Tag Archives: united states

Of course America has a gun violence problem. We always have.

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A man covers a woman during the shooting in Las Vegas on 1 October. Photo: ABC/David Becker/Getty

Another week in America, another mass shooting. This time, at least 59 people have lost their lives following an attack on a country music festival in Las Vegas. The perpetrator was a wealthy, white sexagenarian, the latest in a long line of mostly white males who massacre their fellow Americans. This is, sadly, a regular occurrence here in the United States.

I write for a mostly international audience, and several people on Twitter have asked why this seems to happen in America more frequently than anywhere else in the Western world. I’ve spent much of the past week grappling with this question, trying to figure out a way to summarise exactly what makes America so exceptional when it comes to massacring our own.

The answer, it turns out, is both simple and complex – one that is both born of the present and rooted deep in America’s past.

There’s the obvious: we have the most guns, and the most lax gun laws, of any developed nation. Following the Port Arthur massacre, Australia banned automatic and semiautomatic weapons, instituted a gun buyback scheme, and hasn’t had a mass shooting since, save for the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis which saw 3 people killed and 4 others wounded. That’s small potatoes compared to an average American mass shooting – and certainly compared to Las Vegas, where over 500 people are reportedly injured, many critically.

Of course, Australia doesn’t have a Second Amendment, which enshrines “the right to bear arms.” Leaving aside the semantic and constitutional arguments about whether the Framers ever intended for that to extend outside state militias (the equivalent of which is modern-day state National Guards) or whether they anticipated the advent of modern weapons of mass murder, this law does seem to give Americans an inalienable right to own firearms. And it’s one that many people take very seriously.

To understand why, you have to understand something about the American character. In a 2016 speech, former president Barack Obama said that Americans “are not inherently more prone to violence.”

He was wrong. Americans are more inherently prone to violence. Violence is ingrained in our national DNA.

The United States of America was born in violence. We gained our independence through a bloody revolution in which we waged war to throw off the yoke of British rule. But before that, we were founded on white settler colonialism which saw us enslave Africans to work our plantations and exterminate the Native Americans of the Eastern Seaboard, Southeast, and Midwest in order to “settle” those lands.

This continued when we pushed westward. A cultural narrative of “us-versus-them” sprung up vis-a-vis white settlers and Native Americans. From the Bear River Massacre, where nearly 250 Shoshone Indians were killed to Wounded Knee, where close to 300 Lakota were slain by the US Army, the story of the West is one of violent conquest.

The imperial colonisation of the West also gave rise to the belief in “rugged individualism,” which has permeated the American psyche ever since. At its most basic, “rugged individualism” is almost anarchist in its belief that the state won’t take care of citizens and so citizens must take care of themselves.

In the Old West, this was somewhat true – settlers were often far from the protections of the state and had to fend for themselves against the elements and outlaws, and yes, Native Americans who were trying desperately to protect their homeland against the invading colonists (and make no mistake, that’s what white settlers were). But somehow, as the West was tamed by federal and state law enforcement, Americans never gave up their guns.

This is hardly surprising. Slaveholders in the south needed guns in order to keep enslaved African-Americans in line and avoid slave insurrections. One of the only things that kept slaves – who greatly outnumbered slaveholders – from rebelling en masse was that they did not have firearms whereas the masters did. Then came the Civil War, where the South took up arms against the federal government in order to preserve slavery. After that failed – in what is to date the bloodiest war in American history – they used guns to help enforce Jim Crow laws, which subjugated Black Americans for another century.

There is another lesson to be drawn from the Civil War, though – one that many left-wing Americans won’t accept but that is extremely important to consider. The reason the South was able to so quickly raise an army to fight the federal government was that they had guns. And for many, many Americans – especially white Americans – this is a primary reason for clinging to their guns.

They see firearms as a fail-safe against a potentially tyrannical government which would usurp their liberties. This is certainly how many racist slaveholders saw the election of Lincoln, and it is how many – again, mostly white – Americans view guns today.

After all, as I said, this was a country born in violent revolution. From the Whiskey Rebellion to the Civil War to the Miners War, the right to bear arms has been something the citizenry has used to fight back against what they’ve felt is government tyranny.

Of course, this right has only ever extended to white people. Prior to the 1970s, the National Rifle Association (NRA), America’s gun lobby, had broadly supported gun control measures. This began to change in 1967, when gun control measures supported by then California governor Ronald Reagan (yes, that Ronald Reagan) would have banned Black Panther members from carrying arms.

Opposing the law, members of the Black Panther Party carried their guns into the California capitol demanding their right to bear arms. Reagan commented at the time that “there’s no reason why, on the street today, a citizen should be carrying a loaded weapon.” He changed his tune by the time he ran for president in 1980.

Following the turmoil of the late 1960s, in which urban Blacks – in particular the Black Panther Party – began arming themselves against violent white oppression, the NRA saw an influx of rural members who quickly turned the organisation from a gun training organisation to a strict defender of the Second Amendment – and of gun rights laws.

They didn’t do it because of any desire to support the rights of Black urbanites, though. They actually felt that gun control laws on Black people were unduly affecting them. Over the past four decades, the NRA has routinely failed to protect the Second Amendment rights of Black Americans, most markedly in the case of Philando Castile, a Black Minnesotan who was shot and killed by police when he acknowledged the presence of a legal firearm in his car. The NRA said nothing.

That’s the long way around. But if you want the abstract of this piece, it’s this: America was born in violence, and that violence is as much a part of our national DNA as is a belief in individual liberty. Indeed, they’re inextricably connected for many Americans.

This isn’t just about the War for Independence. The way we settled this continent  was, to be frank, a genocide against the Native population. We did it with the labour of enslaved Africans and their descendants. For 400 years white America has used firearms to defend themselves, yes, but more to the point, to subjugate people of colour in order to conquer the North American continent.

The belief that government is tyrannical is still rife within our populations. This is born from the Calvinists who fled England in the 1600s and continues to this day, with Americans who have an innate distrust for authority. Many Americans still feel that there will be a second American Revolution – just look at the likes of the white nationalists who died at Ruby Ridge, or Timothy McVeigh, who committed the deadliest act of domestic terror in US history when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City. Look at the militia movements around the country. Look at the people who elected Donald Trump who were ready for battle if Hillary Clinton won and tried to take their guns (which she never planned to do).

Some have countered that these mass shootings, with “lone wolf” white men killing scores of innocent people don’t fit into this narrative, as there has been no political motive. But the shooters at Columbine and Virginia Tech both left manifestos. The shooter at Pulse seemed to have a motive – whether homophobia, Islamic radicalism, or both – as did Dylann Roof when he killed Black churchgoers in Charleston. Elliott Rodger, who killed six people in the 2014 Isla Vista, California massacre, was motivated by deep misogyny. The Umpqua Community College shooter was described as a “hate filled” white supremacist. And no one can argue Jared Laughner didn’t have a political motive when he shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people in Tuscon, Arizona in 2011.

The truth is, contrary to what Barack Obama said, America is more inherently violent than other Western countries. Our nation, perhaps uniquely amongst the Western democracies, was forged in violence – both against the colonial motherland and against the indigenous and enslaved populations.

America has never reckoned with its violent character and utter distrust of government, and until it does, gun violence will continue to be a problem we cannot avoid – one that will continue to claim countless innocent lives this country is ready to sacrifice on the altar of the Second Amendment.

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Stop calling me the liberal elite

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The author and friends leading a gay rights march through Chicago in 2013. Photo: Brittany Sowacke/Red Eye

In the days after the general election, I said that I am no longer American. This was prompted by the seeming consensus that to be American one must live in an exurb or rural area somewhere not on a coast. But I have changed my mind. While the media narrative surrounding the rise of fascism in America is, largely, that we on the left have ignored white working class people in favour of the metropolitan liberal elite. The Telegraph even has a fun little quiz where you can figure out if you’re part of the liberal elite.

Let me tell you why this is bullshit.

I am the white working class. I was raised in the Rust Belt by the descendants of Appalachian peasants (and make no mistake, that’s what they were) who migrated out of Kentucky and Tennessee to the factories of the Midwest. Aged 15, I moved back to the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and then later went on to spend seven wonderful years in Bowling Green, a small city best known for manufacturing Corvettes and once appearing in a Martina McBride music video. Then I moved to Chicago.

Since then, I’ve been told I’m part of the metropolitan elite by people as disparate as the ballet dancer Jack Thorpe-Baker and my own sister. I’m out of touch, they say. I don’t know what “real” America or “real Britain” is feeling, what they need. I’m a gay urban journalist who exists on two continents, or more specifically in two global cities, who enjoys opera and musicals and has a diverse group of friends. I don’t get “real” America, like in Dayton, Ohio (where I was raised) or Sheffield, England (where I just came from). I don’t understand their anxieties, their concerns, or their way of life.

Except, you know, I do. Because I am them. I come from them. And despite having gotten a university education, I am still a part of them.

Your ignorance ignores this. I’ve been told by so many Americans this week to “mind my own business” because the geotag on my tweets says “Walthamstow, London.” Newsflash: Americans travel. They even move abroad. Just because I’m across the ocean doesn’t mean it isn’t my country too. But this illustrates the ignorance and narrow worldview of so many people who voted for that vile man. They can’t fathom an American would ever travel, let alone move, abroad.

I get it. Globalisation and free trade have left behind many, many people in Middle America and Middle England. They’re understandably angry. But this vote wasn’t about economic anxiety, as the media would have us believe. The voter demographics coming out show us that white working class Americans largely broke for Clinton. Rather, college educated white people put Trump just over the threshold in states like Wisconsin and Michigan to get him more electoral votes than Clinton. So stop saying poor white people did this. They didn’t.

Racist white people did this.

This election was about one thing: who gets to be American. Everyone who says this election was “a backlash against the establishment” really means it was a backlash against diverse, cosmopolitan values which are radiating from cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It’s a reaction against the browning and queering of the country.

Every single person who says I am not a “real” American, that I am not capable of understanding what “real” Americans think or feel or need can kindly fuck off. I’m as real an American as any one of you. Even by the nativist sentiments of the alt-right, I’m as American as Toby Keith eating apple pie in the back of a Dodge pickup while wrapped in the stars and stripes. My ancestors have been in America since before the Revolution. One of them, at least, fought for the Union in the Civil War. We have been farmers, coal miners, factory workers and, yes, now a journalist. My grandparents grew up without running water or indoor plumbing, raised my father up enough to where he got a technical degree, and then I went to a four-year university. I am the definition of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and embracing the American dream. You don’t get to take that away from me just because I have a more open mind and bigger heart than you.

When people say that this election was about everyday Americans taking their country back, about draining the swamp, they don’t mean that it was about taking it back from Wall Street lobbyists and career politicians. If so, Trump’s rhetoric and transition team would look very, very different. No, this was about taking it back from queer people like me and my Black and undocumented friends. This wasn’t about taking the country back from special interests but from marginalised people making marginal gains in equality.

It also ignores who “everyday Americans” are. “Everyday Americans” include my friend Lily, a Latina single mom who risks losing head-of-household status because of that vile man. “Everyday Americans” include my friend Ajala, a Black woman in St Louis who could lose reproductive healthcare if Planned Parenthood funding is cut. “Everyday Americans” includes my friends Theresa and Sara, a married lesbian couple who just had twins but must now fear that marriage equality will be repealed. “Everyday Americans” include my Dominican nieces whom my sister insists on calling “Spanish” and ignoring their ethnicity and reality as Black-appearing Americans. “Everyday Americans” includes me, a university educated, internationally travelled gay man who does not have time for your bullshit definition of “everyday Americans.”

I’m sick of being told that because I live in a city I am somehow less American than others. I’m tired of hearing that because I like opera and read books and write for the internet and don’t think that people speaking Spanish is that big a deal I’m somehow less American than someone who never left my hometown. I am American and nothing you say will take that away from me. Chicagoans and New Yorkers are as American as Alabamans and Nebraskans.

The problem with the focus on the white working class is twofold. Firstly, it ignores people like me, who grew up solidly working class (or in many cases who are still working class) but aren’t raging bigots who think voting for a proto-fascist is a good idea. Secondly, it pretends we’re the only group in the country.

We. Are. Not.

Black Americans, Latino Americans, Queer Americans, Muslim Americans are just as American as we are. White working class – or to broaden that out, white straight people in general – don’t get to decide who is American or what constitutes an “authentic” American experience. Because there has never been only one American experience. Since our founding we have had a myriad of beliefs, experiences, and cultures. Ask the immigrant Alexander Hamilton, or the slaveholding Thomas Jefferson, or our eighth president, Martin Van Buren, whose first language was Dutch – NOT English.

America has never been homogenous. It’s long been white supremacist and heterosexist, but it has never been defined by just one experience.

So stop calling me the metropolitan liberal elite. I go to work every day. I pay my taxes (unlike our president-elect). I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. And just because I don’t think like a racist doesn’t mean I am not a real American.

I am not the liberal elite. I am an American. And it is my goddamn country too.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared at the Advocate, Salon, the Daily Dot, the Gay UK Magazine, Pink News, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a visa to emigrate to the UK.

*Editorial note: This blog refers to President-Elect Trump as “that vile man” as we cannot bring ourselves to call him anything else.

Give Thanks and Pass the Pimms: 5 things I’m thankful Britain gave the world

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We all know the story. The Pilgrims, with their funny hats and boring names, set sail on the Mayflower towards the New World in search of religious freedom. What nobody ever tells you is that they went to the Netherlands for a bit, or that they didn’t really want to come, or that loads of them got dysentery and died before reaching Plymouth Rock.

We know that Squanto fed them corn, and that the three remaining Pilgrims came together with their kind Native benefactors in thanks giving for the great harvest which kept them from becoming Roanoke version 2.0. We stop there, because the mass slaughter of the native population isn’t exactly “happily ever after” unless you’re Mike Huckabee and think the heathens had it coming and turkey is best deep fried.

So that’s the first Thanksgiving.

Nobody tells you that the Pilgrims were essentially seventeenth century England’s Westboro Baptist Church, but this may explain why Britain is more evolved on issues of religion in the public sphere. They sent their crazy right wing Christians here, and their descendants went on to found Jesusland. I mean Texas. Still, whilst the British may have given us Sarah Palin’s colonial antecedents, they’ve given us loads of good stuff too. So, quickly, here are five things I’m thankful for Britain giving the world:

1. Liberty: Okay, Americans like to pretend we invented this in 1776, but we didn’t. In fact the Declaration of Independence was, outside of being a treasonous document, simply a restatement of English principles dating back to Magna Carta in 1215. Trial by jury, habeus corpus, a free press, and the right to petition were all exported by Britain to its colonies. These weren’t homespun in Boston or handcrafted in Philadelphia. The Brits gave them to us, and their legacy lives on in our Constitution.

2. Newspapers: I hesitate to put this on here, because the British government has borrowed Miley’s wrecking ball to destroy what’s left of press freedom whilst Hugh Grant  watches, twerking and sticking his tongue out in glee. But the British press is a site to behold, a beast unto itself which simply has no American equivalent. The broadsheets are still celebrated as national treasures, even while being regularly ridiculed, and magazines like Private Eye and the venerated but defunct Punch prove that satire is the best defence of democracy. Even the tabloids serve a purpose, for I am keenly interested in everything Chantelle Houghton has to say about Alex Reid’s cross dressing. As I know you are, too.

3. Understatement: “It’s drizzling,” a British friend once said to me as the hurricane hit. The Brits really know how to undercut a moment. Win an Oscar? “I got a trophy.” Elected to Parliament? “It’s a job.” Shag a royal? “His hairline’s receding.” And the great thing is THEY’RE NOT HUMBLE BRAGGING! They really do mean it. You’d think that as an American this penchant for restrained dryness would annoy me, but I actually appreciate it. I think that Americans are too prone to hyperbole, and that dry sense of humour has made me reign in my otherwise outrageous personality.

4. Lucozade: There is no better cure for a hangover than this fizzy, refreshing, hydrating miracle water. I can hardly find it in the US, but I will trek across the city if I hear a store has it stocked. Seriously, I swear by the stuff.

5. Chris Ramsey: Because this.

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So there’s five wonderful things that the UK gave the world, and I’m grateful for all of them. As you may have noticed, this trails off at number four, and by number five, I’ve completely given up. That’s not because I couldn’t think of anything else; there’s so much about Britain I’m thankful for. But there’s turkey on the table and wine in my glass, so I’m off to gorge myself on enough tryptophan and starches that I sleep right through Black Friday and wake up on the other side of consumerism.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

(PS: For the record, I’m very thankful for each and every one of you who read this. I have some great supporters out there, and I am very blessed! I leave you with this video.)

Has America forgotten to remember Remembrance Day?

Saturday night I had my friend Melinda over, along with her friend Jenny, in town from Sydney. Jenny noticed the portrait of Her Majesty, a commemorative token of the Diamond Jubilee, hanging in my apartment, complete with the flags of the Commonwealth countries. We got to talking about the ties that bind not just the Commonwealth, but the Anglosphere-our common language, common law, and common struggle against fascism in the 20th century. At one point, talking about Remembrance Sunday, Jenny asked that she be reminded to set an alarm so that she could observe a minute of silence for the ANZAC forces. It passed without a beat, but it left me something to mull, and raised Jenny very highly in my own estimation.

11 November is commemorated around the globe as a day of remembrance and reflection, of honoring the sacrifices of those who fought and fight for the freedom of humanity. It’s the official end of the First World War, which was thought and hoped to be “the war to end all wars.” History tells us it was, sadly, but the precursor to Europe’s darkest days and Britain’s finest hour. I’m always touched by the sombre, dignified memorials throughout the UK and Commonwealth, the tens of thousands of people who turn out at war memorials around Britain, regular folks who every year remind the world of the struggles for freedom, lest we forget.

I won’t say that we Americans forget, but the horrors of the World Wars are certainly not as vivid in our national memory. Not to reduce this to cultural tropes, but it’s always struck me that the normally reserved Brits offer more public displays of mourning than my compatriots. After all, we routinely wear our hearts on our sleeves and our flag on our lapels. Its not uncommon to walk up to a stranger in

Prime Minister David Cameron laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd for Getty Images)

Prime Minister David Cameron laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd for Getty Images)

uniform and thank her for her service or to buy a drink for the soldier at the bar. We sing the national anthem before every sporting event, pledge allegiance to the flag before the start of every school day, and unlike when the typical Brit sings “God Save the Queen,” when an American says “God bless America,” we mean it quite literally. So you’d think we’d have a more collective tradition of honouring our veterans.

Sure, the President routinely lays a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. But if you Google “Veterans’ Day Commemorations in Chicago,” you don’t turn up much of anything. Some museum exhibitions, a brunch at a zoo, but nothing on par with the solemn pomp in Britain. You’ll see no crowds at war memorials, you’ll hear few bells tolling at the 11th hour, and for the most part, people go on about their lives with little to no regard for what happened 95 years ago today.

That we don’t really remember may explain why a nation so willingly swaddled in its own flag doesn’t make more of an effort. It could be that America didn’t experience the horrors of having its own cities obliterated. Maybe it’s not the physical scars at all, but the psychological scars of a nation that was quite literally fighting for its very survival that keeps the horrors fresh in the British consciousness. Or perhaps it’s simply that the scars of the World Wars have healed over, but that the memories of Vietnam and Iraq are still open wounds.

It’s likely all of the above, but I think it’s something more visceral, too, something intrinsic to the American character. If you take a look at Facebook, you’ll see thousands of status’ honouring American service personnel, often tagging the soldiers in our own lives, thanking them for their service. And that’s not all so surprising. Americans are famed for that stubbornly individualistic streak, and

President Barack Obama laying a wreath at the Tom of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Mark Wilson for Getty Images)

President Barack Obama laying a wreath at the Tom of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Mark Wilson for Getty Images)

perhaps that manifests itself most poignantly on this day. In so many ways, this is more fitting for the US. The poignancy of the British commemorations is that a nation so often shy of indulging in its own nationalism, for one day of the year, recognizes the valor of its soldiers and the sacrifices they made. As America shamelessly exploits its military to stoke patriotic fervor, what makes the British commemorations so powerful would make American commemorations feel trite, redundant, or disingenuous.

Besides, it’s not Remembrance Day here. It’s Veterans Day. The name itself invokes a sense of the soldier in the singular as opposed to a collective struggle. America, though fond of jingoistic displays, on this day takes a more reserved approach. We don’t remember as a group, but as individuals, paying modest tribute to our own loved ones. We don’t thank them all. But all of us thank them.