This post also is not about assigning blame. While we need to resist the urge to point fingers, the need to avoid blame can't stand in the way of looking at why this happening, who has power in our society to fix it, and what it's going to take.
I firmly believe this can change. I do not believe that a culture of violence and domination is somehow inescapable in this country. America was founded as a response to the illegitimate domination of the British Crown. This love of true freedom runs very, very deep in our veins. Violent means were necessary to overcome British domination, as they sometimes are. But even though violence runs through American history, it is not the only current. There have always been countercurrents and there are always nonviolent paths forward.
[Updated: Got to own some privilege here. It's awfully easy enough for me to downplay the horrific violence, conquest and genocide that both preceded and followed the revolution, as well as the slavery the new republic was built on -- and that's exactly what I did in this paragraph. Thanks to Nezua for calling me out. The historical record couldn't be more clear: the white people who came to America were and are a bloodthirsty, violent lot. But the point remains that there were countercurrents to the main line of violent domination and oppression, and I believe the revolution was one of them.]
The most important countercurrent right now, embryonic as it is, is the progressive movement. It is the braiding together of many different movements: antiracism and civil rights, environmentalism, feminism, the peace movement, the unionism and labor solidarity movements and many others. Conservative anti-government ideas led to the shooting of Representative Giffords. These ideas need to be fully discredited and replaced. The progressive movement is going to do that, or we are going to either fail as a nation, or just skip along from one horrifying tragedy to another.
Progressives will discredit conservative ideas, because it's becoming increasingly obvious that governing by conservative ideas leads to bad outcomes. Even Alan Greenspan admitted that deregulated capitalism led directly to the financial crisis. Deregulation and decades of underinvestment in energy alternatives (in favor of "drill baby drill") led directly to the BP oil spill. Now the shredding of the safety net, income inequality so high that it's a barrier to the kinds of safe communities we want to live in and a permeated culture of violence have combined to lead to a shocking amount of suffering and death.
In times of public grief like this it is very tempting to look for an out. A comforting response comes in the form of a post on boingboing (a widely read news & curiosities site) titled "Why the [shootings] Mean That We Must Support My Politics." It was initially linked to after 9/11, and reads to me as the voice of someone who'd been deeply hurt and was grappling (somewhat clumsily) with the numbness stage of grief over a very public and truly horrible event.
I don't blame anyone for wanting comfort at times like this. But at some point the numbness wears off and reality remains. This is not a moment in American civic life for comfortable withdrawal. This is a moment for facing reality in all its ugliness, a time for connecting and for taking action. Either the progressive movement or some other group has a the best argument for how to decrease violence. Whichever community has the best argument needs your help.
The focus has been on political rhetoric. Political rhetoric matters. Ideas and tone have consequences. But the problem goes far deeper, and the vicious counterattack to claims that the rhetoric does indeed matter is part of a larger strategy of separating and compartmentalizing the problem so we can seal it off, forget about it, and get back to focusing on whatever it was we were focused on - our jobs, our families, that next level of Angry Birds. (Don't get me wrong - there's an appropriate time and place for escapism. We just can't live there.) "He was just a lone nut" makes this into a one-off, an isolated case completely disconnected from any social or civic process.
But reality does not work this way. Reality is interconnected. There is no such thing as a lone nut in this country right now. Conservatives have counterattacked so aggressively on the charges of violent rhetoric (while cleansing their websites in the background) because if you start thinking of the role violent rhetoric might be playing, you might start thinking about the systemic nature of this problem. And if you start thinking systemically, that path leads away from their movement, with it's emphasis on hierarchy and control and separability and disconnectedness.
Consider five systemic problems that are the context for tragedies like this:
We have grotesque income and wealth inequality. There is a very well documented, unmistakable relationship between income inequality and both mental health problems and incidence rates of violence. Income and wealth inequality is a wall between people, a barrier between us and the peaceful, equitable national and local communities we all want to live in. Author Mark Ames wrote the book on workplace shootings, and starts to explain the social underpinnings of these disasters:
"The first private-workplace massacre took place in 1989, at the Standard Gravure plant in Louisville, Kentucky—at the end of a decade of Reaganomics that radically and violently changed the workplace culture, creating yawning new inequalities. These workplace shootings have been with us ever since."
Read the whole article, it's a crucial starting point for understanding this tragedy.
We've made horrific cuts to mental health services. Particularly in Arizona: "To fill a $1 billion hole in its 2011 budget, Arizona slashed this year’s budget for mental health services by $36 million — a 37 percent cut." This is what happens when you try to drown government in the bathtub.
We have a state culture of violence. Examples abound: a complete absence of even the most minimal common sense controls on gun purchases. A reliance on continual war for foreign policy. Military spending greater than the rest of the world -- and on a system that was defeated by two dozen angry dudes with box cutters, a reality we still haven't come close to facing as a country. The violent political rhetoric is just a reflection of all this. We don't have a rhetorical problem with violence in the US. We have a substantive one. [Update: also include our criminal justice system -- the US is, shamefully, #1 in incarceration rate worldwide -- and the racist, counterproductive death penalty in particular.]
We have a media culture of violence. The most dominant mythos in our media is one with ancient Babylonian origins, that theologian Walter Wink calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Warning: if you read that article you will start to see that narrative everywhere. It is completely omnipresent in American culture, and it is completely absurd to pretend that this story could not possibly have any impact on people's thinking. Some specific evidence: "Violent Video Games Increase Aggression Long After the Game Is Turned Off, Study Finds" and a more generalized meta-study. For more on Wink, read this summary of Engaging the Powers, his wonderful but somewhat difficult book on the history of domination and Christianity.
Last, we have to face the breakdown of the nuclear family. Our culture is at the very beginning of grappling with some tough questions about family structures, gender roles and how the built environment shapes these. With marriage rates down and on the order of half of those marriages ending in divorce anyway, this has to happen. To some extent this is the (very positive) byproduct of feminism: fewer women are willing to stay in a bad marriage now. This is good for them and it's good for kids. And many people do manage to build community in the suburbs. But as Loughner's case shows, it's easy to fall through the cracks.
Of these, the first three are unquestionably exacerbated by the ideas of the conservative movement, and the last two are (in my opinion) not addressable by politics at this stage.
Beyond some legal limits on violent political rhetoric and perhaps clear labeling of violent media, I don't see political answers to media violence. I certainly try to limit my personal consumption of it. This is made easier by the realization that hit me once, after watching Iron Man and one of the recent Batman movies back to back one evening: once you realize it's the same story, these things get really boring. This irritates my fifteen year old cousin to no end but the same is true for violent video games. They just don't hold my interest. I do see spiritual answers to media violence, but that is a topic for another post.
The progressive community's answers to violence include fixing the grotesque inequality that's throwing up these barriers between people in our communities and driving us all crazy, funding the mental health safety net, curbing the culture of state violence, and starting to ask the hard questions about media violence and how we organize our families and communities.
But the progressive economic story is not yet strong or clear enough. The argument that we need investment in our society runs directly into the argument coming from everywhere that what we really need is austerity, more belt tightening and tough medicine. The argument that we need democratization of economic power that would undo inequality runs smack into the belief that the rich and the poor deserve what they get and a million other arguments. The argument that we need to spend less on militarizing the planet runs straight into the fear of terrorism and the uncertainty of our position in a complicated world.
To overcome this, the progressive community needs your identification, your help, your ideas and your participation. Read, think, write and talk about ideas. Figure out how to tell your story. Over time, this will help all of us figure out how to tell our story together. If you work at a place that has power or financial resources, make supporting and funding this work a priority for 2011. If you're reading this and you're already doing this, you rock. Thank you.
Thank you for reading all this. May God bless the people of our country and all we've been through, as well as all countries and all people of the world.
[Update: If you're not sure what I mean by ideas work, have a look at this scary, tacitly anti-Semitic graphic novel that the NRA published in 2006. There's a direct line from this to Sarah Palin's use of "blood libel" today. It's bonechilling to look at in light of the events of this week, but look for the clarity and effectiveness of the narrative and the production values. It's four years later and progressives have yet to produce anything remotely this powerful or effective. If you agree with the ideas above, what can you do to help change this?]
[Update: this post was lightly edited after the Newtown, Connecticut shootings in December, 2012.]