GAVIN ESLER on the frustrations of political debate in an era where reason counts for little
Recently an American reader sent an email to my website angrily denouncing a newspaper feature I had written. It was about gun control, or rather the lack of it.
I’ll call him ‘John’ and he wrote: “I have lived in Texas for over fifty years and you don’t know what your (sic) talking about. I am a law abiding citizen, I have plenty of firearms and I have never harmed anyone and surely don’t intend to… I will take my chances with my .45. It’s common sense. There will always be some people who are just evil and everyone should have the right, and a chance, to defend themselves. Be careful walking in those dark places. Take care.”
I heard the same ritual incantations from gun worshippers for years when I lived in the US, especially when filming TV documentaries on shooting ranges in Texas and elsewhere. But John managed simultaneously to miss – and to prove – my point.
I had written that people like him (as he put it) have “plenty of firearms” because they are frightened – and they are frightened because “people who are just evil” also demand access to guns. It’s a text-book vicious circle of the good, the bad and the ugly. John couldn’t see it. He probably never will.
In John’s state the legislature last month passed a bill allowing Texans to carry hidden handguns without a permit. Any adult you might meet on the streets of Houston or Dallas, in the supermarket queue, at the school gates or a baseball game could have a Glock 21 concealed under their coat.
As Glock promo material tells you, it’s a full size firearm with a polymer frame and .45 ACP round with the standard-issued 13 round capacity magazine. Or, as the old doggerel says, “How the West was won / Through the barrel of a gun.”
The new Texas rules are known as ‘constitutional carry’, after the second amendment to the US constitution, the ‘right to bear arms’. When I walk the streets of British cities late at night I admit to a degree of caution, but – to reverse John’s logic – knowing I have the right to carry a hidden handgun would make me feel less safe not more, because if I can have a gun, so can John’s “people who are just evil”.
But why is John, and millions of other law-abiding Americans, in thrall to this deadly nonsense? In Texas two mass shootings killed 30 people in 2019; a high school shooting in 2018 claimed 10 lives, and in 2017 another 27 Texans were killed at a church.
A popular American gun-owner bumper sticker boasts that “An Armed Society Is A Polite Society”. Those of us who experienced ‘armed societies’ in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and elsewhere may beg to differ. But if the gun fetish is the American delusion, what of the many British delusions that appear equally resilient to logic, facts and coherent argument?
There is the ‘Global Britain’ delusion, peddled daily by the British government which boasts of trade deals with Liechtenstein, Iceland and other micro-triumphs (Liechtenstein has 38,000 inhabitants) while simultaneously irritating, alienating or annoying Ireland, most of the European Union, Joe Biden’s US administration, China, Russia, and scores of developing countries where British aid has been cut.
Then there’s the ‘levelling up’ delusion. This persists despite coronavirus and other diseases exposing clear links between poverty and ill health, and the £15bn plan to boost children whose education has been disrupted after being cut by Boris Johnson to just 10% of that figure.
Then there’s the ‘One Nation’ Conservative delusion. Scotland has not voted for a Conservative government since the 1950s – three generations. The Welsh parliament elections returned Labour to power in Cardiff, and Johnson has managed the miraculous feat of simultaneously irritating both unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland.
How about the ‘mother of parliaments / British democracy as the envy of the world’ and ‘competent government’ delusions? These persist despite the money wasted on test and trace; the PPE scandals; a prime minister supposedly baffled by how the place where he lives was redecorated at the cost of £200,000; the cash-for-favours allegations against the housing secretary; the prime minister repudiating the Brexit deal that he recommended to parliament; the chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost who pronounced his deal “excellent” in 2020 before deciding in 2021 that the word he meant was “excrement”.
The British delusion list goes on and on ad nauseam. And yet… despite all the evidence, the logic, and the ridicule, Boris Johnson’s ‘world beating’ sleazeathon of failure continues. Large sections of the British people and significant sections of the press cling to the belief that we are on the verge of ‘Making Britain Great Again’, during the ‘Roaring Twenties’, in which Britannia will again rule waves, even if some of the waves do not truly deserve it.
How can we make sense of this? Why do so many Americans continue to believe the gun nonsense and so many British people think that a daily diet of governmental sleaze, stupidity and arrogance somehow translates into what Johnson in 2019 said would make Britain “the greatest place on Earth?”
And then it struck me. I re-read one of Texas John’s emails. Lost for argument on guns, he cut and pasted to me quotes from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington on the defence of liberty by force of arms – yes, 200 year old quotations on “liberty” from two 18th century American slave owners.
Washington inherited slaves from his father; Jefferson owned 600 slaves in total, all in the era of the flintlock musket. For Texas John this was a conclusive argument for the widespread possession of hidden semi-automatic weapons in the 21st century.
And there it is: the pointlessness of arguing with an American gun fetishist is precisely the pointlessness of arguing with those Brexit inamoratas Boris Johnson has seduced. Even if eventually they recognise the Johnson administration is a democratic catastrophe, weakening the country, destroying its union and undermining the UK’s credibility worldwide, the Boris boosters will be like those drowning on the Titanic. They will blame the iceberg, not the idiocy and arrogance of the captain.
A writer from the Jefferson-Washington period provides part of an explanation. In the 1790s Tom Paine published his Age of Reason. That age of reason, if it ever existed, is now long gone, replaced by our 21st century Age of Un-Reason.
It’s an age in which – despite all the evidence – Vladimir Putin denies Russia murders people in London and elsewhere, or that Russia invaded Ukraine or that Russian forces shot down a Malaysian passenger plane.
It’s an age when Donald Trump becomes president of the United States as an entry level job in politics, like a dentist whose main qualification is never having seen a tooth before.
It’s an age in which Boris Johnson can say with a straight face that “we did all we could” on coronavirus, when he missed the first five meetings of the emergency committee Cobra committee, and considered being jabbed with the virus on TV.
By British standards of delusion, gun-toting Texans are islands of sanity. Jonathan Swift once wrote that “reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.” Yes, Texas John. I get it, at last. Folks, “Be careful in those dark places. Take care.”
Gavin Esler is the author, most recently, of How Britain Ends (Head of Zeus)
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