Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Riddles in the Dark...

Sam Harris' article on The Riddle of the Gun, a strange title for an article in which there is no ambivalence suggestive of any riddle, is full of dubious logic. Of course it is, it's an article suggesting that violent weapons are a method by which one can defend one's culture/populace/children from what? Oh yes, violent weapons. One doesn't have to be a philosopher to deconstruct the flaws in this tired line of reasoning. Indeed, despite claims to the contrary, one doesn't need to be a philosopher to be Sam Harris, it would seem, as some of the logic deployed in this curiously simple piece illustrates.

Harris quickly and continually falls into the use of vague value judgements such as "a good person", "bad people" and "deranged and/or evil person". The kind of banal and half-arsed interrogation of human motivation that has allowed Harris to forge a career from making fatuous points about everything from Islam to, well...  Islam, mostly. Also, as luck would have it, it is the same kind of ethics-by-numbers that has led to his books selling by the hundreds of thousands.

Once into the swing of things, and having first described himself as "standing on both sides of the debate", Harris describes how he owns a number of guns, shoots them regularly, and has a relationship with guns going back "decades". The "both sides" he mentions quickly turn out to be merely WE WILL HAVE GUNS, or WE WILL HAVE MORE GUNS. With a bit of added POLICE WITH GUNS, and NORMAL DUDES ON THE STREET WITH GUNS.

Harris goes on to justify his position, (which is on both sides, remember. Even if he sounds remarkably like someone justifying how and why the American love affair with guns must continue...) with some hilarious machismo. A personal favourite of ours was the following quote, "I have always wanted to be able to protect myself and my family". What strange use of the word "want". I am imagining Harris' fantasy - the intellectual giant dons his dirty white vest and mounts the heroic, singlehanded, ultra-violent defence of his family that has hitherto existed merely on HBO or, presumably, Harris' DVD collection.

Surely, a more desirable state of affairs would be to never have to defend one's family?

Fantasy is a dominant principal in analyzing Harris' argument in fact, as he deploys the idea almost at will throughout, "A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want" Not only inflammatory conjecture, but also the groundwork for another important theme in Harris' argument; self-contradiction. The world Harris talks of sounds suspiciously similar to the world we see today. The world with guns. The history of the West, and its obsession with armaments could easily be described as a history of compounded brutality... an irony that seems entirely lost on Harris in his essay,

"It is no exaggeration to say that if we merely had 300 million vintage revolvers in this country, we would still have a terrible problem with gun violence, with no solution in sight."

Key word here? Still. Harris allows that there is a "terrible problem". And one that would not even be assuaged if America only contained 300 million revolvers. So how can he continue to espouse the More Guns Are Not The Answer - Until They Are logic? Simple. He invents an army of "good, trustworthy" and "well-trained" security guards to monitor all these "evil", "bad people" roaming the country wielding the weapons he is so at pains to defend. Here comes one of those fantasy dream-sequences again. I think Mr. Harris needs to spend some time away from the XBox,

"And any person entering a school with a revolver for the purpose of killing kids would most likely be able to keep killing them until he ran out of ammunition, or until good people arrived with guns of their own to stop him."

Towards the end of what is a long and, in fairness, very thorough article, Harris makes salient points about the need to resist fixation on symbols of violence, which low frequency mass shootings, with their blanket media coverage and attendant media reactions so easily become. But by the time he makes these points, his own logic has already rendered them largely worthless, mainly due to his previous one-dimensional rhetoric and frequent contradictions. For example, having previously asserted, "But I am under no illusions that such restrictions would make it difficult for bad people to acquire guns illegally." he goes on to decorate his final paragraph in the garb of enlightenment, with a token nod to compassion - "Clearly, we need more resources in the areas of childhood and teenage mental health, and we need protocols for parents, teachers, and fellow students to follow when a young man in their midst begins to worry them."

A capacity to shift from broad brush nonsense that supports Harris' argument, like "bad people", to what feels like a bit of a counter-argumentative after-thought is characteristic of the weak rhetoric at work here.

Harris does hint at the real truth behind his argument - that he himself loves guns, and more importantly that he loves the myth of American machismo and how that myth drip feeds into ideas of self-defence and self-reliance, and also that his position is emblematic of so many Americans. There can be no under-estimating the power of myth. But he stops short of the ultimate reveal, because it would betray the truth that gun culture, and perhaps a culture of violence itself is so rooted in the American, or Western, or even human psyche itself as to be impossible to worm out. That we might as well (there is a distinct whiff of the "might-as-well" about Harris' case) pile gun-on-gun, body-on-body, war-on-war. And this is what Harris needs, intellectually, anyway. War. The notion of humanity in a permanent state of conflict. Ideologies violently rubbing each other out.

Perhaps, as the atheist he is, he might ruminate on a passage from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and ask himself if he has not merely replaced one kind of fictitious dogma for another...

"This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification.  Seen so, war is the truest form of divination.  It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence.  War is god."