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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Democracy and Education

Years ago John Dewey wrote a book about the relationship between democracy and education, making the claim that the former relies upon the latter. Without an educated citizenry democracy cannot survive. I have been harping on the same theme for many years now and am saddened to say that Dewey was spot on. We are seeing his prediction come true, especially of late.

Thousands of qualified American citizens are ready to vote for a demagogue who has openly lied and insulted whole classes of people while making it abundantly clear that he is an autocrat in the mold of Vladamir Putin: he wants to (and thinks he can) run the show by himself. He doesn’t realize that as president he must work with the sitting Congress in order to achieve anything. Given his past performance it is fair to say that if the Congress doesn’t act as he would want them to he will try to bully them into doing so and (if he had his way) fire them if they don’t — like the generals he regards as incompetent. The extent of this man’s ignorance of this democracy which he wants to lead and how it is supposed to work beggers belief.

But the point is that so many of our fellow citizens are prepared to support him and are convinced that he is the only one who can deliver this nation from the depths to which he insists we have plunged. This, in itself, demonstrates the truth of Dewey’s thesis. Given all the indicators employed by a wide variety of disinterested parties, American education is failing and the numbers of those who plan to vote for a candidate supremely unfit for the office is clear indication of that very failure. I have written about this so many times it doesn’t bear repeating. But the truth, no matter how many times repeated, bears serious reflection.

Donald Trump would be America’s tyrant and take this country down a path that leads away from true human freedom, a path that an educated citizenry of a true democracy would avoid at all costs. Our government has already altered its form and now more nearly resembles an oligarchy than it does a republic. The wealthy in this country at present buy and sell politicians like toilet paper. The ordinary citizens, like you or like me, stand in line and vote once every four years for a candidate selected by wealthy corporate interests because they meet with their approval and will do their bidding. But even here intelligence is required to guarantee that the best qualified candidate wins the job.

There is no question the system is failing on all counts. At the roots of this failure is the fact (undeniable, though stoutly denied by many) that our education system fails to teach young people how to use their minds. The evidence is abundant as the trend in our schools has increasingly moved in the direction of job training and away from true education, know-how rather than know-why. Unless or until enough folks get worked up about this fact it will not change. Indeed, the trend will continue and demagogues like Donald Trump will continue to capture and hold America’s attention and even affection. Our democracy will be completely undone.

It all starts in the home before kids go to school. It then proceeds through the grades and into high school and college where increasingly parents and educators have allowed the students to dictate what they will learn and in doing so those parents and educators abandon their primary responsibility and weaken the structure of the political system that supports them. It is ironic, to be sure. But more to the point it is terribly sad.

Greek Lessons

It seems odd to suggest in this sophisticated (?) day and age that we might learn something from people who lived centuries before us and who were in some respects quite different. But, then, in most respects they were not so different and despite the centuries that have passed, there are lessons to be learned. After all, during the “classical period” that only lasted a few decades, Athens, especially, produced some of the greatest minds that the world has ever witnessed. And they spoke to us, providing us with the wisdom, creativity, and brilliance that launched Western Civilization.

Later, Plutarch wrote his Parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in order to show that history repeats itself and to teach young men how to live by witnessing the lives of the greatest of those who went before them. It was a given that we could learn valuable lessons by bearing witness to the lives of the great. These men were the heroes of the age and the ones who were looked to in order to help get one’s bearings in an increasingly confusing world. Today, we have our athletes and warriors. So did the Greeks and the Romans, though their heroes tended to be more …. heroic.

Consider, for example, one of the oldest works ever written down, though it was originally passed down orally from the old to the young. I speak of Homer’s Iliad. It tells us about the extraordinary warrior, Achilles, who has his prize taken away from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition to Troy.  He pouts and sits sulking in his tent while his comrades are fighting a losing battle. Finally, he allows his best friend Patroclus, to don his armor and go forth to lead the Greeks into battle. Patroclus dies and Achilles is finally determined to fight and, being the great warrior he is, he turns the tide. In the process he kills the greatest warrior on the Trojan side, Hector. In the end Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles and begs him to allow him to take Hector back within the walls of Troy and give him a proper burial. Achilles agrees.

In Achilles’ development throughout the course of the story, we see him going from childish petulance to anger, to rage, to courage, to compassion. In the process, we suspect, he learns the greatest of the Greek virtues: temperance — or self-control. In fact, this concern with temperance is echoed in  Greek dramas where we discover that temperance is held up repeatedly as something priceless in itself, though very hard to achieve. Without it, without self-control, the Greeks realized that men and women were invariably headed toward tragedy. The Greeks admired wisdom, courage and justice. But above all else they admired temperance. Later, the Stoics in Rome made it the centerpiece of their world view.

If we contrast this with our world view a great many things jump out. But the largest, certainly, is our lack of temperance. The notion that we should restrain ourselves and exhibit a calm demeanor while others around us are losing their minds shows others that we just “don’t get it.” Our mantra is “it’s not good to keep things bottled up.” Those who do are viewed as “uptight.” This is the age of letting it all hang out, exhibiting our emotions for all to see and holding nothing back. We see it all around us, especially in those athlete-heroes I mentioned above. In the eyes of many it is what sports is all about. The athletes set the tone and many of our leading politicians have started to follow their lead, exhibiting outrage, hatred, and contempt, raw emotion, at every opportunity — some more than others.. And they are not held in contempt: they are admired for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to healthy emotions. On the contrary. It just seems to me that we should hold something back, even if to create an air of mystery. And self-control, coupled with careful thought, is important if we hope to work our way out of the morass we seem to have fallen into.

Achilles sulked and exhibited rage, though he learned important lessons from his encounter with Hector and his exchange with Priam. He learned to be compassionate and to control his emotions. Those are the lessons we seem not to have learned as we simply wallow in a sea of our own uncontrolled passion. It is not admirable. But more importantly, it leads to tragedy. The Greeks knew that above all else.

Oh, Poor Baby!

Pity the poor corporate CEO. After all he needs to make his profits and this is the time of the year when he makes the most. Why shouldn’t he insist that his employees work on Thanksgiving? He is planning to take the kids out of private school early this year and fly them to Switzerland for a skiing vacation.  After all, they  went to Mexico last year and there’s no need to repeat the same old thing. And he wants to fly his family from Geneva down to Rome for Christmas day and have a nice meal. Those private jets don’t fly themselves and pilots don’t come cheap! Poor guy: all he wants to do is make sure this year his family has a REAL vacation! Those damned employees have signed another petition to put pressure on him to let them have Thanksgiving day off. What do they think this is, anyway?

Target is one of the larger chains to ignore the pleas and petitions of its employees, as this story in the Orlando Business Journal tells us:

A Target employee launched an online petition drive asking the company to push back opening hours and let workers spend Thanksgiving with their families, after the retailer announced it would open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving for Black Friday shopping.

The petition has garnered more than 211,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon, the South Florida Business Journal reports.

It happened last year as well. The story has been repeated again this year as the Consumerist also tells us:

For the second year in a row, a Target employee has managed to secure hundreds of thousands of names on a petition asking Target to rethink its pans to start its Black Friday sale on Thanksgiving night. And for the second year in a row, Target is politely declining the suggestion and moving ahead as planned.

Target thus will demand that their employees work on turkey day again. This is the American way. The period from Thanksgiving until Christmas is the portion of the year when the businesses make the majority of their annual profits so the idea is to extend that period as much as possible in order to increase profits. If this means keeping the stores open on Thanksgiving Day, so be it!  As we have seen, it doesn’t stop here: the pre-Christmas sales now start before Halloween. It’s never too early to make a buck! This is not brain surgery. It’s not ethical, either. But we have long since given up on letting ethics stand in the way of Big Business.

There are companies, and especially small businesses, that care about their employees and attempt to work out some sort of compromise between the employees’ reasonable desire to spend time with their families during the holidays and the need to make sure the bottom line is black instead of red at year’s end. But the large corporations must answer to their stockholders and they tend to be heartless and unfeeling in the manner of Scrooge at this time of the year. But unlike Dickens’ wonderful tale, there’s no one person the ghosts can visit in order to activate a dormant conscience and make them realize what this season is supposed to be about. The Supreme Court has determined that corporations are persons. That’s absurd on its face, but even if it were true, it is a certainty that they don’t have a conscience.