The elephant in the burned cabin

Today, a friend posted this article from Jacobin on his Facebook wall. It’s an analysis of the Christopher Dorner case that the media have been screaming about all week. I wanted to like it; it was well and gracefully written, and makes a number of good points. The essayist in me admired it. But there was something missing in it, or rather, something present in it that was going unaddressed, like the elephant in the proverbial living room.

No one seems to have seriously considered giving in to Dorner’s one demand: that the record be set straight by releasing all of the documents related to his disciplinary hearings, and clearing his name from the prior disciplinary actions against him. He pledged to end his warfare if the LAPD would do so. Considering his apparent death last night, one wonders if that life could have been saved at the price of the department’s momentary embarrassment. “A man is nothing without his name,” repeats Dorner.

Dorner’s reaction is partly rooted in a corrosive version of American masculinity — his response to institutional corruption is uniquely Jack Bauer and John Wayne. Gratuitous violence included. Dorner is a wholesale product of a society gone mad on racism and war, of a state that aggressively punishes dissent, of an intellectual milieu where telling the truth has become a dangerous act. There was no internal institutional outlet for him to address injustices against him: the blue line prevented that.

So I set off to ponder it — or rather, I futzed around and stewed. And while I was futzing around, I found this other article on Counterpunch that came a little closer to the elephant. But it, too, disappointed me. And I couldn’t figure out why.

In the years between the murder of Oscar Grant and Dorner’s last stand, March of 2009 to be specific, we were among those observing the case of Lovelle Mixon in Oakland, a parolee who decided he was not going to return to prison, opening fire on police at a traffic stop, killing two. Police went in to execute Mixon, not expecting that he would be holding an SKS. Two more cops died as a result. The logic of Dorner’s desperation, and the chain of events that led to his ultimate death, parallels Mixon’s; proud men without hope, cornered, deciding to go out fighting.

Neither man was a self-understood revolutionary and it would be inaccurate (or perhaps too accurate a reflection of the dearth of revolutionary activity in contemporary society) to try and declare otherwise. However, the material conditions that produced Dorner, as with Mixon, are not uncommon. The meaning and the effects of their actions speak volumes about the depth of racialization, criminalization and hopelessness in Obama’s supposed “post-racial” America.

It isn’t unique to the United States; Canada and the UK have had their share of such killers too, albeit fewer in proportion to the general population. It isn’t limited to whites; the Virginia Tech murders proved that much. Asian men are less likely to do it, but they are every bit as capable of “snapping” when societal prejudices and their own personal problems overwhelm them. The same is true of black men, like Christopher Dorner. The color lines are there, and they matter. They are not an insignificant factor in the social injustices that drive some men to become spree shooters, before committing suicide (or suicide by cop, as the case may be.) But the racial prejudice against non-whites was not the only factor.

And yeah, the cop shop is a brutally authoritarian place. Same old story just about everywhere. The nail that sticks up will get hammered down by a fist of blue. That, too, is significant, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Conformity, especially in uniform, is a major problem of the so-called police state. But that, too, is not the thing that stood out for me.

Finally, it hit me: This rampage-killing thing is a man’s game. That’s the elephant. How many female spree killers have you heard of? Offhand, I only know of one, and her own father (who sexually abused her) gave her the gun that she used to take pot-shots at the school across the street. So the exception still proves the rule: Brenda Ann Spencer, though female (and gay), was very much the product of a male-dominated culture. Her father had no son, and undoubtedly saw his daughter as a weak vessel, a sex object by dint of merely owning a vagina, and so fair game for abuse. But at the same time, in his sick way, he tried to turn her into the son he did not have, so as to fulfill his masculine duty. And his way of doing so was to give her the phallic weapon, the ersatz penis, that the far right always simplistically holds up as the “great equalizer” of the sexes, not to mention of races, and of social classes: He gave her a gun.

And if you think I’m out of line bringing gender into the narrative, I’ll just leave this here:


I don’t think the gender connection could be any more explicit than that.

Now, back to the passages I excerpted from the two articles. I chose them so you could see the elephant, and how it was simultaneously hinted at and erased from the picture. The use of the words man, men, and masculinity should be the tip-off. Gun violence is a man’s game. To go out with a bang — or in the case of Christopher Dorner, a conflagration started by projectiles fired from a special gun — is a masculist death if ever there was one. Few women dream of going out in a blaze of “glory”, much less set out to actually accomplish it. (And those few who do, often end badly; think of Nancy Lanza, shot to death with her own gun, by her own son. Whom she had taught to shoot, perhaps in an effort to instill some semblance of socially acceptable masculinity into the slender, autistic young man.)

Little wonder, then, that the totality of the anti-authoritarian “Go Dorner” memes clogging my own Facebook feed were from male friends. And not just from any male friends, but specifically from those with left-libertarian/anarchist tendencies. My liberal, socialist and communist friends, male and female alike, refrained from posting such memes. None of them saw the sense in glorifying a troubled man, much less one who, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, reached for the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house and ironically ended up being burned to death in it himself. Interestingly, both of the articles I cited mentioned fire in the final line. The Jacobin article ends thus:

In Dorner’s case, the allegory of life to a furnace takes literal weight — he has died, consumed by fire. The police will celebrate, the chorus will quiet, the lives of his victims mourned. It is unlikely that the fire that burned away Dorner will burn away any illusion: this is unfortunate, and disturbing. His allegations will be dismissed as the rantings of a lunatic, things will return to normal. Until the fire, next time.

And the Counterpunch one, thus:

Dorner was not a radical, but his short war was not simply the story of broken man or of individualistic vengeance. The issues of brutality and racism perpetually covered up by a corrupt police department created the insurgent Dorner and resonated with many people who endure the reality of urban policing on a daily basis. The sympathy and the support Dorner received is a clear indicator of the very real and deep structural inequalities that helped forge the path of Dorner’s life and his fiery death. The great radical historian Mike Davis concluded a recent article on Dorner with a peculiar question: “Does anyone cheer Dorner?” What is peculiar is that, for better or worse, there’s no denying that the answer is “yes.”

There’s no telling what sort of a fire they could start tomorrow.

Interesting use of imagery, no? And that brings me to another aspect of the elephant.

There is a very specific kind of man who just wants to see the state burn. He isn’t confined to the right, although he’s easier to spot over there. He tends to look like a nutcase, talk like a nutcase, and act like one over there. He styles himself as a survivalist, a doomsday cultist, a “prepper”. To him, Waco and Ruby Ridge represent the ultimate evil of the democratic state. And if he’s a US-American, he talks a great deal about the Second Amendment and how it is the “solution” to that “socialist” black man in charge. Never mind that Barack Obama is obviously no socialist; whatever he actually stands for or does not, he represents all that is alien and threatening to the right-wing white man who thinks the world is his by right. The misapplied term is shorthand for anything and everything the right wing opposes. It is as laughably divorced from meaning as the right-winger is from reality.

But in the anarchist quadrant of the leftist spectrum, the “smash the state” guy looks a bit different. He’s generally more thoughtful than his right-wing nutjob cousin, and thus less apt to tote a gun, but he still has a taste for the Molotov cocktail. He’s cerebral, rather than overtly phallic-obsessive. And he can be just as much of a male chauvinist, too, in his own right. He’s a great one for theory, this guy. He reads voraciously; it’s not ironic, in his eyes, to decry the recent firebombing of an anarchist bookstore in London. If he’s conspiracy-minded (and a great many left-anarchists are), he may even see in that the effort of the all-powerful and all-evil state to smash the “little man”. (I use the term advisedly, as you may have guessed.) To him, the burning of Freedom Books has its obvious parallel to the incineration of Chris Dorner. Never mind the irony that the police and fire department were the ones to help salvage the burned bookstore.

But the state is not the real problem. It is not some ahuman, alien entity that will invariably crush the Little Man’s balls, regardless of how much the left-anarchist bomb-thrower may sing from the same facile hymnal as the right-libertarian gun nut on the issue.

All the state is, in the final analysis, is the sum of the people who comprise it. It is up to the people to decide how it operates, and what they will and will not allow it to do on their behalf. And while corruption goes with power-over, mere overthrow of those in charge will not result in freedom overnight. Did the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa not prove as much? The same Egyptians who demonstrated agaist Mubarak are now mobilizing once more against Morsi. They do not want NO government; they want a democratic government that upholds human rights, equality and dignity for all.

If the arc of history is long, and bends toward justice, it stands to reason that a quick, violent revolution, resulting in a leaderless and stateless world, is not the answer to the current global malaise. The just society, in the end, looks much like the democratic socialist vision, in which women are equal to men, and color and nationality are not the caste-marks of an unwritten hierarchy either. The state’s job is to protect the just society. As long as that much is clear, and remembered, the rest will flow from it.

Here in Canada, we have our Charter of Rights and Freedoms; an organ of the state, yes, and one that enables women to agitate successfully for reproductive rights and pay equity, First Nations for the protection of their lands, gays for the right to marry and adopt children, and minorities to take racists before human-rights tribunals. All progressive movements here are grounded in it in one way or another, even if they don’t know it. While it takes a regular beating at the hands of election-stealing wingnuts, it’s still there, and it forms the basis of our laws, even though the right-wing gun nuts and “libertarians” here may gnash their teeth over how it keeps them from ruling the country in their own phallocentric, white, Christian male image. Their “freedom” is the privilege to oppress anyone they regard as inferior; our freedom (note the absence of quotes) is the constitutional right to throw off their hegemony.

And while racism and police brutality are the privileges of a few, gender oppression is the reality of half the human race. To erase it from analysis, to dismiss it as unimportant, to sneer at feminist analysis, is to alienate half of the potential revolutionary force that will remake society peacefully and progressively. That is the elephant in the burning cabin. One can be blind to all but the ear, or the trunk, or the tail that is in one’s immediate grasp, but if we are to confront the elephant properly, we have to take it all of a piece or not at all.

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5 Responses to The elephant in the burned cabin

  1. Neil H. says:

    Excellent post, Bina. I think that the legacies of so many of our institutions – because they are so often initiated, dominated, and perpetuated by males with little regard or desire for female input or even a viewpoint – are often, to a greater or lesser degree, almost always inherently toxic to the human condition. And I think it’s been through the influence of women, albeit all too often working at it in the background, that brings the truly humane influence to progressivism. I’ll write more tomorrow on a subject I think closely tied to your observations, but for now, bedtime…

  2. Jared Wolf says:

    Interesting….I would not have thought of it from that angle. I was curious this last week why you didn’t have anything to say about Dorner, because you seem to follow the news very closely, but you left this one alone. You did say something about introvert vs extroverts….Do you think you can be an introvert, but on the internet and social media be an extrovert? Because I think that might be me.

    I read the mans manifesto, and right away saw him as a “hero, or anti-hero.” I don’t know if it’s because I grew up on Schwartzeneger movies but I felt I must be weird or something because murder is always wrong. But then I would see on different pages so many comments from people who felt the same way, so I, as usual, operating on impulse, posted something controversial on the facebook about it. I was scolded.

    I have to say though, it isn’t coming from an anarchist place for me. I wasn’t rooting for a revolution. I was rooting for him to be successful exposing the corruption in the LAPD. Outside of the LAPD, that’s where it would end. It is sad that a young lady was killed, but he did say in essence “tell the truth, and the killing stops.” Capt. Quan stayed silent. Which isn’t to say she got what she deserved, but that it might have been prevented.

    I wish there were a medication to control impulsiveness….I’m embarrassed. I should have walked away and pondered, like you suggested.

    Awesome post Miss Sabina!

    • Sabina Becker says:

      Aw, thank you!

      And yeah, I think it’s possible to switch mental modes on the Internet. It definitely forces extroverted behaviors on me, and I often find them exhausting.

      The LAPD is a shithole, and has been for quite some time, so sadly, there’s nothing new under the Sun here. I’m so old, I remember seeing Rodney King getting beaten up on the news. And my dad remembers the Watts riots, which were a little before my time. That was all LAPD racism.

      I wonder if this latest incident will force change. I somehow doubt it.

      • Neil H. says:

        Hell, Bina, I’m older than you are! I remember the Kent State shootings – which, astonishingly, my dad felt were justified – watching the Watergate hearings, the riots at the Chicago DNC and the slaying of Bobby Kennedy. I even remember the first appearance of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan (my dad hated them for their hair and hated rock and roll in general as a rule).

      • Jared Wolf says:

        Nah, I highly doubt it will change. Maybe in another hundred years….

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