Part I — Little Has Changed:
“It’s the guns,” a friend of mine posted on Facebook the day after the San Bernardino shootings. Yes, I agree it’s the guns, particularly the assault rifles.
Yes, they should be registered, as New York’s SAFE Law — Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act — has made mandatory for state residents. SAFE was passed in January, 2013, in the aftermath of the Newtown school shootings, at the behest of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Several of its provisions were and remain controversial, although the law has passed constitutional muster in the courts. Those same provisions, particularly assault rifles’ renewable five-year registration period and the ten-round limit placed on the size of their magazines, appear, at least to me, unenforceable. No data on the impact of SAFE on gun safety and the reduction of gun-related deaths have yet been released. Interestingly, the California state legislature intends to follow suit, having voted to place a referendum, entitled “Safety For All,” on the 2016 ballot. The California initiative will require background checks for the purchase of assault-rifle bullets and will limit the size of assault-rifle magazines.
But, down deep, I believe it’s fear, an elemental fear that appears to be gripping most Americans, particularly white Americans, of “the other”, i.e., anyone or any group that threatens their privileged status and self-identity as members of the political and social majority, that threatens to displace them. Historically, that status and self-identity have been built on the backs of the marginalized and the scapegoated, whose numbers have expanded over the recent years. Move over black Americans, Native Americans and those labeled mentally ill. Make room for all Muslims, Syrian refugees and any immigrants. And let’s not forget the poor, black and white, folks beyond the pale, who lose their social welfare benefits because they’ve become invisible and can’t recall that they’re U.S. citizens and can vote to protect their self-interests. And folks who never expected to lose their special status at their age, middle-aged white Americans, who’ve lost their jobs and their self- identity, who’ve become superfluous, and drink or drug themselves to death or find some other means, like a gun, to kill themselves.
These are times of dramatic change, perhaps revolutionary change, with the predominate political and societal status of white Americans perhaps becoming no more than an artifact, resting on shaky ground. To put this in a larger context and draw some lessons from the not-so-distant past, Richard Hofstadter, in his classic The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), depicted “fear of the other” as a permanent fixture in American life and politics. He also provided an historical overview of what he termed the “politics of paranoia,” dating from the dawn of the Republic and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 through the founding of the John Birch Society in 1958, so that “armed with [that] history, readers might be better prepared to see through the fanaticism and dogmatists of the past and the present — and perhaps, of the future” (Forward to the Vintage Edition, Sean Wilentz, 2008). The common historical thread, he noted, was fear of displacement by and loss of status to new, non-Anglo Saxon Americans.
In the second chapter of The Paranoid Style, entitled, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” first written in 1954, Hofstadter focused on Joe McCarthy and his adherents, and characterized McCarthyism “and similar forms of right-wing recklessness” as expressing “a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways. They wished to destroy far more than they did to conserve. [Hence,] pseudo-conservatives had become subversives in the name of crushing subversion.
Hofstadter proceeded in the book’s fourth chapter, “Goldwater and Pseudo- Conservative Politics,” to analyze the far-right’s (or the pseudo-conservatives’) first moves to gain control of the Republican Party, in the 1964 Presidential election, and its success in securing the Presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater. Referring to Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, Hofstadter expressed grudging and perhaps alarmed admiration for the “zeal and gift for organization” of the right-wingers who comprised the campaign’s backbone, concluding that it left them in a position “to make themselves effective far out of proportion to their numbers.” Wilentz reports that C. Van Woodward, another distinguished American historian, presciently remarked to Hofstadter that the young right-wingers represented ” a formidable and apparently permanent force in American politics.”
To which I’ll add — always conspiratorial, now thoroughly paranoid, their hatred of the post-New Deal American way has transmuted into unceasing hatred of the federal government. Since 9/11, fear of the other has heightened, begetting paranoia, hatred, violence and more fear. Gun sales spike after every mass murder as Americans’ fear accelerates. The Washington Post has estimated that the number of guns in the hands of Americans in 2013 — 357 million — outnumbers the country’s population of 317 million persons. That fear is currently being exploited by the putative Republican candidates for president, particularly by Donald Trump (nee Goebbels), and his largely silent partner, Ted Cruz (whose sour demeanor and threatening pronouncements remind me of Joe McCarthy). At the very outset of his campaign, Trump called for the deportation of the estimated 11 million undocumented persons in the country, most of whom are Latinos. More recently, a day after the San Bernardino shootings, he recommended as a safety measure the development of a registry for Muslim Americans; followed, on December 9, by calling for banning all Muslims from entering the country, to great acclaim from the country’s far-right media pundits and an increasingly large bloc of frightened white voters.
The Republican Party leadership recoiled in mock horror — many were saying or intimating the same xenophobia — and then leveled broadsides at Trump, as did the Democrats, for threatening national security. My own cynicism — how could one not be cynical after watching the one percenters’ politician surrogates in action for the past 15 years? — tells me they were furious with him for letting the cat out of the bag. Their leaders’ protestations to the contrary, the Republican Party’s mission, since the passage of the mid-60’s civil rights laws and the public opposition to those laws by its Presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, has been to sustain and support white supremacism and maintain white Americans’ and its own political predominance for the foreseeable future. Being surpassed in population numerically by America’s creoles does not necessarily mean ceding political power to America’s peoples of color. They’ve learned well from the Southern experience after Reconstruction failed in the 1870s: Southern whites, relying on fear and terror, succeeded in passing the Jim Crow laws that left Southern blacks disenfranchised and disempowered for the next hundred years and more, despite their numerical superiority to Southern whites by the end of the 19th century. We can expect the same from the Party that, irony of ironies, failed to impose its political will on the South after the Civil War and has now taken a page from the South’s political playbook to maintain its own power.
I grew up during the era that Hofstadter describes. I understood little about the political machinations, but I knew about fear. Fear of the Commies and particularly fear of the bomb. (Some kids grew so anxious about nuclear radiation and incineration that they developed what mental-health professionals called atomic-bomb disease.) I didn’t make the fear-gun connection until I saw Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” (2003). Moore notes the ubiquity of guns in both the U.S. and Canada, and he also notes the discrepancy in the death rates by gun in each country — 3.55 persons per 100,000 in the U.S. vs. 0.49 persons per 100,000 in Canada (data for 2013, Institute for Health Metrics, U. of Washington). He concludes that Americans live in perpetual fear.
I’d say that that’s the cultural sea we Americans swim in. When you add to the mix the demonization of black men; illicit drugs and prescription drugs, particularly the psychoactives and the opioids, swamping the country; guns for all to be used to protect Americans from the demonized black men and the rampage killers and now the ISIL terrorists, that’s a toxic brew. It keeps Americans gripped in fear and hatred of the other, unable to address America’s fundamental burdens of race and white supremacy. Together with the instant communication afforded by the internet, they lower the threshold for violence and afford what Granovetter terms the “strength of loose ties.” (For a review of Granovetter’s “Threshold Models of Collective Behavior”(1978) and “The Strength of Weak Ties” (1973), c.f. my post, “Identifying the Next School Shooter Before He Shoots: Needle In a Haystack,” OpEd News, Nov., 2015.)
I posted my first article about fear in April, 2013, “The Culture of Fear and the Lost Art of Organizing for Social Change” 9Mad In America, in April, 2013). To quote from its second paragraph:
“… in the aftermath of Newtown , a colleague posted a provocative article on the ISEPP list serve that had originally been published in The Washington Post, ‘White Men Have Much To Discuss About Mass Shootings’. The authors’ contention is that American white men have apparently overlooked the fact that most mass murders in the U.S. are carried out by other white men. Rather than searching for causes in the persons of crazy people or, after Boston, in immigrants and Muslims, white men need to examine their own culture, their own beliefs, and how these might be contributing to the mayhem.”
Little appears to have changed.
I also reference in that article noted historian Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself (2013), who, similarly to Hofstadter, lists the nodal points in the progression of the spread of fear in the country. He begins with the Depression when Americans feared for their own survival as well as that of their government as a democracy; and proceeds through the McCarthyite witch hunts after World War II to the end of the Cold War, 1989-91, when the Berlin Wall was taken down (November, 1989) and the Soviet Union was formally dissolved (December, 1991). It seemed then that we had no mortal enemies and might at long last enjoy the “peace dividend” that the Cold War’s end promised. But tell that to the families of the hundreds of unarmed black men killed by U.S. police officers since 1990 (extrapolated from a study conducted by The Guardian [published May 25, 2015], which shows black men being killed at twice the rate of any other U.S. ethnic group — 6.34 per million persons — with two-thirds of those men killed while unarmed). And tell that to the families of the hundreds of thousands of Afghanis, Iraquis and Syians killed since late 2001 when we sent the first U.S troops into Afghanistan.
Little appears to have changed. The money and resources we expected to be transferred from the Eisenhower-labeled military-industrial complex to repair the nation and our society, to address and resolve basic contradictions, never materialized. Instead, more wars and the steady and ever-increasing occurrence of mass murders, an estimated one per day since the Newtown shootings, culminating in the Planned Parenthood and San Bernardino rampages. Which is why we won’t find the proverbial “needle in the haystack” and identify the next shooter before he shoots. Which is why no one suspected Sayed Farook of being capable of doing what he did, this apparently assimilated Pakistani-American, U.S.-college educated, recently married, with a 6-month-old daughter. The more violence that takes place, the more guns that are bought, the lower the threshold for still another shooter.
Are there any remedies for the foregoing? Can anything be done to head off what seems to be the inevitable, i.e., more mass killings? My watchword is always resist — resist the hatred directed towards “the other”. Resist marginalizing and scapegoating the vulnerable; resist guns as a means to ward off fear and paranoia. Struggle to build a grass-roots, up-from-the-bottom, boots-in-the-streets political movement. Restore our cultural sea to health.
The other night, my wife and I were discussing these very same issues with friends over dinner, specifically what to do in the face of the mass murders and the hate and paranoia that were both their cause and consequence. We shifted to a local issue, the proposed warehousing of toxic railcars on unused tracks near the town where our little dinner party was taking place. These were the very same railcars used to carry the oil extracted from Alberta’s tar sands around the country’s periphery, through New York state, for one, to the crude-oil refineries in Louisiana and Texas. Local residents were alarmed at this possibility, which suggested to me an opportunity to rally people around a common cause and oppose the risk to which they were being put by a railroad corporation indifferent to that risk, aided and abetted by an equally indifferent Federal Railroad Administration.
Fortunately for the town and nearby communities, the proposal was scrapped when no other railroad companies expressed interest and it became apparent there was no money to be made. That near miss notwithstanding, these are the sorts of issues that can be used to forge communitarian solidarity, a long-lost feature of our very divided society.
The post Fear & Hate: Seeds of Violence & Mass Murder was originally posted in its entirety OpEdNews and was written by Doctor Jack Carney.
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