The Matching Game

Earlier this week, David L. Brooks from the New York Times wrote an Op-Ed about the cultural rift in America and how the path to gun control runs through mutual cultural respect. 

“It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points. There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.” Brooks wrote.

Brooks’ nudge to reach across to those on the other side of the aisle, shake hands and then get down to the business of solving the gun problem in America hasn’t been particularly well received.

One tweet:

“Yet another exhibit in the endless case @ has been making for himself as the most tone-deaf and dunderheaded columnist at the paper of record.”


“I think it’s time that @ let @ move to the country and freelance.”

To be fair, I can find Twitter responses that hate Santa Clause. But this time it was a little easier. Because I think Mr. Brooks was pretty far from the mark. Not because people shouldn’t be respected. He’s right about that.

But because respect won’t change anything.

Mass shootings have changed the gun debate from a sideshow cheat button, handy for firing up one’s base, to a real live societal problem that needs a solution. We haven’t quite figured out how to let go of the political debate though. And we shouldn’t underestimate the influence that politics has on a people’s ability to not do things they ought to do. We can get it wrong for a long time in the name of politics.

Just think of the state of American healthcare.

We rarely just snap out of our broken beliefs and collectively wake up. We hang on for dear life until our politics are overcome by forces outside the realm of normal political discourse. Politics is an irrationally sticky business.

Our political leanings, as fully formed adults, are usually firmly planted in our heads by about the time we’re 14. Not in the form of politics. Instead, in the form of a vision of what “right” looks like.

Political beliefs are the matching game that follows.

Which things look or feel like the ideals I have in my head?

Which ones represents shocks to those ideals?

It’s how one can be equally fervent pro-life in terms of abortion and pro-death penalty in terms of justice. That mental model of “right” involves accountability. Accountability for crimes. Accountability for sex.

The narrative engine in our head gets to work on cleaning up any logic or moral gaps in the model that ensue.

I’ve lived on both sides of the cultural divide in America and witnessed both ends of the narrative engine. As a vet, I spent most of my professional life attached to Special Operations Forces fighting radical Islamic terrorists. I’ve also spent the last seven years in the touchy-feely warmth of the Silicon Valley tech sector. I’m familiar, painfully so, with the size and scope of our societal rift.

Nowhere is that rift more obvious then when progressive minded people blame the NRA for the gun culture in America. Or when conservative minded people blame the liberal media for giving a platform to children who just survived a mass shooting to voice their concerns about the ubiquitous presence of American firearms.

Neither side can believe that rational people, if left to their own devices, could come to the conclusions that represent such a shock to their own ideals. The narrative engines gets to work on an explanation that it must be the external forces of evil at work on the minds of good people.

They just can’t see it otherwise.

In the wake of yet another mass school shooting, it may be hard for many American’s to believe there’s an organic gun culture in America not fed by the greed of gun manufacturers or the power lust of politicians.

There is though.

It’s rooted in the conservative belief that each person has the right to arm and defend themselves. That guns are not just necessary evils. They are objects that represent the empowerment of the individual.

People who hold this belief are not ok with school shootings. But they view them as a result of a broader societal rot, where faith and family have a diminished place in the lives of Americans. Where people have kids they don’t want with people they don’t care about. Where guns are not only not the problem but instead are an even more essential enabler of the core task of taking care of our own in an ever decaying society.

The matching game must meet the standard of an American willing to do what is necessary to stand up to the evils of the world and protect what is ours.

The narrative required for it to work is bleeding all over my social media feed right now.

Extending the olive branch, as Mr. Brooks suggests, isn’t going to change it.

Three days after the shooting in Florida Black Rifle Coffee tweeted out the following.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 6.01.04 AM

This is a coffee company.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 6.01.43 AM.png

It’s who they are.

They are veteran owned. They employ veterans. As far as anyone can tell, they are good and decent people—a net societal positive. And they see nothing wrong at all with anything displayed above three days after a mass shooting that killed 17 school children.

They are a coffee company using guns as the defining theme of their brand for something as unrelated as a hot caffeinated beverage.

…add one cup of coffee to the matching game.

The other day, while waiting for the Apple store to fix my phone, I wandered over to the Barnes and Noble across the street to kill some time. Browsing the non-fiction session I came across two full rows of books by Special Operations vets. A half dozen of them were by men I worked with. Men I knew. They’re great human beings. Duty bound patriots, worthy of every ounce of respect they get.

Bestselling authors?

…add one book to the matching game.

Our ideals rarely change. They get replaced by new ones in the minds of the generations that follow.

I grew up under Reagan and served during 9/11 and the never ending wars against the broad coalition of outsiders to which America assigned blame. The kids on stage this week at a town hall in Florida from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will grow up with Donald Trump in the White House in a world where 10 kids a month get shot in a school. The picture of the ideal America, formed by the experiences they have, will look very different than yours and mine.

And that’s how things change, if ever.

…remove one gun from the matching game.

Categories: Politics

4 replies »

  1. I find this essay sparked some memories and concomitant thoughts. I found that idea of “political leanings … implanted … by the age of 14” especially interesting, because once I thought about it, I realized that was true, at least in my sample of one. I think I might even be able to narrow down the books that influenced it. But in contrast to that, coming from NW Georgia, there’s a picture somewhere of myself and my grandpa heading out to the woods. I was 6 in the picture, and I’m carrying a .22 rifle almost as long as I was tall. I got my first firearm for Christmas when I was 7 — same grandpa. So I grew up in that Southern “gun culture,” if that’s a good term for it. But somehow I never saw firearms in any way other than tools, very powerful tools, to be sure, but tools nonetheless, and good only for projecting a chunk of lead/copper downrange at high speeds. I understand the concept of gun ownership; in the South, when I grew up, that may as well have been a genetic trait. But one other thing I remember, clear as a bell though the event is over a half-century in the past: the look on my grandfather’s face, and the tone in his voice, when he warned me about firearms safety. It went something like this: “Son, you pull that trigger, you better be sure of where that muzzle is pointed, ’cause that’s where your bullet is going. And if you don’t know what you’re shooting at, and if it isn’t something you don’t want to kill, best not pull the trigger at all.”

    I realize that society has changed radically since then. And I don’t mention the incident in terms of “personal responsibility,” although that’s part of my grandpa’s message to me.

    I know people whose idea of “gun ownership” is possession of sufficiently many firearms to equip at least ten other people. Why? That seems a little fuzzy, or at least it does to me. We won’t even discuss ammunition stockpiles. There’s a “them” they seem to be afraid of.

    But this sort of thing starts to trigger questions of psychology: the observed response seems far out of proportion to reality, leading one to ponder the level of fear or anxiety making this degree of armament seem necessary? It isn’t like we live in a real war zone. It makes me wonder if school shootings, to some people, reinforce a negative feedback loop that justifies their perception of living in a war zone, and makes them even less likely to “give up their guns.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My firearms training in the Army was rigorous and repetitive, the more so because the Army wanted all Infantry OCS graduates to fire “expert” in all weapons they were taught. I got lots of extra training because I couldn’t see the bullseye clearly and never had any idea where my rounds hit if they did. I finally qualified “sharpshooter” and the Army gave up hoping for better.

    All of my training, Basic, AIT, and OCS, (all in all, over 11 months and many events in each phase) emphasized safety, both personal (don’t point it at something you don’t want to shoot: don’t wave your weapon around, etc.) and group (“cease fire” means just that, for everybody and no later than now; the range officer’s command supersedes all others, etc.)

    Weapons were not easily accessible; nobody could just drop in the armory and take out a weapon. Any weapon taken out for any reason had to be strictly accounted for.

    Apart from ready access, Vietnam was much the same, not because it was formally so but because, by then the safety issue was pretty firmly established in the minds of everybody and, if one was serving in a contested area, the evidence of damage that could be done by a firearm was readily and all-too-frequently visible.

    For all the people who were serving in the armed forces, I don’t think there was much misuse of firearms during my time and I doubt there is now.

    Education, training, safe storage, accountability for weapons–the whole “discipline” and reality around them–made it safe for thousands of people to have weapons more capable of killing than any legally available civilian weapon.

    Civil(ian) society does not have that discipline; nobody wants it to have that level of discipline. But, without it, safety is more problematic. Reluctantly, I have come to think that some currently available firearms should be banned for the public; that still leaves the matter of what to do about the ones already out there and I don’t think confiscation or buy-back is likely to work in any large number of cases.

    I really want my people, Americans, to just “Shape Up!” but it looks like that’s not in the cards.


  3. As usual, Sean, you are able to get to the heart of our quagmire. I relate to Steve and Tom. I carried a side arm in my 8yrs of service from time-to-time in protection of highly critical assets. I have two boys that grew up in the role-playing video games – from Halo, to Splinter Cell, and others, yet they had a strong parent to guide, teach, learn and know the difference between fantasy and reality, who have nothing but utmost respect for the opposite sex, who will be the first to help a stranger in a store or on the side of the road. I had a conversation with a Canadian friend yesterday that did not understand the gun dilemma – it was an opportunity for me to really think about how I think of this issue and it occurred to me that we have lost our way. When our values and virtues are important and lived and modeled daily, decisions are easier. When we move forward as a country and go through massive change, we need to bring those values along with us, or recognize that they guide us. My values were formed early from my parents, I then tested those as I became an adult and then reinforced through military service, and solidified as I became a parent. And the cycle continues. Beliefs are constantly tested, adapted, realigned – we have to have a common ground and belief to make progress – nobody ever gets everything they want, but to stand still is to die. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a tragedy to wake us up – we have to adapt and make change to protect children, those in the workplace, and others, without giving up our liberty. This will make us stronger, we can do it – I love Steve’s charge for Americans to just “Shape Up!” – we shall see…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As one firmly on the other side of the divide, I appreciated reading your viewpoint. I’m not suggesting repealing the second amendment. But I’m curious how you reconcile the statistics in https://www.npr.org/2017/10/13/557433452/poll-majorities-of-both-parties-favor-increased-gun-restrictions and in https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/06/29/american-gun-ownership-is-now-at-a-30-year-low/?utm_term=.a44f79cc58bb. If their numbers are accurate, the overlap suggests a significant percentage of gun owners who support a ban on assault weapons. Could it be possible that a failure in society could still inspire a desire “to do something?”