Death of Affect

The title of this post is words borrowed from J.G. Ballard and they put me in mind of the fact that one of the things that sets our era apart from preceding ones is the various movements that have resulted in the widespread death of millions of innocent people. We use words like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe those movements, but those words hardly describe the systematic elimination of whole groups of people — such as an estimated 22 million souls under the various programs initiated by Joseph Stalin in the last century. And it behooves us to mention the current use of drones by this country to “take out” terrorists while killing thousands of innocent civilians. Indeed, the inclusion of ordinary citizens in the death count in recent wars is something relatively new in human history. In order to distinguish these events from the systematic “removal” of eight million Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazis the term “Holocaust” was coined in the mid 1960s and it does a fairly good job of establishing the uniqueness of the events surrounding the “Final Solution” that was carried out by such people as Adolph Eichmann under Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s.

The term “Holocaust” enjoys special status and has not (yet) been borrowed or stolen by historians or social scientists in their efforts to describe other such events — such as the more recent “ethnic cleansing” in Eastern Europe. But it matters not. What happens is that we hear the word, or the words, so often that we become inured to them. They cease to have any real meaning.  How can any of us imagine, for example, what the words “twenty million” even mean when applied to the death of civilians who have done nothing whatever to deserve those deaths, except that they were different? We cannot.

Eventually, the words cease to have any real meaning and, worse yet, the events that those words are supposed to describe cease to have any reality for us. Those are things that happened to other people somewhere else. We adopt what has been called a “survival strategy” that protects us from such harsh realities. We exhibit “selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live one day at a time,” as Christopher Lasch said in describing the mindset of those in the death camps who had given up all hope. After all, if a nation decides to systematically “remove” its own citizens what recourse does anyone have? The only option is to focus exclusively on one’s own survival. Nothing else matters.

The point of all this is to draw attention to the distinct possibility that we may already be adopting the same strategy in the face of the facts and descriptions of the mass killings that fill our newspapers and television on a daily basis — not to mention the constant reminders about world-wide terrorism and the violence that has become the order of the day on television, video games and American movies. After a while, those words and those events take on an abstract, unreal existence. We turn into ourselves and focus attention elsewhere rather than confront the terrible fact that there are maniacs who, heavily armed as they all seem to be, can decide who will and who will not live. As happens with medical doctors and policemen, after a while these events become the norm and our feelings shut down.

It is quite possible — he said, risking the charge of conspiracy theorist — that the powers that be in this country (mainly such powers as the N.R.A.) — are quite content that we should become desensitized to the daily mass killings by maniacs with automatic weapons who kill indiscriminately. It’s hard to turn on the television, or turn to the computer, or read a newspaper, without being told about another killing of numerous people by another maniac. And the hope may well be (one I do not share) that eventually we will become so desensitized to this news that we will stop paying attention altogether and cease to be concerned. After all, what can we do in the face of such powerful entities as the N.R.A. that has the Congress in its pocket and tells it how to vote?

This, it seems to me, is one of the most serious problem we face: that we will become so desensitized to the fact of grim and violent death that we will no longer care. It will be something for someone else to worry about. Instead, we worry about more important things, such as how the local sports team is doing and whether it will make the playoffs this year.

Tribal Sovereignty

E.S.P.N. broadcasts a most informative program called “Outside The Lines,” which often turns over rocks in the sports world that many would have us ignore. They recently broadcast a program dealing with the failure of Baylor University to investigate the allegations that several women were raped by one of the Baylor football players. This report came on the heels of the report that Florida State recently paid nearly a $1 million penalty to Erica Kinsman who claimed that Jameis Winston raped her while he was a player at that school.  Florida State’s handling of the case has been described thusly:

‘ . . . the university did not even approach Winston about Kinsman’s accusations until January 2014, after the Seminoles had won the national championship; . . . the Tallahassee Police Department’s investigation was so slipshod that the local prosecutor threw up his hands when the case finally landed on his desk; . . . Kinsman was shunned by her fellow students, called a slut and a whore and a liar, and essentially forced off campus as the football-mad student body rallied around its quarterback . . .”

Florida State University found Winston without guilt, but the fine was based on the fact that colleges and universities are required to report and fully investigate all allegations of rape. Apparently Florida State did not follow the protocol. According to “Outside the Lines” Baylor can now stand proud alongside Florida State.

In the meantime, the young women who are involved in these allegations are frequently stonewalled, told not to proceed because it’s a “he-says-she-says” situation and women seldom win in such cases. In a word, the football player (who is usually the one involved) claims that the act was “consensual” and no crime has been committed. In the Baylor case, several young women, including one who claimed to have been a virgin, testified to “Outside The Lines” that they reported the rape and were simply brushed off.

These are allegations, of course, but they are repeated often enough to give them credibility. And they raise the question of whether the football programs at major universities are not, in fact, separate nations, laws unto themselves. I liken them to the Native American nations, that are legally regarded as having tribal sovereignty, though I am not claiming that rape is a common practice among native people. I simply point to the fact that native communities are in some sense “above” the civil law of the states within which they reside. As a brief report in Wikipedia tells us:

Native American recognition in the United States most often refers to the process of a tribe being recognized by the United States federal government, or to a person being granted membership to a federally recognized tribe. There are 566 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States. . . .

The United States recognizes the right of these tribes to self-government and supports their tribal sovereignty and self-determination. These tribes possess the right to establish the legal requirements for membership. They may form their own government, enforce laws (both civil and criminal), tax, license and regulate activities, zone, and exclude people from tribal territories. Limitations on tribal powers of self-government include the same limitations applicable to states; for example, neither tribes nor states have the power to make war, engage in foreign relations, or coin money. [Italics Added]

The similarities here, as I have said, do not attach themselves to the behavior of the native people as compared with that of university footballers. The similarities simply attach themselves to the fact that both groups are relatively autonomous. But where the autonomy of the native tribes is a function of treaty and law, the autonomy of the footballers is a result of avarice and entitlement. These players are spoiled rotten and they bring millions of dollars into the colleges and universities where they play games. The universities in many cases look the other way and basically allow much greater leniency to those who play for their teams than they do to the rest of the student body, including those women who seem to be the victims of something that often looks like “roid-rage.” Whatever the causes of these attacks, it seems clear that the institutions are reluctant to pursue any sort of serious investigation until or unless they are forced to by outside pressure. Clearly, those teams have something very much like tribal sovereignty.


Loving The Earth

An outstanding athletic team can win even when it doesn’t play its best game. Apparently the same can be said of an outstanding novelist. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams is not her best work, but it is stunning nevertheless. Like a rich mine, her novels keep turning up nuggets of pure gold. In this novel, we follow a young woman in search of her self and her place in the world. Her mother died whence was three and her father was cold and remote, lost in his work and unable to give his daughter and her sister any real affection. So the sisters form a tight bond, but when the younger one goes off to teach people in Central America how to improve their farming practices, the heroine is left alone to find her way. She ends up with a dashing young Indian named Loyd who takes her to his Pueblo village at Christmas time to witness a celebration of the season — not Christmas, but a spiritual celebration of thanks that has many parallels with the Christian custom as it was once celebrated (before Big Business took over the show). The two have the following conversation, which, as I say, is pure gold. Loyd is explaining the celebration:

“We’re on our own. The spirits have been good enough to let us live here [on this earth] and use the utilities, and we’re saying: We know how nice you’re being. We appreciate the rain, we appreciate the sun, we appreciate the deer we took. Sorry if we messed up anything. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble and we’ll try to be good guests.”

“Like a note you’d send somebody after you’ve stayed in their home?”

“Exactly like that. . .

“It’s a good idea. . . especially since we’re still here sleeping on God’s couch. We’re permanent house guests.”

“Yep, we are. Better remember how to put everything back how we found it.”

It was a new angle on religion for me. I felt a little embarrassed for my blunt interrogation. And the more I thought about it, even more embarrassed for my bluntly utilitarian culture. “The way they tell it to us Anglos, God put the earth here for us to use, westward-ho. Like a special playground.”

“Well that explains a lot.  . . . But where do you go when you’ve pissed in every corner of your playground?”

“. . . . To people who think of themselves as God’s house guests American enterprise must seem arrogant beyond belief. Or stupid. A nation of amnesiacs, proceeding as if there were no other day but today. Assuming the land could also forget what had been done to it.”

Admittedly, the novel is somewhat didactic. Kingsolver has something to say and dammit! she’s going to say it. But it is important, even if it smacks a bit of romantic blindness to the shortcomings of native people and holds them up as paragons of virtue. We must admit that they, being human, also have faults. They have their petty jealousies, squabbles, and even wars. At the same time, the native people have always been much closer to the earth than we are and it’s a good idea to take a long, hard look at our own culture from the perspective of other people; Kingsolver is very good at that. In the end, what our culture has done to this planet, and continues to do today, is indeed embarrassing. And stupid.






Gun Crazy

A recent story is worthy of reflection:

ORTERVILLE, Calif. (AP) — The church bell that rings out to announce the deaths of tribal members on the Tule River Indian Reservation tolled repeatedly after a man went on a shooting rampage that left a daughter, his mother and her two brothers dead. The suspect also died in a shootout with police.

The story is doubly disturbing because the man is a member of a native tribe that has been relegated to the wasteland of this country — like so many Native Americans who were chased from their lands. Typically they end up in trailers in the middle of nowhere dependent on gambling casinos to keep body and soul together. And we wonder why they have drinking and drug problems!

But this man shot members of his family for reasons unknown. And this will go down as simply another mindless shooting that might have been prevented if we had tougher gun laws. I say “might have been.” As critics point out, even with tougher gun laws anyone who really wants one could buy it. “It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people who kill people.” Yadda, Yadda. We’ve heard it all before and it is still nonsense. Guns make it a heck of a lot easier. With tougher gun laws it might be more difficult to purchase them in the first place, and this would be a step in the right direction.

It was reported recently that seven team members of the Kansas City Chiefs voluntarily turned in their guns after the murder/suicide by Jovan Belcher.  Defenders of the second amendment — which protects our right to bear arms only because there was not supposed to be a standing army — insist that this is “not a gun issue.” They say it is a “mental health issue,” or a “domestic violence” issue. Whatever. It does get tiresome. One of the seven Chiefs players turned in eight guns! Tony Dungy said in response to the report on “Football Night In America” that he once asked a room filled with his players how many of them had guns and 75% of the hands in the room went up. Carrying guns is becoming the norm, apparently, and states like Minnesota where I live now have laws allowing people to carry loaded weapons on their person wherever they go. The rationale is “self-defense,” but the notion that more people carrying loaded guns will lower the likelihood of violence is counter-intuitive.

Hannah Arendt told us years ago that violence is largely a result of frustration. The man in the story above must have been under a mountain of frustration. And it is a growing phenomenon in a country with a rising population where resources and money are becoming scarce — and where we have been told since early childhood that we can do anything we want to do and have anything we want to have. If we combine growing frustration with the ready availability of guns the formula is one for what we loosely call “tragedy.” We can expect more of the same until or unless the Congress has courage enough to take on the N.R.A. and pass tougher gun laws. If you believe that will happen I have some farmland in the Everglades I would like to sell you.