America: The Violent?

Why are we so violent?

Is it because of pop culture, mass media? Turn on any major network television station during primetime hours and after the reality TV garbage there’s violence on nearly every channel. Cop shows, hospital shows, ESPs chasing down criminals before they act violently – all primetime fodder for our society. This is not an opinion, this is a fact. Turn on FX and watch American Horror Story, a program I confess to watching but a program that is perhaps the single most violent, gruesome, gory program I’ve ever seen on TV. The Walking Dead, a program where well-armed survivors roam a world dominated by flesh eating zombies, blasting through the zombies with everything from arrows, machetes, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, and what seems like a never ending supply of ammunition. The special effects are amazing: The shotgun slugs blast through weak and tender zombie skeleton like a baseball to a watermelon.

Or wait, is America violent because it’s part of who we are, it’s our history, our heritage? We have a right to bear arms don’t we? Don’t we have the right to take up arms against our government if we, The People, decide that’s what needs to happen? It’s revolution baby! Well-formed militias are our constitutional right. Our entire history is story after story of violence. Be it the explorers who landed on these shores, the colonists who ultimately took up arms and violently rebelled, or the north and the south waging horrific violence there’s a long heritage of firearms and violence in America. Today we use remote control airplanes to bomb anyone who is a threat to our national interests, with extreme precision, or so they tell us, and we turn a mostly blind eye to their collateral damage.

And we love it. We love the violence. We pay to watch it. But forget about television shows and movies, we love stories of World War II atrocities followed up America’s heroics, as we marched, as we drove, as we shot our way through Europe, freeing and liberating the poor people who couldn’t have done it without us. We convince ourselves that America’s heroics are solely responsible for the defeat of the Axis Powers and that Russia and the Eastern Front wasn’t a major factor. America, the heros, the honorable. And we love stories in the news of mobsters who live by their code, of gangsters who remain loyal, who because of omerta must uphold their way of life. We excuse violence if it’s honorable, or so we tell ourselves.

Or are we violent because we’re becoming, as data suggests, a more godless society?

Is it because we’re becoming, as some will inquire, void of family values? (How does one quantify this? Violence is not a direct corollary.)

Have we lost our way so much that the kind of violence we witnessed in Connecticut is, tragically, to be expected? Are we becoming even more desensitized?

Fact: Violent crime is down in America, pretty sharply too.

I was in Paris a couple weeks ago when I heard the news that New York City passed a day without a single report of a person being shot, stabbed or subject to other sorts of violent crime for the first time in recent memory. The irony being that I was an American in France, a very non-violent society.

Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, made this graph of “deaths due to assault” in the United States and other developed countries. While we are the clear outlier violence has dropped to its lowest point since what looks like roughly 1963.

As Healy writes,

America the ViolentThe most striking features of the data are (1) how much more violent the U.S. is than other OECD countries (except possibly Estonia and Mexico, not shown here), and (2) the degree of change—and recently, decline—there has been in the U.S. time series considered by itself.

Healy tweeted an interesting thought last night,

Assault Death Rates is one of the few topics where many Americans will rush to compare the USA to South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, or El Salvador.

Meanwhile 2nd Amendment advocates are stocking up on guns and ammunition in the wake of the election fearing an Obama administration crackdown. Some worry if they don’t do it now they won’t be able to get the weapons they want, or rather, they need. Their basis for this is almost nonexistent, especially given that the first four years of Obama’s presidency saw him signing legislation that allowed loaded firearms in some national parks and Amtrak trains. With that one exception both parties, both candidates, but especially democrats, have been largely mum on gun rights, barely touching it during the debates and gun control was the most unpopular issue during the campaign. But if gun rights advocates have mostly baselessly feared Obama over the last 4 years, the recent shootings will certainly change that. Not since George W. Bush let the assault weapons ban expire in 2004 has there been any serious public policy discussion on gun control.

Fact: gun stocks are sharply up

Fact: gun ownership is up

Fact: violent crime is down

This issue is already very complicated, and it stokes the passions of everyone. The roots of our society’s violent tendencies, people often argue, span a broad range of issues often starting with mental illness, a lack of social services, to a national identification system, to nuanced legislation on what kinds of guns people can buy, to family values, to a morally vapid America that’s increasing consumed with itself, with social media, with its own narcissism and self-importance, to an increasingly godless culture where fewer and fewer people go to their church, their synagogue, or their mosques. The public dialogue also includes opinions about immigration, about drug policy, about prisons overflowing with non-violent criminals while violent repeat offenders are parolled and allowed to walk the streets, yet pot dealers do twenty years hard time. The discussion includes zero-sum solutions ranging from arming everyone to arming no one.

One day after the senseless tragedy in Newtown Connecticut the conversation is already heating up, and one thing is certain, America is about to have the most intense and prolonged discussion on gun control that she’s ever seen.

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This American Pendulum

The older I get the more I find myself interested in politics and economics. However, among my peers I’m one of the only ones. I wouldn’t consider myself passionate about politics and economics, just aware and well informed. I try to get all sides of the stories I’m interested in, from niche blogs, political comedians, pundits, national news sources, and the like. Again, though, I seem to be alone amongst my peers. I’m not sure if that says something about my peers, or my generation, or America at large, but I tend to think it’s the later.

What amazes and shocks me no less than ever before is how little people know about our country, about current events, the political climate, economic realities, America’s place in the global community, etc. Now look, I don’t want to come across all high and mighty, but I think that be being well informed, learned about these things is a responsibility that we have as citizens and members of our community. For me, it’s no different than being an informed consumer, or an informed driver, or an informed employee. Yet ask the average American to name the three branches of the US government, and they struggle – and I mean, they really struggle. Ask the average American to name the leaders in government, or where Libya is on a map (heck, even it’s continent), or what the hot topics in politics are, and you’d be shocked (or maybe not) at the lack of awareness.

Here’s where it get’s shameful for me. Ask the average American about Charlie Sheen, and they have answers. Not only do they have answers, they’ve got a scoop. Ask them about American Idol, about Ashley Judd’s memoir, about all sorts of (in my opinion) useless pop culture news, and you’ll find them to be very well informed. Ask them about what it really means to buy locally, to participate in public service, to be charitable, to really be active (if not well informed) in their community, and yet again you’ll get blank stares.

The state of America’s society is in a shameful, embarrassing, arrogant, naive, and simply sad place. I wonder, though, how long we can keep this up? Is it just where the pendulum happens to be right now? Am I not being fair, not seeing the full picture, looking in the wrong places? I’m sure I am, to a small degree. I’m generalizing, I know that, but I’m not far from the mark.

Is the media to blame? Entirely? Really? It’s totally the media’s fault? Is it also the fault of the media that teachers make a small fraction of what the average white collar worker makes? Who’s fault is it that firemen and women aren’t getting their pensions? Who’s fault is it that celebrities and professional athletes are who our children look up to, instead of astronauts, scientists, the First Lady, or Army Generals?

I think I know who’s fault it is. It’s my fault. It’s your fault. It’s your neigbors fault, your brothers, your sisters, your parents, your friends, colleagues. We are to blame for the state of America’s society, political climate, economic condition, joblessness. We are to blame for the disgusting behavior of people like Charlie Sheen. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. The more bullshit we consume, the more bullshit we produce. If you eat shitty food, you shit stinks to the heavens (pardon the crude analogy). If we, Americans, spent even one hour per day consuming less of the things that do not matter, and consume things that do, imagine how many hours of importance it’d produce?

The empire that is America is about to come crashing down. I mean that, truly. I don’t think I’m overreacting at all (and rest assured that America is an empire), I think I’m stating what informed people know. When it comes crashing down on us, we’ll be so fat, stupid, hopped up on sugar, porn, celebrity gossip, and mindless entertainment that we’ll end up looking like the movie Wall-E. No, seriously. Fat, dumb, deaf, and blind – staring at, consuming, eating, injecting whatever orgasm is put in front of us by each other, by the media, the corporate giants producing it, the greedy vampires orchestrating it and banking on it.

I do have hope though. I have hope that America is suffering from a momentary lapse in reason, good judgement, common sense, and that the medicine is coming – in some form, some shape, some place. Maybe America like a man suffering a mid-life crisis, rejecting his old ways, leaving his family, breaking his own rules, driving a red sports car, carelessly getting laid, recklessly imbibing, and avoiding the reality check that is coming, the reality that his kids now hate him, his dog doesn’t know who he is, his wife loved him and still does, he was lucky to even have the job he had, etc etc. I have hope that this pendulum is reaching that moment where it pauses and changes direction.

The pendulum will swing. It will reach the center, and find another extreme.

I feel better now. Thanks for reading and please, take what I write with just a small grain of salt.

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