Violence In America

In some sense, I suppose, this post can be read as a follow-up to my previous one since both seek to explain the same thing.

Numerous theories have been advanced to explain why it is that America is so prone to violence and leads the world in violent deaths by firearms. Perhaps the most popular study was that by Michael Moore in his documentary Bowling for Columbine in which he concluded that the only thing that set America apart from the rest of the world was the violence shown on our news programs. I always thought this a weak conclusion, but I saw the difficulty in finding a key ingredient in the formula to explain America’s past and present tendency toward violence.

Upon reading John Murrin’s essay about the “Making and Unmaking of an American Ruling Class”  (in his book Rethinking America) it occurred to me that perhaps the answer to the question why America is such a violent country lies in the historical record which shows Americans to have always, from the beginning, insisted on having a firearm ready at hand. To understand this a bit better, it might help to have some background.

Murrin argues that many of the earliest settlers in this country were never from the elite classes in England (in particular) but, rather, “the younger sons of English gentry or merchants.” These men aspired to leadership in the new country and managed to create an appproximation of the English ruling classes, albeit not bound by the same rules that might lead to an aristocracy — though there were some, such as Alexander Hamilton, who would have loved to mimic the English royalty as much as possible. Americans, for the most part, prized their independence and while early on they regarded themselves as English citizens, with all that that entails, they eventually, as we know, threw off the English yoke in order to achieve the independence they had come to value so highly. And they never trusted those who aspired to aristocracy. Hamilton and the Federalists hung on until Jefferson’s presidency, but they then faded into the dust. America’s thirteen colonies  became, in Murrin’s words, a “paradise for the younger sons” who were denied status among the landed gentry in England by laws such as entail and the so-called rights of primogeniture.

More to our present point, early on the colonies had no standing armies — with the exception of New York which had a small one — and the governors, appointed by England for the most part, ruled by deference and the handing out of privileges rather than the use of force. This made America unique among civilized nations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, as Mullin points out,

“. . .the absence of a standing army in most colonies for most of the colonial era compelled the government to insist (except in Quaker societies) that the settlers arm themselves. In no American province did the government establish the monopoly of violence that Europe took for  granted by the eighteenth century, and firearms were always and still are more widely available in America than in any other Western countries.” [Italics added]

This helps explain the insistence in our Bill of Rights upon the “right” of the militia to bear arms — the Second Amendment that is so very controversial today. That Amendment, please note, guarantees every male citizen the right to bear arms because he is expected to defend his colony against any presumed outside threat to peace and order; like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome he was a citizen-soldier. In the end, of course, the militia was called upon to free the colonies from English rule, which provided George Washington with his greatest challenge, constantly frustrated by his inability to mold such a diverse group of volunteers, who deserted in appalling numbers, into a disciplined army.

In any event, the notion was with us from the very start that all men were expected to bear arms because of the lack of a standing army; the possession and use of firearms has always been a characteristic of the American male (at least). It’s in our blood, so to speak. And as we fought to protect ourselves from the English, the French, and even the Spanish — not to mention to remove the Native people from the land we wanted for ourselves — we became a violent nation, a nation that not only insisted that we be allowed to possess arms but to use them to get what we wanted.

I am not sure this will pass as a complete explanation as to why we are such a violent nation (causal connections are notoriously difficult to make, as I noted in my previous post) but it certainly helps us to understand why we might share a deep sense of this so-called “right” to arm ourselves and resort to violence whenever opposed by the will of another. I seriously doubt whether it explains why demented young men force their way into our schools and shoot unarmed teachers and children, which I sought to understand in my previous post.  But it helps us to understand the prevalence of firearm in our homes and makes it easier to see why those who own them might be more inclined to use them if harried or thwarted in their desire to have their way. As I say, it’s in our blood — or so the historical record would suggest.

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Senate Aristocrats

I have been reading a painstaking analysis of the forming of our Republic. It is very long but fascinating. The period before and just after the American revolution has always been a bit hazy for me and it is a relief to have some of the haze cleared away. The eleven years between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution were especially remarkable years. The thirteen colonies were all busy writing their own constitutions (while the war was in progress) and struggling with the issues that would face the united colonies later on. One such issue was the “mixed form” of government.

Some of the more radical colonists like Thomas Paine and the authors of Pennsylvania’s  constitution wanted nothing to do with mixed governments; they wanted  a pure Democracy. A great many others distrusted the “people” and wanted what they regarded as the more solid foundation of an aristocracy of some sort to temper and provide balance to offset the “lower” house. This was Jefferson’s idea behind starting up the University of Virginia — to train young men to become future leaders. He was convinced the people at large would recognize exceptional people and elect them to public office. They would form America’s new aristocracy! Other thinkers were not so sanguine, and eventually Jefferson himself began to have doubts. But nearly all were agreed that two houses were essential — with a governor at the head of each colony’s government whose role would be exclusively that of executor of the legislative will. Each house of government would differ from the other in important respects — the lower house, which was similar to the British House of Commons, and the upper house, which they hoped would resemble in important respects the House of Lords. The problem was how to assure that the upper house (the Senate) was not just a mirror image of the lower house — given that America had no aristocracy?

Jefferson and his peers in other states finally decided that even with electoral colleges designed to elect the folks to the upper house (the people themselves couldn’t be trusted) the Senators in the various colonies began to look very much like the representatives in the lower house. But they were convinced that the House of Lords in England lent ballast to the ship of state and it was essential that the colonies have something like that or subject themselves to the rabble running the show — people at large who had no “public virtue,” a quality they thought essential for the common good. How to guarantee that the Senates would be “the best and wisest” — which was their perception of the British aristocracy — and thus more stable than the lower houses?

In the end since there were no natural aristocrats in America — or unnatural ones, as it happened — the various colonies settled on property ownership as the only criterion that could separate the “wiser” officials in government from the rest of the herd. It was clear that these people did not want a King or any royalty. They pretty much tied the hands of their governors and, later, the President. But they didn’t trust the rabble, either. When they settled on property as the criterion for membership in the Senate they did just that: settled. It was the best they could come up with. They rejected birth and were unable to find any criterion that would satisfy other than property to differentiate the upper house from the lower one.

It would appear that it was during this time — these eleven years — that the Americans came to grips with the question of the place of wealth in government. They distrusted great wealth (as I have noted in a previous blog) but they could come up with nothing better to separate the two houses they regarded as essential to a Republic. They understood power and knew full well how easily it could be abused. But they failed to see that wealth would become the greatest power in this country — though Jefferson was leery, noting that “‘Integrity was not in my experience the characteristic of wealth.” Both “he and Madison were baffled by the apparent inability of the people to perceive the truly talented and were thus compelled reluctantly to endorse property as the best possible source of distinction in the new republics.”

By making property the criterion of membership in the Senates of the various colonies — and giving the Senate pride of place in our Constitution later on (note how much of that document is focused on the operation of the U.S. Senate) they opened the door to excessive power in the Senate  (which Henry Adams complained about loudly a hundred years later)  and the ownership of the government itself by the very rich.

[Quotations are from Gordon S.  Wood’s excellent The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787.]

Foreign Policy

The latest out of Afghanistan is somewhat unsettling. The story begins: KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan and the United States have reached an agreement to curb night raids on Afghan homes, giving Kabul veto power over the operations despised by most local people and control over treatment of any detainees, Afghan officials said on Sunday.

Let’s think about this. In light of the recent killing of 17 civilians, including children, by an American soldier on his seventh tour of duty in two different war zones, not to mention the burning of the Quran at a NATO base resulting in waves of daily protests that brought about the death of seven people and the injuring of 65 others, we now condescend to turn tactical decisions over to the people who actually live in that country. What do we call this? Largess? Generosity? To state the obvious: this is their country. We don’t belong there. Our only possible reason for going there in the first place was to capture or (as it turned out) kill Osama Bin Laden — who, as I recall, was killed in Pakistan where he was apparently being protected by our “allies.” Once that was accomplished, we should have turned things over to the Afghan people and gotten the hell out.

Our foreign policy needs some serious review. As a country we have a disturbing tendency toward paternalism and a misguided sense of our own superiority that must be galling to people elsewhere in the world. As was clearly the case in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan is unwelcome. I would imagine the people of that country feel as many Americans did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the British armed forces could be seen everywhere in our colonies and military rule was the order of the day. We are an occupying force in a country that wants us out of there — and has for a number of years. Recent developments have simply made things worse and the flames of discontent burn higher and hotter today than they did yesterday. The claim that we must remain there to contain the Taliban is absurd. We have been unable to deal with them militarily –something like trying to nail Jello to the wall. So dialogue seemed to be the wise option. However, any chance of opening talks with those people went up in flames with the Quran.

The very least we can do is to allow the local government to “call the shots” as we prepare to evacuate the country sooner rather than later and allow the people to deal with their centuries-old problems themselves. They may not live the way we would want them to live, but they may not want to live the way we want them to, either.  To repeat, it’s their country and in their eyes we are the ugly Americans.