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Back in 2015 a friend of mine, a teacher, asked on Facebook: “Can anyone recommend me something to read about the far-right movement? I need to understand why it is so attractive to young men.”
The world has started to turn into a very wrong direction for liberal, tolerant, and empathic people who needed to understand what causes hatred towards coloured people and minorities. And the crazy train has not shown signs of stopping. People in animal costumes attacked the White House, conspiracy theorists speak their truth, and fake news spreads faster than forest fire during hot weather. Mainstream media and formal education are evil for many who believe instead in doing their own research. It’s postmodernism gone wrong – we don’t have one narrative, one truth. One effect has been enduring a madman and his minions who believe they can create “alternative facts” that the rest of us should respect.
Even if you unfollow everyone who makes racist comments and curate your friends carefully, you still have to meet people with different views: family, the uncle who votes for racists, a boyfriend of your relative who thinks he knows the cure for most mental health problems. We cannot argue with them. They pity us, think we are not “there” yet, think we are blinded by science and cannot see the big truth behind it. Trying to change them or educate them can be frustrating and, in many cases, impossible. But what we can do is to try to understand them, try to get to the roots of extreme right-wing thinking and into the mind of conspiracy theorists. Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun by Jeff Chon lifts the curtain and shows us the weird world where these broken souls live.
The book is no easy beach read. Be prepared to be introduced to characters you hope to never have to deal with in real life. Of course, just like in life, you’ll also meet lovely and compassionate people, people who truly want to help, for example the mums of the men who point guns at other people’s heads. The nice people in this book are mostly female. As one woman says: “They didn’t talk about us at all, just Dave and the Asian guy. Isn’t this our story, too? Is anyone even going to remember us in this?” Good people, as often happens, go unnoticed in the shadows of evil and sick minds.
Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun is like an onion. There are many different characters, settings, and a lot of bouncing between past and present. But in the centre, we have a father and his two sons. Father is a religious leader who predicted the end of the world, which didn’t really come. What happened was 9/11, and that worked to his benefit. He gained fame and money as a man who predicted this terrible event. The story concentrates on his sons: Scott and Brian. The main character is Scott, who goes to a shopping mall to reveal a huge paedophilia conspiracy. Scott wants to show the world what he thinks he has found out: that there is a secret organisation in the basement of the mall that robs and abuses children. When he witnesses a guy taking hostages in the mall and kills him, he becomes the titular good guy with a gun.
Through Scott’s story, Chon shows us why and how some people become conspiracy theorists. Taking a closer look, we see how he is just a regular disliked boy who craves peers attention and a somewhat annoying know-it-all. So what does Scott do? He takes urban legends and recounts them as if they are something that happened to him and to people he knows. When he notices that this gets him attention, his stories become wilder and crazier. When discussing the reasons for the United States’ invasion of Iraq, he concludes that it was for oil and says, “Sometimes we have to dig deeper than what media feeds us. The research is out there. We just have to look for it.” In the context, his words sound innocent and smart. But for Scott, it’s just the beginning in his propensity for connecting random things – as, for example, how certain shooters have been fans of The Catcher in the Rye.
In psychology, finding patterns and meanings in otherwise unconnected and meaningless things is called apophenia, and that seems to be what drives conspiracy nuts like Scott, as exemplified by a brilliant scene where he tries to calm himself down and make himself sleepy by watching YouTube videos about conspiracies. “For the next three hours, he watched video after video – new knowledge was gained, and old knowledge was validated – until he finally came to the end of his rabbit hole.”
His little brother Brian, in the meantime, gets involved with a group of teenagers who drugs and rapes girls. Through Brian, we can see two interesting things. First, he doesn’t touch the girls, convincing himself that he, just like his father and brother, is also a good guy. Second, he wants to feel sadness for the girls, but while looking at their naked drugged bodies, all he sees is his own pain and distress.
The other big theme in the book is just as curious as the conspiracy theme – far-right extremism. A pretty classic story rolls out in front of our eyes about a skinny wimpy guy who was bullied all his life. His first friend introduces him to a far-right organisation. After that, he starts to work out, and he learns the secret code and rules between the members of the group. They want to take back the power from RadFem, a collective that that the men blame for making them weaker. They put all the blame on The Catcher in the Rye and the counterculture, believing that Salinger’s novel started the counterculture, which led to children who turned their backs on tradition and their parents. What for some is liberation is for them a disaster that ruined the old order. They want structure and think that women’s rescue centres turn women into radical feminists. Instead, they believe, women should be taught how to find a moral man. It sounds just like another cult with a charismatic leader – only there’s no Jesus or God but a white man who has lost his power and wants to take it back.
It’s curious how all of them – the conspiracy theorist Scott, his brother Brian, and his ex-girlfriend’s far-right son Blake – see violence as a solution. In Scott’s case, he needs a gun to reveal the truth. Brian, an abused youngster, deals with his own pain by looking at someone else getting hurt. And Blake sees violence as his mission and revenge. Except violence causes a destructive chain reaction that begets more violence.
The way the story is told is as fascinating as the topics it covers. The central event – the shooting in the mall – is told multiple times from different point of views and different times. It represents well our post-truth era: Everybody, including Scott as well as a journalist who wrote a book about it and a Korean woman, has his or her own truth and the right to have an opinion. Each time we revisit the story, we have more information. The narrative moves on, and we know more about the characters; but until the end, we cannot be sure what exactly happened because we were not there and can only go by what others have witnessed.
Another masterful stroke is how the author shows us his characters. At first, Scott might seem crazy to the reader. Then we get to know his ex-girlfriend and start to doubt our initial perspective. Maybe his ex-girlfriend is crazier than Scott in that she believes even crazier stories?
As a reader of Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun, you’re tricked into not knowing what to believe or who to like, and that’s the strength of Chon’s writing. He throws the story and characters at us to mull over and make sense of. We have to put the story together by ourselves, find the meaning. The book, as I’ve said, is not an easy read, but it gives you much to reflect on. The situations and characters will linger with you, hopefully helping you to make a bit more sense of the world around us. And I’m happy to now have something to recommend to the teacher who wanted to understand the far-right movement.
Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun
By Jeff Chon
Saggin Meniscus Press, 258 pages