(Yet Another) Rumpus Lamentation:
It’s a sunny winter day in Tucson, Arizona. There’s an event being held in the parking lot of a supermarket called Safeway. The local member of congress, a woman named Gabrielle Giffords, is meeting her constituents.
Among them is a young man with a gun who runs toward Giffords and shoots her in the head. He turns on the crowd. Before he can be wrestled to the ground, six people are dead, a dozen more injured. One of the dead is a nine-year-old girl recently elected to her student council. She wanted to see what a real political event would be like.
There’s a moment, in the beginning, when the enormity of the violence feels genuine. We’re compelled to wonder: How did we get here? How did we consent to live in a culture where an unstable 22-year-old can acquire a sophisticated weapon with such ease? Where his disturbed passions are not only tolerated, but reinforced, enlarged, given shape?
He didn’t just wake up one day and decide to murder a politician. He made a plan.
But remember: it’s just a moment. It dissolves.
Then we’re in America again and it’s all moving too quickly – our eyes, our screens, the facts. Someone says lone gunman. Someone says crosshairs. A surgeon in a strange hat announces that the bullet fired into Giffords’ head passed “through and through” and, after a moment, we understand what he means.
It’s like watching Kabuki theater, a saga of contrived sorrow and recrimination, the voices of a thousand news people sounding grave because it’s their job. After a while, we realize that we’re not just watching the Kabuki. We are the Kabuki.
An entire industry of madness has arisen to comfort lost souls, to relocate their anguish in the world at large. What begins as a personal crisis of mental health is transmuted into an annihilating rage.
It happens over and over.
A man blows up a federal building. A man flies a plane into an IRS office. A man enters a church and shoots a doctor. We’re supposed to act shocked. That’s our role. It reminds us of our own sanctity.
Sure, there were demagogues back in the olden days. But they enjoyed the latitude of a nation whose virulent forms of hatred were still sanctioned. White men were unquestionably in charge. They were allowed to discriminate, spared the anxieties of a true meritocracy.
Then came abolition and war and suffrage and civil rights. The bigotry had to become clannish, covert. The feelings didn’t disappear. They migrated. They had to go somewhere.
The central issue of the emergent mass media was how the airwaves were going to be used.
Because they were both public and limited, the Federal Communications Commission adopted the Fairness Doctrine in 1949, to ensure that licensees devoted “a reasonable amount of broadcast time to the discussion of controversial issues,” and that they did so “fairly, in order to afford reasonable opportunity for opposing viewpoints.”
In 1987, during the age of deregulation, the FCC did away with the Fairness Doctrine. The result was a talk radio (and later cable TV) industry, which gave voice to the unresolved psychological and emotional grievances of an increasingly insecure white majority. You couldn’t slaughter redskins or lynch niggers. You couldn’t even use those words. But you could still fantasize.
And so a new world is created, a universe of projected hatred, in which sadistic impulses are viewed not as pathological, but perfectly natural and indeed inevitable responses to the nation’s moral progress.
The democratic election of a president whose father was African becomes the portent of white slavery. Men are paid millions of dollars to appear on radio and television and play act how one might murder a member of congress, or burn a person alive. They joke about hanging elected officials in effigy, or driving stakes through the heart of the President. A presidential candidate jokes about rape. Another declares that members of congress should be tarred and feathered.
Freighted within these histrionics is a steady flow of disinformation about the nature of our national predicaments and their potential remedies. The rich and powerful (who seek merely to protect their profits and fortunes) are benevolent patriots besieged by the true lurking evil: Government.
The balance of the fourth estate – desperate to remain solvent – serves not as a filter, but an amplifier to this sadism, till it seems we live in a dark weather of paranoia, every sin and fear and indulgence cast out of us and onto the dark forces of Government.
I can’t trust the current government because of the ratifications. The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.
On the morning of the assassination attempt, my family received a letter from our insurance company informing us that we would no longer have to pay for a host of preventive services. It will save us a few hundred dollars a year. This was owing to the health care reform law passed last year, for which Giffords voted, and for which she was reviled by people who interpreted her support for a more egalitarian system of medical care as an assault on their freedom.
I remain in a state of bewilderment.
Giffords’ opponent in the last election, a veteran of the invasion of Iraq, put it like this:
Get on Target for Victory in November
Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office
Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly
In initial reports, little mention was made of the fact that Giffords was Jewish. Then speculation arose that she might have been targeted because of her religion.
I keep thinking about how little we think about the religious right anymore. The church of the disenfranchised can now be found in the mass media. Its pulpits are bright studios with cameras and microphones. Its fire and brimstone preachers are entertainers who brag openly about market share.
In the Europe of 60 years ago, things got bad when anti-Semitism migrated from the Church to secular culture. The rhetoric of competing salvations became the propaganda of a political and economic movement.
Kurt Vonnegut believed the human race was doomed if we failed to engage with acts of imagination, because we would then become incapable of imagining the suffering of others.
Vonnegut was one of the few human beings who lived through the Allied bombing of Dresden. He was a POW cowering in a slaughterhouse as planes flew above, dropping bombs on people and buildings.
This was how America fought Fascism.
The historian Robert Paxton, who studied Europe during World War II, defined fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy, but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
America is not a fascist state. We still enforce ethical and legal restraints on our population. These do not include preventing mentally unstable people from purchasing semi-automatic guns.
Spencer Giffords, the father of the wounded congressperson, when he was asked if his daughter had any enemies, wept.
The author David Neiwert doesn’t believe America is a fascist state, either. He believes there is a pervasive mindset which “always depicts its opposition as simply beyond the pale, and in the end the embodiment of evil itself — unfit for participation in their vision of society, and thus in need of elimination. It often depicts its designated ‘enemy’ as vermin…”
Jim David Adkisson, who walked into a Unitarian Church in 2008 and killed two people and wounded six others during a children’s musical, and who was an ardent fan of talk radio, put it like this:
Liberals are a pest like termites. Millions of them. Each little bite contribdutes to the downfall of this great Nation. The only way we can rid ourselves of this evil is Kill them in the streets. Kill them where they gather.
I’d like to encourage other like minded people to do what I’ve done. If life aint worth living anymore don’t just Kill yourself, do something for your country before you go. Go Kill Liberals.
A self-described veteran, upon reading an editorial I wrote in 2009, put it like this:
GET OUT OF AMERICA,
YOU ANTI-AMERICAN, NO GOOD, SCUM SUCKER!!!
I am sending your article in the Boston Globe to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan … Lot of our men and women from Massachusetts are there now, and they are looking forward to meeting (finding) you! GET OUT OF AMERICA!!! YOU HAVE NO RIGHT LIVING HERE UNDER THE PROTECTION OF MEN AND WOMEN OF HONOR AND RESPECTABILITY WHILE YOU ARE NOTHING BUT A LOWLY, COWARDLY, INSECT!!
We will hear much talk in the weeks to come of the Lone Gunman, an archetype useful to those of us who wish to absolve ourselves.
Sober news people will soberly shrug their shoulders and whisper into microphones about the mysteries of the human heart. It will be as if there was no motive for the crime, as if the murderer were a machine that malfunctioned rather than an American who mistook sadism for an expression of his beliefs.
The more hysterical reactions will come from those who feel themselves implicated, who fear the great con of their professions exposed. They will react with absurd rituals of denial, as if, after all their violent agitation, they are the ones being fired upon, the victims of some vast and unending conspiracy.
This operatic indignation is what I meant when I spoke, a few months ago, about the American descent into a shame culture.
It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the capacity for moral self-reflection. What happens when a large and well-armed portion of our citizenry can no longer apologize? When humility becomes another form of humiliation? Their heroes exhort them: Never retreat. Reload.
The young man with the gun, in a final note to friends, put it like this:
Please don’t be mad at me… I cannot rest
He seemed to recognize that he was going to do wrong. But he couldn’t stop himself.
He was not merely following orders. He was attempting to construct a world in which it was bearable to live. When this became impossible, he sought to die for a noble cause.
William Butler Yeats, surveying the ruin of the First World War, put it like this:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Violence – whether in word or deed – is both an inevitable human impulse and a failure of the moral imagination. That’s the business we’re in, as artists.
We can pretend we live apart from this compact and sickening drama. But we don’t. We’re a part of this world: our actions, our stories, our conviction. When the trains arrive with their cargo of human sorrow, we refuse to turn away. We’re the fools in charge of forgiveness.
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