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Think the gas stoves chaos is trivial? Think again

Conservatives claim to hate cancel culture but with their latest hysteria over household appliances, Republicans are literally searching for something to be enraged about

Noah Berlatsky
Thursday 12 January 2023 01:19 GMT

Gas stoves can exacerbate childhood asthma, increase risks of respiratory problems, and contribute to climate change. To protect people and the planet, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is researching gas emissions in stoves and exploring new ways to address health risks.

There had been a suggestion earlier in the week that the commission was looking at banning gas stoves – something it ruled out on Wednesday. Conservatives promptly lost their minds.

“You will have to pry my gas stove from my cold dead hands,” Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire fumed on twitter. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton darkly warned, “Democrats are coming for your kitchen appliances.” The rhetoric only escalated further after New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed to a study linking emissions from gas stoves to “reduced cognitive performance.”

On the one hand, this all seems exceedingly silly. How many Republicans were sitting at home brooding about their undying love of the poisonous fumes from their gas stoves last week, before the administration pointed out the dangers? Would Matt Walsh really rather die than switch to a stove less likely to harm his children?

Silly or not, though, the GOP’s pivot to gas stove absolutism is not exactly surprising. The right claims to hate identity politics. But they love creating ad hoc identities around consumer products as a way to build narratives of victimization. The GOP is literally searching for stuff to be enraged about.

The immediate predecessor of the gas stovepocalypse is right-wing firearm panic. The quip about prying his stove from Walsh’s “cold dead hands” is a reference to a 2000 speech by then head of the NRA Charlton Heston. Heston promised to die before allowing the federal government to take his guns.

Republicans for 20 years and more have treated guns as a central symbol of GOP and white identity politics. Gun owners are always under threat from a federal government supposedly intent on stripping them of their toys, which are not just toys but icons of virile Americanness and of a willingness to murder on behalf of that toy/virility/Americanness.

While guns are the most obvious example of consumer product based reactionary identity, they’re hardly alone. In 2014 and 2015, conservatives generated a powerful toxic male identity movement around video games. Gamergate was an online activist movement which claimed to be a call for ethics in video game journalism. In fact, the movement’s members were angry at critics like Anita Sarkeesian for discussing misogynist tropes in video games. Sarkeesian was deluged with death threats and forced to flee her home.

Gamergate didn’t really disappear. It just morphed into a broader, floating, ongoing online attack on anyone who dared to challenge white male dominance in cultural spaces. In 2016, after the release of a female led reboot of the classic 80s movie Ghostbusters, one of the film’s stars, Leslie Jones, was targeted by Gamergate-associated racist trolls for a barrage of racist and sexist harassment. She eventually deleted her twitter account. Big-budget superhero films led by women or POC stars — such as 2018’s Black Panther and 2019’s Captain Marvel — are routinely downvoted on review aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes.

Most of the downvoters haven’t seen the film. They just believe superhero films should be an inherently white, male, domain, and object to anyone attempting to make movies that center, or acknowledge, anyone else. There’s an obvious connection to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ draconian censorship diktats aimed at schoolbooks discussing racism or LGBT issues.

Compared to DeSantis’ direct attack on marginalized people, the gas stove freedom movement seems relatively abstract and disconnected from bigotry, or indeed from logic of any kind.

But the dynamics of gas stove absolutism are familiar. Republicans, as the party of older affluent white men, are not actually oppressed as Republicans in any meaningful way. But they feel they are losing ground in a changing world and that their absolute privilege and prestige is under attack. So they use stuff they buy and consume to symbolize their own ersatz, nostalgic identity, which they claim is under assault.

Guns, video games, superhero movies, gas stoves — in themselves, they aren’t important, and aren’t even connected. But anything you buy and own and feel is yours can become a stand-in for a free-floating feeling of dispossession and grievance. The GOP thinks that if they don’t have all the stuff, then they are being robbed. As a result, any stuff can be used as a representation of their anger and (imaginary) victimization.

If Republicans can turn gas stoves into a culture war battleground, they can turn anything into a culture war battleground. And that means there’s not much point in surrendering. Gas stoves may seem trivial. Conflict-averse politicians may look at the political blowback and say, “Hey, stoves aren’t worth it; we have more important things to fight about.”

But if you don’t take a stand on stoves, the GOP will just move onto something else — video games, toilets, arugula, maybe beanbags, who knows? There will always be another outrage over products you can own, because the GOP’s goal is to own, control, and dominate everything. Making stoves safer is a worthwhile goal. So is reminding the GOP that everything isn’t theirs just because they say it is.

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