A friend of mine told me that these things are too short. Writing really long and involved stuff discussing guns and self-defense and guerilla war seems at odds with short, digestible essays that are age appropriate for young adolescents. So I guess these are going to be written for a more mature 13 year old. Don’t blame me. I didn’t invent this reality.
If you come across a word or historical event or concept that you have no idea what to do with, I’m going to assume you have fast internet. Look it up, or if I’m alive, ask me and I’ll talk at you until you beg me to stop.
Here’s two prefaces/disclaimers:
First, I don’t want you to enact violence and I don’t want you to experience it and I don’t want you to think that it’s not okay to protect yourself. Just keep in mind that running away is a terrific response when faced with a bad situation, and if you’re in a violent conflict, remember the OODA loop, which I will explain in greater length in the future
Second, I have been confronting the limits of my own imagination in the writing of this. I feel sad and pessimistic and that it’s very hard to figure out what is worth saying right now. This is a way that you will feel in your life as well. That’s reasonable, just don’t let it turn you stupid.
The last thing I wrote to you was about Dungeons and Dragons, mass shootings, and the human imagination. I wrote it after the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, and also after a rage exchange on Facebook with a guy I grew up with. Here it is if you’d like to read it.
I suppose I want to clarify a few things about the positions of the previous essay, and provide a note on the context that I’m writing from, now, about three weeks later.
Two Supreme Court decisions are informing this perspective. The first is a ruling that limits the ability of state and local governments to prevent people from carrying concealed firearms, the other is the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which will greatly expand the ability of state and local governments to prevent women from terminating a pregnancy.
I spend some time monitoring right wing social media accounts, which is fascinating and gross and provides me with insight but little actionable intelligence. A thing I’ve come to understand is that right wing activists don’t really have a positive program, which is to say that they don’t really want anything for themselves and their communities aside from an opportunity to spit in the faces of people they don’t like, a population that includes almost everyone, often even themselves.
They were gleeful at these two rulings, and this was very openly about an increased ability to be violent, and to gloat about women (who they almost universally call ‘whores’) losing their reproductive rights.
I referenced the Zapatistas in the earlier essay.A few days ago I stumbled upon a first grade civics textbook for kids in EZLN territory in Chiapas. Taken out of context, it is exactly what it says it is… A civics textbook that explains how their government functions at several scales. It is extraordinary only in context, because much of it is in reference to a very recent form of government that developed out of a struggle that occurred in the lifetimes of many potential instructors.
And so I thought about kids about your age, many thousands of miles away from where we live, in what is in many senses another world. And while your lives are very different, a thing you share with those children is that you have reasons to be afraid of armed men.
I’m not particularly well-informed about the current state of the Zapatista project, nor do I know how they control and patrol their territory. I don’t know what kind of weapons they have and in what quantities they have them. I do know that they use these weapons to protect themselves from paramilitaries that kidnap and murder activists in their territory.
I don’t know how these children experience the presence of weapons. There is a very clearly articulated threat of violence from a very obvious enemy. I’m also certain that there aren’t assault rifles available for all Chiapans. To evoke a phrase from the US constitution, there is a very visible ‘well-regulated militia’ that arms people, and that militia is directly accountable to the autonomous government.
In the United States, it is easy to acquire firearms, and there isn’t necessarily any purpose for them, other than what is granted to them by their owner’s imagination. The people in our society who are most committed to on-demand access to assault weapons are fairly clear about who they hate and who they fear: Immigrants. Queer people. Leftists. African Americans. For this political movement the enemy is within. The UN blue helmets that the militiamen of the 90’s claimed to be afraid of have been replaced by college students with green hair and black kids protesting police violence. The right is not making an effort to conceal who they’re interested in hurting.
In the weeks that followed the shootings, I made a point of reading most of what I came across regarding gun ownership, and one particular article made a strong impression on me. It was about a wave of new gun ownership among African Americans, spurred by fears of violence at the hands of white supremacists. That’s a fear that makes a ton of sense, and while having a weapon doesn’t exactly protect you from an enemy you can’t identify, I think most of us live with the knowledge that there are threats of armed conflict out there in the ether.
Is a right-wing American’s desire to use guns for political ends different than an indigenous campesino’s, or that of a black person involved in a civil rights struggle, or of a trans woman in Oklahoma?
Yes, categorically and definitionally, and it’s very clear to me that firearms advocates aren’t interested in gun rights for everyone, but for themselves. I’d refer you to the case of Philado Castile for a case study in the gross disparity in the policing of firearms between racial minorities and white gun-owners.
So this is the political imagination of the right: There’s no path into the future for them that doesn’t involve violence. They can’t conceive of a politics that doesn’t involve revenge against people who never hurt them to begin with. When Rebecca Solnit writes that conservatism is “a white supremacist war cult” she’s correct.
A perception of a risk of violence is its own kind of violence, and living in a world in which you can be killed with impunity is an experience I have not had but can imagine is awful. What I do live with is a horror at the prospect that I would sit back and observe this violence without being moved to action. And so I have a great deal of sympathy for this impulse among African Americans to arm themselves.
But there’s a tendency in the breach between right-wing violence and left-wing self-defense, and that is the existence of a population of murderers who don’t appear to have any particular ideology. The only thing we’re able to figure out about them is that they wanted to kill people and they wanted to die and so they did. They’re the unintended consequences of a war that hasn’t started and won’t be declared and that might never happen at all. These are the Adam Lanzas, Stephen Paddocks and Salvadore Ramoses.
This is untenable and unwinnable and also very stupid. I have no idea what to say or do.
And so I think, after all this, and despite my desperate desire for an assault weapons ban, I can’t say that I don’t support the right to arms for people involved in a political struggle for human rights who are under threat of attack from military or paramilitary forces. This is an unsatisfying place to end up, but none of this is palatable so I suppose it must be accepted for now.
And I’m aware of the actual dynamic in all of this. Gun owners rarely protect themselves from anything, are far more prone to be victims of gun violence, and are far more likely to perpetrate violence on their communities. For the most part, statistically, more guns are unlikely to deliver anyone any greater freedom, and will instead lead to more accidental shootings, more husbands murdering their wives, more deadly road rage incidents, and more neighborhood beefs that spiral out of control.
So to return to the subject of imagination, a news show I like released a lengthy video about how seductive violent dystopias are in fiction, and that this reflects a failure to imagine or articulate stories that involve the hard work and years upon years of ‘just living’ that it takes to achieve meaningful and sustainable social change.
I think that there are reasonable points embedded in that argument, but that it also misses several things, three of which occur to me right away.
The first is that the dystopia already exists. All the horror presented to us has happened at some time and is happening in some place. Dystopias are models of reality, abstracted enough for us to test the boundaries of what we can imagine surviving.
The second is that the peaceful levers of change always exist side by side with more militant avenues of struggle. Civil rights successes can’t be attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. if they’re not also attributed to the Black Panther Party, and also the nameless millions who rioted when King was murdered. We teach children that the one is a preferable alternative to the other, when they are really a pair. One always brings the other about and nothing changes without both. Here’s a documentary about armed self-defense in the African American Civil Rights movement.
The third is that our fictions always touch on these other, peaceful ways of getting to the future, we just fail to notice it.
Stories about music, sports, science, art and friendship are always a part of every fiction. Our imaginations are actively engaged with these everyday and communitarian paths to a far greater extent than how it is that we’re going to overthrow a totalitarian government.
But these peaceful, happy paths, in fiction and in life are always happening in the shadow of atrocities. Dystopia is the interruption of the peace that leans into the future, and we always need to imagine how it is we’ll preserve our sense of dignity and justice when soccer and music and cooking are interrupted by gunmen.
I’d like for you to go ahead and imagine heroic struggles against tyranny, but be certain about what heroism looks like, and never forget that bullets can’t replace a well-lived life and a beloved community. Making change is about making friends and treating them well and expecting that they do the same for you. Just don’t forget that you have to protect your friends.