This piece isn’t about guns: The Paper Machete – 5.31.2014

Though I’m almost always writing right up until the deadline for The Paper Machete, I usually finish before I leave the house. Not this time. I finished this one sitting at bar at The Green Mill twenty minutes before showtime.  You can see my notes at right.

As always, if you liked this piece, please like The Paper Machete on Fcaebook,  follow it on Twitter, listen to its podcast or – most importantly – attend one of its 3pm Saturday afternoon shows at The Green Mill.

I drew the short straw this week so I’m here to discuss last week’s mass shooting near Santa Barbara, California. I will try to do so in a way that doesn’t make you depressed for the rest of the day.

If you’re worried you’re in for a screed on gun control, don’t worry. This piece isn’t about guns. Not really. That’s not the conversation we had this week.

No, after we spent the Memorial Day weekend remembering the sacrifices others have made to preserve everything good about this country, we were reminded of everything terrible about this country thanks to Joe The Plumber.

Taking time away from what I assume is a sweet gig as an adjunct professor at Sarah Palin’s School For Useful Idiots, Joe The Plumber published an open letter to the parents of those killed in the shooting continuing thereby killing the open letter as a meaningful form of communication. (Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow  attended the funeral.)

Mr. Plumber’s letter was published at a site called, which is not, as I assumed, a fan site for the 1996 film starring Pamela Anderson but is instead a political news site “from a decidedly Biblical worldview.”

The whole letter is roughly 10 pounds of stupid in a five pound bag. It’s a meandering defense of the individual rights of gun ownership, best summed up in the sentence “Your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights,” referring, of course, to the 2nd amendment which is praised by the gun lobby at least once a day and twice on Sundays.  And that’s “my Constitutional rights.” Not “our.” “My.” Joe The Plumber’s.

Now, at first I thought such a statement made no sense coming from a site that has “a decidedly Biblical worldview.” If its commentary is based on the Bible, you’d think ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill” in the Ten Commandments would trump anything in the Constitution’s first ten amendments. But then I realized you have to put them in the order in which they appear. “The right of the people to keep and bear arms” is up to at number two in the Bill of Rights. “Thou shalt not kill” is waaaaaay down at number six in the Ten Commandments. So if you look at it that way, the 2nd amendment totally trumps dead kids, every time.

Mr. Plumber closed the letter by telling these parents to “stop playing into the hands of the folks who merely capitalize on these horrific events for their own political ends.”

And then I died from an overdose of irony.

In the same way a stopped clock is right twice a day, Joe The Plumber had a point. Mass shootings and other tragic events do get used as a means to an end. But the end doesn’t always justify the means, even when you agree with the end.

That’s how I felt when I read film critic Ann Hornaday’s Washington Post column about the shooter’s final YouTube video, a seven minute monologue of noxious privilege and hate detailing his point of view, none of which I’m going to describe in greater detail because fuck that guy. But I will allow that his video is cinematic in nature: Set against a backdrop of palm trees, it’s filmed at the time of day cinematographers refer to as “magic hour” because it gives everything a warm, orange glow. And it was that cinematic evocation that most troubled Hornaday.

Of the shooter, Hornaday says he “unwittingly expressed the toxic double helix of insecurity and entitlement that comprises Hollywood’s DNA” particularly those in “frat-boy fantasies” and said he reminded her of “every Bond villain in the canon.” She states her central thesis clearly when she says his “delusions were inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in” as the son of an assistant director of The Hunger Games.

Even assuming for the sake of argument he specifically chose the backdrop and time of day that most evokes a Michael Bay movie, Hornaday’s column confuses the symptom with the cause. She’s correct in saying the shooter’s video recalls the monologuing of a stereotypical Bond villain but if we accept her premise then it seems fair to ask why we haven’t we seen a rash of megalomaniacal, cat-owning bald guys making secret lairs in volcanos.

In fact, a quick read of the shooter’s manifesto/life chronology shows while he did love movies, his favorites were all over the map. The ones he loved the most were Jurassic Park, Independence Day and the Star Wars prequels. He specifically mentions his favorite childhood movie was The Land Before Time. The only movie the shooter mentions that fits Hornaday’s thesis is the movie Alpha Dog which he says “deeply affected” him, takes place in Santa Barbara and “depicted lots of good looking young people enjoying pleasurable sex lives” “I would rather live his life, than mine,” he says of the main character. But the mention of Alpha Dog comes 77 pages into a 141 page manifesto. Regardless of the movies he loves, he’d already made it clear in those pages he was a misogynist who was  easily roused into fits of rage and jealousy. His POV was established long before he saw Alpha Dog

Sam Adams of CriticWire put it best:

“All a film can do is push a viewer a few inches towards the cliff. If those happen to be the last few inches — if the film’s message is one the viewer is already primed to hear — the effect can be profound, but it’s the drop, and not the push, that makes the difference.”

This is not to say that culture doesn’t effect change or that we don’t live in a society that simmers in a toxic stew of misogyny and sexism that is the cause of everything from rape and death on one end to magazine cover stories celebrating an actress who “got her body back” after a pregnancy. It does and we do, which, I think, was Hornaday’s larger point. And I agree with her. She just has the order wrong.

But at least Hornaday seemed to be on a quest to discover the causes of violence. The Family Research Council’s Ken Blackwell seemed to be attempting something else altogether.

In an interview this week on Washington Watch Radio, Blackwell had his own views on the cause of the Santa Barbara shooter’s rage. And obviously it was gay marriage.

He said “when you see the attack on natural marriage and family…you get what we are now seeing which is a flood of these disturbed people.” He lamented that in the aftermath of such events “we look for ways of blaming the 2nd Amendment or blaming knives or blaming cars.”

Blaming cars.

Blackwell’s argument seems ludicrous on its face and not worth the time to engage with it intellectually. Mostly because of the phrase “blaming cars.” It’s almost as if Blackwell isn’t interested in having a legitimate discussion about the causes and effects of gun violence. But I’m sure his standing as a member of the board of the National Rifle Association and its urban affairs committee doesn’t make him at all reluctant to engage in a discussion about the connection of guns and violence and would never motivate him to distract from the issue by making a ridiculous argument about attacks on gay marriage. Never!

But that would mean there’s nothing to be read into the fact that the NRA hasn’t released a single public statement about the Santa Barbara shooting. No press release, no tweets, nothing on their Facebook page aside from a link or two to other sites discussing the matter.

No, there’s probably a lot to be read into that fact. Because when you’re the NRA you want the week after a mass shooting to be a discussion about Joe The Plumber and frat boy movies and gay marriage. You want that quite a bit.

And that’s why this piece is not about guns. Not really.

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