The Unwashed are Coming

(Moises Castillo/AP)
The fever pitch of election season always brings out the histrionics in us. The way the political right frames it, we now have an “invasion force” coming at us from the south, not carrying guns but.. of all things, flags of their home country! This unusually selected detail was used by a post I saw on social media focusing on the flags (accompanied by an inflated statistic of the size of the group) as solid evidence of an “invasion.” So our President sends 5,200 troops to the border and speculates about “middle easterners” being among the refugees. Simultaneously, our own military files a threat assessment that predicts only 20% (1,400) will actually make it to the border and finds exactly zero middle easterners in the group.
 
We also get to witness the cries from the left of “Nazi!” and Fascist!” which get thrown around at any sign of the exercise of power politics on the part of the ascendant political class. While I am aware of a growing number of cases where rights are abrogated and power is used that has not been designated by democratic representation, it is my opinion that these terms fly about too readily and too unrealistically. I’m sure there is a sociological formula for the average gap in time between mentioning the President’s name on Facebook and the appearance of these words. There are times when we witness true fascistic behavior. And we would be better served to hold those terms in reserve for the times when law enforcement actually aids and abets extremist elements, or acts to deny us our constitutional rights with impunity. 
   
Another word that we hear frequently in this context is “racist.” All indications are that at a bare minimum, the president struggles with a tendency towards racism. But his racism, like most racism, is context driven. A member of another ethnic group is not treated unfairly unless they are a threat, either as a member of a group with a contrary agenda (immigrants, “Jewish bankers”) or as part of an economic underclass. This second type of racism results from a peculiar class awareness that makes associations with being financially well-off the hinge factor. Financial status is the key element that determines whether or not a member of the wide variety of humanity that is not Scotch-Irish is worthy.
 
Max Weber

The great sociologist Max Weber, known for naming and describing the “Protestant work ethic”, had an insight into this classism that has origins in our nation’s puritan background. He examined the pervasive belief in predestination that was central to his own Calvinist upbringing and found powerful threads running from it into capitalism and classism. The idea that our fates are decided beforehand and some of our names are “written in the book of God” became, for early capitalism, an organizing principle.

 
Since predestination was real but only God knew who was pre-selected, the stout and hearty Calvanist took life as an opportunity to demonstrate salvation. Hard work, upright morals, and thrift were salient features that proved a person’s eternal destiny. The notion of thrift in particular acted to fund the store of surplus capital that led directly to institutions of lending at interest and equity markets that we consider natural today. In prior ages, if any money was earned by commoners it was by and large spent as soon after it arrived. 
 
All of this of course is the well-rehearsed underpinning that Weber provided to his theory of the Protestant work ethic fueling capitalism. A lesser known corollary helps clarify our current dilemma over immigration and racism. Weber thought that this demonstration on the earthy plane by God’s “select” (i.e. that they had been predestined by God) became reinforced over time to become an assumption. In other words, the stricture that we do not know the mind of God as regards to who is predestined for glory went by the wayside and those who demonstrated an ethic of hard work and thrift began to assume that they were as a group clearly marked for eternity in heaven.
 
The political philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes a parallel here with the end times teachings about the rapture and those “left behind” who remain after the select enter into heaven. The same principle of “chosen” and “damned” seen in the theology of predestination applies to this formulation. Even the rough percentage holds: 10% matter, 90% don’t. 
 
Inevitably, this led to where we are today. The mere appearance of being financially well off is enough to delineate who is “clean” in the eyes of God and who is “the unwashed.” The feelings of sympathy and comity with the poor become less important and the burden of responsibility and connection to their well-being is lifted. The idea that the poor are responsible for their own fate begins to dominates and any guilt associated with having surplus is allowed to vent.
 
Those who are not currently wealthy but only aspire to be part of this club of the well-to-do buy into this same program. The recognition that the rich have a responsibility to the poor is seen as sentimental hogwash. All of life is reduced to tooth and nail struggle to reach a lifeboat and if that means climbing over your neighbor to save yourself, so be it. That person, by losing out, in effect demonstrates that they were not predestined for glory anyway.
 
Weber had much else to say that we could stand to hear today. He provided insights into political ethics that are as sharply descriptive as they were when he first published his essay “Politics as Vocation” almost a hundred years ago. He argues that political leaders must balance what he calls the “ethic of conviction” with the “ethic of responsibility”. Conviction is doing what you feel is right regardless of the consequences. Responsibility lies in seeing where an action might possibly lead. It takes into account the implications and ramifications.
 
We are more closely being led by political convictions today and they emerge from that bottomless font of political enthusiasm; ideology. It starts with unshakeable premises like “government is bad” and “foreigners are dangerous” and all actions flows from that. Subtlety, nuance, fact sorting and consensus are left begging. And unintended consequences are the result of acting on irresponsible conviction. “Political stunts” (as Barack Obama deftly termed it) like the militaristic overkill at our southern border work more as emotive electioneering engines than practical strategy.  
 
The immigration issue is real and problems regarding refugees, economic inequality and political stability must be addressed. Dividing off and dismissing a group of humans as arbitrarily unworthy is not helpful or humane. 
 
 

Guiding Us To a New Future

After suffering repeated school shootings we have arrived at a point where the students themselves have taken the lead. They are showing how it’s done. They are confronting their elders with their impotency. They know the score. The adults are too scared, or too complacent, or just too burnt out to do anything about it. The future belongs to those with vision and energy. The future belongs to those who are oblivious to the fact that it can’t be done.

Our state governor (Bevin) gets a mike in front of him and makes his case for how this is a cultural problem, not a gun problem. He wants to isolate guns away from any discussion of the problem and shift the focus to the influence of video games, movies and music. In his view these influences are the major culprits. He has his personal reasons for doing that I’m sure. But his political reasons are also transparent. He says we wouldn’t have these impressionable youths gunning down their peers if they weren’t crucially swayed by the entertainment industry (hint: full of elite liberals). The breakdown in family structure and the general lack of moral tone gets the hammer next (hint #2: Godless liberalism causes that too). But not guns (hint #3: gun control is political anathema to his party). Because this is not a gun problem. Give him points for not budging from the party line.

But guns are involved here in some manner, right? His general point about cultural issues is valid but by refusing to talk about guns themselves he loses the plot. Yes, it is a culture problem. But no, the main element in that culture problem is not something like a gory video game. I’ll put this in caps here to make this clear: We Have a Gun Culture Problem. The argument “it’s not a gun problem” is the go-to rebuttal. The gun is inanimate. The gun has been with us for many years. Gun are part of our American identity. Guns need to be out there so that guns can be in the hands of the good guys.

Yes to all of that. But here is what his behavioral counter argument is missing: We Have a Gun Culture Problem.

To discuss the cultural issues mentioned above while keeping guns in some bubble of isolation is comforting if you own guns and if your worry is that they will be taken away. But it is also being willfully blind to what America is. We are a gun loving nation. All of the other things including these horrific killings draw their power this basic fact.

We sanction guns. We glorify guns. We worship guns. We fetishize guns.

We allow this pervasive and unquestioned identification with gun culture to win the day. In the face of an apparent pattern of killings in schools, instead of looking at the elements of this pattern; with the same type of weapon, by someone who forms an identity and sense of power through gun culture, because of a lack of community outreach that recognizes inordinate gun fascination, or because he can easily obtain the gun he shouldn’t have due to lack of uniform regulation, we shift the focus away. We minimize the part that guns themselves play in this pattern and compartmentalize them. We say: “It’s not a gun problem.”

As if any aberrant behavior was not bound up with either objects or other living beings. If you have a drinking problem and you say “it’s not the liquor” you have hit on a corner of the truth without exercising true comprehension of the entire dynamic. Let’s try a general equation: Object + Person = Problem. We don’t say “it’s not a liquor problem” to the alcoholic. We tell them that they have a disease and part of the cure is keeping liquor away from their lips. It’s liquor and them, To say it’s not a gun problem is to ignore the entire dynamic. In the case of a would-be criminal it is: Gun + Person = Problem.

The “Person” part of this equation is where all this discussion of societal and family dynamics plays a part. I am not arguing against any of that. By all means, limit exposure to violent media in young people, work to support healthy family and community life, look out for each other, be aware of who is being bullied or ostracized.

But next, let’s take another look at how a love of guns that sometimes resembles a sublimated sexual obsession works in this way to damage society. And not just among criminals but also in the law abiding gun community. How can we allow easy access to guns to the frustrated, isolated, and powerless among us by making an argument that guns should be universally accessible? Because of our blithe attitude towards gun culture, we give our tacit permission to use guns to solve these problems. Our love of guns and our lack of control with this obsession sends the wrong message: “We don’t care, so why should you?” Our blindness to this simple fact leads to tragedy. And it leads inevitably to doubling down with the following logic; when a problem of gun violence inevitably occurs, throw more guns at it (e.g.: arming teachers).

We have reached the insanity of a gun culture without limits. The way to demonstrate that we as a nation can control this problem is to actually exercise control. Over ourselves and over guns.

Until we look deeply into our individual souls, and our soul as a nation, and begin to see gun culture as a pathology (and yes, it is about guns too), one that needs to be examined and rationalized and tamed, we will move along into a future unchanged.

Bless those high school kids. They are guiding us to a new future.