Last Friday, the White House released a picture of President Obama shooting clay pigeons in August of last year, two days before he headed to Minnesota to discuss gun control. The picture, clearly designed to show that Obama is a tough guy and isn’t coming to take your guns away, highlights the most frustrating part of American politics that as a Brit, I can never fully understand. There are many problems in British society, particularly when it comes to violence and repressed anger (just watch any soccer game for an example of this), but we don’t have guns or require our politicians to shoot defenseless animals or bits of clay to prove how tough they are.
Politicians, generally speaking, are not hard men. They are largely Ivy League educated white males from extraordinary privilege – most of whom haven’t been in a fist fight let alone gone to war and shot someone. Halfway through his first term and the loss of both houses in Congress, Bill Clinton was suffering from an image problem with white males, so he enlisted Dick Morris to rebrand him for his 1996 re-election bid. Part of this involved dressing up as a hunter and shooting animals – a fool proof tactic to convince insecure white men that he was a tough guy and a ‘Real American’.
Barack Obama is a highly educated man who used his brain to improve his life and carry his family into the upper echelons of American society. He did not enlist in the military, and he did not grow up hunting. The pictures released of him shooting clay pigeons – a sad but probably necessary PR stunt – does not reflect Obama’s love for firearms. It reflects a pathetic culture that requires him to overtly declare an affinity for violence. For a large part of the country, this is mandatory for a leader. American politicians must epitomize an archaic ‘tough guy’ image – a gun wielding cowboy who shoots first and asks questions later. It didn’t matter that George Bush, a politician born into immense power and wealth, had never seen military action or experience hardship in his privileged life. He affected a Texas twang, wore military flak jackets and invaded third world countries that couldn’t fight back. Bush clearly believed his own bluster, and worked hard to cultivate his war leader image. In many American’s eyes, this symbolized toughness and bravery. To anyone who has seen real violence, behavior like that symbolizes massive insecurity and psychological frailty.
Sports culture reveals quite a bit about the country’s gun culture – particularly contact sports like football and boxing. A lot of extremely passionate fans get totally invested in a bunch of hyper athletic men smashing the living daylights out of each other. Most fans have never played football or boxed themselves. Super Bowl Sunday involves sitting round a large television eating burgers, nachos, melted cheese and drinking shitty beer while screaming at players for not executing incredibly difficult and dangerous athletic moves. I reported on boxing and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) for years and would sit next to fans who would throw things at fighters they thought sucked. You just have to read through boxing chat forums to see how removed many fans are from the reality of how difficult professional fighting is. Fans routinely call fighters ‘faggots’ and ‘pussies’ if they lose fights or don’t perform to the peak of their abilities. I grew up with friends who played rugby to a pretty high level, and never heard them insult other players when watching matches with them. I’ve boxed and practiced Martial Arts myself for many years and would never dream of questioning the bravery of someone who does it for a living. I’ve been hit by pro fighters before – an unforgettable experience that really brought home what those athletes go through on a daily basis.To me, screaming abuse at people who do things you couldn’t imagine doing yourself is a sign of deep insecurity and unresolved anger.
Sadly, that inability to come to terms with your own masculinity and unresolved anger manifests itself in bizarre tribalism in sports, and more worryingly, leader worship in politics. Tough guy politicians like Dick Cheney were revered for their no nonsense approach to politics, their affinity for violence, and their belittling of sissy liberals. No matter that Cheney deferred from real combat in Vietnam five times and even had a child to prevent himself from being drafted for the war he ardently supported.
Guns are the ultimate representation of violence – big, shiny metal instruments that can deliver horrendous amounts of damage and destruction. Guns allow the shooter to remove themselves from the reality of maiming and killing. It requires a small hand movement to end someone’s life making the gun owner powerful far beyond their physical capabilities. The truth is that guns make people feel big, and people without power often want to feel like they have control in their own lives and more importantly, over others.
The NRA and other pro gun groups have brilliantly tapped into this neurosis and have created a deadly political movement out of it. Even after the massacre of 20 small children with a semi-automatic rifle, there is still a debate in America over gun control. Regardless of whether you accept the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that allows citizens to own lethal weapons, there should be no arguments as to whether there are too many guns in America and far too few background checks on the people who own them.
Asking for sensible gun control is being framed as an assault on America’s masculinity, and the President has to be seen shooting up flying bits of clay to counter it. It is sad that Obama has to play this game. I think it’s insulting, crass and troubling that he is bowing to the insecurities of repressed Americans. But then again, that is largely what politics in this country has become.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.