Shit Mountain Blues: Anti-masking, Open Carry, and the Right to Do Harm

How many times have I heard the lament? If you won’t wear a mask to protect yourself, won’t you at least think of the innocent people you might infect? Because that’s the thing, right? Masking works best when everyone does it, because it provides some protection for the wearer from aerosolized droplets, yes. But the bulk of the protection comes from limiting the spread of those droplets in the first place, when the infectious person’s mask catches them right out of the gate. That’s just science.

The lament is rhetorical, an appeal to conscience. And if you have one, and aren’t hyper-invested in white christian supremacist patriarchy and your place at or near the top of its hierarchy, such an appeal might work. But it doesn’t, because it is exactly that perceived positioning atop that particular hierarchy that drives the anti-mask movement, along with Second Amendment fundamentalism and, let’s be honest, the conservative movement generally.

It’s a dominance thing.

Let me see if I can break it down. Say you believe that there’s a hierarchy to the world. Call it Shit Mountain, because the slopes are steep and we all know which way shit rolls. Say your mythology tells you you’re king of shit mountain, or at least a member of his court, and everyone below you doesn’t matter. You don’t have to give a shit about them or about what they think or what they want or how they feel, because they’re below you, and we all know which way shit rolls. 

Sounds pretty good, right? But it’s not, though. It’s enervating as fuck. Because you know the people you shit on are eyeing you, watching for weakness. Worse, you’ve got your own to jockey against, because the closer you are to the top the less you can afford to get shit on, because if people see shit on you, they might think you’re lower down than you are. If it happens enough, they turn right.

It’s enough to keep a man up at night. To eat at him constantly. The more invested he (or she) is in Shit Mountain, the more anxious, the more paranoid about status he (or she) gets. Seriously, just try and tell a Shit Mountain man something. Anything. He’ll fight you on it just because you said it first. Prove it’s true, and he’ll double down. Because to Shit Mountain Man everything is always about power. Shit Mountain Man believes he can bend reality to his will. So long as he can make you submit, he thinks he has.

The more anxious Shit Mountain Man is, the more likely he is to act out. To insist not only on his right to do so, but on the rightness of his doing so. To insist, furthermore, on acknowledgement of his right to do so. Because what, after all, is a greater demonstration of power than to harm others without consequence to oneself?

When white men don’t wear masks, when they march in the street open carrying long guns, when they show up to ‘protect businesses’ or counterdemonstate against police accountability protesters, when they ask to see the manager and try and get you fired from your job, it’s an assertion of power. It’s an assertion of a positive right to harm others, and a willingness — in too many cases, an eagerness — to do so. It’s an assertion about Shit Mountain, and where they are on it, and where everyone else is. And that assertion, and submission to it, is more important than anything else. 

***

I wrote not too long ago about what I call the Founding Factions, the contradiction at the heart of the American Experiment: 

“On the one hand you have ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and th pursuit of happiness’. On the other you have the Three-Fifths crowd, a burgeoning aristocracy founded on the bedrock of chattel slavery, in which some people have no rights at all.”

me

Shit Mountain Man is the cultural, intellectual, and — in plenty of cases — genealogical heir to the Three-Fifths crowd. They’ve fought against those self-evident truths since the ink on the Constitution dried. They tried to secede from the Union, and when they lost they engaged in armed insurrection, terrorism, and guerilla warfare til the Union said fuck it. They lost slavery, so they built the caste system of Jim Crow, and have done their level best ever since to keep America from fulfilling the promise that was supposed to legitimize the whole goddam thing in the first place.

The world’s oldest democracy has never lived up to its ideals. How could it, when the clearest enunciation of those ideals come from a slave-owner and serial rapist? Try and bury that kind of contradiction, shit’s gonna keep coming back around, like it is now. 

The Shit Mountain crowd is scared. They lost the argument — because, duh — and, worse for them, they’re losing the demographic battle. That’s why they’re so desperate, why they have no conscience left. After all the dirt they’ve done, what’s a few more dead, theirs or ours? Until we submit, and pretend they can bend reality to their will, they’ll keep insisting on their right to do harm. And they’ll keep doing harm, in or out of uniform.

Who am I kidding? They’ll keep doing it whether we submit or not. We all know what power does, just like we know which way shit rolls.

This Is the World Conservatives Want

When he was first running for President in 2008, the closest Barack Obama came to a gaffe — defined in political reporting as a politician inadvertantly speaking the truth — was when he said that when things got bad, it made people turn bitter and ‘cling to their guns and their faith.’ Conservatives excoriated him and the mainstream press went along, having been trained over years and decades to a kind of pro-conservative bias out of fear of being perceived as liberal. And in a sense conservatives were right to. Not because it’s insulting to their voters, but because it’s basically their game plan and philosophy of governance. Because people really do become more conservative — by which I mean driven by fear and concerned only with their own, be it family, race, or, in the worst cases, themselves alone — when things get tight. Which is why when they’re elected conservatives do their best to undo not only our social safety net, but the very idea that we can solve the problems facing us by coming together and cooperating. They do their best to shrink the government til you can drown it in a bathtub, and tell everyone that not only are they on their own, that it’s both righteous and good that they should be.

They’ve been on a real tear since 2016. Hell, since 2009, when Mitch McConnell and the rest decided their response to overwhelming electoral defeat would amount to ni shagu nazad. Since it’s always easier to say no than say yes, to tear down than to build, to demand good faith from the other side while acting from grievance yourself, they’ve been more successful than I think even they imagined they would be.

So let’s see where we are now, shall we? Near two hundred thousand dead in a pandemic, the numbers surely worse than we know thanks to a willful neglect and sabotage of testing and data-gathering. Police officers still executing citizens of color on camera despite huge, ongoing, and in some cases effective protest movements, to the point where one suspects a kind of willfulness to their assertion of their right to kill whenver they ‘feel threatened.’ They meet those protests like an occupying army, one that may or may not be coordinating with armed paramilitaries. Like the seventeen year old asshole who crossed state lines from Illinois to Wisconsin with an Armalite long gun to protect Kenosha’s businesses by murdering its citizens in the streets and failing to be arrested by police despite trying very hard to surrender himself. A person can’t help be reminded of the re-open protests — Liberate Michigan! — early on during the pandemic, when those same cosplay paramilitaries got up and spat in officer’s unhelmeted faces, and note the stark disparity.

This is the world conservatives want. This is the world they have built. This is the natural result of their practice of governance and whatever tatters of philosophy remain to justify it when they look themselves in the mirror before they go to bed at night.

Why do they want it? Who the fuck knows? Most of them are still the people Obama got dinged for too accurately describing: victims of the same pandemic, the same economic collapse, the same erosion of the social safety net. They may have voted for all of it, but they surely didn’t think it would work out this way, I’ve got to think. But I’ve also got to think the millennarian strain in evangelical Christianity — you know, the reason they support Israel so devoutly: not because they’re pro-Jewish, but because the Book of Revelation needs the Jews back in Israel to get on with the whole Rapture and Armageddon thing — has something to do with it. As do the oligarchs who fund the whole thing. You’ll notice the stock market’s doing fine even though the world’s going to hell and people are dying in droves and unemployment is as high as it was during the Great Depression. After all, if you’re rich enough, a recession is just an opportunity to buy assets at fire sale prices. The boom and bust of the ‘business cycle’? It’s a feature, not a bug, and screw you, jack, I got mine.

But, at the end of the day, this is the world conservatives want because it’s the only one in which they can continue to govern and hold onto their power. They need the post office hobbled so they can buy stock in FedEx and UPS and so mail-in ballots won’t be reliable. Then people will have to risk catching Covid to vote in person. It dampens turnout, which works out in their favor. They want Russia and whoever putting a thumb on the scale and will bury the story so long as it works in their favor. They want vigilante ’militias’ in the streets armed with military-style weapons, and cops in body armor and no visible identification to match. They want millions of gig workers with no benefits and no minimum wage and no safety net, who will work for scraps and crumbs and live paycheck to paycheck and be grateful for what trickles down.

All along, conservatives have described the world they wanted, this world they have brought about. We didn’t listen, I guess. Didn’t take them seriously. I’m not even sure they all took themselves seriously. I think plenty who profited bringing this about are surprised how far we’ve fallen how fast. That’s the thing about playing with fire. It gets away from you quick.

I’ll you one thing, though. It’s gonna take a hell of a lot of work to rebuild what’s been burned down. I hope enough of us can come together to build something better in its place. If it gets any worse, we won’t be able to.

Why is QAnon?

Now, I’m just some dumb asshole with a computer, just like you, and I hope it would be obvious that each believer will have their own special snowflake configuration of reasons and circumstance. But based on my experience and observation, it mostly seems to come down to three things:

  1. Conspiracy theories are attractive because they make sense out of a world far too complex for most, possibly all, humans to fully or even usefully comprehend. There are too many actors, too many agendas, too many forces at work at every level of action and perception. By positing a force both nebulous and powerful enough to steer the course of world events, the believer obtains a frame through which everything can be made to make sense.
  2. Once they’ve bought in, it’s extremely difficult, even impossible, for most people to admit they made a mistake. Especially, in my experience, people who see the world through a hierarchical lens, with themselves at or near the top of said hierarchy. Their privilege, in this view, stems from their virtue. Admitting error tarnishes that virtue, endangering the privilege and making the hierarchy wobble. Nobody likes when their worldview starts showing cracks in the facade, much less the foundation.
  3. Last — and in this case, I fear, most compelling — by projecting such evil debasement onto their adversaries, believers in QAnon and other similar conspiracies not only validate the visceral hate they have cultivated and been encouraged to cultivate by their leaders for those adversaries, they liberate themselves to act on that hate, without quarter, hesitation, or mercy, even making it, in their eyes, a positive moral duty to give in to the violent and/or oppressive impulses that so often follow such visceral hatred.

That’s my two cents. Your mileage may vary.

What We’re Talking About When We Say ‘Defund the Police’

Much hay has been made, and much squid ink spritzed, about the overnight sensation overtaking the nation. That’s right. I’m talking about Defunding the Police!

[Cue scary music. ‘Who will protect us?’ a voice asks. ‘Who’ll keep the murderers and gang members away?’ The lights begin flickering. The music crescendoes. The killer’s right behind you! Aiiiggghhh!]

Okay, having got that out of the way… Defunding the police is not, as some mongers of fear might try and convince you, the same as disbanding the police. What it is, is a recognition that the vast majority of problems we have gotten in the habit, as a society, of  sending police to solve are actually best handled by someone other than armed agents of the government, authorized and — all too often — primed to solve problems with deadly violence.

Take a moment, if you will, and think about how rarely police need their weapons. How little of the work they do involves a firearm or even a taser. Even when a crime has been committed, most of the time the officer is just there to fill out paperwork. That doesn’t need a gun. Neither does handing out speeding tickets, or de-escalating a domestic violence complaint, or doing a wellness check on a mentally ill person, or responding to Karen, who saw a black person birding or barbecuing or having a birthday party.

In the last few decades, we’ve cut social services to the bone. Between recessions and the perennial popularity of tax cuts, we’ve let more and more people slip through the cracks. Crime doesn’t arise from some weird innate criminality — most people don’t just want to watch the world burn. But people who aren’t getting what they need from the richest society in human history are going to act out. They’re going to take drugs and fuck shit up and hurt themselves and others, because of course they are.

Meanwhile, for all the services cut, the police just get more and more and more money. Some places, the police department is half the city budget. Never mind civil asset forfeiture, where they can literally take your stuff and your money whether they charge you or not, and you have to sue them to get it back. Or the Pentagon program that funnels surplus military equipment — designed and built for urban warfare and population suppression thanks to our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq — to local police departments on the cheap. Between the equipment and the steady stream of service members joining up after their tour’s up, the culture has transformed to that of an occupying force, one made sinister by the systematic infiltration of racists and white supremacists in addition to the sort of person attracted to the kind of job where you get to kill people sometimes. And it’s safe and easy for them to do so. Thanks to a couple of Supreme Court decisions in the ’80s, all an officer must do is speak the magic words ‘I feared for my life’ and accountability more or less disappears. Add to that ‘qualified immunity’, and you can’t even sue them for killing your son or husband or father or brother or sister or mother or child.

For decades now, politicians have uttered their own magic words. Law and order. Say them enough, you can justify cutting all the social programs you want in order to funnel more money to police. Police who we then send to solve every problem those social programs could address so much better than armed intervention once things have gotten bad enough to come to a head. Even the best-intentioned cops aren’t trained for it, and don’t have the skills and tools to resolve the situation other than one of two or three ways. If the only tool you’ve got is a gun, every problem starts to look like a target. For some that’s a feature, not a bug.

So, back to those scary words. Defund the police. What do they mean? Well, the short, simple answer is they mean we take a good hard look at the problems we need armed intervention by trained agents to solve, and we only task police with solving those. Since there are so very few instances when manifesting the potential for violence is useful or wanted, the purview — and budget — of the police department shrinks. The money is then reallocated to social and community programs that help meet the needs of citizens and community members before they reach a crisis point. Things like mental health care and housing and food support. In some places, it might make sense to invent new agencies with new missions to take the place of police no longer performing them.

In the end, defunding the police makes communities safer. First by removing the violence committed by police themselves. Second by allocating those resources to helping citizens and community members who need it before they reach crisis. I know it sounds scary — change often is, especially if you’re comfortable with the status quo — but the way we’ve allowed things to evolve isn’t serving any of us well.

Think about it this way, if it helps. How much crime will there be if everyone has what they need, and we all commit to taking care of each other? How many people with security and prospects will join gangs? How many people will reach the tipping point where they can’t help but act out and fuck shit up for everyone around them?

The answer to these questions won’t be zero. Humans gonna human, after all. But the numbers will be lower than what we have now, and we’ll have the additional satisfaction of seeing to it that all of us get what we need so we can live a happy, balanced, productive, and meaningful life. What’s not to love?