A few days ago, Barack Obama choked up pitching his recent executive actions aimed at gun owners. Here’s what “The Daily Show’s” Trevor Noah had to say about the episode (Esquire says it was “possibly the greatest monologue of his career so far”):
See that thing you’re feeling right now, that pain in your chest that comes from watching someone weep on national television, because he knows that society can do better than to file the shooting of children under ‘shit happens.’ That feeling is how you know that you’re human. No matter how opposed to Obama’s policies some people may be, or how cynical their politics, they have to at least acknowledge and respect the raw authenticity of that emotion. Or so you would think.
Nothing suggests to me that the president’s tears weren’t genuine — though arguing that it was inconceivable Obama would manipulate public opinion with a bit of feigned emotion is either naïve or, more likely, blinding bias. What’s more unfortunate is that the Esquire writer (and many others) were actually impressed by this vacuous lecturing.
Does raw emotion necessarily deserve “respect?” Tears have been shed for the worst tyrants, and “raw emotion” has fueled some of the most nefarious causes in history. It’s more likely this particular display of emotion has impressed people because it’s a rebuke of those “cynical” gun nuts. After all, if you’re not acting as liberals prescribe on the issue, you are at best apathetic and at worst, willfully evil. The president, for example, pulled out this well-worn canard for use last week: “If there’s even one thing we can do, if there’s just one life we can save — we’ve got an obligation to try.”
No we don’t. Because, yes, shit happens. It happens all the time, and it can be terrible. Sometimes these terrible things involve children and, tragically, there’s often nothing we can do. A free society can’t function if its overriding purpose is to ensure that every single person enjoys a risk-free existence. If Obama legitimately believes government has an obligation to try and save every single life, he would be calling for a 20-mile-per-hour speed limit on highways and a ban on trampolines, bathtubs, and skateboards.
The world gives us plenty to cry about, but free people innately (or otherwise) understand trade-offs. We weigh rights, utility, and many other factors before coming to a consensus on policy decisions, even if lives are at risk. Naturally, this doesn’t exclude us from balancing those concerns and making life safer for children — we do it all the time. But progressive utopianism doesn’t offer that balance; it can be perpetual mission creep. This reality fuels some of the conservative skepticism of even modest liberal proposals. There will always be another life to save from an “assault rifle,” always another tragedy to politicize.
When Anderson Cooper (who did an admirable job last night on CNN) challenged the president on the supposed modesty of the Left’s ambitions on guns, Obama laughed it off as conspiracy theorizing, an “imaginary fiction.” But he has yet to explain why he’s brought up Australia’s confiscatory policy as a model numerous times in the past or what, conceptually speaking, gun control looks like in its final, liberal form.
Liberals like to portray themselves as purveyors of common-sense reform who have absolutely no intention of incrementally making sure guns are incredibly difficult to own. That’s weird, since it’s exactly what every jurisdiction run by liberal Democrats tries to do. It’s not self-restraint, but the democratic process and constitutional restriction on state power that stop them from doing the same on a federal level.
Now to be fair, this discussion only really works if we pretend Obama’s gun proposals have the potential to save lives in the first place. At the CNN town hall on guns, Obama struck a more conciliatory tone — walking back his “if one life can be saved” contention — but offered nothing that would mitigate the problem. The “loopholes” he focused on are either things that are illegal already or not really loopholes. None of the recent mass shootings would have been prevented by his proposals.
So, as Obama’s impotent executive actions demonstrate, there’s little substantive change liberals can institute on guns via executive power (perhaps when they take back the Supreme Court this will change), and there’s no chance to achieve anything legislatively in the near future. So be prepared for more amped-up appeals to emotion meant to tenderize the electorate for the long haul. That’s what all the theater is about. The debate now is about what the debate will look like moving forward.