Mass Shootings and American Carnage

mass-shooting

W.J. Astore

What can you say about mass shootings in America that hasn’t already been said?  El Paso and Dayton (not Toledo, Mr. Trump) are the most recent in a seemingly unending series of shootings in America.  A grim statistic:

“Dayton was the 22nd mass killing in America this year, according to an AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database, which tracks all attacks involving four or more people killed.”

Or, alternatively: “The shooting in Ohio marked the 31st deadly mass shooting in America this year, defined as those where at least three people are killed by gun violence in a single episode.”

Or, alternatively:

“As of today (Aug. 4), we are 216 days into 2019. In the US over that time, more than 1,300 people have been injured or killed in mass shootings, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive.

QUARTZ
Injuries and deaths related to mass shootings.

The nonprofit organization, which is based in Washington, DC, defines a mass shooting as an event in which at least four people were shot. By its calculations, that means there have been some 292 mass shootings in the US since the year began.”

In a prepared statement this morning, President Trump came out against white supremacy, racism, and bigotry, but tragically this is a clear case of “Do what I say, not what I do” for Trump.  He compounded his hypocrisy by ignoring the ready availability of assault weapons, blaming instead mental illness and violent video games, among other factors.

Firstly, the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.  Secondly, violent video games are a global phenomenon, but I’m not reading about dozens of mass shootings each year in Japan or Korea or Sweden.

Trump’s weak-willed words were thoroughly predictable; he’s closely aligned with the National Rifle Association and its total fixation on gun rights to the exclusion of all others.  He’s not alone in this.  When I taught in rural Pennsylvania, my students knew all about the Second Amendment.  But their knowledge of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments was far weaker.  Yes, for many Americans guns really do trump free speech, freedom of the press, and similar rights.

Predictably, Americans search for a magic bullet (pun intended) after these horrifying massacres to put a stop to them.  How about better background checks?  Eliminating extended magazines for the millions of assault rifles that are already in the hands of Americans?  Better databases to track the mentally ill and the criminally violent?  And so on.  And we should have better background checks before you can buy a gun; we should stop selling military-style hardware; we should keep better track of dangerous people.  But steps such as these will only stem the violence (if that).  They won’t put an end to it.

Our culture is suffused with violence.  At the same time, powerful forces are at play (stoked by our very own president) to divide us, to inflame our passions, to turn us against them, where “them” is some category of “other,” as with the El Paso shooter, who targeted immigrants “invading” America.

To stop mass shootings, we must change our culture of violence.  This is made much more difficult by men like Trump, who’ve embraced violent rhetoric for their own selfish purposes.  But we must change it nonetheless, else witness more carnage across America.

Note to readers: This is not the first time I’ve written about violence and guns in America.  Here are links to a few articles on this subject at Bracing Views:

God, Country, Guns

Guns and Grievances

“People Who Cherish the Second Amendment”

America: Submerged in a Violent Cesspool

Lockdown America and School Shootings

Trump’s True Treason

Donald Trump Holds "Keep America Great" Rally In Greenville, NC
As long as enough Americans keep cheering, Trump will keep ruling through denunciation, disdain, and divisiveness (but note the guy next to Pence, covering his face with his hand, hopefully in disgust)

W.J. Astore

Robert Mueller testified before Congress today (7/24), the big takeaway being that his report didn’t exonerate Trump of, well, something.

From what I’ve seen, there’s no evidence that proves Trump colluded with Russia to influence the presidential election in 2016.  There is evidence Trump tried to obstruct Mueller’s inquiry, but his own subordinates disobeyed or ignored him, thereby protecting him from his own stupidity.

So, Trump didn’t collude with Russia and Mueller was able to complete his investigation, therefore Trump is essentially in the clear, especially on the damning charge of treason.  Right?

Not so fast.  I recently read Sebastian Junger’s fine book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016), and the following passage resonated:

“politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country–a charge so disruptive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason.  It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this.  In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon.  It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.”

Junger nails it.  Accusing your political rivals of deliberately trying to harm America, which Trump routinely does when he denounces Democrats at his rallies, could be construed as a form of treason.  Seeking to divide Americans on the basis of race, religion, and other qualities, which Trump also routinely does, is another behavior that could be construed as treasonous to American ideals and treacherous to our ability to come together and govern ourselves.

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Trump’s treason (if you want to call it that) is in plain sight.  It’s in the way he divides Americans and denounces his opponents as putting America (and Israel!) in danger.  His treachery is blatant.  The problem is that roughly 40% of Americans seem willing either to follow Trump or to look the other way as he rules through denunciation, disdain, and divisiveness.

Trump will use any tactic to protect his power and privilege.  He is an unprincipled and rank opportunist who works for his own self-aggrandizement.

Perhaps that’s not the legal definition of treason, but it is the defining characteristic of a man who should be voted out of office in 2020.

Yes, Trump is a Racist

Donald Trump Makes Announcement At Trump Tower
Trump on the down escalator toward American carnage, 2015

W.J. Astore

Yes, Donald Trump is a racist.  His attacks on four Democratic Congresswomen of color are only the most recent illustration of this.  Trump, of course, is also an opportunist.  A conniver.  An exploiter.  Unless it backfires, he’ll keep using racism.  It fires up his “base” and distracts from the looting his family and administration are actively engaged in.

Trump intuitively grasped a painful reality that Norman Mailer wrote about in 1968.  Inspired by Richard Nixon’s campaign, Mailer wrote that “political power of the most frightening sort was obviously waiting for the first demagogue who would smash the obsession and free the white man of his guilt [of slavery and racism and their legacies].  Torrents of energy would be loosed, yes, those same torrents which Hitler had freed in the Germans when he exploded their ten-year obsession with whether they had lost the war [World War I] through betrayal or through material weakness.  Through betrayal, Hitler had told them: Germans were actually strong and good.  The consequences would never be counted.”

Immediately after writing this, Mailer said:

“Now if suburban America was not waiting for Georgie Wallace, it might still be waiting for Super-Wallace.”

Enter Candidate Trump on his escalator, railing against Mexicans as rapists and killers.  Stoking fear and bigotry against people of color.  He did it, guiltlessly, because it worked.  And it proved a balm to so many in his base, who could now vent their racism because a rich White man like Trump had given them cover, permission, even a mandate.

Recall Mailer’s words: “The consequences [of unleashing guilt-free racism in America] would never be counted.”  We’ve been experiencing these consequences since Trump rode that escalator down and unleashed his own brand of American carnage.  We will continue to experience them even when Trump is finally out of office and long dead.  Because Trump isn’t guilty alone.  He needs followers willing to embrace his lies, his vitriol, his hateful speech.

Isn’t it time we rejected Trump, and all his words and works, and all his empty promises?

The Language of Politics: Aristotle, Ronald Reagan, and Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders at George Washington University: Reshaping America’s political language

M. Davout

In his book, The Politics, Aristotle expressed a famous claim that political science textbooks have been quoting for generations: man is by nature a political animal. Less appreciated has been Aristotle’s follow-up assertion that “man is the only animal that nature has endowed with the gift of speech, [which gift] is intended to set forth the advantageous and disadvantageous, the just and the unjust.”

With these claims Aristotle is reminding us that speech counts for a lot in politics. One need only consider how the language of politics in the post-New Deal, post-Great Society U.S. shifted so that it became a matter of course for millions of modest income Americans to vote for politicians who promised to cut, eliminate, or privatize government programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that have kept so many vulnerable Americans from going under. Foundations such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation provided financial support for scholars and pundits willing to make the libertarian argument for an every-man-for-himself society for which, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address, government is the problem, not the solution.

Funded by wealthy interests and individuals, these foundations and think tanks developed the rhetoric (e.g., “death tax” instead of “estate tax”) and ideas (e.g., cutting taxes increases government revenues) that would be picked up and propagated by conservative politicians across the country. Reagan himself, who began his national political career on the pundit side of conservative politics as a paid spokesman of General Electric giving speeches at GE plants across the country, paid homage to the decades-long conservative struggle to change the political conversation when he said, “The American Enterprise Institute stands at the center of a revolution of ideas of which I too have been a part…”

While it is too early confidently to guess which of the democratic contenders for the presidential nomination will face off against Trump, it is not too early to appreciate how much the speech of a certain senator from Vermont has changed the national conversation. Every time Bernie Sanders appears in public and speaks, whether at a televised debate, on a union picket line, on the stump in Iowa or New Hampshire, or on a college campus, his words serve to enlarge and invigorate the space of political discourse in this country. His relentlessly on-message campaign in 2016 for a $15-dollar-minimum (“living”) wage, Medicare-for-All, tuition-free public colleges and universities, highlighting global warming as an existential threat, a political revolution against a corrupt system, had discernible impacts in local, state and national races in 2018.  Consider as well the leftward policy positioning of several of his fellow candidates for the 2020 nomination; their language and positions often echo those of Sanders.

And while it is also too early to tell whether his recent speech at George Washington University successfully immunized the word, socialism, from the taboo status it has labored under in American political culture since at least the post-World War One Red Scare, Bernie Sanders’ evocation of FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” and his enlargement of the notion of being free to encompass having adequate health insurance, for example, or having access to a college education without sinking into paralyzing debt continues his crucial efforts to change the language of U.S. politics.

In helping to reshape the language of American politics, Bernie Sanders may go down in U.S. history as the presidential candidate who did not need to win to get his most important work done.

M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.

Trump’s Priorities For Action

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Jacinda Ardern with the queen

W.J. Astore

A good friend of mine, a Kiwi, sent me an update on Jacinda Ardern’s priorities for action in New Zealand.  It’s known there as a “Wellbeing Budget.”

* Creating opportunities for productive businesses, regions, iwi and others to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy.

* Supporting a thriving nation in the digital age through innovation, social and economic opportunities.

* Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing, including addressing family violence.

* Supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, with a special focus on under 24-year-olds.

* Lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities.

I know: New Zealand is a small country on the other side of the world; a superpower like the United States has nothing to learn from Kiwis, right?

What struck me about these priorities is, well, that New Zealand has some.  That they’re clear and concise and focused on well-being for children and teenagers and families.  That they address poverty.  And that climate change isn’t forgotten (“sustainable” and “low-emissions” economy).

What about America’s great leader, Donald Trump?  What are his priorities for national well-being?  Near as I can tell, these are Trump’s priorities:

1. Enriching himself and his family.

2. Avoiding impeachment, or exploiting it if he is impeached.

3. Getting reelected.

4. More golf.

5. Screwing anyone who resists him.

What about issues like “build the wall”?  I don’t think Trump cares whether the wall is built; it’s merely a convenient issue to exploit as he rallies his base.  What about ending access to abortion?  Again, I don’t think Trump cares about this issue, except as it energizes a key component of his base.  What about appointing lots of conservative justices and judges?  Again, Trump cares only in the sense that such judges and justices will rule in a way that upholds his privileges.

My Kiwi friend’s list got me to reflect on the lack of consensus for action in the USA today among our “leaders”/politicians.  (Well, there is bipartisan support for enormous military budgets, but that’s about it.)  Put differently, most Americans express support for single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the richest Americans, climate-friendly policies, and so on, but our bought-and-paid-for politicians act against the people’s wishes.

Various power brokers may laugh at Trump’s vanities and object to his vulgarity and his selfishness and greed, but they also abet him because he serves to divide people while protecting elite privileges against reformers like Bernie Sanders.

I know one thing: the answer isn’t Joe Biden or any other DNC-approved candidate.  The answer is a movement that unites behind a candidate that actually cares for people like us, someone like Bernie Sanders.  Short of that, well-being will be in very short supply in America’s future.

Is Masculinity Under Attack in America?

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Look at Bush at his “ranch.”  Look at that belt buckle!  And you dare claim masculinity is in decline?

W.J. Astore

Is the American male dead?  I’ve seen enough articles and books espousing a “war” on men and boys, amounting to a concerted attack on masculinity, to suggest that males are, if not dead, very much in decline in America, threatened by a “feminized” society that devalues manly virtues.

An article at the National Review, “Understanding the Inescapable Reality of Masculinity,” suggests that men as men have an “essential nature,” one that is “physical, aggressive, violent,” but that these traits are under attack as wider American society works to deny men their “inherent masculinity.” The article further argues there aren’t enough male role models in the lives of young boys – especially fathers and father-figures. This is a well-worn argument on the vital importance of the nuclear family with a man like Ward Cleaver in charge of it.  There’s nothing wrong with that, except not all fathers are patient, kind, and intelligent mentors like Ward on “Leave it to Beaver.” Sadly, more than a few drive young boys to be aggressive and violent in selfish and dangerous ways.

Leaving that aside, it seems odd that this narrative of the decline of masculinity persists so strongly in Trump’s America.  Now there’s a man!  He’s physical, aggressive, unafraid to boast of pussy-grabbing or the size of his penis.  He’s urged his followers at rallies to get physical with protesters.  He supports torture and even hints at shooting immigrants as a rational “get tough” policy.  Posing like Winston Churchill, he scowls and frowns in a simulacrum of manly determination.  If the president is America’s chief role model, Trump’s doing his best to project masculinity as he understands it.

Indeed, you might argue Trump won the presidency in part because of his unapologetic “masculine” posing.  Contrast this to Hillary Clinton, often portrayed as a “ball-buster,” an emasculating female.  (Indeed, I had a Hillary nutcracker, a novelty gift from a friend.)  Male voters (joined by a majority of White women) in 2016, perhaps looking for a “real” man to vote for and turned off by an alleged nut-cracking harridan, broke for Trump.

Trump’s win—and continued tolerance of his bullying, boastful, and bellicose manner—give the lie to the decline of masculinity narrative in America.  Why does it persist, then?  Because it’s yet another way to divide us.  Consider similar narratives of an alleged war on Christianity, or that higher education is driven by hegemonic liberal/leftist agendas.  In fact, Christianity is more powerful than ever in America—just look at Mike Pence and the influence of evangelicals in the U.S. government—and higher education is increasingly about serving the needs of business, industry, and the military-industrial complex.

But truth is unimportant when the object is stirring up divisiveness.  Tell American men they’re threatened: that radical feminists, effete city dwellers, Ivy League elites, and other disreputable elements are out to get them.  Then urge “threatened” males to vote for retrograde (fake) tough guys like Trump.  It may not be the most subtle tactic, but it works.

In this narrative, masculinity is defined in “can-do,” action-oriented ways.  Man as Alpha male, as doer, as fighter, whether in a bad way (as a killer) or in a good way (as a protector).  It’s warrior-and empire-friendly.  And indeed U.S. foreign policy today is distinctly masculine, with loads of emphasis on domination, on bossing other peoples around, simply because we’re bigger and badder than them.

What’s truly worrisome is not false narratives about masculinity’s decline but how it’s narrowly defined in violent and aggressive ways.  We forget that macho posturing by America’s “leaders” has created enormous problems.  Just think of George W. Bush and all his macho strutting before and during the Iraq war.

America needs fewer calls about putting on “big boy” pants and more emphasis on engaging in negotiation and diplomacy, along with action to end America’s chaotic and unwinnable wars.  America is already carrying a big stick.  It can afford to speak softly instead of shouting.

Wikileaks and America’s Boorish, In Your Face, Diplomacy

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With the recent arrest of Julian Assange in London with the goal of extraditing him to the U.S. to face charges, I thought I’d revive this article that I wrote back in 2010.  Assange and Chelsea Manning helped to reveal war crimes by the U.S. as well as a pattern of boorish, imperious, “in your face” behavior by its officials and diplomats.

George W. Bush claimed that the terrorists hated us for our freedoms — but maybe they simply hate us for our behavior?  If we ride roughshod over the “little people,” they might just remember — and bite back.

Anyway, the main sin of Assange and Manning was embarrassing the powerful while shedding light on their behavior.  And the powerful know how to hang on to a grudge…

Written in 2010:

Boorish, “in your face” behavior is everywhere. Most of the time, I’m able to avoid it, or walk away from it.  Nevertheless, afoot in America is an astonishing sense of imperious entitlement. People are told they can have it all – heck, that they deserve it all – and to hell with anyone who raises an objection. Rugged individualism is not enough; roughshod individualism is the new American ethos.

Now, what has this to say about WikiLeaks? Take a close look at many of the State Department cables and tell me how you would feel to be on the receiving end of roughshod American imperiousness. So what if we kidnap the wrong German citizen and torture him? Not only do we have no need to apologize: We’ll even bully the German government into silence. And we can bully Spain too, if need be, to inhibit Spanish attempts to prosecute Americans for torture or murder. Need more information about the United Nations and its diplomats? Let’s not only spy on them in traditional ways, but let’s steal their passwords, their biometric data: Heck, let’s even take DNA samples from them. If they complain, too bad: They shouldn’t have taken a drink from the cup we offered them. And the list goes on: We’ll even strike secret deals with Britain to hide our cluster bombs.

In these memos, it never seems to be America’s fault. Being a loud and boorish and imperious American means never having contritely to say you’re sorry.

Are we oblivious? Do we just don’t care? Neither question will matter if the resentments we breed overseas find their way to America’s homeland.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com.