Sunday, June 19, 2016

Stop Feeding the Fire, Stop Romanticizing Guns: A Cry for Orlando

A week ago, on the early morning of June 12th, 2016, Omar Mateen carried out his brutal rampage in the LBGT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, setting a new American record for number of people killed by one American gunman at one time. Though much attention has been paid to the killer's Muslim religious background and his claim of allegiance to the Islamic State, I find it more important to point out that this massacre was clearly motivated by intense homophobia. He could have gone anywhere to take innocent lives and make his point, but Mr. Mateen chose a place that was associated with the LBGT community. He made a conscious decision to target gays, lesbians and others of non-conventional sexual and gender preferences for his night of infamy. In deploring the killing, many politicians and media pundits have chosen to focus on his religious identity and his attempt to link himself with violent Islamic extremism, but fewer are the voices that have made as resounding a denunciation of anti-gay attitudes and violence as they have of Islamic extremism or terrorism.

This is quite ironic, considering that LBGTs are among the populations most prone to suffer persecution and violence--and thus live in terror--in America. One would think that those who denounce terrorism in broad, sweeping, flag-waving, moral-crusade terms would take note of how often LBGT Americans are terrorized, and bring this front and center in denouncing the Orlando rampage, but no. The reason is not difficult to surmise. Many right-wing politicians have made quite a point of vilifying LBGT people and rejecting their efforts to gain equal rights over the last several decades. In their demonization of gays, lesbians, transgender people and others, such politicians helped to set the stage for the Orlando massacre, for they have targeted LBGTs with their rhetoric and legislation as surely as the Orlando killer did with his assault rifle. And so, when this holocaust raged in the Orlando nightclub, the right-wing politicians and gay-haters found themselves in a quandary, and took the easy way out, focusing on the religious aspect to engage in some free and easy Muslim-bashing, to avoid the issue of how their words and actions have contributed to the beating and killing of LBGTs on many occasions including this horrific night in Florida. Sadly, their pointing to Islam, rather than homophobia, as the cause of the Orlando catastrophe is likely to lead to more Muslim-bashing around the USA and beyond. Of course, for those like Donald Trump, who depend on whipping racism and bigotry to a "white"-hot froth for their surest source of political support, this result will probably suit them just fine, regardless of how it traumatizes Muslim-American individuals and families, tears apart our society, and bolsters the anti-American sentiments and ideology of groups like ISIS.

Today, however, I want to call attention to another aspect of the Orlando shooting spree. Omar Mateem didn't just go to the Pulse nightclub armed to the teeth to kill others, but also to be killed himself in an orgy of violence, a ballet of bullets. In so doing, he was acting out a script that has been portrayed and played out all too many times in America, in both the fantasy life and the real lives of Americans. This is the tired but never retired old trope of the valiant, gunslinging hero who goes to fight against invincible odds and dies in a blaze of glory. Think of "Custer's Last Stand," fighting bravely against the "Injun" enemy. Think of all the movies and television shows, from "High Noon" to "Dirty Harry," from "Pulp Fiction" to "American Sniper" to (add your own), where soldiers or police or vigilante he-men or charismatic criminals end up fighting alone, one gun against a hundred or a thousand, to either die or miraculously triumph, or both.

All hail the lone male hero and his mighty gun, one brave penis against the world! If he dies, he dies happy in one last ejaculation of lead, blood and sperm! If he prevails, it is because of the magical power of a noble man and his majestic weapon!

I would go so far as to say that this scenario, this man-and-a-gun-against-the world script, has achieved a quasi-sacred status in the American imagination, particularly the American male imagination, helping to explain why guns are such a sensitive political issue in the USA. Any proposal to limit access to guns in the USA ignites such ferocious and irrational opposition, you would think that the proposed laws were aiming at castrating men rather than simply placing limits on gun access, use and purchase similar to those in other countries. Perhaps if more men played more with their penises and got their jollies that way, perhaps if our society were more open and accepting of sexuality, we would not have this problem. Perhaps if Omar Mateem had gone to that bar seeking an orgasm rather than a gun-gasm, this tragedy could have been avoided. Unfortunately, it would seem that gun play had become more satisfying, more meaningful, and more heroic than sex play for him. I fear, however, that he is not alone in this, shall we call it, "lifestyle preference," where aggression trumps eroticism and carnage is preferred to coitus.

This needs to change. I say that unequivocally, and I don't see how any sane person could disagree with the proposal that we need to completely reject and lay to rest the persistent, pernicious and tragically popular mass hallucination that teaches young men in America that the ultimate exercise of American male heroism is to die in a hail of gunfire, shooting and being shot, taking down as many others as possible before submitting to death oneself. John Wayne, RIP! Quentin Tarantino, please find something else to aim your camera at besides endless and repetitive displays of gunfire!

But it will not be enough to retire this script. It has to be replaced with cultural representations that are not only non-violent, but also attractive and inspirational. American boys and men--and boys and men in other countries who grow up to the sights and sounds of bullet-riddled American media, from police procedurals to war movies to gangster rap--need to be shown other models of heroism to aspire to, other ways of being fulfilled and proud as men without fetishizing guns and shooting to kill. We need a paradigm shift, in Thomas Kuhn's phrase.

We need a massive, all-hands-on-deck commitment to creating images and narratives that celebrate the value of peaceful pursuits and non-violent forms of achievement and heroism for American men. Instead of only glorifying policemen, soldiers and psychopathic killers ad infinitum and ad nauseum, we need to showcase the drama and significance of other occupations and situations. To a public trained to feel bored by any story that does not involve the firing of guns, and equates heroism with good guys with guns killing bad guys with guns, this is indeed a difficult task, but that does not mean it is an impossible one. Popular television programs have been built around the work-lives of lawyers and doctors, with the ethical dilemmas of law firms and the life-and-death drama of the operating room proving just as gripping and just as lucrative as battlefield heroics or the stereotyped shoot-out in the crime-den. The work of teachers, social workers, legislators and other public servants could also be converted into compelling dramas if the networks and movie studios were willing to take a chance, as they did with "Mad Men" and its portrayal of the advertising world, for example.

And then there are video games. Surely more could be done to create a wider range of alternatives to the kinds of single-shooter kill-fests that would almost seem to have been designed as how-to manuals for disturbed mass killers like Omar Mateem?

I know some who read this will object that there is no direct correlation between violent entertainment and gun violence in America. I would answer that while there may be no direct correlation, there is no escaping the fact that American gun violence in American life very much reflects the portrayals of gun violence in American popular culture, suggesting a kind of feedback-loop between what people see on screen and what they do in life. There may not be any one-to-one causal correspondence between any particular media display of gun-violence and any particular mass-shooting in a simplistic sense, but that does not mean there is NO influence on the American psyche from the constant screening of scenes of men with guns who shoot to kill and are killed by shooting. If images and narratives on the screen had no effect on us, billions of dollars would not be spent every week on television and internet advertising. What we see, what we hear in the media DOES affect us. Looked at in this way, the massive and ceaseless displays of gun violence are one long and unending advertisement for the glorification of guns and an equation of American masculinity with gun violence, an anti-public service announcement, you might say.

Women of course can play and slay with guns as much as men, and I would sadly predict that the rising number of films and programs with gun-toting females will eventually usher in a new phenomenon of female mass-shooters. I suppose this could be seen as a victory for gender equality, but this is one glass ceiling I would rather remain unbroken.

One more thing. I have noted for many years now that in many places in America, most public monuments are dedicated to soldiers and police. One could easily develop the impression, growing up in the average American town or city, that the only men who are real heroes in American life are those who brave danger with guns in their hands. Why are there so few memorials to people in other walks of life, to doctors, nurses, engineers and musicians, poets, artists, composers and playwrights? Many are the American highways and byways named for army regiments and state police officers; few are those named for teachers or writers or scientists. This is another area in which we can alter the atmosphere of our country to advance more peaceful values and images, and start reducing the amount of energy that our culture pumps into a misguided romance with guns and violence that may not directly cause events like the Orlando massacre, but which helps make them more imaginable, and thus more possible. We need to drain this swamp, whose polluted waters allow toxic tendencies to flourish...

I remember once reading a book called "Wisconsin Death Trip," a photographic journey through images of death and funerals in Wisconsin. I feel like our country has been on an "American Death Trip" for years. Let's get off this sad trajectory, PLEASE!

Next: Paganism and gun violence.

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