Like many people, I felt something in my brain snap when Trump won the 2016 election. Everything most of us thought was stable and unchanging about politics, history, and my role within it had been completely dislodged. But unlike many of you, I coped with it in an extremely unhealthy, unhelpful, and irritating way.
Struggling for some abstract notion of justice in a country ruled by a hulking reality-show clown now felt like a huge practical joke, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being part of the punchline. So I vowed to protect myself from disappointment and despair by retreating behind an impenetrable shield of irony. I decided to deflect every punishingly cruel and stupid action taken by our new president with a cruel and stupid joke.
This strategy worked for approximately four months. Then I was arrested for bringing nunchucks to the airport.
My crime was violating New York’s state-wide ban on the traditional Japanese martial-arts weapon, a law that was struck down in a widely reported federal ruling last month. Though this arcane criminal statute was originally passed by the state legislature to fight back against “muggers and street gangs” during the height of Kung Fu Fever in the 1970s, since then it’s been used only to prosecute the occasional libertarian martial arts instructor. But I wasn’t using nunchucks to mug New Yorkers or to teach Karate to aggressive children. I don’t know anything about martial arts, I have no interest in Japan, and I have never identified as libertarian, not even for a little bit in college. I am probably the only New Yorker to have ever been arrested for possessing nunchucks ironically (this Washington Post editorial writer doesn't count, because he was a genuine nunchaku enthusiast, whereas I was just a dumbass), and frankly, it’s all Donald Trump’s fault.
First, you should know that the nunchucks were a gift. My 25th birthday happened to be a couple weeks after the election, and at the time there was a lot of talk about marauding gangs of MAGA freaks terrorizing the city. People in all five boroughs were taking martial arts or self-defense classes. “In 2017, we’re all getting katanas,” I told my friends. “Let’s live in the sewers and throw ninja stars at Republicans. We’ve got to bash the fash with nun-chucks. Antifa Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
The problem with deadpan irony delivered in unfeeling monotone is that not everyone is going to get that you’re joking. For example, when I said this stuff to my roommate — a sweet and thoughtful person whose brain hasn’t been destroyed by excessive internet use — she didn’t think she was being presented with a comedy routine so much as an excellent idea for a birthday gift. It just so happened that my roommate’s friend was giving away nearly all their possessions before moving across the country; one of those possessions was a matte-black pair of stainless steel nunchucks.
When she handed me the nunchucks, I wasn’t sure what to do. I could have thanked her, taken them in my room, and shoved them deep under my bed where no one would ever see them. I could have promptly sold them on eBay to some internet nut job with a body-pillow girlfriend. I could have even apologized for confusing her and explained that I am a clumsy and irresponsible man who cannot be trusted with a deadly weapon of any kind.
You set out to protect yourself from utter despair and end up handing your shoelaces to a police officer so you can’t hang yourself in jail.
But instead of doing any of that, I just laughed. The nunchucks were funny — everything was funny now! And besides, there was no way of knowing that I wouldn’t be attacked by a gang of fascists on my home from work one day. It only made sense to prepare for the worst. So I gave her a big hug, tucked the nunchucks away my backpack, and completely forgot about them for about four months.
Trump’s inauguration came and went, and maybe it was the cold weather, but the brownshirts never bothered to come out and pummel me. That winter was a particularly long one in New York, with heavy snowstorms into mid-March. One of those storms happened on the same day that I was traveling to Los Angeles, delaying my 7 a.m. flight by five hours. By the time I got the notification that my departure time had been changed, my cab was already zooming towards JFK International.
When I got to there around 6:45 a.m., I was the only person in the TSA line with a big smile on his face. Most passengers would be annoyed by a delay like this, but I appreciated the lengthy barrier between me and my flight. I was in the security line fantasizing about passing the extra time by eating an appetizer meant for a group of two-to-four people at the airport Applebee’s, when I realized a few TSA agents had pulled my backpack off the conveyor belt and were now closely inspecting it.
“Hey sir,” I said. “Can I ask what’s going on with my bag?”
He reached into my backpack and pulled out the nunchucks that I hadn’t thought about since November. I looked on in horror as he held them out in front of me and dropped them, letting them clatter against the metal table that stood between us. It was the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life. They told me they would have to call the police, who were there in a matter of minutes. I was charged with possession of an illegal weapon in the fourth degree, handcuffed, and perp-walked past a throng of horrified fellow passengers.
I was confused, terrified, and starving. Worst of all, I looked awful — I hadn’t shaved or cut my hair in weeks, and I was wearing an old “Sanders 2016” T-shirt under thrift-store fatigues. I looked like Travis Bickle if he’d gone to Middlebury instead of the Marines.
Unlike many other people who are unjustly suspected of intent to commit violence at airports (read: not white), I got off easy. I was sentenced to 32 hours of community service, more specifically picking up trash on the side of the road. Contrary to what you might expect, working for the Queens County Sanitation Department isn’t so bad. Work started early in the morning, so the heat didn’t really kick in until the tail end of every shift. Our chaperone would drive us to Burger King for lunch every afternoon. Much of the debris from deadly car crashes you see on the highway shoulder is a lot easier to pick up than it looks. Still, 32 hours was plenty of time for me to reflect on everything that had brought me to that point. Yes, my impenetrable shield of irony had made it somewhat easier for me to watch the news, but it had also forced me to put on a suit and apologize to a judge for owning nunchucks. Despite my best efforts, I’d become the punchline to my own joke.
Contrary to what a lot of left/liberal #Resistance types would have you believe, a sense of humor is helpful and even necessary for parsing our political landscape, especially now. But if that sense of humor isn’t grounded in principles of any kind — if it exists simply to refer to itself — it can quickly start to get away from you. You lose your sense of what the joke is, why you’re telling it, and who the target is supposed to be. You set out to protect yourself from utter despair and end up handing your shoelaces to a police officer so you can’t hang yourself in jail.
Do I wish that last month’s federal ruling on nunchucks had come just a bit earlier, thereby preventing any of this from ever happening to me? I’m not totally certain — in a sense, the whole ordeal helped me to fix the part of my brain that 2016 broke. It forced me to recognize that there is far more shame in ignoring what’s wrong with the world than there is in earnestly trying to fix it. No matter how vulnerable I might feel participating in American democracy, it can’t come close to what I felt while being handcuffed in full view of a crowded Cinnabon.
All that being said, I’m glad that one of New York’s stupidest and most arbitrary laws has finally been abolished. I have no idea how many New Yorkers have been charged with illegal nunchuck possession over the years, but I do know that I’m probably the only one who deserved to be punished for it.