculinity of a tenth century Frank peasant man would probably be apparent in some form of power over his wife and children, but on all the particulars, if we were to observe them day-to-day through the lens of a time machine, we’d have absolutely no idea what the hell was going on, because social hieroglyphics in each time and place are idiosyncratic. They are based on whole epistemes that are simply no longer available except through hard inference and imagination. But we can be pretty sure that the masculinity of Trump would be offensive to that peasant insofar as he might be able to figure it out at all.
When Europe dove headlong into colonialism then industrial capitalism, masculinity came to be defined as unapologetic imperial conquest. This was a big change, and the metaphors reflected it. We thought of conquering nature as conquering women, and conquering women in the same way imperial men conquer colonies. The template slides from one metaphor to the next, and somehow fits all three (defined as they all are, “into nature”).
That’s the beginning of whiteness there, too, by the way, which is a thing for Trump. Trump is channeling a distinctive form of a postmodern white-victimhood masculinity. It is distinct from white masculinity or white supremacy though an aspect of both. Every backlash against feminism has drawn on the victimized male trope. Trump managed to generalize it.
What about masculinity—this form and others—was Trump channeling? Trump’s masculinity is postmodern. Postmodern because it is all a performance. Politics-as-performance is proof of Heisenberg’s principle that observers change what they observe by observing it. We all know, for example, that you will have one dynamic in a room full of people on their own, and that by conspicuously introducing a person aiming a camcorder at everyone, that dynamic will suddenly change, become more self-conscious, more performative, more simulated. Baudrillard squared.
Trump’s masculinity is a performance, a series of simulations, and a system of symbols with which many men have developed a powerful affective resonance. People cry listening to the National Anthem, and they quiver a little, that frisson that feels like something sacred.
When women’s and men’s spaces began to merge in the latter twentieth century, and when masculinity was more and more difficult to assert in a protected gender-sphere, the twin notions of sexual domination and masculinity-defined-as-not-woman merged into a fresh new form of misogyny.
The hatred of women, enculturated relentlessly in patriarchal society, is now carried out of the integrated spheres or work and general consumption and into sexual relations directly. The devaluation of women in a nineteenth century Parisian drawing room (premium on gentility, with male and female spheres, “rational masculinity” complementing “domestic femininity”) was different than the kind one sees, now, for example, in much pornography, where the sexual humiliation of women is eroticized for male consumers. Trump channels this creepy masculinity in his every performance.
Destabilization, reorientation, then re-establishment of male power in a revised form. This is the historical process for patriarchy. This shift from enforcement of gender (as a system dividing power) to gender-inclusion in public space, redirected the learned sense of male entitlement more directly to sex itself. Gender, as division of power between men and women (which is reflected in the fear of sexual minorities) has been sexualized. Women are made the targets of sexual humiliation in the service of this probative neo-masculinity. Most pornography today emphasizes female degradation, and it has an enormous following. Pornography as it is today is partly a function of technology; but the content is driven by men reasserting control through the humiliation of women. All hail the weaponized phallus!
One of the main assertions of feminism has been that men do not have some inborn entitlement to the bodies of women. Specifically sexual entitlement. Trump boasts that he can—through his power as a rich white man and a celebrity—“grab them by the pussy.” An act of ownership, of sexual entitlement, of eroticized humiliation, and finally of vengeance. Backlash. Teaching those bitches a lesson about who is in charge. Because men who have lost one shred of entitlement, like all those who feel entitled, will feel wronged—victimized.
Men will inevitably lose some privilege and prerogative as women continue to be liberated from male domination. There is a sense in which—as regards power—like all struggles to throw off unjust power, this is a zero sum game.
What does the sexualization of gender have to do with guns? The gun has become the symbol for white victim masculinity. For women, the white male victim has his weaponized penis; for men, he has a bullet. The writhing terror underneath white victim masculinity is palpable, and that is in itself frightening, because no one is more dangerous than a frightened man with a gun.
The sexualization of gender is likewise an outcome of a highly specialized, technological society that has effaced many of the markers and obligations that were formerly understood as developing maturity or character formation. Embedded in earlier gender regimes to be sure, we understood, for example, that growing up meant abandoning the instant gratifications of Mine, More, and Now. Growing up meant becoming less selfish (mine), more prudent (more), and more patient (now). Work is no longer embedded in a moral matrix; and the narratives to which we are exposed in the ongoing social experiment of indoctrinating billions of people with electronic media have brought Ayn Rand to life. Selfishness is a virtue, recklessness and gluttony a sign of providential favor, and patience a burden. Selfishness has become a mass cult. Trump himself was featured on a creepy “reality” TV series where people were forced to grub and grovel and take to become winners. Mine. More. Now. Our entire society is now organized around concupiscence. What we used to consider a passing phase in the process of character formation—the self-centered preoccupations of a ten-year-old suburbanite school kid—have become our telos. We are a society of early adolescents.
Trump channeled that. Mine. More. Now. And all that diffuse resentment of adolescent white boys for whom things didn’t turn out the way they wanted. In their America—because America was etched onto their psyches in a particular way—they would be like their white male TV and film heroes. They would have all the right stuff, do all the manly things, enjoy deference and respect from women and kids, live with an adoring and obedient woman, and people around them will share in the fantasy. Each man imagines his own version of the fantasy. Broken fantasies are dangerous things.
Make America Great Again! Restore my fantasy, a part of which was our national masculinity. Mine. More. Now. “Men are successful.” Trump has succeeded in getting mine, more, and now.
Masculinity that has developed increasingly apart from the older moral frameworks (nostalgically represented in the French article) has de-homogenized the older masculinities, wherein, for example, the association between the heroic act of the soldier during a just war, motivated by the virtuous love of country and one’s comrades, and his actual courage—the willingness to risk life and limb, has been broken. As the moral matrices, imaginary as they may have been, were degraded, courage came to be simply the willingness to take escalating risks. Extreme sports. The cage fight. Masculinity finds its own way through the wreckage, wherein being brash in pursuit of a worthy thing becomes being merely brash, a kind of masculine threat display.
When Vietnam queered the pitch on just war, and the American defeat in Vietnam undermined the national masculinity, there was a spate of compensatory films from Hollywood. Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974) came on the scene—nihilistic splatter-flicks featuring a lone male avenger and set inside the United States—just as the U.S. was seeing the inevitability of its defeat in Vietnam. This year, after the grinding fifteen-year-old defeat in progress for the US military in Southwest Asia, Hollywood is re-releasing Death Wish, a male revenge fantasy, a vigilante fantasy, where a lone white man with a gun fills the gap left by the “pussified government.” The destabilization of masculinity is followed by a reactionary reassertion of it.
The NRA, as the institutional expression of gun culture sees itself more and more as the white nationalist militia, restoring the national white masculinity. What we commonly call “gun culture,” when we see its instantiation around guns themselves, is white nationalism. Last year, in a controversial internet video ad, an NRA spokesperson called for the NRA, as an armed white militia, to take up the slack for beleaguered police by attacking social movement protesters “with a clenched fist.”
R.W Connell, in Masculinities, describes “hegemonic masculinity” then fascism as a masculinist reaction against challenges to it.
“Men’s interest in patriarchy,” Connell writes, “is condensed in hegemonic masculinity and is defended by all the cultural machinery that exalts hegemonic masculinity. It is institutionalized in the state; enforced by violence, intimidation and ridicule in the lives of straight men . . . and enforced by violence against women and gay men (241). . . The defense of injustice in gender relations constantly appeals to difference, “to a masculine/feminine opposition defining one place for female bodies and another place for male. But this is never ‘difference’ in a purely logical sense.” (231) Difference is felt in the body. We have all been trained in what we find erotically arousing, for example, and that training is embedded in a culture where gender does not merely constitute difference. That difference is used to justify hierarchy, domination, and conquest. Eros is culturally trained. Masculinity as institution and ideology posits a subject-object duality between Man and the Other and defines masculine practice as conquest (be that other woman, lesser man, colony, or nature). “In gender terms, fascism was a naked reassertion of male supremacy in societies that had been moving toward equality for women. To accomplish this, fascism promoted new images of hegemonic masculinity, glorifying irrationality (the ‘triumph of the will,’ thinking with ‘the blood’) and the unrestrained violence of the frontline soldier.” (193)
When Kimberle Crenshaw wrote “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” she noted that a “singular focus on rape as a manifestation of male power over female sexuality tends to eclipse the use of rape as a weapon of racial terror,” pointing to black women’s virtually “unprotected” status. In the same essay describing the mixture of white and male social power, she shows how white men attempt “to regulate the sexuality of white women.” (158–9)
White-nationalist masculinity is profoundly threatened by a perceived inability to control the “sexuality” of white women, creating what Connell calls “sexual vertigo.” This recombinant mixture of sexual and racial construction that obliges white men to both “control” and “protect white womanhood” is ignited as violence against both women and black men.
The bogeyman of the potent black satyr raping the white woman has accompanied virtually every call in the United States for anti-black pogroms. It is hardly coincidental that assertions of black social agency have been met with expanded outbreaks of racial terror, or that rape was projected onto black men by white men; and it is likewise not a coincidence that police
rapes increased in Bombay when women began organizing politically. Connell says that “violence is part of a system of domination, but is at the same time a measure of its imperfection. A thoroughly legitimate hierarchy would have less need to intimidate. The scale of contemporary
violence points to crisis tendencies in the modern gender order.”
The Olde School masculine deference to “the ladies,” our politesse, was a reward for women’s obedient service and acceptance of male prerogative. When women “act out,” however, they have to be put firmly back into their places—which, in the age of sexualized gender, means relentlessly reducing them to sex objects and judging them accordingly. Trump’s repeated objectifications of women and his attacks on women based on their appearance were met with applause by men suffering under the terrible burden of entitlement slippage. Then they stroked their guns for the guns’ cold comforts.
The French article cited earlier is grounded in a highly syncretic amalgam of masculinities, influenced by the genteel white masculinity of the nineteenth century, the probative masculinity of Theodore Roosevelt and his posse of eugenics-promoting white boy adventurists, several comic book heroes, class warfare masculinities from the thirties, WWII masculinity, post-war and finally suburban masculinities. Masculine culture hasn’t grasped the ways in which hegemonic (exemplary) masculinity has detached from its moral frameworks—however you might judge those frameworks deficient—and has circled the wagons (there is a Western film convention in the myth of our national masculinity) around recovery of male prerogative, rolling back the assault on white male entitlement, finding enemies against which to measure oneself, and rescuing the fantasy.
The televised fantasy, the snapshot fantasy that props up all our bloviations, the performance called Ultimate Macho Fuck You. That was Trump.
In the age of mass media, we posture. As MacIntyre said, we have lost the capacity to differentiate between manipulative and non-manipulative communication; and that means that even our leadership is vetted in a process that favors public relations, that euphemism for mass manipulation. If getting in front of cameras and saying something poetically is effective in one period, then “showing your ass”(as my mom called acting out) in front of millions will be effective in another period. Donald Trump appeared at a time and place where the realignment of masculinity has placed a premium on showing your ass.
Trump: First, do not be like a woman. Second, be successful. Third, be aggressive. Don’t be a pussy. Fourth, be sexual. Objectify women as a demonstration of your virility. Finally, be self-reliant. Real men don’t need other people. Learn the art of “fuck you.” If you don’t like it, I’ll shoot you.
The cult of white male victimization is growing on one end and diminishing on the other. It’s worse among us older fellas, and less an issue among many younger folks I know. In less than one generation, the simple statistical certainties of death and life will result in fewer and fewer of older white folks like me who were raised on movie Westerns, Disney, and the Cold War. Maybe not so great when the most cheerful statistic you can rely on is a death rate.
We listened to and watched untold hours of know-nothing bullshit. We were blind to our own privilege. We came to embrace fantasies and avoid some realities that needed tending. Everything didn’t work out the way it did on TV though, and being the spoiled brats we mostly were, that pissed us off. But we also ended up joining the military. Some of us were drafted. Lots of us are veterans. The wars that have been cranked out over the last two decades are definitely adding to that number. We go to war, hopefully survive, then come home. For Americans, it’s like a safari. Militarism breeds conquest masculinity, and we are a militaristic society.
We took millions and millions of young boys in front of countless hours of film that hammers home the same messages again and again. Be a man. Here is an ideal man. Everyone loves and obeys the ideal man. The ideal man fights. The ideal man therefore must have enemies in order to prevail. The ideal man redeems the world by violence—and in 999 times out of a thousand, that redeeming violence is accomplished with a gun.
If any cult kidnapped your toddler, they would have a hard time developing a more effective means of permanent indoctrination. Television was one artifact of the era, but is was more and more in a suburban home; semi-isolated, segregated from commercial space, a commute away from a job in the city, and—for a very long time—exclusively white. It was very easy to live in the suburbs and say, I have nothing against black folk, and call that Exhibit 1 for your non-racism. But this great social experiment continued. These same boys who had been raised on movies about the Good Guy with a Gun, a bunch of them, got a few chances to go on Extreme War Safari—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.
I wish we thought more about degradation. It’s all around us, and we hardly have the words to describe it. I say that because the experience of war, for many, while embarked upon almost like a safari, ends up morally degrading the soldier who gets in the habit of doing morally degrading things. But the entire culture is undergoing a process of degradation now, not least because the entire damn society is on a permanent war footing. And that has created a concomitant construction of masculinity—warlike, embittered, nasty, self-centered, and deeply misogynistic. When I came back from Vietnam, the taboo on killing was lost. But before I ever went, I had five steady years of Ayn Rand’s creepy pseudo-philosophy pumping me up with ideas like “selfishness is a virtue,” and “the masses are parasites,” and other deeply morally degraded notions that should have been shed with my infantile narcissism. Instead, my own culture—before the Army got its claws in—was already teaching me how to grow up and become Donald Trump. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which came first, war degrading society, or a society so degraded it is inevitably at war? War, by the way, is men’s work. Even when a few women are allowed to play.
There is perhaps nothing more disconcerting about the prospect of a Trump presidency than the idea that Donald—maturity level 10—will have a Caligula moment around the military, if he hasn’t already by the time this is published. Not the hallucination that he has become a god, but the hallucination that he has become a military mastermind. I can think of nothing more terrifying, in substantial part because Mine-More-Now has the keys to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Two days before Christmas, Trump tweeted (tweeted!!!) that he intended to expand the US nuclear arsenal. Masculinity is one of those things that consistently leads us into ever-worsening situations. There is a recursive feedback loop between war and masculinity.
Whole families buy into the white-male-victimhood shtick. There are women who believe this and support the men who believe it. Nobody said oppressed classes of people never participate in their own oppression; and nobody ever knows the circumstances and struggles involved in women finding their way through a male world. But I digress.
Donald Trump has been happy to manipulate white male protectionism by stoking not only aggrieved entitlement, but also aggrieved victimhood. Thus, the list of nefarious “others” out to threaten white masculinity is seemingly endless: Mexicans are taking our jobs, Muslims are threatening our lives, feminists are destroying our manhood, the Chinese are taking our sovereignty, liberals are taking our freedoms, the list goes on. In a world where everything is out to get you, where nothing you have is safe, where women seemingly want to be men and men want to be women, where nothing seems to make any goddamn sense anymore, Donald Trump is there to tell that it’s not your fault; that everyone else is to blame. He’s not “politically correct” because he’s not afraid to grab him some pussy just because he can, to hell with what other people think. Aggrieved loss of entitlement, a form of mass hypochondria. Suffering from imaginary wounds.
How big a factor was masculinity in the election? And how did gun culture vote?
The Republicans were juggling their own coalition, big business (which played both sides of the street), white evangelical culture warriors, and middle-class tax libertarians. The demagogic sub-text for the Republicans ever since Nixon’s “Southern strategy” had been the profound negrophobia of many, many whiter voters (the more generalized xenophobia was being fanned in the outer reaches of the party by tinpot commentators like Lou Dobbs, and Islamophobia didn’t take hold hard until after 9-11).
Race and class
The dog-whistle racism that was employed instrumentally by Republican operatives for so many years to hold the old Republican coalition together, slipped its leash in 2016. So-called blue-collar voters did not elect Trump. The middle class did. Reference nowadays to “blue-collar” America are largely fictional, if by blue-collar we mean the working class prior to the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt and “free-trade” offshoring. This untrue Bubba critique was leveled mostly by snotty liberals.
Fifty-three percent of Americans, mostly white, now live in the suburbs—the high end barracks for freeway commuters and result of white flight from the cities. As Matthew Lassiter pointed out in his groundbreaking but little studied book, The Silent Majority, these suburban denizens were not ideological in the old sense of a left-right continuum.
They carried multiple political identities based on self-interest: consumer, taxpayer, school parent, mortgaged homeowner. This new majority class has become the strange attractor of all American politics, because in sheer numbers it can be a political juggernaut. This is the reason both parties divested of the term “working class,” in favor of the term (and demographic) “middle class.” They are all going to “restore the American middle class.”
Middle classes are in a peculiar position in the social pecking order. They are specialists who cannot see the forest for their particular trees. They gain a benefit from a system that is mystified for them by a media in the pay of a quiet and cunning ruling class, but they recognize at some gut level that they live under the threat of being converted into car washers and burger flippers, a fate almost worse than death. They have something to lose, and when that seems threatened—as it has been since 2007—given that they don’t recognize the role of that cunning and carefully concealed ruling class, they become vulnerable to any demagogue who can provide them with a target for their insecurities.
The rawest majority of Trump voters was from suburbia—insulated, clueless, alienated, self-absorbed, and white. No leader, teacher, philosopher, or theologian can grasp America - not the myth, but with the myth - without an appreciation of the phenomenon, the American car suburb. It is this class of people, classed by work to some extent, but equally by the built environment and the politics that created it. Everyone needs to know the history of Levittown, the first American suburb, a prototype that was developed as a kind of top-down intentional community. See how it has spread like cancer and functioned on behalf of the re-segregation of America.
Do you know what most of those white men in the suburbs are doing when they are alone in their suburban smart-houses? They are on the computer, like I am right now. Do you know what most of them are doing in front of their computers? From outer space, they seem to be sitting there in one spot for hours and hours, like they are hibernating. But up close we see that they are busy with their hands. They are playing war games (shooting, shooting, and shooting their guns) in the refractory periods between jacking off to images of humiliated women in online pornography. Like monkeys driven mad by their cages. That’s why so many of them are also medicated.
A paranoid masculinity thrives in middle classes; that lethal combination of having enough to have something to lose and the gnawing sense that my independence is a posture concealing my utter dependence upon something I cannot even comprehend. This will make you see witches.
And so we are driven deeper and deeper into fantasy, fantasies to protect fantasies to protect fantasies. I am a victim, afraid, in a game-land of spooks, and I need my totem. A gun. And basic cable. Preppers, next episode. You know what I can do, the white suburban man, to push back on this unfocused despair? I can build a safe room in my house, stockpile weapons and dehydrated food, and pretend that my current alienated existence is the preparatory phase for an upcoming adventure, starring me as Man with Gun. Why am I voting for Trump? Because, goddamnit, he is co-signing my fantasy. He is coming inside it with me, he and I, in our blanket fort. Fascism is a middle class phenomenon. Memorize that.
You have a pretty good grasp now of fascism. A destabilized or anxious middle class confronts economic hardship and a seeming inability of the system to self-correct. Withdraws into comforting fantasies, bolstered by a demagogue, and orients itself toward a reassertion of white male authority. When the armed, Tiki-torch Nazis descended on Charlottesville last year, they didn’t come from the farm. They came from places with names like “Harrington Grove,” “Quail Hill,” and “Willow View”—from suburbia. And when these aggrieved white boys decide to make their mark with a mass shooting, they aren’t arriving from the farm. Nicolas Cruz was from a Broward County suburb, a member of Junior ROTC, who did competitive shooting in NRA sponsored competitions.
Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.
― Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
— Luke 1:51–53