That lethal all-American gun pathology has obviously been on my mind these last weeks. Two expressions from long ago kept coming back: “triggernometry” and “persuasive lips” — eventually they brought me back to Eric Mottram’s 1976 essay, “The Persuasive Lips” which opened his excellent 1989 collection of cultural criticism essays called Blood on the Nash Ambassador (long out of print, though cheap & decent copies can still be found via ABE-Books). I took the liberty to scan the first section of the essay & am inserting it below. If I get enough requests, I’ll scan the rest of the essay (which has a superb analysis of the Billy the Kid materials from Pat Garrett’s book through all the flicks & up to Chip Delaney’s treatment of same in The Einstein Intersection). Although written nearly thirty years ago it is still totally relevant:
‘The Persuasive Lips': Men and Guns in America, the West
In June 1974, Tim Findlay reported the shoot-out between Los Angeles police and the Symbionese Liberation Army for Rolling Stone. Fully covered by TV, police fanaticism and the fantasies of Cinque entered every home:
People sat in their living rooms, watching an epic battle of American insanity, commenting to each other about the cases of ammunition being unloaded from the FBI car, about the small grin on the cop’s face as he threw the bolt home on his rifle before firing another round into the blazing little bungalow in south Los Angeles. His base-ball cap and clumsy flak jacket along with his bolt-action rifle made him appear as a boy playing at a game in which all the battles are heroic spectacles – where just the imaginary bad guys fall dead. The camera pans closer… cinque, the soul of the SLA… Was like the rest, an ultimate victim, whether of his own fantasies or of police fanaticism or of both.1
George Longo volunteered for the Viet Nam war as a manhood test: ‘I was trained to kill. I wanted to go and get that bronze star. It was a way to become a man, handling all those rifles and things.’ He survived the test as a psychologically sick man, one of many reported in Caryl Rivers’ ‘The Vertigo of Homecoming.’2 It begins in childhood. As a child, Nicholas Payne ambushed a neighbour’s piano with a small calibre rifle fired from a tree. Years later, the hero of Thomas McGuane’s novel, The Bushwhacked Piano, recalls his ecstasy:
One thing Payne thought of continually was the time he blasted the piano with his .22, the beautiful splintering of excessively finished wood, the broken strings curling away from liberated beams of spicy piano light, the warm walnut stock of his .22, the other spice of spent shells, the word hollowpoint, the anger of the enemy, the silver discs the bullet made on the window, the simple precision of a peep sight, the blue of barrel steel, the name Winchester when you were in America, the world of BB caps, Shorts, Longs, and Long Rifles, the incessant urge to louse up monuments, even the private piano monuments he perforated from a beautiful tree with an almost blinding urgent vision of the miserable things ending in an uproar of shattered mahogany, ivory, ebony and wire. No more Bach chords to fill the trees with their stern negation. There’s no room here for a piano, he remembered righteously. No pianos here please.1
The depth of the morality in this luxurious ‘righteousness’ of individual anarchistic power is encapsulated in one sentence from E.L. Doctorow’s novel The Book of Daniel, published the year before McGuane’s, in 1971. In this work on the lives of children whose parents were electrocuted in 1953 on a charge of giving America’s atomic secrets to ‘the Enemy,’ the son, Daniel Isaacson, asks himself: ‘Why is shooting straight a metaphor for honesty?’4
The gun politics of American business neurosis are exemplified in Louise Thorensen’s account of her husband, William Erness Thorensen III, son of the president of the Great Western Steel Corporation, thief, and assault-and-battery artist, who hired an assassin to kill his brother in 1965 and owned a seventy-ton private weapons arsenal. As the U.S. attorney said at the time of his arrest in 1967: ‘The guy has so many munitions, I don’t know whether the government should prosecute him or negotiate with him.’ His wife was acquitted of shooting him in self-defence.5 Thorensen’s mansion arsenal is not uncommon. The Minutemen of America, led by ‘maximum leader’ Robert Bolivar DePugh, is a national paramilitary organization of Right wing extremists who oppose any kind of liberalism, including the United Nations. It has affiliations with Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party and the Reverent Kenneth Goff’s militants in the Soldiers of the Cross organization. A round-up of the New England Minutemen in 1966 revealed one million rounds of rifle and small arms ammunition, 125 single shot and automatic rifles, ten dynamite bombs, chemicals for bomb-making, considerable radio equipment, five mortars, twelve .30 calibre machine guns, twenty-five pistols, 240 hunting, throwing, and machete knives and cleavers, one bazooka, six hand grenades, three grenade launchers, fifty 80-millimetre mortar shells, and a cross-bow with curare-tipped bolts.6 The coordinator was Milton Kellogg, a wealthy businessman with a huge private armoury. In 1967, Rich Lauchli, a founding member of the Minutemen, was arrested in Southern Illinois with a cache of over 1000 Thomson sub-machine guns. DePugh himself was discharged from the US Army Signal Corps, diagnosed as suffering from ‘psychoneurosis, mixed type, severe, manifested by anxiety and depressive factors and schizoid personality.’ He founded the Minutemen to counter ‘the International Communist conspiracy.’ His library includes Guevara, Giap, Mao, Grivas, H.C. Lea’s three-volume classic, Materials Towards a History of Witchcraft, the four-volume Department of State publication Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945, Major-General J.C. Fry’s Assault Battle Drill, and assorted works by Von Clausewitz, Nietzsche, and others. He claims he can quote Mein Kampf from memory, and the connection with the Nazi regime is, of course, standard in such cases.
The monthly journal, Guns, carries advertisements for models of many weapons, ranging from the Waffen-SS PPK, ‘favorite of all German officers in World War II,’ to the Israeli UZI submachine gun: ‘the most successful submachine gun on the market today.’ Guns also advertises firing version of historic American weapons, Nazi-Wehrmacht eagle pins, ‘detective holsters’ for off-duty policemen, SS-Panzer black field caps, and ‘authentic German issue’ Stahlheiem helmets complete with insignia including that of the Death’s Head SS. The April 1974 issue carried a full-colour centre-fold pin-up of John Wayne in McQ, on the back of which was a full-colour photograph of a woman’s left leg in black fish-net stockings. Her hand is just withdrawing a ‘.22 short calibre Cold Lady Deringer’ from her pink satin and lace garter. (A note adds: ‘only one “r” inDeringer on the modern Colts’). Derringer was a Philadelphia gunmaker who popularized this weapon with thieves, gamblers, and whores in die pre-Civil War years. Some of the guns were only 3J/2 inches long. Deringer did not take out a patent, so the type flourished. Guns not only roots heavily for the National Rifle Association and the Shooters Club of America, but also helps circulate Gestapo identity discs, ‘German lockblade survival knives,’ and every kind of weapon and war souvenir. It represents the main myth of masculinity in a society that insists on individual survival in a competitive free-for-all, and in which the main lethal combination is alcohol, a car, and a gun, in various arrangements.7 The FBI reports that of the 18,520 murders committed in the United States in 1972, 54 per cent were done with hand guns, 12 per cent with long guns, and 34 per cent by all other means. 31 per cent of the murders occured within families or between estranged lovers, and 41 per cent resulted from disputes and quarrels, mostly between people who knew each other. Criminals were responsible for about 28 per cent. In the same year, there were 2,900 accidental deaths from gunshot, 10,000 gun suicides, and 200,000 accidental gun injuries. A Gallup poll of 1972 showed two out of every five Americans in favour of a bill suggested by Congressman Michael Harrington and Senator Philip Hart: to bar hand guns except for the police, the military, licensed gun clubs, licensed security guards, and antique gun colletors. It has little chance of becoming law, for reasons that are part of the American social and individual imagination.
That the National Rifle Association can at any time instigate 500,000 or so letters opposing gun control has enabled Congress to permit city slaughter to continue. In 1974 murder rates rose to somewhere in the region of 1 in 10,000, two thirds with firearms and more than half with handguns. The Los Angeles Times reported a Chicago man who killed his brother recently because ‘he didn’t say happy birthday to me.’ To counter such permissive habits, the National Council to Control Handguns has been formed. The Christian Science Monitor estimates that a crime with a gun is committed every two minutes in America. But regulation of guns cannot be put through unless there is a radical change of attitude towards male machismo in the States. In 1974, Baltimore initiated a gun bounty of fifty dollars, with no questions asked. The weapons, mostly family-owned, poured into police headquarters: people Deeded a little quick money. Their state of mind remains unchanged. Guns are historically part of human rights in America.8
American gun culture originated in agrarian frontier society, but survives when only 5 per cent of the population lives from farming, which is itself now a highly industrialized business. America alone among modern industrial societies clings to the ‘unrestricted availability of guns’ as acceptable and safe.9 The Second Amendment to the Constitution says that ‘the right of tile people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed,’ but, contrary to widespread belief in the United States, this relates to the need for ‘a well-regulated militia’ and not an armed civilian population. In Richard Hofstadter’s words: ‘the state of the law StiU abets assassins, maniacs, impulsive murderers, and potential terrorists at the expense of the general population and civic order.’ In the 1974 article, ‘The Politics of Gun Control,’ Congressman Michael Harrington provides a succinct summary of the position today: G. Gordon Liddy’s advocacy of an ‘open, <5lear dialogue’ between the White House and the firearms lobby $a ‘mutually helpful conferences at the White House with Representatives of firearms organizations, manufacturers, and gun publications'; the squalid victories of the National Rifle Association (assets worth nineteen million dollars, and an annual budget of nearly eight million) and its allies; the large number of hunting and sporting publications (twenty one million Americans hunt, spending twenty seven million dollars on hunting licences and another twenty seven million on taxes for guns and ammunition); an estimate of sixty million households with guns; the social and political pressures the gun lobby is able to bring to bear over a wide range of issues; and the fact that, even though in eight Gallup polls carried out between 1959 and 1972, the proportion in favour of a police permit to buy guns never dropped below 68 per cent, no such legislation has ever been enacted.10 A South Dakota politician is reported as holding that ‘[o]ur constituency is very emotional about guns. Guns are a way of life and their attitude is: if you take away my guns, you’ll take away my wife next.’ A Wall Street Journal editorial sees gun ownership as a major cultural division: ‘The real pressure for gun control comes from cosmopolitan America, which sees it as the plainest common sense. The real resistance comes from the redoubts of bedrock America, which sees gun control as another symptom of encroachment by a new culture.’ The strategy of the gun lobby is therefore to play on nostalgia for the frontier, self-reliance, individual strength and ‘rugged’ masculinity (the key advertizing adjective in Guns), and on the fact that, as Richard Hofstadter puts it, millions of American boys learn that their graduation ‘from toy guns [to] the first real rifle of their own’ is a ‘veritable rite of passage that certifiefs] arrival at manhood.’ Gun-owners belong to a radical tradition of self-defended individualism in a mass society where they live under total surveillance and increasingly know it. As Chicago’s Deputy Police Superintendent observed in 1974: ‘What’s the use of city law when you can walk twenty feet across the city limits and buy an arsenal?’
How men are permitted to act within the state depends on the myth-model of self in society. In the historical development of the United States, based as it has been on a combination of Calvinist elitism and Darwinian natural selection which determines that the strongest are the fittest to survive, the competitive nature of both frontier and capitalist laissez-faire thrusts towards identity and conquest. Gunmen generate Americanism since they use technology to survive, either in a lawless culture or in a culture where the laws which are traditionally supposed to foster community are eroded by laws which command self-reliance. The hero becomes the lawless star permitted in an uncertain community, a figure not only permitted but needed to justify the system, to exemplify heroic reward for energy placed at the disposal of manhood and survival. Perry Miller’s The Life of the Mind in America shows how codified law was resisted during the nineteenth century. When it met on 12 October 1776, Jefferson’s committee decided against ‘a code, the text of which should become the law of the land’ because it would keep ‘the rights of property … in the air’ at the expense of criticism and litigation. Lawyers began to rule America from that date onwards, and, alongside them, gun-law and law-enforcement through weapons. It was argued almost from the outset that the chaos of common law was an analogue of the chaos of nature Mid that it neither should nor could be systematized. Arguments jfrom nature inferred that it was unnatural to be restricted by jjSecognizable and inherited legal system.11 James Fenimore ©ooper’s Natty Bumppo became the arch-resistance myth of Ifee anti-coders. The good gunman and the bad begin to blur. The gunman repeatedly becomes sheriff or marshal and a good Itoan becomes a gunman. In the urban western genre, private eye ifnd cop, killer and law-enforcement agent are identified in the Ambiguous roles of Bogart and Cagney, and today in the figure of Shaft, the Black inheritor of the uncodified West.