Big brains and small arms

by Mike O’Brien

Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else!”
—Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

I am a nerd with bro-leaning interests. I’m not alone. You can read of many philosopher/MMA fighters, poet/survivalists, techie/pumpkin-exploders. If you’re not trying to reconcile the connoted identities of these disparate interests, they can co-exist quite happily. We are large, we contain multitudes. But when I’m watching Youtube videos about backyard bladesmiths perfecting their cryogenic treatments, or military historians explaining the minutiae of 19th century machining innovations, my queue is filled with the other (dare I say “lower”?) 95% of those content pools. And the sensation of wandering into the wrong room lingers in the back of my mind.

Yes, of course, videos of guys arseing about with sharp things are going to be scant few degrees of separation from irretrievable knuckle-draggers. Weapon-y things have their respective cults, attracting a certain mindset and pastiche of political views. If Youtube had an option to display results “in this domain, but not of it”, perhaps that would help. But for the time being, I have to roll the dice and hope to find fellow inhabitants of the Venn diagram overlap between “smart people” and “stupid fun”. This matter was crystallized a few days ago in a new video from a channel that was, for years, largely apolitical and value-neutral. A cutlery-maker and sharpening guru, whose previous videos were about as identarian as a PBS cabinetry show, was advertising his new lifestyle complex, a sprawling ranch featuring shooting ranges, forges and general outdoorsy Americana. The video began “As a blade enthusiast, I’m guessing that some of you share the same values as I do: freedom (illustrated by riding an ATV on private land), self-reliance (illustrated by shooting a pistol… the shooter was holding it all by themselves, so fair enough…), self-accountability” (illustrated by holding a hot piece of steel with tongs… sure). He is undeniably correct that some of his audience, even most of his audience, do share these values, or at least profess to. But the leap from sharing a hobby interest to sharing an ethos was a bit much for me.

I got into the nitty-gritty of knife sharpening a few years ago, after buying a cool-looking knife with a badly-ground edge. It was basically a toy/fashion accessory, but the fetish value was diminished by the fact that it imperfectly instantiated the values that it represented. It stood for excellence in design and function, but the functioning bit (the cutty bit) was botched, like a Ferrari on cheap tires or a Rolex that won’t keep time. So I went down a rabbit-hole of old-timey workshopping, metallurgical science and luxury goods fetishism, learning the how’s and why’s of sharpening. Along the way I found a few people who seem to share my laid-back lefty disposition, despite being immersed in a hobby that consists in collecting and servicing tools that could cut your thumbs clean off.

My favourite personalities among these Youtubers will occasionally express their own misgivings about the more aggressive, militaristic tribes among knife-nerds, and try to situate themselves outside of that orbit. The easiest distinction is whether or not they are a gun channel as well as a knife channel. There is a cultural bundle that attends gun-related content (American flags, reactionary politics, an unhealthy pre-occupation with justified homicide) and it tends to hang around anything shooting-adjacent, like camping, martial arts, and, yes, collecting thousands of dollars worth of fancy cutting tools. (There are happy exceptions, though.)

Sometimes it’s easy to filter out the likely Trumpists with subtle visual cues: intro videos with military iconography, sepia-toned excerpts from the Constitution, skulls on fire with guns coming out of their mouths… little hints like that. Or they’ll dress the part and have backdrops of New Hampshire flags and shooting ranges to tie the look together. But often the video will consist only of hands on a table-top, manipulating some new toy (a common joke is that most expensive knives are only used to open packages containing newer expensive knives. This is true.) So when I’m watching a video by a creator with whom I’m unfamiliar, I feel a wave of relief if I see a pair of non-white hands. “Oh, good”, I think, “this person is almost certainly not a fascist”.

But that’s a fairly simplistic way to sort people. I’ve watched videos by creators who, by dint of their skin shade, should be wary and weary of right-wing American culture, but who embrace it as a package deal because they like shooting guns and carrying knives. It’s remarkable (that’s why I’m remarking on it) that one’s political identity should be defined by hobbies, but it makes sense in that hobbies are an investment of attention and effort (and money. So much money). If people lack a socio/econo/ethno/historic self-understanding (and many technically-minded “very smart people” disdain such matters as “politics” in a pejorative sense), then that void can be filled by consumer preferences and brand identities. And so you can have intelligent people of colour, in southern states, steadfastly supporting Republicans because they won’t take their guns away. Not to say that these people abide fascists, but if they don’t, they’re on the wrong team.

I have friends with whom I can converse about many things, but not politics, economics, or the like. There are a few media creators whom I regard in a similar manner, having enjoyed and appreciated their work in a narrow practical field only to find out later that they are diametrically opposite to my views in the things that matter most to me. I tell myself that we’d find common ground (i.e. they would abandon most of their incorrect ideas and adopt mine) if they questioned their politics, which I assume to be un-reflected “off the shelf” ideas from their social and media environments. I was drawn to their work because they demonstrated a thoughtful and curious approach to understanding a complex task (i.e. rubbing metal on stone until it cuts stuff, but trust me, it’s very complicated and involves phase-change diagrams). So they ought to be able to apply those same virtues of mind and character to their political views, if those views could be unsettled and unbound. But I no longer have the energy to argue with people with whom I disagree, and even if I did, I’m not sure it matters. (Any conceit that prevents me from arguing with strangers on the internet is a healthy thing).

So far, I haven’t had to drop any of my favourite channels, though I’ve abandoned a few minor ones. I’m not sure where my red line lies, and how much blameless wrongness I’d tolerate in a creator whose work is truly original and excellent. If one of my top 3 Youtubers revealed themselves as an outright bigot, I’d drop them without hesitation, but these creators are my favourites in large part because everything else revealed in their character makes such a turn inconceivable.

Recently, I thought I might make have to make a decision, as I hesitantly pressed play on a podcast by another favourite creator, Dan Carlin of “Hardcore History” fame. He had just posted an episode of his “Common Sense” side-show of extemporaneous commentary, the first in months. Carlin is no dummy, and seems to be a fairly even-handed and open-minded fellow. A student of history should necessarily be so, if they are reading decent sources and doing any thinking. But Carlin seems to have a Libertarian, Constitutionalist stripe that includes many smart, well-informed people labouring under defective and obsolete notions. Maybe the conceits of individuality and liberty are too dear to displace from their primacy, however unworkably utopian they may be. (I was going to add other possible explanations, but really that’s the correct one.) So I wondered what this monologue had in store, given that it was Carlin’s first pronouncement since late March, and presumably would address Black Lives Matter protests, Covid bungling , and the recent full-court-press by the White House and Senate to avoid a fair election in November.

I was relieved, though not perfectly satisfied. Carlin endorsed Biden and condemned Trump as an utterly indefensible option, primarily because of Trump’s playing with civil conflict as a means of animating his base. Some of his criticism of lawlessness and incivility during BLM protests got too close to “both sides”-ism for my taste, but in a “both sides are giving their opponents fodder” sense rather than any claims of moral equivalence. All in all, a win for decency and for me; someone whose work I enjoy and wish to continue enjoying had passed an important test of political acceptability. But he went even further and called out “Second Amendment types” for aligning themselves with a transparent tyrant despite all their pageantry of tyrannicidal fervour. I imagine such types have long been fellow travellers of his, given their shared interest in military history and adherence to the rugged individualist ideals of the nascent USA. But I think he gives them too much credit in accepting their claims of being defenders of the Second Amendment (even if only in isolation from the rest of the document), rather than simply gun nuts.

Here’s the thing: the Second Amendment, on its face, has nothing to do with the private accumulation of guns. The whole reason for defending the right to bear arms is to supply a “well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State”. Persons who are unwilling, or unsuitable, to join a well-organized militia have no pretext on which to invoke the Second Amendment to defend their ownership and bearing of arms. The unruly, the unfit, the incompetent and the unsound among the citizenry are left out of consideration. But there’s bad news for advocates of gun control, too: forget any arguments about the Second Amendment not being intended to defend “military-style” weapons. That is precisely what it was intended to cover. Not sporting arms, nor hunting arms, nor arms to protect oneself from felonious citizens or roving beasts. Militias fight military battles and are to be equipped accordingly.

I’m not actually saying the Second Amendment is a good idea, and ought to be implemented according to its proper intent. I think it’s a rather bad idea, actually, an adolescent half-refusal of submission and civility that well-ordered societies ought to move past. But it is instructive to at least consider it on its own terms, and imagine what it might entail. Forget the distraction of guns. A tyrannical state with drones, submarines, stealth aircraft and tanks doesn’t have much to fear from guns, no matter how many dozens fill the basements of the most ardent “constitutionalists”. Observation, communication and mobility are at least as important as keeping arms in reserve. To that end, drones are a Second Amendment issue as much as guns are. So is encryption, and the maintenance of unregulated communication platforms. I can remember when civilian GPS equipment was “nerfed”, its accuracy deliberately downgraded from what military systems could render. A well-regulated militia needs to know where things are. So, I’m calling the bluff of any Second Amendment nut who can’t operate a radio, encrypt a message, apply a tourniquet or draw a map. Same goes for anyone who doesn’t know where and with whom they would muster if they ever decided it was “go time”, and for anyone who’d refuse a mop or a shovel instead of a gun if that’s what the well-regulated militia saw fit to issue to them.

This is all rather moot, because the freedom of the State is now defended by the Army, Navy and Air Force (and Space Force!). I’d say that the “well-regulated militia” role is filled. As for popular opposition of domestic tyranny by force of arms, well, good luck with that. I suppose National Guard units could have secured the liberty of small “s” states against federal predation, once upon a time. But that notion of independence was shattered when National Guard units were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. If they weren’t independent enough to refuse participation in an imperial war, I doubt they are independent enough to fight the empire itself.

My disdain for this gun nuttery is coloured by its association with Republicans, Libertarians, and worse. There are historical links between organized racism and organized militias, as well as a general posturing of anti-social hostility. There are some challenging test cases, like the Black Panther community patrols and LGBTQ+ gun clubs, which are closer in my commie mind to the “good guys (and gals and non-binary people) with guns” ideal. But arming oneself against one’s fellow citizens, even when they don’t act much like fellows, seems to be a pathology of a failed or failing state, not a guarantor of a free one.

If the Second Amendment isn’t useful for punching up, what is it good for? The proliferation of “self-defence” handguns and legislation allowing their concealed carry provides the answer: it is good for killing civilians. These “civil” arms punch sideways and punch down, are unevenly distributed, and are totally private possessions. That makes tyranny more likely than if no one had any guns at all. Stand-your-ground laws complete the package, allowing this arsenal to be deployed by the right kind of people against the wrong kind of people, without any de jure breach of civil peace. The psychology of common citizens anticipating violence as warriors-in-waiting, rather than as victims-in-waiting, holds back an apt sense of vulnerability that might lead to better decisions if it were allowed to sink in.

If you’re reading this, Youtube genie, heed my plea: I don’t want to watch Fox News rants and Trumpist propaganda. I don’t want to arm my family against Antifa or learn how cultural Marxists are coming for my freedoms. And I sure as hell don’t want to watch Jordan Peterson trying to impersonate a smart person. (And tell all those lonely singles in my area that I’m not meeting anybody until there’s a Covid vaccine). I’m just a laid-back, tree-hugging socialist who wants to watch some guy make a katana in his garage, or maybe build an air cannon that launches supersonic baseballs. Because those things are cool as hell. You know what isn’t cool? Trying to identify and leverage tribal divisions based on hobby interests in order to increase “engagement” with your platform. I dare say that ending such practices may be necessary to the security of a free State.