Com­pany tells Har­vey We­in­stein to go

Mass shoot­ings bring calls for ac­tion – and then po­lit­i­cal paral­y­sis fol­lows

The Guardian Weekly - - World roundup - Lois Beck­ett

5 Har­vey We­in­stein was fired from the We­in­stein Com­pany af­ter new in­for­ma­tion emerged re­gard­ing his con­duct, the com­pany’s board of di­rec­tors said.

We­in­stein – the Hol­ly­wood mogul who pro­duced films in­clud­ing Pulp Fic­tion and Gangs of New York – was on a vol­un­tary leave of ab­sence af­ter a num­ber of sex­ual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions emerged last week in a New York Times ex­posé.

An at­tor­ney for We­in­stein did not im­me­di­ately com­ment.

Last week it was al­leged that We­in­stein had reached at least eight set­tle­ments with women he had sex­u­ally ha­rassed, and that he would in­vite women to his ho­tel room un­der the guise of work, then greet them naked or ask them to mas­sage him or watch him shower. Among We­in­stein’s ac­cusers are the ac­tors Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan, with the lat­ter al­legedly reach­ing a $100,000 set­tle­ment over an in­ci­dent of mis­con­duct that hap­pened when she was star­ring in Scream.

We­in­stein’s al­legedly in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour has been re­ferred to as an open se­cret in Hol­ly­wood.

Dozens of Democrats moved to sever ties with We­in­stein, do­nat­ing his past cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions to women’s char­i­ties. We­in­stein has given more than $1.4m since 1992, vir­tu­ally all to Democrats.

Af­ter the mass shoot­ing in Las Ve­gas on 1 Oc­to­ber in which gun­man Stephen Pad­dock opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Man­dalay Bay ho­tel casino, killing al­most 60 peo­ple and in­jur­ing hun­dreds more, Amer­i­cans have spo­ken out in out­rage and grief, de­mand­ing ac­tion. They have asked, again: why can’t the US pass any gun con­trol laws?

At the same time, just as they did af­ter Sandy Hook and San Bernardino and Or­lando, th­ese ad­vo­cates have en­dorsed some gun con­trol laws with very lit­tle ev­i­dence be­hind them. The great bi­par­ti­san gun con­trol vic­tory of this year may be new re­stric­tions on “bump stocks”, a “range toy” used to make a semi-au­to­matic ri­fle fire more like a fully au­to­matic ri­fle. That won’t do much to re­duce Amer­ica’s more than 36,000 an­nual gun sui­cides, homi­cides, fatal ac­ci­dents and po­lice killings.

Why does the US feel paral­ysed ev­ery time there is a new at­tack? Jon Stokes, a writer and soft­ware de­vel­oper, said he is frus­trated af­ter each mass shoot­ing by “the sen­ti­ment among very smart peo­ple, who are used to de­tail and nu­ance and do­ing a lot of re­search, that this is cut and dried, this is black and white”.

He watches oth­er­wise thought­ful friends sud­denly em­brace one gun con­trol pol­icy or an­other, as if it were a magic bul­let. “Some kind of an­i­mal brain kicks in, and they’re like, ‘No, this is morally sim­ple.’” Even to sug­gest that the de­bate is more com­pli­cated “just up­sets them, and they ba­si­cally say you’re try­ing to ob­scure the is­sue”.

In 2013, a few months af­ter the mass shoot­ing at Sandy Hook el­e­men­tary school, a Yale psy­chol­o­gist cre­ated an ex­per­i­ment to test how po­lit­i­cal bias af­fects our rea­son­ing skills. Dan Ka­han was at­tempt­ing to un­der­stand why pub­lic de­bates over so­cial prob­lems re­main dead­locked, even when good sci­en­tific ev­i­dence is avail­able. He de­cided to test a ques­tion about gun con­trol.

Ka­han gave study par­tic­i­pants – all Amer­i­can adults – a ba­sic math­e­mat­ics test, then asked them to solve a short but tricky prob­lem about whether a medic­i­nal skin cream was ef­fec­tive or in­ef­fec­tive. The prob­lem was just hard enough that most peo­ple jumped to the wrong an­swer. Peo­ple with stronger maths skills, un­sur­pris­ingly, were more likely to get the an­swer right.

Ka­han ran the same test again. This time par­tic­i­pants were asked to eval­u­ate whether a law ban­ning ci­ti­zens from car­ry­ing con­cealed firearms in pub­lic made crime go up or down. The re­sult: when lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives were con­fronted with re­sults that con­tra­dicted their po­lit­i­cal as­sump­tions, the smartest peo­ple were barely more likely to ar­rive at the cor­rect an­swer than those with no maths skills. Po­lit­i­cal bias had erased the ad­van­tages of stronger rea­son­ing skills.

Ka­han con­cluded that, pre­sented with a con­flict be­tween hold­ing to their be­liefs or find­ing the cor­rect an­swer to a prob­lem, peo­ple sim­ply went with their tribe. It was a rea­son­able strat­egy on the in­di­vid­ual level – and a “dis­as­trous” one for tack­ling so­cial change.

When it comes to guns, Amer­i­cans want it both ways. A re­cent Pew study found that just over half want stronger gun laws. Even stronger ma­jori­ties also be­lieve most peo­ple should be al­lowed to legally own most kinds of guns – and al­lowed to carry them in most places.

There is room for thought­ful gun con­trol within th­ese con­straints. But the ex­treme po­lar­i­sa­tion of Amer­ica’s gun de­bate ob­scures how sym­bolic and mar­ginal some of the most na­tion­ally prom­i­nent gun con­trol mea­sures are.

Around 3.30am on 23 Novem­ber 2013 a stray bul­let shat­tered the win­dow of an apart­ment in Indianapolis where a cou­ple watched tele­vi­sion while their two-month-old baby slept. The man called 911, with panic in his voice. “I need to get out of here,” he told the dis­patcher. “Can you get a car so I can get out of here?” “I think there’s sev­eral of­fi­cers al­ready over there,” the dis­patcher replied, calmly. The 911 record­ings re­veal the man breath­ing heav­ily as he talks to his part­ner. “Put the stuff in the baby bag. Find it to­mor­row. We’ll carry it to a ho­tel.” He urges the dis­patcher to hurry up and res­cue them un­til she loses her pa­tience. “They’ll be there as soon as they can, all right?” she says. “As. Soon. As. They. Can. OK? Just stay in­side your apart­ment. Do not go out. We’ll get an of­fi­cer to you.”

Four months later, in the same city, the coun­try’s main gun lobby, the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion, held its an­nual con­ven­tion with the slo­gan “Stand and Fight”. In a speech dem­a­gogic and apoc­a­lyp­tic, the CEO, Wayne LaPierre, evoked a na­tion in peril. “There are ter­ror­ists and home in­vaders and drug car­tels and car­jack­ers and knock­out gamers and rap­ers, haters, cam­pus killers, air­port killers … I ask you: do you trust the gov­ern­ment to pro­tect you? We are on our own … The things we care about most are chang­ing … It’s why more and more Amer­i­cans are buy­ing firearms and am­mu­ni­tion.”

The hor­rific in­ci­dent in Las Ve­gas was the 273rd mass shoot­ing in Amer­ica this year. The en­dur­ing ques­tion of why Amer­ica con­tin­ues to main­tain such lax gun laws when such atroc­i­ties are so com­mon­place can be an­swered by this fright­ened man’s call and LaPierre’s dystopian re­sponse. The con­nec­tion goes be­yond the weapon it­self to some of the coun­try’s most cher­ished myths and per­va­sive patholo­gies. When the na­tional nar­ra­tive is a story of con­quer­ing, dom­i­nat­ing, force and power, an atavis­tic at­tach­ment to the gun can have more pull than a ra­tio­nal case against it.

In a so­ci­ety that fetishises self-re­liance, the gun speaks to rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism – each per­son should be re­spon­si­ble for sav­ing them­selves. In a po­lit­i­cal cul­ture that favours small gov­ern­ment, the gun stands as a coun­ter­point to a lum­ber­ing and in­ef­fi­cient state – de­fend your­self, be­cause by the time the po­lice get there you’ll be dead. It un­der­pins a cer­tain sense of mas­culin­ity and homestead – a real man should be able to pro­tect his fam­ily and home. The dis­patcher told him to sit and wait; the NRA told him to stand and fight.

Th­ese claims for the gun are of course non­sense. Most peo­ple who are killed by guns kill them­selves. Peo­ple who have a gun in the house are far more likely to be shot dead than those who don’t. If more guns re­ally made you safer, Amer­ica would be one of the safest places in the world.

It would be easy to blame all of this on the NRA. The gun lobby has been cen­tral to stonewalling even the most ba­sic com­mon­sense re­forms. Its ca­pac­ity to lobby and fund politi­cians, lo­cally and na­tion­ally, is un­par­al­leled. It is be­cause of the NRA that peo­ple on the no-fly list can still buy guns and there is no gov­ern­ment fund­ing for re­search into how to pre­vent gun deaths.

Yet while the NRA should not be un­der­es­ti­mated, its role should not be ex­ag­ger­ated ei­ther. Even as it wins votes in Congress a con­sis­tent ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans polled this year be­lieve gun laws should be more strict, that it’s too easy to buy a gun and that if more peo­ple car­ried guns Amer­ica would be less safe. The NRA has far more power in the polity than in­flu­ence out­side it.

But it has been able to tap into many of the core themes of the Amer­i­can nar­ra­tive in a way that gun­con­trol ad­vo­cates have not. There is noth­ing in­evitable about this. When a gun­man shot chil­dren in Dun­blane in 1996 Bri­tain tight­ened its gun laws; when a shooter ran amok in Port Arthur that same year Aus­tralia did the same. That’s what ma­ture and re­spon­sive democ­ra­cies do. But in Amer­ica, ap­peals to free­dom, mas­culin­ity, small gov­ern­ment and in­di­vid­u­al­ism, even when they are flawed, have more pur­chase than ar­gu­ments for weapons bans, even when those ar­gu­ments are right.

The prob­lem goes all the way to the top. With the largest mil­i­tary in the world by far, raw power was a cen­tral tenet of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy be­fore Trump promised to un­leash “fire and fury” on Kim Jong-un. When ac­cused of ab­di­cat­ing Amer­ica’s role on the world stage, Barack Obama (who had a “kill list”) re­sponded like a mafia don. “Well, Muam­mar Gaddafi prob­a­bly does not agree with that as­sess­ment,” he said. “Or at least if he was around, he wouldn’t agree with that as­sess­ment.”

At home the gun is in­voked as a cor­ner­stone of Amer­ica’s found­ing story and a safe­guard against tyranny. “It’s about in­de­pen­dence and free­dom,” David Britt, a gun owner, said to me at the NRA con­ven­tion in 2012. “When you have a demo­cratic sys­tem and an honourable peo­ple then you trust your ci­ti­zens … In Europe they cede their rights and free­doms to their gov­ern­ments. But we think gov­ern­ment should be sub­servient to us.”

Th­ese myths are, of course, par­tial. In a na­tion that be­came pos­si­ble through geno­cide and slav­ery, the gun was cen­tral to a par­tic­u­lar no­tion of racial power. If gun en­thu­si­asts were con­cerned about state tyranny, they would have been march­ing along­side Black Lives Mat­ter demon­stra­tors protest­ing po­lice shoot­ings and call­ing for the mass ar­ma­ment of poor, black neigh­bour­hoods. That’s not the kind of tyranny they ob­ject to.

But the myths are also pow­er­ful. What the gun lobby lacks in breadth of sup­port it makes up for in depth of com­mit­ment. In 2013 – af­ter the Sandy Hook shoot­ings – gun ad­vo­cates were far more likely to have con­trib­uted money to a pro-gun group or con­tacted a pub­lic of­fi­cial about guns than those who sup­port gun con­trol. Gun­con­trol ad­vo­cates, for the most part, want to change laws. Gun-rights ad­vo­cates, by and large, be­lieve they are pre­serv­ing “es­sen­tial truths” that make the coun­try what it is. They have proved them­selves more mo­ti­vated be­cause long af­ter those dis­tress­ing scenes from Ve­gas are a mem­ory, th­ese myths will re­main vivid.

Amer­i­cans need new gun laws. But in or­der to get them they will have to start telling them­selves a new story about the coun­try. Their lives de­pend on it.

Most peo­ple who are killed by guns kill them­selves. Peo­ple who have a gun in the house are far more likely to be shot dead

John Locher/AP

Hand­guns on dis­play at an out­door prod­ucts trade show

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