Here in the UK, the dreadful shooting in Tucson, though powerfully tragic, is a distant atrocity, far away in cultural as well as geographical terms. We look on horrified through that odd hue all American TV footage shares and in particular, however sad we feel, I think sometimes the distance wrongly allows us to accept our lack of understanding. Even the accents on local reporters accentuates that gap. It has similar resonance to the murder of Salmaan Taseer in Pakistan – although rendered bigger news by the dramatic dominance of the USA over our culture (and by how awfully commonplace ideological murder is in Pakistan).
Reeling today, like everyone, I’m convinced it is far too easy for us to sigh and dismiss Tucson, Arizona as some near-alien place of hate-fuelled violence, to fall once again into the heartbreaking pajorative British trap of believing this is ‘normalcy’, that “Americans are stupid and/or dangerous”. You can smell hints of it in even the most sympathetic or liberal of UK newscasting today. Especially when even America itself, hurt and trying to gather perspective, is describing Arizona in such generalised, very negative terms.
This is so damn wrong. Today I need to write this: I’m a middle-class lefty Brit and (at least until the Coalition this year was catalyst for a protest rennaissance) I have long found far more opportunity to talk politics, ideology and social issues in measured terms in the USA than here in the UK, especially with younger people. Whatever their background (though I accept I come into contact with more white, privileged people than other kinds), in my experience it is a complete fallacy to write off yanks – including those away from the two coasts – as dumb or disinterested or isolationist. It is a sceptical (and stupid) mis-reading of sincerity, ambition and indeed cultural language.
And I need to write this: Tucson, Arizona is one of the most beautiful, welcoming cities I’ve ever visited. I haven’t been a lot, just passed through all-too-briefly, in the usual way as touring musician type. Yet for me it is the city of the Airplane Graveyard; beautiful little underground collective-run party shows; of Calexico; being driven up into incredible local desert by publisher Dan; of servers in Mexican cafés who hug spirit into you like a big sister when you leave their diner (in an Amma sort of way, not a Milf sort of way). In San Francisco I gigged with lush, clever prog-folk band Seashell Radio from Tucson – who immediately, unhesitatingly offered strangers a place to stay the second they found out we were coming to town. Albeit in a remote Internet-nurtured way, these are people and places I love and miss.
But I won’t also forget one aftershow conversation in Tucson with three young punk guys, last year – especially vivid and uncomfortable reflected in the light of this tragedy. They were atheist, anti-war, anti-racist and at their core socially progressive. Not trots/commies as we’d understand it – not so tax friendly, much closer to a Libertarian viewpoint – but they had no time for (no interest in) the GOP, religious extremism, FoxNews, big business or any of the reactionary mush. Yet at the same time, a key issue of liberty for them was the Second Amendment: the entire crew each owned guns, could use them comfortably and passionately believed in their right to carry one for self defence. This wasn’t boasting to the Limey – just one part of a broader conversation – what did make them boast excitedly was the bands they’d seen and roadtrips they’d done. The gun stuff was matter-of-fact, an attempt to explain. It was the single clearest social difference I saw between these Tucson guys and, say, southern Californian stoner kids of similar attitude and taste, who’ve (dickheads aside) never seen a gun in real life except on the belt of a cop or school guard.
I don’t claim any generalised presumptions about this, it was just one conversation at one gathering. And I remember being shocked and even, to a certain extent at the time, persuaded – if not of the rightness of it then at least of their sincerity and belief in the ‘right’ without ill intent.
Tucson is not ‘to blame’. Deep down I know Palin, Beck, Limbaugh and O’Reilly aren’t ‘to blame’ either, although the cumulative effect of FoxNews’ relentless rabble-rousing rhetoric and persistent repetition of violent metaphor while encouraging direct action needs urgently addressing. No, it is the availability of, love for and culturally endemic pervasiveness of guns that is ‘to blame’, in as much as it is the major fulcrum that turns anger and murderous intent in disturbed and alienated people into actual murder.