Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Freedom in America: as plain as the nose on your face

Severe Concomitant Esotropia






















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The most obvious things are often the hardest to see: for example, without a mirror it is impossible to see the nose on your face... unless of course you suffer from severe concomitant esotropia, in which case you hardly see anything else but the nose on your face.  Much of American political discourse is victim to both mirrorlessness and mental esotropia.

Although the Tucson shooter had no known political affiliation, because a congresswoman was attacked, the Tucson massacre is being treated as a political act. In a sense I think it is it is one, but only for what it reveals about the contradictory pull of the American reality on the America's subconscious.

Some might say that, since the perpetrator of the massacre is insane, his act has no meaning in itself, simply the "tale told by an idiot". This would be missing the point. Insane people's acts do have meaning, but the meanings are private, dark, obscure and must be read as metaphors, as in the interpretation of dreams.  They live in their dream world and perhaps their dream world is not so different from ours, differing mostly in that we only visit that world in our sleep or under the influence of drugs and they spend their tortured lives inhabiting it.  Their life is a "daymare", so to speak. Perhaps we could learn about our own hidden darkness by studying his visible darkness. 

Violent fantasies spring from the frustration of powerlessness. 

Jared Loughner  dreamed of the power of a gun, he dreamed of killing, the ultimate power:  darkened living rooms and movie theaters all over America are filled with men, women and even children, who dream the same violent dreams, every day, for hours on end... The difference: Jared Loughner's dream came true.

As insane as Jared Loughner is, there are hundreds of people in Tucson even crazier than he is... the thousands of people who went to the "Cross Roads of the West" gun show in Tucson the Saturday after the massacre... business was brisk. That is what is unique... not the killings themselves.

The United States is not alone among developed nations in having an occasional citizen run amok with a gun. Just the other day in the Catalonian town of Olot, here in Spain,  we had such an incident.

An older man was about to lose his job and have the bank foreclose on him, (sound familiar?) So he took his rabbit gun, loaded it with buckshot, went into a cafe and shot his boss and his boss's adult son dead, then got into his car and drove to the bank, where he shot dead the bank manager and an employee that he found there, and then he calmly went to the police station and turned himself in. He will now be lodged and fed by the Spanish taxpayer. None of his neighbors ever considered the killer crazy, but all were in agreement that he had always been a mean and nasty son of a bitch... America has no monopoly of those.

What makes American gun violence rather unique is the type and free availability of the weapons we employ when we run amok and more unique than that is the wide public demand that military grade weapons be kept available to all, despite frequent massacres. 

It is hard to carry out a massacre on the order of Tucson or Virginia Tech with only a double barreled shotgun.  Glock  automatics and assault rifles are not freely available in Spain and  I don't think very many Spanish people would like them to be. They do not feel that their "freedom" is endangered by not being allowed to own automatic pistols and assault rifles. 

More than examining the fevered brain of Jared Loughner, I am interested in examining why so many Americans feel they need to carry such deadly weapons in order to be "free". Of what? From what? For what? Are they right to feel threatened?  If so, why?

Obviously they do feel their freedom is threatened and depending on how they define the word freedom, they may have reason to feel so.

There are over 300M Americans living in a military juggernaut occupying a huge space that spans a continent: the world's most populated country after China and India.  This enormous collective is a grab bag of ethnic and religious origins and quite a few of the inhabitants are recent arrivals who have only a tenuous grasp of the official language.

However disagreeable this might seem,  when there are so many different people, impersonal rules and laws have to govern every aspect of the relations and conflicts between total strangers. Nothing can be left to chance. The larger and more heterogeneous the collective, the greater number of rules needed and the greater the severity needed to enforce them. I have talked to Spanish bankers who have been operating banks in the USA and they are amazed at the mind boggling quantities of rules and regulations and the armies of lawyers you need to do even the simplest things. The fear of litigation is always in the room.  Nothing can be taken as "understood",  everything has to be on paper.

Thinking this over, it occurred to me that the US was an extreme example of an enormous collective of unrelated strangers.  A natural candidate for being a micromanaged dictatorship. What seemed strange, when seen under this prism, was that at the same time this collective  maintains a stubborn fiction of great and untrammeled individualism and personal liberty.

I say "fiction", because the USA is a country where you can get sixteen years in jail for stealing a candy bar, where the prisons are full of people sent there for possessing small quantities of cannabis, where the death penalty still exists... you name it. Certainly the difference in punishment for those who caused the financial crisis and those who steal candy bars, seems more in keeping with a repressive and punitive kleptocracy then a land where supposedly "all men are created equal".

Of course if we look at that phrase, we have to remember that is was written by a man who owned African slaves and lived on land stolen from the Native-Americans, therefore it might be worth the trouble to subject it to a severe exegesis, because it is not truly clear what a person in Thomas Jefferson's position and time actually meant when he used the word, "men" or the word, "all" or the word "equal" or for that matter even what he meant when used the words "created" and "are".

Sometimes the ringing words of classic texts are less sonorous when rendered into the common speech of today. If for example, you compare a text from the King James Bible with the same text in the New American Standard Bible, you'll get an idea of what I  am talking about.  But, more than that, under the pressures of its immense size and diversity, American English seems to have deteriorated rapidly since the end of the Second World War, until many examples of contemporary American public speech are so filled with cryptic euphemisms that they seem products of a Google translation from the Japanese. I could write an entire rant about the newly coined euphemism, "inappropriate behavior", which appears to cover everything from picking your nose to child molesting.

Fortunately some Americans have not lost the ability to write simple, clear, declarative sentences. Here is how Paul Krugman describes the idea some Americans have of freedom:
One side of American politics (...) believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty. Paul Krugman
Using Krugman to help us translate the Declaration of Independence into contemporary right wing American English; the following phrase, written, signed and promulgated by slave holders, which reads, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness", might be freely rendered in Tea Party speak as, "By God, everybody like me has certain privileges which cannot be taken away: you aren't allowed to kill us, we can do anything we want, and we are here to have a good time."

I believe their paranoia is justified. Reality is not on their side. DS

1 comment:

Publius said...

Great post.
I've thought for some time that a "diverse" society really only works under something like the Hapsburg monarchy: you need a strong monarch to rule a diverse set of ethnic groups who would otherwise be at each other's throats.

When the USA was founded (after ethnic cleansing of the natives), we were pretty darn non-diverse.

The remnant of the Founder's ideology is still the reigning belief system of, especially, the anglosaxons among us.

The Scandinavian immigrants here in the Midwest tempered that somewhat, which is why we have a higher level of education, economic equality, and objective measures of happiness.

That said, what to do?

I don't think that guns per se are the culprit. In fact, in ethnically non-diverse (compared to the USA) Switzerland, all adult males are armed by law. That has served as a good plank in the maintenance of Swiss freedom and independence.

I believe the ultimate "solution" that will be tried, even if unconsciously, will be the attempt to recreate an ethnically homogeneous society. This is already being done as people sort themselves. Idaho is pretty "white."

This will eventually result in the breakup of the USA into different nations or regional confederations. It will likely involve violence. The Civil War is was just the first act.

One would probably want to be situated in a region that is economically and socially strong, with lots of resources of all kinds, before this occurs.