Monday, September 30, 2019

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Source of book: Audiobook from the library.

We listened to Rebecca Stead’s 2010 Newbery Award winner, When You Reach Me, which was quite good. This book, interestingly, shares some themes - and also incidents from the author’s life. 

I think it is safe to say that Rebecca Stead didn’t particularly enjoy junior high. She seems to have been bullied, as both of her books we read have had bullying as central themes, and in both cases, she has said that they reflect her own experiences at that age. Friendship was both important to her, and a lifesaver, and this too carries over into her stories. 

Liar & Spy is told from the perspective of Georges. (The “s” is silent - he is named after Georges Seurat, the pointillist painter who Georges’ family dubs “Sir Ott.”) After his dad is laid off, the family has to downsize from a house to an apartment. Fortunately, it is only a few blocks away, so he can stay at the same school. To make ends meet, his mom works long hours at the local hospital, while his dad tries to get a business off the ground. This leaves Georges alone for a lot of the day. 

The wheels of the plot are set in motion as they move in to the apartment. When Georges and his dad take some garbage down to the basement, they see a sign on a utility room door which says, “Spy Club Meeting—TODAY!” Georges is skeptical, because the sign seems old, but his dad writes below it, “When?” Georges follows the response, and ends up meeting a kid his age, Safer, who is part of a rather unusual hippie family living in the building. Safer and his little sister, Candy (the older brother is Pigeon - the parents named them after their personalities emerged…) inform him that another resident, “Mr. X,” might be a murderer, because he always dresses in black, and carries suitcases in and out. 

The book tells of the investigation (such as it is), and the friendship that develops between Safer and Georges. Meanwhile, Georges is dealing with bullying at school, which none of the adults seems to take quite seriously. 

As with the former book, this one is, shall we say, quirky. The characters are both believable and...unexpected might be the right word. Safer’s whole family is amusing yet very much like some people I have known. They homeschool their kids. Well, they “unschool” their kids. Which means that the learning is a bit spotty, but hands on, and just different. Also, like many unschoolers I have met, they have at least one kid with serious anxiety issues. How this interacts with the sheltered lifestyle is debatable, but there is a correlation at least. But, they are definitely nice, decent people, and their quirks are endearing. 

The concept of the spy club was apparently borrowed in some part from E. L. Konigsburg’s book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, and Me. We haven’t read that one yet, although we have enjoyed other books by the author

Two incidents appear to have been taken from Stead’s own childhood. She modeled Georges’ friendship with Safer after her own relationship with a beloved best friend. Apparently, this friendship was the one bright spot during those years, and she felt it got her though the bullying she endured, as well as the difficulty of finding one’s place during the transitional grades. To quote the author, talking about this issue and how she wrote the book:

"I feel like there are stages in many, many people’s childhoods when you don’t have one good friend like [I had]. It can happen a lot in sixth and seventh grade because that’s when things are changing so quickly. It’s like a desperate dash for some kind of acceptable identity, and it can get ugly."

On a related note, there IS enough money in the world to convince me to repeat my high school years. There is NOT enough money in the world to convince me to repeat my junior high years. No freaking way. 

The second was the test for the ability to taste PTC, given in science class. Stead was one of only two students who couldn’t taste the chemical. The other was a boy she had a crush on. So she invented the “G Test” for the book based on that. 

Just some fun bits from the book, which has a lot of them. I haven’t even mentioned the side characters, like “Robert who Draws,” or the owner of the local Chinese food joint, who makes his own fortune cookies with bizarre and cryptic fortunes. Or the use of the “interrupting cow” joke that my kids loved when they were a certain age. 

Fun, quirky, focused on friendships. Not a bad way to describe Stead’s writing. This book is worth a read. 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Best of Gene Wolfe

Source of book: Borrowed from my brother

Books have always been a huge part of my life. My parents read stuff to us - crazy advanced stuff - from our elementary school years. As in, we ranged from ages five through nine when my mom read us David Copperfield. Then The Scarlet Letter. We had bookshelves in every room, and saved our money for more. 

All this to say that my brother and I both have extensive collections as adults, and read voraciously in our spare time. Our tastes overlap a lot, but there are some differences. While I have read some science fiction (and still do from time to time), he has been a huge fan since his teens. I have a bit of Asimov and Bradbury and a few others in my collection, but he has literally hundreds of books in that genre. His taste is (other than Clive Cussler) rather good, so if he recommends or lends me a book, I know it will be worthwhile. 

Prior to reading this book, I was not particularly familiar with Gene Wolfe. Which, I suppose, shows that my knowledge of modern SciFi is rudimentary at best. He is, it turns out, considered one of the best of all time - and indeed, one of the best modern American authors in any genre. He recently passed at the age of 87, leaving behind a large number of books. 

The Best of Gene Wolfe is a 2010 collection of short stories. I started it back in January, but finally made it through the nearly 500 pages of smallish print. It is a long book, containing 32 stories, several of which are really novellas, not short stories. In addition to the length, there is the fact that Wolfe’s writing is dense, full of allusions (some of which required research for me), and often filled with puzzles to be solved. Depending on your perspective, this is either great fun, or a bit annoying. I can’t decide myself. 

A bit about Wolfe. He was a devout Catholic, and this definitely shows in his writing. In many cases, specifics of Catholic theology and ethics are apparent, and the biblical allusions are everywhere. I wouldn’t say he is preachy, though. More that if you came to his writing without a solid foundation in the bible and in historical Catholic/Christian ethics, you might miss some important things and come away even more puzzled. 

Some of this is due to the fact that he loved to use unreliable narrators. What they say cannot always (or often) be taken for truth - or even their truth in some cases. This is both good and bad, in my view. Wolfe tells interesting stories, and the narrators are important to the effect. But sometimes, if you can’t believe anyone or anything, it is difficult to figure out the point. 

Wolfe didn’t start out as an author. He got his degree in engineering, and worked as an industrial engineer for years. His most known contribution to that field was contributing work on the design of the machine which makes Pringles potato chips. This background is evident in his writing as well, both in the places where machines are described (his accuracy and detail is admirable) and in the stories which touch on corporate bureaucracy. 

The stories themselves are “Science Fiction” in genre, but that is an oversimplification. Some even seem to me to be Magical Realism or even just regular realistic short stories. A number seem particularly concerned with post-colonialism, owing a debt to Conrad and Michener among others. There is a lot of variety, and Wolfe writes well in all of them. 

There are a few standouts that I thought I would mention. There is a trio of stories related to each other in the titles and themes (although not in the characters or even worlds those characters inhabit.) The collection kicks off with “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories,” a rather dark twist on the Walter Mitty idea. A boy survives an abusive and drug-saturated household by withdrawing into a fantasy world, which owes a lot to The Island of Doctor Moreau. Next in the “series” is “The Death of Dr. Island,” which takes a rather different look at abuse. Two young mental patients are essentially tortured by a sentient “island” in an attempt to cure a third patient. It is a rather horrifying story, honestly, but it sticks with you - which is probably the point. The third in the series, “Death of the Island Doctor,” is likewise completely different from the others. An ancient professor teaches a last class - on islands - and tries to pass on his love for them to a pair of students. The connections are loose, but definitely there. I loved a line in the third story. 

And there came a time, not in fall, but rather in that dreary tag end of summer when it is ninety degrees on the sidewalk and the stores have Halloween cards and the first subtly threatening Christmas ornaments are on display... 

Ah yes, Christmas Creep - when August heat combines with the first appearance of the Christmas Industrial Complex. 

Another notable was “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” which is somewhere between a story and a novella in length, looks at cloning, among other issues. It shares the idea of a robot schoolmaster with a number of other stories - I think Wolfe was fascinated by the idea. This story was one of those that required a good bit of work to puzzle out and understand just what was happening. 

My brother particularly mentioned “Forlesen” as notable, and I have to agree. It contains its own version of horror - existential horror. By reducing a life as a cog in corporate meaninglessness and as a provider for a rarely-seen family, it taps into that fear that has haunted humanity ever since we evolved self awareness: that our lives might indeed just be meaningless. There is a particularly great line at the end, when the protagonist is about to experience death. He is being fitted for his coffin, in essence. 

“Now have you decided about the explainer?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Didn’t you read your orientation? Everyone’s entitled to an Explainer - in whatever form he chooses - at the end of his life. He-”
“It seems to me,” Forlesen interrupted, “that it would be more useful at the beginning.”
“---may be a novelist, aged loremaster, National Hero, warlock, or actor.”
“None of those sounds quite right for me,” Forlesen said.
“Or a theologian, philosopher, priest, or doctor.”
“I don’t think I like those either.”
“Well, that’s the end of the menu as far as I know…”

And then, there is the ending.

“I want to know if it’s meant anything,” Forelsen said. “If what I suffered - if it’s been worth it.”
“No,” the little man said. “Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Maybe.”

Well, damn.  

On the more positive side, I should mention the very brief “Westwind.” In his comment after the story, Wolfe notes that he realized years after he wrote it that The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton was kind of like a longer version of the story. (Not exactly, but there are definite similarities.) Wolfe was a huge Chesterton fan, apparently, and considered that an influence on his writing. I agree. While Wolfe is an order of magnitude darker than Chesterton, the same use of paradox and unorthodox thinking shows through. And also, a general good-naturedness that pervades Chesterton’s works. The darkness of subject matter can’t hide that about Wolfe. 

Speaking of dark, some of the stories are really more horror than SciFi. One of those is “And When They Appear,” which combines a crumbling society with a christmas gone wrong. Or, “The Tree is my Hat,” which is a bit of a supernatural horror story. 

If I had to pick a favorite, though, it might be “Bed and Breakfast,” about an incident in such an establishment just outside the gates of Hell. I liked the ambiguity about who is human and who is demon, who is living, and who is dead, and the mystery about just who the narrator is. (Assuming you can believe anything he says.) I snickered at this line, about the demons who stay at the lodging. 

“I see.” She picked up another piece of chicken. “Nice demons.”
“Not really. But the old man tells me that they usually overpay and are, well, businesslike in their dealings. Those are the best things about evil. It generally has ready money, and doesn’t expect to be trusted.” 

So, there were definitely a lot of things I enjoyed about the stories. The writing quality is high, and the ideas often intriguing. There were a few sour notes, however. 

Probably the most annoying was that Wolfe is a bit retrograde on gender. The stories were written from 1970 to 1999 - not exactly a pre-feminist era. And yet, he indulges in lazy gender stereotypes on occasion. Perhaps worse, the stories are all very male-centric. I do not recall a single female protagonist - the women are foils for the men, rather than equal participants. I realize this is an endemic problem in SciFi, notwithstanding the accomplishments of luminaries such as Ursula Le Guin (who praised Wolfe, for what that is worth.) Still, I was surprised to see that the stories were as modern as they were - I honestly expected something more like the 1950s given the way they were written. 

My second complaint is less serious, and is a matter of taste. While I don’t mind having to pay attention while reading, some of the puzzles were a bit too involved and obtuse for me. I am thinking in particular of “Seven American Nights,” wherein a Middle Eastern man visits a post-collapse United States. The premise was great. The first few chapters (it is novella length) were fascinating and drew me in. But then, after all the setup, it fizzled out into an ending that answered nothing, and left the questions unanswered. I tried to look back and find the clues, but didn’t really figure it out. I then used the power of the internet. Fortunately, Wolfe has a huge fan base who loves to discuss the stories, and I did find a thread on this one. The best I can be sure of is that Wolfe intended that the original narrator be replaced by a machine trying to throw the person (in the framing story) off the track of what really happened. This makes sense in light of a few clues, and also in the “mistakes” the machine makes. So far, so good. But Wolfe’s fans can’t agree on when this occurred, and even less on what the “real” story actually is. The more I read the discussion, the less confident I felt about any of the theories. And, I also realized that there were even more loose ends that I hadn’t noticed. Things that were (I presume) intended to be clues, but were so unclear that there were a dozen theories about why they were there, or what they meant. My beef with all of this is that the story started out so good and compelling and then...fizzle. A puzzle that made sense only to Wolfe, and remains opaque to everyone else. 

There were a few stories like this, and, depending on how good they were to start, I either tried to figure them out or didn’t bother. 

All that said, I still found the book enjoyable, and several of the stories are ones that will stick in my head. Wolfe’s writing qualifies as literary fiction, not mere genre fiction. Whether or not you like SciFi for its own sake, these stories will appeal for their literary merit, their thoughtful exploration of universal ideas, and for their creativity. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

There There by Tommy Orange

Source of book: Borrowed from the library. 

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. However, this one was an exception, because I had it on my reading list after it was mentioned on NPR. 

There There takes its name from a line from Gertrude Stein, in which she returned to Oakland, only to find that what she remembered was gone. “There is no there there.” Tommy Orange expands this idea to the concept that for Native Americans, there is no there there anymore, because what they once had lies buried under a conquering wave. The quote is doubly relevant, as the story is about Native Americans living in or otherwise connected to Oakland. 

The book starts with a prologue which is a damning indictment of the Native American Genocide and its lingering effects; all the injustice and cruelty inflicted by the white invaders is laid bare. It is quite a tour-de-force and could stand alone as its own essay. After this opening, the story itself begins. I wish I had done the “Russian Author Notetaking™” approach (I totally made that up) and drawn a diagram of the characters and their relationships. The problem is, I started the book away from home while waiting, and didn’t have paper handy. And by the time I did, I was halfway through the book, and didn’t feel like going back through it. 

Fortunately, afterward, I found a character list - and diagram - online. (H/T to The Lexington Bookie.) 

The book has twelve main characters, all of which get at least one chapter for their stories - and point of view. Some of these are told from the first person, and others from the third person. In addition, there are a large array of minor characters which are somewhat important to the plot. There is quite a mess, as you can see from the diagram below. While all the characters are related in that they either attend or are connected with someone who attends the big Oakland Pow Wow at the end, there are four groups of related characters. 

(Click on the diagram to enlarge)

As you can see, the one at the top is the biggest. The family of Vicky fill a lot of the stories, as the generational trauma plays out over and over. Moving clockwise, the next group has only one main character, and a fairly minor role in the drama. However, it fills in the constellation of dysfunction. 

Dene Oxendene is pretty close to a stand-in for the author himself. He is half white, half Native, and struggles with his identity. He decides to carry on his late uncle’s project of filming Native stories, after his uncle dies of alcoholism. To a degree, the book itself is that project, albeit in a different medium. The final group centers around characters involved in the drug trafficking trade. 

Keeping the characters straight is a challenge, I must admit. The relationships become more clear as the book goes on, fortunately. Some of our club members listened to it on audiobook, and noted that it was harder to keep track when listening than when reading. 

The book reads more like a series of related vignettes than a novel, in some ways. Rather than a narrative arc, it has themes, and seems intent on painting a broad picture, rather than moving from one place to another. It isn’t until the end when the stories converge that it feels connected, but even then, it is a connection of experience, of parallel yet different lives lived. Nothing wrong with this, of course. 

The central theme, as I see it, is one of identity. What does it mean to be Native? What makes one Native? Blood? Culture? For example, is half white Native or not? Does being raised by a white family after adoption make one white? 

All of the characters struggle, to some degree or another, with identity. Some, like the fairly functional Opal, seem to reject their Native roots altogether. Others become “1000 percent Indian,” as one character describes his father. (Probably representative of Orange’s own father - his white mother rejected his father’s culture as “witchcraft.”) For some, partaking in Native traditions such as drumming and dance make them feel connected. For others, they feel as if they are play acting. 

There are no answers, no epiphanies in this book. Orange just tells the stories and lets them hang there, uncomfortably. And he is seriously true to life there. My own experience has touched on these things. The neighborhoods I lived in as a child had lots of people who had this sort of poverty and intergenerational trauma that seemed and seems unfixable. I have seen too much of it in my legal practice too. The book ends kind of abruptly, with a number of threads still hanging. I felt like it was a bit of a “The Lady or the Tiger” sort of idea, while others of our club felt that things had been hinted at enough to figure out. 

One thing that we did agree on was that Orange writes exceedingly well. I wouldn’t say that the writing is beautiful like, say, Amor Towles, but it is language that brings you into an unfamiliar world. It is language that accomplishes its task perfectly. I can think of moments when I literally went back to my childhood, and could remember the very smells and colors of the houses of friends. I could hear the voices of a grandmother of a childhood friend, a mother stressed beyond endurance, an angry shout. It was an experience. If Orange set out to make a world come alive, he thoroughly succeeded. 

I have one other connection with the world of the book. My mom’s parents were missionaries to Mexico when she was a child, but returned to the United States later. For a period of a few years (I think ages 5 to 9 for me?) they lived in Oakland - the part of Oakland described in the book. We would catch the BART from the Fruitvale station and enter that tunnel toward the Lake Merritt station. Or, if we went the other way, the Coliseum was the next stop heading south. All those numbered streets. I can’t remember exactly which one their place was at - I was too young. I do remember taking the 580 to the 13, and getting off somewhere in the range of the 70th Street number. The houses were up and down duplexes, mostly. They ran a Spanish language church ministry of some sort called Harvest House. I can’t find anything about it on Google, so I suspect it is long gone, perhaps a victim of changing demographics. So this book brought back those memories too. Back in the 80s, ghetto Oakland was a crazy mix of colors and nationalities, and you could pass a Vietnamese grocery and see some guys out break dancing on a piece of cardboard. It came as no surprise to me that Oakland has ten thousand or so Native Americans there. 

The book definitely led to an interesting discussion with our club. (I won’t get into all of the personal experiences, as interesting as they were, but I think people revealed more about themselves than in most of our discussions. And I mean that in the best possible way.) 

There There is an example of why reading can be a powerful means of understanding. I lack personal knowledge of certain experiences. Tommy Orange has had some of those experiences, and is able to bring them to life in his book. All of us in the club were able to take a fresh look at a different perspective - and find ways that we shared some of the same feelings in our own circumstances. I’m not going to claim that we suddenly are experts on the Native experience. Certainly not. But we have another voice now that we have heard, and have that much more in common ground. It’s an interesting book, and Orange is a promising young author with a unique voice. 


A significant plot point turns on a 3-D printed gun. I wasn’t that familiar with the details, so I looked some up. Of course, improvised weapons are nothing new. I remember a bit of a panic about “zip guns” - supposedly gang members were making them out of auto antennae. I suspect there was more of media hype than reality in this. What does seem clear is that in the US, because it is so easy to get a gun, improvised weapons are pretty rare. 

As far as 3-D printing goes, there are limits. For the plastic kind that feature in the book, you use a nail for the firing pin (that was my biggest question), and they have limited lifespans. You can print a metal one, but the equipment for that costs far, far more than a black market gun. Essentially, then, the only people that would (at present) go that route would be those who just want to print a gun, not those looking for a cheaper way to arm themselves illegally. The plastic ones, in contrast, have the advantage of being very difficult to detect. And the disadvantage that most improvised weapons share: terrible accuracy. 

One thing that did rather surprise me is that in most of the US, it is perfectly legal to make a firearm. As long as you make it detectable by a metal detector. Obviously, if you cannot legally possess a firearm, you can’t legally make one either. 

For more, here is the Popular Science article on the printed plastic gun. Although technology will likely improve with time, it seems that this one isn’t of much use except to smuggle past metal detectors. The printers are expensive - unless you are making a lot, it would just be cheaper to get a black market gun. And those are easy enough to find in Oakland. And are more durable, more accurate, and so on. The smart money would be on them being used mostly by terrorists intent on suicide missions requiring undetectable weapons, not your average drug dealer or redneck asshat. 

One other thing that does come to mind - and Tommy Orange gets it right: ammunition still has to be made out of metal. So you still have that problem. And also, because modern ammo requires high explosives (in the primers) and industrial manufacturing tolerances, it is the ammo, not the guns, which are the weak link in the supply chain. California finally got it right by requiring background checks for ammo, not just guns. Now, to eliminate the ludicrous immunity provisions which prevent lawsuits against the various parts of the supply chain for both guns and ammo. I wager that if they feared getting sued, they would suddenly give (as a legal colleague once said) a “very deep, meaningful shit” about keeping their products out of the wrong hands. 


Just for fun, since I haven’t done it, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

Culture and Gun Violence: White Conservative Gun Culture Needs to Look in the Mirror

Disclosure: I am a gun owner, and have been around guns since I was a child. I have had a concealed carry permit, and thus have taken the classes multiple times. I have also reloaded ammunition since I was a kid, and am thus pretty familiar with both guns and ammo. 


One of the common arguments made by gun advocates - particularly those opposed to any sort of regulation - is that America’s problem with gun violence isn’t about the guns, but about culture. 

While this is overly simplistic and ignores the role that the easy availability of guns plays in violence, it isn’t exactly untrue. Culture does indeed play a role. 

After all, the “mass shooting” phenomenon is a modern one. For purposes of this post, I will define a “mass shooting” as follows: A shooting aimed at killing strangers, not victims known to the shooter. This means that the number of victims isn’t the defining factor, like it is in many statistical analyses. Gang shootings don’t qualify. Domestic violence murders don’t qualify, even if there are multiple victims. These other examples of violence are concerning too, of course, but they are beyond the scope of this post. 

Mass shootings ARE a modern phenomenon, having become popular (if that is the right word) during my own lifetime. Thus, it is fair to say that they are the result (in part) of cultural factors. 

But the problem is, it isn’t enough to say “culture.” The question is, exactly which culture, and what elements of that culture contribute to violence. This is the question that the anti-gun-control sorts either ignore outright, or answer using convenient scapegoats that have nothing whatsoever to do with gun violence. 

Let’s unpack this one a bit. 


Cultural Scapegoats

The arguments about guns have become so very predictable (on both sides, but particularly on the Right) that you can use autotext after each shooting. The arguments get trotted out faithfully every time, regardless of whether they have any basis in fact. They are intended to be and are emotionally satisfying to those who have no wish to look in the mirror or take responsibility for their own contributions to a violent culture. 

Here are the most common:

“It’s the video games.”

This is one of those untruths that many people believe, because it somehow feels true. But, it turns out, it isn’t true at all. There is no statistically significant link between video games (including violent ones) and actual violence. This has been studied over and over, and the link turns out to not exist at all. Even conservative Supreme Court justice Scalia acknowledged this in his opinion striking down a California ban on violent games. 

Likewise, even though Japan has the highest video game use rate, it doesn’t have the problem with gun violence that the United States does - and actually have a far lower overall homicide rate, which would seem to be an indication that video games aren’t the cause. 

I think there are a number of reasons why games get blamed. One is that they are convenient. The gaming industry doesn’t have a huge lobbying machine like the NRA. Games are an “outside” influence to blame that deflects attention from, say, parenting. And, I must say, there is an element of a generation gap at work here. Whatever the young people do (cell phones, video games, music, etc.) is automatically suspicious. 

Bottom line, though, video games aren’t the problem. 

“Violent movies”

Again, this isn’t supported by evidence. Research does not show a meaningful link. At all. As Scalia pointed out in the opinion mentioned above, violent fantasies are hardly a new thing. Fairytales (before being Disneyized) are horrifically violent. As is much of classical literature. (Have you read Homer? Or the Bible?) There is an interesting discussion to be had about the human propensity for violence, and for glorifying violence. But the consumption of violent media doesn’t seem to be linked to actual violence. 

These two scapegoats are the most common - and they at least make some sort of logical nexus. That nexus turns out to not exist, but it feels like it could, so they aren’t crazy. 

The next category of scapegoats, though, is totally crazy - and dishonest. I want to look at these as a group, because they are similar.

“What do you expect when you take prayer out of school?”

I heard this way too much growing up. Let’s address this. First, by “prayer in school,” we mean government sponsored prayer to a Christian god. 

“It’s the fault of atheism”

Another common one. 

“It’s the fault of gay marriage”

Yes, this has actually been said. And she also blamed Obama, pot, Colin Kaepernick, and non-white immigrants. Because of course it’s always the fault of minorities.

“It’s the fault of Feminism”

I put this one in intentionally, because it represents the exact opposite of the actual cultural problem. 

So, let’s look at what these have in common. 

These scapegoats blame gun violence on people who are not committing the violent acts.

Guess what? There is no epidemic of atheists shooting up churches. (The shootings at places of worship have overwhelmingly been committed by white supremacists for racist reasons. Although there was the one in Texas which started as domestic violence.) 

There is no epidemic of Feminist women shooting up places where men hang out. In fact, female shooters are extremely rare. (More about this later.) For that matter, we feminist men don’t seem particularly prone to go on shooting sprees either. 

There is no epidemic of LGBTQ people going on shooting sprees - even against the Westboro Baptist Church

There is no epidemic of minorities shooting up white people. (Gun violence of other sorts exists across the color line, but mass shooters are overwhelmingly white.) This despite centuries of abuse, enslavement, segregation, and oppression. 

Nope, you can actually predict pretty well who shooters are going to be:

Middle class or higher
Grew up with guns (most school shooters get the guns from a parent)

Hmm. This suggests where the REAL cultural problem lies, doesn’t it? 


The cultural problem is with white, conservative gun culture.

These shooters aren’t coming from everywhere, they are coming from a specific sub-culture. A white subculture. A middle class subculture. And a subculture where guns are in the home. This doesn’t sound much like those scapegoats above, does it? It sounds like the gun owner subculture is giving rise to mass shooters. 

So what IS wrong with the culture? 

I mentioned above that the shooters are nearly exclusively male. (In fact, I can’t think of one incident with a solo female shooter, unless you want to count that one workplace shooter in the Bay Area, and the case was so shocking because it was so exceptional.) So the first thing to examine about the culture is what it says to and about males. The problem apparently doesn’t lead females to take violent and deadly action with guns. 

I believe Toxic Masculinity is the central problem

There are several facets to this, and I will deal with them in turn. The central factor, though, is in a warped view of manhood and masculinity which directs emotions into violence rather than more productive channels. From my own experiences growing up in an ultra-conservative subculture, I think I can see where the problems lie. Let’s look at some of them. 

Factor #1: Misogyny

If you were to pick one single trait that most mass shooters seem to share, it is misogyny. As in hatred of and contempt for women. (The other trait is access to guns - of course.) This is a common trait in mass shooting of strangers, but it is also (naturally) a factor in domestic violence killings. 

Where does misogyny come from? From specific beliefs. Namely, that women are congenitally inferior to men...and thus should be ruled/owned by men. And the first flows from the second. In order to maintain a gender hierarchy, one has to believe in inferiority. To ease the conscience. This is why Frederick Douglass noted that slavery led to racism, not the other way around. To justify slavery, slave owners and society had to believe that it was due to the natural superiority of whites to blacks. Ditto for female subordination. To justify a system where men rule over women, you have to believe at some level that women are inferior, and thus in need of male “leadership.” 

From there, it flows naturally to go one of two directions. (Or maybe both.) The first is to put women on a pedestal, Victorian style, where they are the “good” gender (unless they are bad girls), and should be protected from contact with the messy world out there - which they clearly can’t handle. Or, to despise women as inferior creatures and feel contempt. 

From there, it isn’t a far gap to justifying violence against women who fail to be submissive or cooperative enough. In the case of many shooters, the fact that beautiful women aren’t throwing themselves at the shooter makes them furious. (See Elliot Rodger.) This is why there is such a strong correlation between domestic violence (and other threats and violence against women) and mass shootings. 

So what is it about conservative gun culture that breeds misogyny? 

Well, as someone who grew up in an ultra-conservative subculture, I would say it stems from the reactionary response to Feminism. In previous eras, the gender hierarchy wasn’t really challenged. Women had limited job opportunities outside the home, they couldn’t get loans or credit cards by themselves, they were widely considered inferior. It was just how things were, so to speak, and so being “benignly” misogynist was easy. Once Feminism started making real gains, though, this was threatened. A woman with her own job, money, and home didn’t have to take shit from dickhead men. A married woman who earned a similar amount to her husband could insist on equal power in the relationship. Women who felt they had better options didn’t have to marry Earl anymore, and the Earls of the world weren’t thrilled with this development. 

With the “traditional” hierarchy challenged, conservative subcultures reacted in a, well, reactionary manner, and started doubling down on gender hierarchy, gender roles, and gender stereotypes. 

Factor #2: Exaggerated “masculinity”

Within conservative subcultures, there has long been panic about the “feminization” of society in general, and men in particular. This has been going on at least since the start of first wave Feminism 250 years ago, but it has gone through periods of revival ever since. One of those periods was (and is) the ongoing Culture Wars™ pushed by the Religious Right. The rise of that subculture is, in my opinion, a significant factor in our current problem with mass shootings. 

The problems in the subculture stem from this fear of “feminization.” To be a “real” man, therefore, one must be defined primarily in terms of being “not a woman.” (Yes, this is related to the misogyny above.) 

Thus, boys are taught to avoid traits viewed as “female” and cultivate traits viewed as “male.” Needless to say, this causes harm to both boys and girls. For example, certain emotions are viewed as “female,” and thus not acceptable to be expressed by boys. Sadness, fear, tenderness, grief. Instead, boys are limited to “masculine” emotions: anger, aggression, competitiveness, stoicism. Having been an emotional little boy myself, and having children of both sexes, I can attest that males feel the “female” emotions too - but it isn’t socially acceptable to express them. 

While this is a problem widespread throughout our culture, it is much more of a problem in conservative circles. It isn’t universal (there are some movements within Evangelicalism, for example, aiming to encourage men to acknowledge and express emotions), but there is also a LOT of pressure in the subculture itself to be “manly” and never “effeminate.” 
The problem in the gun violence context, though, is that males continue to experience “feminine” emotions - and emotions need to be expressed - that’s being human. So, these emotions - sadness, fear, worry - are redirected into more “acceptable” male expressions. Namely, anger. And eventually violence. 
 I admire the honesty: the military-style weapon as penis extender.
And yes, this is an actual ad by Bushmaster.

Factor #3: Violence as an acceptable masculine way of solving problems

Conservatives practically worship male violence. I know that is a strong statement, but I believe it is true. Here are some examples. In conservative circles, there are no greater heroes than soldiers and cops. Go to a conservative church around Veterans Day, and you will see the pastor invite former and current military to stand for recognition. A church here in Bakersfield literally flies the “blue lives matter” flag. (That’s a whole other post…) But you see it everywhere. 

Think about it, though. Both of these professions are inherently violent. Soldiers, no matter how you sugarcoat it, kill for a living. That in a fallen world, soldiers are perhaps necessary, doesn’t change that fact. Likewise, law enforcement uses force (aka violence) to remove dangerous people from society. And that is the idealized view. The less idealized view recognizes that the United States doesn’t have the world’s highest incarceration rate by accident: our laws and enforcement are an instrument of social control, particularly against the poor and minorities.

Now sure, one factor in this is that both soldiers and cops risk their lives. Which is why firefighters are respected (on both the right and left, though.) But there is also a glorification of the violence itself, I’m afraid. In the conservative subculture, the respect for soldiers and cops often veers into idolatry, where criticism is off limits, and any criticism is viewed as “hating cops” or “hating our troops.” 

And note that both of these are stereotypically male occupations. Sure, there are female soldiers and female police (I’m related to some.) But many conservatives are deeply uncomfortable with women in these professions. 

While I have no problem with recognizing the contributions of cops and soldiers to our society, it is badly unbalanced to honor them more than we do, to use a few examples, those who educate our children, who grow cook and sell our food, or who heal our wounds and diseases. But these are more “female” occupations, and thus are taken for granted. 

This in turn leads to some troubling results. The most respected members of society are those who use violence. And violence is seen as the solution to problems. Unrest overseas? Don’t examine the role of our foreign policy in causing that unrest. Send some guys with guns! Protests here at home? Send some guys with guns! 

This then bleeds over into other problems and perceived problems. Think someone might steal your stuff? Get a gun. And be prepared to light that MFer up! Worried about a man being violent to your daughter? (see above for how men get that way…) Or have sex with her? Clean your gun when he comes over. Let that boy know you will be violent if he doesn’t behave. Anxious about immigrants after watching Tucker Carlson? Better have an arsenal to defend yourself against those “rapists and drug dealers.” 

Or how about: not getting your way? Assert yourself and make that wife of yours submit. Kids aren’t behaving? Beat them a bit. Hey, that’s how men solve problems, right? 

That some troubled and angry men in this subculture see violence as a way to solve their problems shouldn’t be a surprise. Most will go for suicide, but some will want to go out with a bang. Anger and rage feel more masculine than despair…

Factor #4: Embrace of military-style weapons

Gun sales records are notoriously difficult to obtain. Manufacturers carefully guard their numbers, and the ban on federal research into gun violence has made it more difficult to study. 

However, I can kind of use a bit of anecdotal evidence from my own experience to at least show a shift that has occurred in my lifetime. 

When I was a kid, we used to go out and shoot at a public range in the Angeles National Forest. You would see other people out there shooting, and occasionally talk to them and ask what they had. Later, in my 20s, I did some legal work for a local private range, earning a lifetime membership. Although life has been too busy to get out and shoot much these days, I have seen some shifts in gun times over the years. 

As a kid, I remember wood stocks dominating. You would also see laminate stocks on hunting rifles. But overall, there were a lot of bolt action hunting rifles out at the range. And oh so many Ruger 10-22s. (For those who aren’t gun people, this is the popular .22 caliber rifle you get either for your kids to learn on, or to practice cheaply.) 

I’m not sure what the most popular non-22 rifle was, but I would guess that it was the Savage bolt action - not as expensive as the prettier Remingtons, but a serviceable rifle. 

There is no doubt now about what the most popular rifle is. It is the AR-15-style gun. (Technically, the AR-15 is made by Armalite, but the style - essentially a semi-automatic version of the M-16 - is made by a number of companies.) And it isn’t close. 

So, what drove the change? That’s an interesting question. Hunting is on the decline, so that is probably a factor. But I think there is another one at work. As gun-rights advocates love to remind us, guns are tools. But tools for what? What is that particular tool for? 

Let’s see. If you want to hunt, you need a gun in a caliber that fits your game. Bigger for elk, smaller for deer. 

If you want to kill varmints on your farm, you need something with a small, fast bullet. Can’t have that ground squirrel duck. 

For home defense, your best bet is a short barrel shotgun. (Think granny from The Beverly Hillbillies…) Although a revolver isn’t a bad choice for a smaller space. 

What is the use of a tool like an AR-15? The bullet is too light for anything except for varmints. But it does unload a lot of bullets quickly, and it is super easy to use. (That was the point: even a young, green soldier can figure it out.) And it is cheap and modular. (Another military consideration.) In any event, even though it isn’t particularly beloved in its M-16 form by the military, it was designed for one purpose: killing other humans quickly and efficiently. 

As my dad says, “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And if you have a weapon designed to kill humans, well…

That, ultimately, is why I think the AR-15-style rifle has exploded in popularity. It feeds a particular fantasy in conservative gun culture. I may expand on it in a future post, but here is the gist. Since conservatives with guns generally are pro-military and pro-law enforcement - and don’t truly expect to have to fight off cops and soldiers sent by the US government. 

But at least some really expect a war of a different kind. One with definite racial overtones. (I talked about this a bit in my review of Educated.) 

Again, this isn’t everyone, but it is in conservative gun culture. And with the popularity of military-style weapons and the imagined threats and conspiracy theories, it isn’t hard to see a belief that the AR-15-style weapons will be used for their intended purpose someday. 

I think this does contribute to the development of mass shooters. 

Factor #5: Conspiracy theory thinking

This is fomented by the NRA. “The liberals are out to get your guns.” And also by the Evangelical Culture War Industrial Complex. “Christians are under attack. Better have your guns!” And by the rising white supremacist wing of the GOP. “We are being invaded by immigrants.” And the gender panic above. “Manhood is under attack!” “The gays are taking over!” “Feminists!” 

This embrace of fear and conspiratorial thinking is not healthy in any culture, but it is particularly a bad combination with embrace of violence and access to weapons. All too soon, you start thinking that someday (maybe soon), you are going to have to murder other human beings to survive. 

This combines with the idea that the “real Americans” will have to defend themselves against the “others,” and that leads to…

Factor #6: Increasing racism

While our history with guns has always had racial overtones (the NRA supported gun control preventing minorities from having guns in the past), I think this has accelerated within gun culture during my lifetime. This shift can be seen in a few incidents lately. 

First, the Trayvon Martin murder. Zimmerman was a textbook case of irresponsible gun usage. He initiated contact with a person who was not bothering him. He escalated at every opportunity. And eventually, he murdered Martin. We learned about this stuff in our CCW class - don’t escalate. Seek to escape a situation rather than confront. Don’t start fights. And yet, silence from the NRA. Actually, worse than silence. They started a “stand and fight” campaign. Seriously? That’s basically “this sidewalk isn’t big enough for the two of us. (That’s why I left.) 

Second, the Philando Castille murder. (And yes, I call it murder.) An African American man with a valid carry permit, who does everything we are taught to do in an encounter with law enforcement, yet is shot dead. And silence from the NRA. I cannot imagine that had a white CCW holder been killed in similar circumstances, the NRA would have been silent. 

Third, the god-awful NRA ad in which African American protesters are called the enemy - and it is strongly implied that they will need to be murdered. Of course, “liberals” like me (“liberal” now apparently means anyone who isn’t on the white supremacist Trump Train) are also in the crosshairs. Any of us who call out racism are the enemy now. The NRA is sounding uncomfortably similar to neo-Nazi groups like the Proud Boys. 

So yes, this is an issue in gun culture. It was no surprise to see a white guy go murder Hispanics in El Paso. Because this is IN THE CULTURE now. 


Bottom line here: Yes, there is a culture problem that has lead to the rise of the mass shooting. However, it isn’t a culture problem on the left, it is not an atheist culture problem, it is not a feminism culture problem, it isn’t a minority culture problem.

It is a culture problem within white, male, conservative, gun culture itself.

And, as a gun owner myself, I give this warning: guys (and it is mostly guys), you need to fix this problem. Or it will eventually be fixed for you, and you won’t like the result. Gun ownership is on the decline, even as the number of guns increases. The NRA has lost a large number of members, and revenue is down more than 20% since the election of Trump. Younger people are less likely to support the NRA, and even younger NRA members are unhappy with the NRA’s political positions. Revenue for the NRA increasingly depends on a few big donors - and perhaps not coincidentally, it has spent big money supporting Trump. My kids’ generation is tired of being murdered by shooters, and would like to feel safe at school again. And they are less likely to vote Republican - and many loathe Trump. There is a demographic shift coming, and if white, conservative, male, gun culture doesn’t clean up its act, change is coming for it, whether they like it or not. 


Just a note on other gun violence:

Sixty percent of gun deaths are suicides. Suicides are, sadly, on the rise. But they are increasing most dramatically in rural (and white) communities. In other words, in Donald Trump country - and gun culture country. It isn’t a stretch to say the the cultural rot I discuss above is a significant factor in suicides as well. Males who define their masculinity in terms of wealth and violence...well, that doesn’t end well under times of financial stress. 

While I didn’t include them in my discussion, the other category of killings which are often included in “mass shootings” are domestic violence murders. When you discuss mass shootings with right wingers, you often get pushback against the “it’s a white male problem” with some statistics about race in mass shootings which shows more diversity. This is a bit of a dodge, but it also contains some truth. For domestic violence killings, race isn’t a determinant. There are men (it’s almost always men) who murder their families and often themselves afterward, and they cross racial lines. Fair enough. Ditto for workplace shooters – another mostly male phenomenon. But the mass murder of random strangers is overwhelmingly a white male thing. 

But let’s talk about the domestic violence problem too. Because it shares a lot of the same factors. Toxic masculinity, where masculinity is defined in terms of violence, power, and control of women. It is the same cultural problems (minus the racism and conspiracy theories, perhaps.) And also the same truth applies: it is gun culture that is the issue. These are gun owners too. 

And one more: a third category that gets lumped with “mass shootings” is gang-related violence. I need not say more than to note that right wingers LOVE to blame the culture for gang-related violence. Which, sure. And let’s note the prevalence of toxic masculinity in that culture as well. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If culture is the problem causing gang violence, it surely is a factor for white male domestic terrorists too, right? Look in the mirror.