Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

20 June 2015

The Charleston Massacre

[For a brief teaser on Charlie Rose’s interview with Putin yesterday, click here. For a post on some constitutional infirmities of fast track, click here. For an apparently too late comment on why the TPP’s “pay for rules” provision must go, click here. ]

Guns and racism. It’s a tragically powerful combination. You would think one of the traditional homes of the Ku Klux Klan would know that.

As the President said, the community’s response to the massacre—among both black and white—offers some hope. There are a lot more good people than racist butchers, everywhere. They’re generally in a lot higher places.

And there’s a lot more neighborliness in South Carolina, where black and white live and work cheek by jowl, than there are in other many places in our nation. In some places whites can grow up without ever knowing a real “black,” except through crime dramas and derogatory caricatures on Fox. So someday things may change.

In the meantime—in the here and now where most people live—there’s a lot of unnecessary suffering. What causes it? Many things. But two under-appreciated factors stand out: (1) the hidden reason for our Yankee love affair with guns, and (2) the pernicious lie that we live in a “post-racial” society. Let’s take them one by one.

Now that many states have adopted “open carry” laws, we Yanks are unique in human history. We’re the only great world-spanning empire in which personal weaponry has played a big part in daily civilian life among all classes. We Yanks are something new under the Sun, and it’s not necessarily a good “new.”

There are only two weak precedents in human history, and both were nothing like us. One was the city-state of medieval Venice, and similar entities from the Dark Ages. The other was our own Wild West.

We Yanks all know about our Wild West from video myth and legend. Medieval Venice, not so much. But if you recall Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, you may know what precipitated the tragedy of the “star-crossed lovers.”

A kid from a rival clan killed Romeo’s friend (Mercutio) in a spur-of-the-moment duel. Then Romeo killed that kid (Tybalt) in revenge. The kids involved were all about fourteen years old. From this you might conclude that, in medieval Venice, it was customary for males, including adolescents, to carry lethal personal small arms and be trained in their use.

In Venice and other medieval societies, there was a class aspect, too. Only the upper classes could afford to buy rapiers, let alone the weeks or months of training needed to get good at using them. So, in addition to making clan feuds lethal and encouraging lethal duels over “honor,” personal weaponry had a policing aspect, too. It kept the rich safe from the hoi palloi.

But this aspect of medieval Venice did not survive into modern Italy. Nor did our own Wild West survive into the nineteenth century, let alone into our modern nation. Both cultures grew up.

Why? There’s an under-appreciated and very practical reason, which has little or nothing to do with politics. It takes a lot of time, training and effort to get good at using small arms. It’s a skill—or a sport, if you will—and it takes both native talent and lots of practice.

The stakes of practice are much higher today. Unlike rapiers, today’s small arms can kill innocent bystanders some distance away. If you can shoot straight, you might be lucky enough to kill or wound your assailant, but how many innocent bystanders might you hit in the process?

What maintains our irrational Yankee love affair with guns, in the face of this bald reality, is a widespread puerile fantasy. It holds that the average suburban Joe, who takes target practice at a gun range twice a month, can match the skill of the police, or of a hardened criminal, whose livelihood and often whose life depend on how he uses his weapons.

We won’t even mention the hand-to-hand combat that often accompanies small-arms struggles. Does going to a shooting range a couple of times a month make you a master of martial arts, too? Even if you’re an out-of-shape couch potato, as many gun enthusiasts are?

Myths don’t have to reflect reality, or even to make sense. All they have to do is fulfill an emotional need. And the myth that guns in civilians hands keep crime at bay and the government honest does that beautifully.

If you’re a young, uneducated macho male, not good at doing much of anything, our modern society hits you hard. Your labor is not worth much. You can’t take it out on women because of equality, women’s liberation, and anti-harrassment rules. You can’t take it out on helpless minorities, both because minorities are not so helpless any more, and because the KKK has fallen out of favor.

But you can indulge in the fantasy that, if ever accosted by a mugger, you could be a hero. Or, if you’re lucky enough to have a girlfriend—which most lone-wolf assailants most definitely don’t—you can imaging saving her from unspeakable crimes with your personal skill in weaponry. Modern video games and movies reinforce this young male fantasy endlessly.

It’s not an idle fantasy. It’s hard to break because it plays so cozily with young, male pride. It’s a perfect fit to the emotional needs of males from 14 to 39, as well as those who’ve never grown up. Our Yankee gun industry has built so well on this fantasy that, we are told, it now supplies 40% of the world’s non-military, personal small arms, although we Yanks comprise only 4% of the world’s population. A ten-time multiplier is not bad, not bad at all, if you’re in business.

Racism may be even more potent. Unlike using a weapon to kill one’s neighbor, tribalism is part of our biological evolution. We evolved as a species in small clans, of about thirty or fewer members. If you came across a member of another clan, you were usually competing with him for territory, food, or reproduction. We had, and still have, to overcome that part of our biological evolution with social evolution, if we are to survive as a species, let alone prosper.

Like the puerile macho fantasy of dominance over imaginary attackers, racism, too, can serve a deep need for pride. If you’re down at the bottom of the totem pole and can’t get a job, you can still look down on others who differ from you in race. You can even blame your own troubles on them.

The Nazis understood this point. They managed to kill about 6 million people putting it into practice. But that still wasn’t enough to give them victory. Probably it never will be. For if you’re mean and nasty enough, your scapegoats aren’t the only ones who will fight you. Disgusted and revulsed bystanders will, too. The poor Nazis managed to get just about everyone else in the world to gang up on them, notwithstanding the high reputation of German culture before the Nazi era.

We all have anti-social impulses. What young male, in his heart of hearts, hasn’t fantasized about jumping the small, weak-looking ugly guy and taking the beauty beside him? What human hasn’t fantasized about killing someone who hurt him, killed or injured a loved one, or injured his pride or livelihood?

Yet we suppress these anti-social impulses because we are civilized. We each, individually, gain more than we lose. Our social evolution supersedes our instincts and even our biological evolution, letting us cooperate in ways that small clannish tribes never could have imagined. We can fly through the air, communicate around the globe in an instant, and begin to understand how we came to be and how to fix what ails us. No single human could possibly do this alone; we’ve got to cooperate.

Up to now, social evolution, like all evolution, has gone mostly at random, in fits and starts. For example, it took our bloodiest Yankee war even to begin to think about actually putting our national credo (“all Men are created equal”) into practice. After ten millennia of recorded history, and a couple of centuries after John Stuart Mill, we’ve finally started to figure out that making individuals happier makes us all better off.

So now we’ve got to start taking social evolution seriously. We’ve got to start working on it consciously, deliberately and systematically.

We begin by wiping out the dangerous fanstasies that we live in a “post-racial” society and that more guns in more civilians’ hands can keep us safe.

Fortunately, we have some good teaching aids. One is our President. I voted for him twice in small part because I though he would teach us something about race in America. Little did I know that, even if you’re president (and a pretty good one at that!), if you’re “black,” or even coffee-colored, you have to face racism every day.

That knowledge, which tens of millions of old whites like me have gained from six years of dismal observation, should motivate us to jump-start our social evolution and expunge the sources and symbols of racism, beginning with the Confederate flag. South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn was onto something when he said we need to consider the wider context and nurturing culture behind an apparent “lone wolf’s” atrocity.

“No man is an island,” said John Donne. It’s hard to become a lone-wolf killer by osmosis. You need “inspiration.” It’s time we got serious about our national social evolution and went after that terrible inspiration, just as we pursue the sources of terrorism among our people, whether their inspiration is domestic or foreign.

As for guns, it’s going to take a while for us Yanks to grow up. The young male myth of puissance from firearms is deeply embedded in our culture. But it might help to notice that ancient Rome had no police force. Soldiers and ex-soldiers protected themselves from crime by the own skill with weapons, and the aristocracy had trained guards and slaves.

Some time during the Renaissance, the Western World discovered the police force. Since then, every nation, include the poorest, has adopted it. It’s simply a matter of division of labor and specialization—a vital part of our human social evolution. It makes no more sense for lawyers, accountants, merchants and ordinary workers to practice weekly at the shooting range than it does for all these folks to do their own computer programming or to learn to take out their own appendices, just in case.

Sooner or later, we Yanks will figure this out. As Winston Churchill once said, we always do the right thing, after exhausting all the alternatives. But the person who discovers how to debunk the seductive myth of dominance through firearms will speed the process along. He or she might even win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Forenote: Rose v. Putin, Great Interviewer v. Russian Communicator

Something important happened yesterday. Charlie Rose interviewed Vladimir Putin before a multi-ethnic, international audience at an economic summit in St. Petersburg. Both men deserve credit: Rose for doing a fine job with the interview, and Putin for submitting to such a public interview by a foreign journalist from a sometimes adversarial nation. (As you may have noticed, sharp journalism is not something Putin has come to expect from his own controlled media.)

Both media progress and geopolitics won big. Rose redeemed himself from his execrable dialog with Iran’s then-president Mahmound Ahmadinjed eight years ago, which was more a harangue by Rose than an interview. This time, Rose was thorough, subtle, diplomatic and respectful. Putin got a chance to explain the disasters he has helped cause in Syria and Eastern Ukraine and to push for dialogue to improve the situation. His appeal for a political solution was apparently sincere, as was his speech en famille over a year ago.

The note is just a teaser. From what I could hear of Putin’s Russian, I was not impressed with the simultaneous translation of his apparently impromptu remarks. I’ll wait until there’s a Russian transcript or Russian clip I can listen to before commenting. But the very fact that Putin made the effort belies the notion that he’s resolutely after war and conflict. So far, so good.



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