Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Michael Ian Black isn't known for shooting guns. He's better known as the actor and comedian who's character in Wet Hot American Summer had a hippy, wedding-like ceremony with his same-sex partner.
Which is to say, Black is known for being more to the left of the dial. That's true of his politics, too. A self-described liberal, Black always shied away from guns—that is, until he met Meghan McCain. Yes, that Meghan McCain, the MSNBC contributor and daughter of a certain former presidential candidate from Arizona.
"There wasn't a lot of gunplay in Hillsborough, New Jersey," where he grew up, explained Black during an appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show Thursday with his conservative counterpart, McCain.
The two have written a new book together, affectionately (and irreverently) titled, America, You Sexy B****. It's about finding common ground with those who are supposed to be your political opposites—which is just what the authors did. One of the ways Black and McCain bonded was when she took him shooting with her brothers in Arizona.
"I'd never fired a gun before," Black continued. "I went to summer camp when I was 9 or 10, and they had a rifle range, and I objected on conscientious grounds. I was that kind of kid."
He was that kind of adult, too. But after a few pulls of the trigger with Meghan McCain, he was converted. "I loved it. I’m now a huge supporter of the Second Amendment."
Black said that McCain opened his eyes not just to gun culture, but also military culture, and even subjects like the conservative argument against health care reform (which Black now understands better, without fully embracing). She "absolutely" influenced his politics, he said.
McCain picked up a few things from Black, too.
"I don’t think I realized how I was stereotyping Democrats and liberals when I first met them," she said. "I was sort of stereotyping Michael before I met him, that I was somehow more patriotic or loved America in a way he could never understand. Then I realized I was doing that actually a lot to people."
Really, we all do. The world is a complicated and messy place, full of complicated and messy people. It's much easier for us to think of each other as Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, than to confront the reality that it isn't nearly as simple as that. Do those words do any justice to describing our personal politics? Can we boil down all of our opinions about the proper way to live, to govern, and to be governed into a single, clunky word that probably doesn't mean the same thing to any two people?
"The label doesn't mean that much," Black affirmed. "That's what we're finding all across the country. These labels, Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, are more or less media constructions that serve a narrative, but don't reflect the way people actually live."
For that reason, it's important for people to revisit a quaint tradition in human history: Talking to one another.
"Michael sort of showed me how I was behaving," McCain said. "When people who were proud Obama supporters would say so in the first 10 minutes, he was like, you completely shut down and kind of turn into a snot a little bit."
Black said he came away from writing the book with a new theory about what makes Democrats and Republicans different.
"My intuitive sense about Republicans and Republicanism is that Democrats are afraid for the future, and Republicans are afraid for the present," Black told Brian Lehrer. "My sense is a lot of fear in the Republican mindset about what's currently occurring and how to prevent some sort of apocalypse they see coming every day of their life. That means a constant march against tyranny, a constant watch against forces of evil. To me, that's paranoia; to Meghan, maybe not."
Which brings us back to gun ownership: Does this explain the right's affinity for firearms?
"For me it's all about self-defense and protection," McCain said. "I just feel like it's about defending ourselves if something could happen."
"You're terrified of zombies," Black added.
"I'm terrified of zombies," McCain agreed, laughing. "It's a joke, but there's part of me that's like, if something happens in this country, if there's a terrorist attack, I'm gonna be able to defend myself and I'm not going to go down without a fight. Michael thinks that's paranoid. I think it's patriotic."
It's a perspective neither McCain nor Black would have if they hadn't gone shooting together in the first place.