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.

Mill’s Methods and Violence

John Stuart Mill wrote a book many years ago that very few people have read — except maybe his mother and his wife.. . . and me (don’t ask me why).  It is a book on inductive logic and scientific method. I learned a number of interesting things in reading the book. For instance I learned that evidence and arguments “imply” conclusions; we “infer” the conclusion from the evidence. In a word, inference is something we do whereas implication is something arguments and evidence do. Further, I learned that points cannot be “valid,” and neither can ideas — though Sheldon Cooper (on “The Big Bang Theory”) keeps insisting they are. Arguments are valid (or invalid) whereas points and ideas can be spot on, insightful, interesting, telling, or perhaps simply stupid — they cannot be “valid.” So you can see my time was not wasted. I dearly love Sheldon Cooper but am delighted to trip him up!

But I also learned something much more interesting, because in his book Mill explained his methods for determining causes. These rules were, respectively, “the “method of similarity” and “the method of difference.” I won’t go into detail, but the former tells us that if you want to know why a group of people got sick at a convention, for example, look for the common denominator — something they all ate or drank. Isolate the item and you can pretty much figure that’s the cause. Years ago it was determined that the cause of a large group of convention-goers getting sick was the ventilating system at their hotel. They all ate and drank different things, but they all breathed the same air.

On the other hand, the method of difference seeks to isolate the causal factor by looking at the one thing that is different in a group that exhibits some strange affliction. Let’s say we want to know why America is such a violent nation. Now we know that there is violence in other countries, but that violence pales in contrast to the frequent violence in this country. Why is that?? Michael Moore made a movie (“Bowling for Columbine”) that attempted to determine the cause and he concluded that it was probably (we can’t be sure) the frequent violence in our news broadcasts. Let’s examine his reasoning.

We begin by comparing and contrasting America with, say, Britain, Japan, and Germany and we look at what the countries have in common: they all watch violent TV, play violent video games, and watch violent movies (often American movies that are known for their violence). Moore thus ruled out those factors as causes of violence in America. What he found was that American news broadcasts are much more violent than the news broadcasts in other developed countries. So he suggested that violence in the news we watch is the likely cause of violence in this country.

This reasoning is sound as far as it goes. But we might just as well pick out coffee as the single factor that separates America from the other countries. In the other three countries tea is the drink of choice; Americans drink a lot of coffee. Or perhaps it’s widespread ownership of guns: Americans own more guns than most other people on earth — except for the Canadians, as I understand it. And the Canadians watch just as much violent TV, movies, and play violent video games. So it can’t be gun ownership. Perhaps it is the violent news programs, as Moore suggested. Or the coffee. Canadians also drink tea as their drink of choice, not coffee. I’m going with coffee.

But then, perhaps it is a combination of the factors listed above. We know that animals learn by imitation and that humans are animals. Further, we know that Americans watch a great deal of violence in their TV, video games, and movies — and their news programs. They also own a great many guns.  And they also drink a lot of coffee. So, perhaps, the cause of violence in America is a combination of these factors: the many guns we own together with violence we are exposed to plus the stimulation of a drink spiked with lots of caffeine. You never know! Damn! Causal reasoning is hard.

And yet, there are politicians out there who think it’s easy. They say that the sitting President is the cause of the poor economy because he is the sitting president and the economy is weak. It’s like saying coffee is the cause of violence in America because Americans drink a lot of coffee. And it’s just as stupid.

Craving Violence

Brace yourself. LOS ANGELES (AP) — “Hulk, smash.” That’s what Captain America tells the Incredible Hulk to do in “The Avengers,” and that’s what the Marvel Comics superhero mash-up did at the box office, smashing the domestic revenue record with a $200.3 million debut.

America has always had a love affair with violence, and it makes sense that the biggest film on record epitomizes that love affair. It is surprising, however, that the movie is also a big hit overseas, which gives one pause: is love of violence contagious? It wouldn’t be surprising and as the world becomes increasingly cramped, we are likely to see more and more violence — and, of course, the media will be there to report it and even to glorify it. Which will, in turn, generate more violence. So it goes.

I mentioned in an earlier blog the interesting difference between the way the British treat their heroes — such as Sherlock Holmes — and the way Hollywood treats the same character. Note the mega-upgrade in violence in the latter — though the recent series on BBC called, simply “Sherlock” has considerably more violence than the series that ran previously with Jeremy Brett. The current hero comes complete with a Dr. Watson who is a retired army medic who packs a handgun (?) wherever he goes and is a crack shot. But as a rule, the British seem to prefer their heroes to have brains rather than brawn, at least until recently.

There has been endless debate about the causes of our love affair with violence, including a Michael Moore film that came to no conclusion whatever after leading up to an embarrassing “interview” with Charlton Heston in which Heston spent most of the interview making sure he said nothing. Heston, of course, leads the NRA into battle at every possible opportunity — in the name of the second amendment to the Constitution, which does not say anything about the NRA or about hand guns, or oozies. Or Charlton Heston. Or Moses. It does, however, talk about a militia and the absence of a standing army, which are why we have a right to “bear arms” — to protect our home and country. But the latter element of the amendment seems to have fallen by the wayside in the heated discussion about whether we should have a right to shoot our neighbors in the street, or our backyard — or while on “neighborhood watch.”

I suspect I know what causes violence. Aside from dementia, which plays a part, I suspect since men are the usual culprit it is the testosterone they are filled with combined with the increasingly crowded living conditions that tend to lead all animal species to violence. Why should we be exceptional? Also, our inclination to violence is certainly influenced by our love of violent movies and games — including the “Avengers” who solve every problem by violent means and don’t seem to share a brain among them. The fact that America leads the world in violent acts is a fact that may soon have to be corrected after recent events like those in Norway — and the popularity of this particular movie around the world. We shall see. Personally, I like my crime solvers to use their minds and will prefer to watch “Inspector Lewis” (who doesn’t carry a gun) and wonder why humans continue to act like the other animals when they have a conscience and might just as readily care about their fellow humans. But then, as Christopher Lasch points out, in our increasingly permissive society children frequently fail to form a super ego.

Violence in America

I must confess I have a real weakness for the sports highlight shows on TV, such as ESPN’s Sports Center. I love to watch exceptional athletes as they perform at the highest levels. But I have noted the growing tendency on the part of TV networks over the years to focus in on the violence which is also present in so many of our sports: the collision on the football field, the car crash, the slam-jam in basketball, the fights on the hockey ice, the knockout punch in last night’s fight.  When an athlete gets hurt on the field or the race track, we are given a close-up — again and again.

Clearly, the audience craves this sort of thing: TV is in the business of entertaining people for the sake of sponsor’s dollars. If people didn’t want to watch the violence, Sports Center would show something else. It tells us something about ourselves, something that is a bit disturbing. The best-known exploration of this issue, perhaps, was Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,”  which acknowledges our taste for violence but leaves the question of causes in the air. We are, indeed, a violent people and we love to witness violence in pretty much any form. Take what Hollywood has done with Sherlock Holmes, for example. Conan Doyle presented us with a genius who solved crimes by using his superior intelligence; Hollywood gives us a crime-fighter who uses his fists more than his head, and fills in the empty spaces between times with explosions and mayhem. It sells: it’s that simple. Give the people what they want.

Worse yet, we imitate violence. How could it be otherwise? All animals learn by imitation and as we are animals, we also learn that way. And when we see violence on our TV sets — in sports or the latest thrill flick or video game — we want more. Our kids grow up on this stuff and we wonder why we have become such a violent nation. I do realize that it is almost impossible to make a causal argument. Just think how many years it took to make the connection between smoking and lung cancer strong enough to force the tobacco companies into something akin to submission. But I will appeal to the authority of Wallace Stegner who tells us, in his novel Crossing to Safety that in primitive cultures “. . .the young learn by imitating their parents. Girls learn household tasks and the feminine role, including motherhood, by playing house and looking after their younger brothers and sisters. Boys follow their fathers to field and forge, and ape their ways with tools and weapons.” Ours is not a “primitive” culture, we hope, but the point still stands. And if the parents aren’t around, children learn by imitating others they see around them — or on TV. How could it be otherwise? Obviously, there is room for debate about whether TV violence coupled with violent video games are the reason young kids become violent, as Moore’s movie showed. Nevertheless, they are most assuredly a contributing factor, and we could determine how large a role they play if we were to reduce the amount of violence on TV and withhold video games from the kids.  We could start by showing athletic grace and excellence on our highlight shows in place of the crashes, the collisions,  and the blows.

Any bets it will never happen?