Tag Archives: politics

Re-thinking thoughts on guns

Before I arrived in Texas, guns were bad. Those who kept guns in their home were backward, uninformed and quite possibly insecure. Those who advocated for the legalization of guns politically were dangerous, cunning and manipulative. They were obstacles in the way of law and order, not campaigners in support of it and wherever possible, it was the rest of society’s quasi-moral ‘duty’ to oppose them. We should disdain the lobbyists who blocked the intervention of proper controls and condemn state governors who failed to use their position to denounce their use. It was popular and it felt fashionable. Just as fashionable as denouncing Nigel Farage as a simple sideline looney, or hating on Katie Hopkins for moaning on GMTV. Britain doesn’t have a gun problem. We don’t border countries with a gun problem and airport security means that smuggling firearms is rarely an issue. We trust that our police will be at the end of the line when we call 999 and we believe that they’ll be powerful enough to support us, so why would we have guns, and why would we ever hope to comprehend the arguments of those who believe in them? They’re not relevant to our society, so we can get away with few skirmishes (and quite possibly some accolade) for hating on them and those that uphold them.

It was only once I got to Texas that I began to realize the extent of my naivety and oversimplification of the issue.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s not that a trip to the gun range has meant I systematically support guns. In my mind they still cause more harm than they do good. In a society where the monetary cost of a gun is virtually the only thing controlling who owns one, they’re far too easy to get hold of and far too difficult to monitor. Instead of warding off the culture of fear and self-sufficiency so prevalent in the South, they add to it- often leading ‘normal’ people into crime almost by accident, simply due to the lack of effort it takes to take a shot. Ideologically, I’m still opposed to guns. I wouldn’t dare to buy a gun. I wouldn’t vote in favor of them and I certainly wouldn’t feel any safer keeping one at home. But when you begin to understand things they’re always less clear than you first thought. Guns aren’t a black and white issue. There’s too much tied up in the mix.

I wasn’t expecting shooting at a gun range to be my new favorite activity, nor an opportunity for deep psycho-political analysis. It’s a popular weekend activity here. Most people own their own guns although rarely get an opportunity to use them. The Lone Star Gun Range offers gun hire, the purchase of ammunition and firearm classes to top up your skills. I was there largely for the novelty of holding a gun.

I was a medium sized establishment. There were a choice of four ranges to shoot from; a shotgun range, a children’s range, pistol range and rifle range. In theory the targets were different distances away, although actually they all seemed to be a bit interchangeable. Along a dusty track an ‘office’ held the guns. Bulky men with bit beards and tattoos hovered between cabinets and wall mounts, keys clanging in jean pockets as they waited patiently for the weapon to selected. Its a big moment of course (especially for the newbie), whether to fashion yourself on a Lara Croft type quick snap boom, or more of a forest hunter with the long tunnel at the end and bigger bullets. They came in black, brown, gold, grey, muddy green or Texan flag, and knowing nothing about guns I was even strangely excited to see something that resembled George Bush’s own from his mighty tour to Afghanistan in 2006. Maybe I’ll steer away from that one. Stick to Lara Croft.

I got outside and started setting up the target. It was a wooden frame, a bit like an easel that you stapled a sheet of paper with the outline of a human on. Specific areas were pointed out – the head, the heart, the lungs, the hands and feet. Hoping for balloons or colored blobs, I asked if I could use a children’s target. A guy pointed to a pile of reduced-sized silhouettes. I took a moment to think. I was choosing between shooting a bright pink paper adult or a bright pink paper child. I turned to look at the shooters. They all looked fairly normal; a day off with the family or an afternoon chilling with friends and pop tarts. No doubt they shopped at Walmart and paid their taxes. No signs of criminal records or recent prison escapees. Get on with it Holly, you’re over thinking. I went for the adult pink human. Thank God the bullet predictably spun off into the white paper behind.

Lara Croft I wasn’t, but shooting guns is exhilarating. The charging of the bullet and steps as you take aim, the pounding bang and drifts of smoke that liken you to a true woman of the Wild West all add to the strange notion of power that you come to thrive on. Its easy to forget that an onlooker from the sidelines would find it difficult to understand the fun, spending money to stand in the sweltering heat and dust loading up rounds and mutilating a static paper sheet.

I took a break to get water. A 30 something year old couple and their child were standing nearby. Hearing my non-native accent (very rare in much of rural Texas), we started talking. We went through the motions of them loving the english accent and asking what I thought of the Queen, I asked them how often they went shooting. They proudly informed me they were Lone Star members, meaning for $100 a year each they have free access to any Lone Star gun range. I tried to look like I found that impressive and  asked if they usually bring their son. The dad confirmed that 8 year old Cody had apparently been shooting since he could walk, and was well versed in the safety implications. His aim was so good, he had even won competitions in the under 10s category.

I felt myself slipping into that all too common terrain of totally disbelieving what I was hearing, but also desperately trying to comprehend it. These were friendly people. They weren’t trying to kill anyone or out to start a gun war. They weren’t training up their child in any suspicious Texan militias, nor did they have tattoos giving away allegiance to a notorious gang of outlaws. I was highly aware that to them, the idea of me opposing the use of a gun on your own personal property probably seemed just as strange as I found their enthusiasm for it. If my time in Texas has taught me anything, it’s to not make it obvious that you think a person’s crazy too soon. If you don’t hear them out, they’ll probably always seem crazy. If you go along with it for a bit sounding vaguely empathetic in your questioning, you’ve at least got a chance. These are the moments you’ve got to walk the line without giving yourself away.

As far as I understand, they explained guns in terms of two necessary functions in society. First and foremost is the social aspect; the ownership of guns forms a central part of their culture, and family gatherings are rarely complete without a hunt. Unlike in Europe, few rural Texans don’t own vast swathes of land, and with the ownership of land comes the ‘ownership’ of any creatures that inhabit it. Instead of driving to the Walmart or HEB 30 minutes down the highway, they can hunt deer, rabbits or boars to supply the barbecue, equally central to any get together. With so much land, so many animals, so few people and such a deeply ingrained sense of property rights, even for the most ardent opponent it’s not difficult to recognize that the social, geographical and economic structures that make up Texan society orientate it towards a culture of hunting.

But more important than that is the idea of protection. If us Brits had any vain hope that our Guardian columnists and Green Party campaigners could single-handedly take on the gun-crime culture of the American South, we can stop now. It’s not going to happen.

Texas is a rural place. Almost two-thirds of its landmass have less than ten residents per square mile, far from Sheriff’s offices, Town Halls, or neighbours. Even if they did live within reach of a Sheriff’s office, (effectively a police station), it may be so small an ill-funded that it would of little additional benefit in case of a home burglary. Either the homeowner uses a gun to ward off the intruder then and there, or they wait up to half an hour for the police to arrive and do the same. Furthermore, as isolated and obtuse as we may portray the state in Europe, Texans are highly aware of the issue of police brutality in their own nation. Perhaps it comes under a respect for human rights. More probably it’s a manifestation of the general skepticism of authority and idea of self-sufficiency, but images of the incompetence of the police are widespread, and who can trust someone that does’t have a vested interest in protecting you and your family? They’re just doing their job. If the criminal runs off into the plains, its another sheriff’s county office that’ll deal with them. For you, your livestock, homestead or children have been under threat and who knows if they’ll return. Under Texan law (as well as many other US states), if you kill someone in the act of defending your own property, i.e. an intruder, it is considered an act of self defense. The intruder, if not dead, is accountable to the full force of the law. If a group comes in together and one is killed, the fellow intruders can be found guilty of the murder of their friend and sentenced to life imprisonment, or in some cases execution; if they hadn’t collectively trespassed on the property, their friend wouldn’t have died. The factors of geography and the law therefore inherently favor the gun owner and encourage them to take security into their own hands.

But it doesn’t stop there. Gun ownership is as much a political as well as practical issue. An estimated 1 in 26 people in Texas are illegal immigrants, and fear of the Mexican border is very real. If people can get in undocumented, guns can too, and banning them among law-abiding Christian Americans would only leave the Texan population at the mercy of genuine criminals and criminal gangs of Central America. If guns therefore can’t be eliminated from Texas, at least they can be distributed to those who will use them for their own defense, as well as those who will use them for aggression.

And then it comes to the children. A central part of any parent’s responsibility is in ensuring your child feels safe and capable on their own. And I could totally empathize with this – the most valuable thing you can give your offspring is surely the confidence to feel they don’t have to be reliant on others. To make their own choices, believe in themselves and act on their own accord. And this holds very true in Texan culture. The parents I met at Lockhart weren’t proud of their son because he shot the pink human’s heart out of the paper it lay on; they were proud because they had succeeded as parents. They had prepared him for the world as a capable individual who didn’t have to be scared of Mexicans, or criminals, or put up with the police. He could hold his own family gatherings and source meat from his own land. He was aware of the dangers involved and how to be safe, and really, to them it would only be irresponsible not to introduce him to the culture of weaponry so essential to his heritage and surroundings.

The congressional debates surrounding gun legality are always complex and often contrived. They encompass and touch upon so much – party politics, money, political and economic goals and the interests of influential and regularly out of touch individuals. They’re messy debates that one wishes were unnecessary and we are well within our legitimacy to dismiss them as absurd. On a person to person level, however, the prevalence of guns is more difficult to refute. The arguments are too deep, thought-out and frankly relevant to downplay the way we’re used to – unsuccessfully. As I say, I’m certainly no gun supporter, but my first and last experience as a patron of the Lone Star range has undoubtedly left a mark. If our trans-atlantic struggle against guns laws are to get anywhere, we don’t have a hope or a right to focus our condemnation on the small town Americans that buy into the industry. For them, owning a gun is being responsible. It’s being patriotic, a provider and an individual. It’s looking after your family and securing your own interests- just as we seek to do in Britain and anywhere else in the world. The task is much greater than simply typecasting, condemning and blaming. It’s not just an industry to bring down; its the political, social and economic infrastructure of the state itself, and that’s no easy battle to fight and not one that should be jumped upon naively.

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Don’t hate me, but I’m struggling to be a feminist.

I’m having an internal dialogue as to what I think about feminism. It’s been going on for a while (roughly a decade) and I’m concerned I’m not making much progress. I’ve had the opportunity of an education, I can vote, I can work, I can travel where I want. I don’t feel like there’s anything I want to do but can’t solely because I a woman. Granted, occasional unwanted attention from the opposite sex is still a problem today. I think we all know that. But I don’t feel like that diminishes me as a person. To me, that’s not so much the woes of being female – more the woes of being a man who’ll never know what he’s missing.

But despite all this, I still feel some moral obligation to adopt the title:

I am a(n aspiring) feminist.

I still get a bit anxious when the topic comes up. When friends share ultra-empowering, women-rule-the-world statuses and links on facebook, or complain about their daily maltreatment by men. Or when we praise Cara Delevigne for telling us to ‘free the nipple’ on instagram and get excited about the girls of Tehran for wearing jeans and cutting their hair short. Of course, this isn’t any form of western cultural appropriation or neo-colonialism (although if it were Mauri tribespeople instead of Arabs, perhaps we wouldn’t be celebrating their stylistic transitions with such triumphalism) – no, this is feminism, so stand up girls; let’s all clap our hands and dance to Katy Perry because WE LOVE FEMINISM ❤

Well, Michelle Obama’s great. And Queen B. The Bell Jar got me through when I needed it. Can I join the club? 

No seriously, I have tried to be a feminist. I started off with If Women Counted by Marilyn Waring – written in the 80s but now considered one of the founding texts of feminist economics. As I understand, her argument suggests that in associating the value of our assets (whether human or physical) with the monetary value of the output they produce, the capitalist set-up is designed to reduce the role of women through undervaluing the work they traditionally do. The male position is therefore secured on a higher rung of the social ladder and women are reduced to their dependants. The argument seems pretty logical – because women more commonly do work with no monetary value attached (caring for children; managing the household for their families; providing basic, but unpaid healthcare), women represent ‘undervalued human capital’ in our capitalist system. Men, who aren’t expected to fill these roles and so aren’t ‘undervalued’ enjoy greater economic freedom, independence, and a higher status in society.

I get, it- feminism is about women having equality with men, and there’s no lack of cases across the world where that still hasn’t been achieved. Certainly in many of the poorest societies women have little option other than to fill these unpaid, undervalued roles. The pure fact that they are female, and nothing else, condemns them to a lifetime of dependency with little ownership and few choices.

But what about the women who are independent? Who can, if they choose, step outside the immediate homestead and work? In most of the Western world isn’t it the financial and therefore social independence that we enjoy that forms the pre-requisite to the luxury of calling ourselves feminists? After all, I doubt many of the women Marilyn Waring was referring to in her economic model would actually labelled themselves with the term. Ironically, it seems to be those women who do enjoy more or less equality with their male counterparts that are able to join the club. `Those who don’t seem to be left outside.

Hence the confusion again set in. Maybe I needed to look at the other end of the social/ economic spectrum. If I struggled to get my head around the relationship between feminism and women without relative power, maybe a better place to start would be looking to those with relative power. And I needed to hear clear arguments. I needed someone to talk to me; to tell me personally without me having to think. So I went to the autobiography section of the Oxford Street Waterstone’s and picked out Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. Surely the queen herself, the New York high flyer and all round woman-of-the-world couldn’t let me down.

It was a good read. It certainly filled the criteria of me not having to think, and I found it strangely reassuring to match up her eccentricities to my own – I definitely felt a bit less weird for four or five days and that’s always a good thing. But I couldn’t escape the sense that I was looking onto a very tightly-knit circle of grown women enjoying a kindergarten story time session.

Yes, I recorded what I ate for a month. And guess what…. I eat SO MUCH FOOD. But it’s ok that I’m overweight because on the inside I’m beautiful.’ *General applause and pats on backs all round*

Ok, the essence of the book I agreed with. Women don’t need to be worried. We don’t need to feel like we have anything to live up to, or be pressurised with any constraints. We should be confident, and happy, and feel good about ourselves.

But aren’t these pretty universal messages? I’m sure our childhood friend Arthur the aardvark and the tunes of S club 7 were saying the same things…. Why when we get to adulthood are they being withheld within the binds of daring pink and black ‘feminist’ print?

I understand that there are issues which face women to a greater extent than men. And these are real issues. Emma Graham-Harrison wrote a recent article in The Guardian highlighting how much more difficult survival is for women residing in the migrant camps in Calais purely because they’re women. We as readers can empathise with the fear of unwanted attention when we go out for the evening (mobile phone and house keys in toe). But with no streetlights, no police support, no tampons or soap, and in many cases a child to look out for (three mothers have so far given birth in ‘The Jungle’ camp – quite a feat) daily life takes on a whole new level of challenging.

But I find it difficult not to see the term ‘feminism’ as restricting these issues to the female sphere. Not in their reception – there are plenty of prominent male feminists around – but in their origin. It suggests that these are problems only women have, and society needs to deal with them.

From all that we’ve learnt in the history of the world, surely one of the most important, resounding lessons is not to look at humanity in blocks. Not to divide people up as their nationality, or their religion, their race, political bias – or gender. Not to isolate each block or pose one against another. People are intricate. They’re individual and interconnected in more ways than we realise, and in my opinion, a huge achievement of our generation has been our ability to disassociate ourselves with gender norms. It’s ok for our best friends to be of the other sex. It’s ok to spend time with whoever we want to spend time with – go to dinner with them, go on holiday with them, co-habit with them. As we’ve recently seen with the Women’s football World Cup, women’s sport is for once being regarded just as seriously as men’s. This isn’t because women are becoming more like men – it’s because the individuals on that sports team are now able to do what those individuals want to do. In many cases, our gender is coming to no longer define the boundaries of our societal or social roles and interactions. Yes, there’s a feminine stereotype and a masculine stereotype, but at last we seemed to have realised – 99% of us lie somewhere in-between, as non-gendered people.

I’m saying this because I think that’s the crux of my issue with feminism. That surely ‘feminist’ issues are just ‘people’s’ issues. In response to feminist economics – anyone can be economically undervalued, male as well as female, child as well as adult; in response to Lena Dunham – anyone can feel insecure; in response to the real challenges facing women throughout the world – the challenges you’re facing don’t just apply to you. They don’t exist in their own gendered sphere – they’re part of a wider societal, cultural, economic and political sphere that touches on and involves us all. Their relevance shouldn’t be attached to the block of humans we call ‘women’. The danger; the injustice; the lack of independence or choice; the harassment and exploitation – they all very much exist and they’re all very much causes worth fighting against. But these aren’t issues of women’s rights, they’re issues of human rights.

The Pledge

I worry about being a persistent admirer. At least, being solely a persistent admirer. It’s quite a scary thought. One of those who makes deliberate visits to the magazine shelves in the Victoria Station WHSmith to gape at Beyoncé’s ability to be vegan. Or the toned physique of the latest celebrity unveiled in their holiday snaps from a secluded Caribbean Island; sea behind them twinkling in the sunlight and hair coiffured to perfection. Maybe even a yacht or collection of palm trees in the background. Of course, this admiration comes with no intention of adopting the required diet or exercise plans. Nor going on holiday (or buying the magazine). These are the lives of the rich and famous, and we’re waiting for the train.

And its easy to brush off those who spend hours on youtube researching tracks and ‘unknown’ mixes. They play favoured consistently for 4-5 days until unable to bear it again- long after those around them have felt the same, before making the swift U-turn from 90s deep house to Chopin as the playlist of choice.

I am also that person who delves into the posts of arty instagramers (currently on @pauloctavious @thiswildidea ) and for an afternoon inspiration is found in every street lamp, shop window or park landscape. I am the unstoppable amateur artiste. The lighting, graininess and timing…. The pure depth and meaning of the shots convey so much…. to me. I then realise that I, my second hand acer (they do make phones) and admittedly poor photo editor fail to give the desired ambience. Perhaps I should stick to more generic shots.

I suppose I’ll probably always be all of the above, and that’s ok – but I’m not just all of the above. I’m also someone who wants to care. I don’t want to simply admire others caring. I don’t want to only receive. A few months ago I lost someone that I feel like I never really knew. Although I didn’t expect it to have a big effect on me, it really did. Before shock or sadness, pain or disbelief it was guilt that really struck me. Not because the death was especially my fault or I could have changed the situation, but because there was a person – a resource of thoughts, experiences, emotions and insights that I had neglected and a mind that could no longer be picked, let alone understood.

I became increasingly aware of the power of individuals, both in a personal and wider sense. The power of family bonds that I had previously not realised, and the power of greater, ‘global’ individuals that have such an impression on the lives of others- many of whom they may never come into contact with. How might the world be different if it were bereft of their particular passions and observations? What if Malcom X or Rosa Parks had played a more passive role in the fight for civil rights, sitting by and watching the progress take motion from afar? Or if Aung San Suu Kyi just wasn’t so bothered about the political potential of democracy?

Or, more to the point, the largely anonymous comedians and journalists operating from the bars and street corners of Harare who risk so much to bring to light the malpractice of the Mugabe government. If not change, at least their work brings about a collective political awareness amongst their neighbours, colleagues and friends. And those documenting the daily struggles of the people of Soweto, Johannesburg. The violence, unemployment and invisibility they endure as their elected government look on – but also the rich communal atmosphere and relatively developed informal economies that prosper from its corrugated steel huts. In a sense, the cultural wealth of its people.

These are people who really see the world. They don’t just admire it, but synthesise it, debate it within themselves and act on it. To me, this is the true power of humanity – the ability to conceptualise the world and pass on that conception.

So this is my attempt to make up for the guilt. This is a pledge to myself to both receive and ‘admire’ the world (even if it is through Heat magazine) but also to analyse and act on it. Who knows how long we’ll be here, and who knows what is contained in the minds of those around us.