Guns and ED: How American Men Are Proving That Freud Was RightPosted: March 1, 2013
In a recent “New Rules” segment, Bill Maher made an insightful observation. He related American men’s obsession with firearms to a sense of inadequacy in the realm of “traditional” men’s roles. It is not only the gun cult that reflects this experience of inadequacy. Maher also sees the obsession with sports and exaltation of militarism as expressions of lost virility. Both sports and militarism allow men (who are neither athletes nor soldiers) to vicariously experience the physical competition that is associated with primal masculinity. In addition, Maher draws a correlation between an increase in men’s sense of inadequacy, the obsession with guns, the growth in male aggressive sublimation, and the increased marketing of products directed at “Low T” (low testosterone), which he mocks as the next step in the decline of male potency first signaled by the need for products that treat erectile dysfunction (ED).
Whether intentionally or not, Maher is drawing on the theory of psychosexual development and neurosis developed by Sigmund Freud. Although his theories have been rejected and arguably discredited by most contemporary psychologists, Freud displayed insights that, in my opinion, reach beyond the narrow explanatory capacities of current research methods. Freud was preeminently a social and cultural philosopher who saw human development in the broadest evolutionary context. Our physical bodies and our biological needs form the basis of our development into the mature, rational beings on whom human progress depends. We are inherently sexual; but human sexuality is purely biological only in its origin (our evolutionary impulse to reproduce our species). As sociocultural beings, we experience sexuality by representing it to ourselves and other members of our culture. We may do this consciously – through awareness of our bodily sensations, the object(s) of our desire, and our intended actions, and through intentional representation (verbal, visual, or other) of sexuality. But we may also represent sexuality unconsciously – through misrecognition of bodily sensations, misdirection of desire to false objects, and misrepresentation of our intentions (to ourselves as well as others), through engagement in actions that we believe to be unrelated to our sexual predicament, and through representations of our sexual situation that draw upon distracting symbols – objects whose meaning (Freud would say “latent content”) is sexual, as is their visual and linguistic (symbolic) form, but which are arguably nonsexual in their conventional designations (“manifest content”).
For Freud, the biological and the cultural are intertwined, as are the individual and the social/historical. All of the human biological processes and functions are represented through cultural symbols. Some of these symbols are apparent to the majority of people in the culture. Some were clearly understood in terms of their biological/psychological meaning in earlier times, when humans lived in closer proximity to nature and its demands. However, as we became more “civilized,” that is, residing in an artificial environment with ritualized and highly structured social roles, we became alienated from ourselves as “thinking animals.” We struggled to contain our sexual and aggressive urges for the sake of an orderly society and hid from ourselves the sexual and aggressive elements of our nature, confronting them in the mechanisms that Freud labeled denial, repression, projection, reaction formation and sublimation. We can simply deny the sensations, emotions, and intentions that create conflict and distress within us. We can choose to be unaware of them. We can attribute them to other people, whom we consider more appropriate embodiments of the qualities that we reject in ourselves. We can assume an intellectual posture of positive regard for qualities we actually despise, as if, in so doing, we can change our basic emotional and rational judgment. Or, we can translate the unacceptable elements of our interior struggle into socially acceptable representations, imposing form on our neuroses, while transforming their energy into objects and functions that the culture can appropriate into is store of beneficial resources.
The universality of so-called phallic symbols is an example of Freud’s ideas. Penis-shaped objects are arguable everywhere: towers, steeples, aircraft, cars, and, yes, firearms. The association of all of the above with masculine energy is a given in our culture and in most other cultures. The importance of male generative power is obvious in statuary and other art depicting men – both mortal and divine – with erect penises, as is found in all cultures. This generativity is not limited to the production of offspring, although this is supremely important. It represents the power to maintain the world and sustain culture. It is the power that produces abundant crops and victory in war. It is symbolized in the arrow, the spear, the plow, the lightning bolt, and the cloud shrouded mountain. It is a totem: the horse, the goat, the mule, the cock.
The association of the penis with weapons is ancient. The shape and function of firearms, from the earliest muskets to the most advanced rocket launcher, remains phallic. In the army there was for years the standing joke, directed at new recruits, about the difference between “your gun” and “your weapon.” Terms for ejaculation often include references to “shooting,” and a man with a lack of viable sperm is said to be “firing blanks.” So it is not unreasonable to see a connection between American men’s experience of their own diminished virility and the proliferation of firearms in American society. Maher joked that men are no longer hunters and gatherers. Women have taken over both roles: “It’s called shopping.” The independence of women, economically, but especially sexually, is also a contributor to male insecurity. The current recession has been brutal for families and, while women have suffered major economic setbacks, the loss of employment, or at least job security, has been hard on men’s ability to define themselves as “breadwinners.” Most men have not translated their frustration into acts of violence against their wives or female companions. But most men are also unable or unwilling to allow themselves to direct their anger toward the material source of their distress – the class of corporate managers who have prospered at their expense and continue to block their access to economic wellbeing while enriching themselves.
As a result, the outlets for their frustration are vicarious acts of masculine self-assertion – combat video games and televised sports – and the one possession that allows a man to assume the imagined role of protector – of family, of values, of freedom (however defined) – a gun. Guns symbolize the power of the generator and sustainer; the gun owner can protect his family from both the physical threats of a hostile and chaotic outside world and the moral threats intruding from an alien culture that has lost contact with its spiritual foundation and now threatens to undermine all that he and his ancestors have built. That the threat is misidentified indicates the power of the defense mechanisms described by Freud and their role in maintaining the subjugation of the individual to the society, or more accurately, those exercising power within the society.
While gun ownership has increased, the threat of loss of virility has also increased. Television regularly presents images of men struggling to maintain their sexual potency. Viagra and Cialis commercials abound. (Radio ads promote the services of the Boston Medical Group and a company the sells a generic version the “miracle blue pill” at low cost, shipped in a plain wrapper.) The men featured in the TV commercials – purported sufferers from ED – are not the stereotypical aging retiree: wrinkled, balding, potbellied, and out of shape. These men appear to be in their fifties, fit, confident, at their height of their powers in their professions. It is as if one day they opened the mail, found their AARP membership card, and by bedtime they were unable to achieve or sustain an erection. It is also worth noting that the wives in these commercials appear to be in their early forties, slender, fit, and sexy. The voiceover in some of the ads implies that the wife is ready for sex, and the husband had better be ready to meet her needs. Or what? What is the consequence of not being able to satisfy his wife sexually?
After years of successfully eradicating opposition from the political classes, the National Rifle Association (NRA) in recent years launched a hard-sell campaign against a non-existent threat to the Second Amendment rights of its members and implicit constituency. The object of their appeal to unconditional dread was the newly elected president, Barack Obama. “Obama is coming for your guns!” was the rallying cry of the arms lobby. Despite his statements to the contrary, and the evidence of his actions throughout his first term, in the 2012 election campaign Obama was again characterized as an enemy of individual freedom, with a secret plan to disarm America’s lawful gun owners. The President’s response to the massacre of 20 school children and 6 teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School intensified the hysteria of the NRA leadership and their chorus of political and media allies. After Obama’s reelection, gun sales soared as fearful gun advocates rushed to beat the inevitable assault by the Federal Government on their constitutional right to bear arms. While the majority of Americans are amenable to background checks, closing the “gun show loophole,” and limiting the sale of “military type” weapons, the advocates of firearms fetishism argued that any concession to regulation was the beginning of the sure path to complete subjugation.
It is impossible to understand the nexus of guns and male anxiety without considering the role of race. Barack Obama is Black. He is youthful, tall, fit, and attractive. Women like him; he received the majority of women’s votes in his 2008 election victory and in his 2012 reelection. He is married to a woman who combines beauty, intellect, charisma, and physical prowess. He is the devoted father of two charming daughters. And he is the commander of the most powerful military machine in human history. And of course he wants to take away the guns from White men – an act of symbolic emasculation that exacts Black men’s imagined revenge for real acts of White sexually-tinged violence, ranging from the lynchings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, to the “Disco Demolition” of 1979. The gun cult is only one manifestation of a larger malaise: the nostalgia for a mythical young, virile America in which the privilege of White men is unquestioned; in which women are appropriately chaste, dependent, servile, and decorative; in which people of color and those with alternative sexual orientations crouch in the shadowy margins of society, denied its most vaunted benefits; in which the machinery of “defense” maintains a world order in which Americans enjoy the “blessings” of freedom and prosperity while most of the world is crushed under the weight of hunger political oppression. The failure of this mythical America to materialize has resulted in a flight into predictable defense mechanisms: regression into childlike tantrums and abject dependence on unquestioned authority (Fox News, etc.); the projection onto the historical victims of violence, including castration, the desire to perform symbolic castration by taking away “our guns;” the projection onto the victims of sexual predation, whose supposedly dangerous sexuality must by controlled by laws and police power, the desire to take “our” women; the seemingly natural identification with the real oppressor, whose interests his victims force themselves to believe are their own, and whose bidding they will willingly do if it gives them an opportunity to assert illusory power. The aptly named “Obama Derangement Syndrome” can be understood to be, at least in part, a psychosexual disorder, common to modern men struggling to survive contemporary capitalism in multicultural societies.
I do not believe that we will soon see ordinary gun owners taking up arms in reenactments of the events of Ruby Ridge and Waco. On the contrary, the gun cult is rooted in fantasy. It is a fantasy that is unique to the American experience, drawing upon the contradictions of American capitalism, the false promise of success through individualism, the power invested in the idea of race, and the inevitable abandonment of skillfully manipulated true believers by the cynical powers behind the capitalist curtain. If this fantasy has a sexual component, it is likely to be most evident through the Freudian lens that captures the dual phenomenon of sexual impotence and the quest for potency through more, and more powerful, guns.