Whereof One Can Speak 🇺🇦

Nothing special, one post at a time since 2012

Who We Are

Thoughts on who we are as a country — and who we could be instead — from three of us:

From sociologist Kieren Healy:

A first communion inducts a child into one of the sacraments of the Church, having them take a step towards adulthood in expectation of the regular re-enactment of the event throughout the rest of their lives.

Sociologists like me often highlight these rituals of childhood in our writing and teaching. One of the founders of our field, Émile Durkheim, made them the centerpiece of his work. Institutions, he argued, are rituals that bind people to one another as a group. In a ritual, each person finds their place and does their part, and expects everyone else to do the same. Crucially, those involved all see one another participating in the event. By doing so, they enact their collective life in view of one another, demonstrating its reality, expressing its meaning, and feeling its pulse in their veins. That, Durkheim thought, is at root what a society is.

In any given week in America, you can watch as a different ritual of childhood plays itself out. Perhaps it will be in El Paso, at a shopping mall; or in Gilroy, at a food festival; or in Denver, at a school. Having heard gunshots, and been lucky enough to survive, children emerge to be shepherded to safety by their parents, their teachers, or heavily-armed police officers. They are always frightened. Some will be crying. But almost all of them know what is happening to them, and what to do. Mass shootings are by now a standard part of American life. Preparing for them has become a ritual of childhood. It’s as American as Monday Night Football, and very nearly as frequent.

The United States has institutionalized the mass shooting in a way that Durkheim would immediately recognize. As I discovered to my shock when my own children started school in North Carolina some years ago, preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy.

My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. They practice their movements. They are taught how to hold themselves; who to defer to; what to say to their parents; how to hold their hands. The only real difference is that there is a lottery for participation. Most will only prepare. But each week, a chosen few will fully consummate the process, and be killed.

A fundamental lesson of Sociology is that, in the course of making everyday life seem orderly and sensible, arbitrary things are made to seem natural and inevitable. Rituals, especially the rituals of childhood, are a powerful way to naturalize arbitrary things. As a child in Ireland, I thought it natural to take the very body of Christ in the form of a wafer of bread on my tongue. My own boy and girl, in America, think it natural that a school is a place where you must know what to do when someone comes there to kill the children.

Social science also teaches us something about how rituals end, although not enough. The most important step is to kindle a belief that there are other ways to live, other forms that collective life can take. That can be surprisingly hard to do, because a side-effect of ritual life is that participation in it powerfully reinforces its seeming inescapability . . . .

It’s traditional to say that there are “no easy answers”, but this is not really true. Everywhere groups face the problem of holding themselves together. Every society has its enormous complex of institutions and weight of rituals that, through the sheer force of mutual expectation and daily habit, bring that society to life. But not every society has successfully institutionalized the mass shooting. Only one place has done that, deliberately and effectively. The United States has chosen, and continues to choose, to enact ritual compliance to an ideal of freedom in a way that results in a steady flow of blood sacrifice. This ritual of childhood is not a betrayal of “who we are” as a country. It is what America has made of itself . . .

Next, from Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

. . . This is exactly who we are. We are the place with more guns than people, where tens of thousands are murdered every year, and where arguments over parking spaces end in death. We’re the place where much of the gun legislation that passes ensures that almost anyone can take guns almost anywhere. We’re the place where candidates for office show their cultural bona fides by popping off rounds in campaign ads.

We’re not England or France or Canada or Denmark or Japan or Portugal or any other country. . . . Here in the United States, an entire generation has grown up doing drills in case someone enters their school and tries to kill them. They huddle in closets, barricade doors, hear lectures about what they might throw at an armed killer to slow him down. . . .

The roots of this insanity go back far, but today it is maintained by the party that has leveraged its minority rule to make sure virtually no limits are imposed on guns, which it fetishizes and worships and celebrates. . . .

Just two weeks ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a California law that forbade anyone younger than 21 from buying a semiautomatic rifle. In a 2-to-1 decision, two judges appointed by Trump wrote passionately of the importance of allowing 18-year-olds to buy AR-15s:

America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army. Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.

. . . Behold the insane logic of the perpetually armed society: We must let everyone have guns because so many people have guns. . . . 

Republicans who keep us living in this nightmare would certainly prefer it if the lies they knowingly tell about guns were true. They’d be happy if bad guys with guns really were stopped by good guys with guns, if more guns did make for less crime, and if all these guns made us the safest society on earth.

But in the end, the fact that all those things are false does not change their minds. Tens of thousands of suicides and homicides committed with guns every year, punctuated by regular massacres of men, women and children are just the price they believe we have to pay for their version of “freedom.”

Even if most of us don’t agree, those who do can leverage their power to keep the slaughter going. And that’s what it will take to change things: power. Acquiring it and being willing to use it.

Change will not come because we looked into our national heart and found goodness lying therein. The heart of America is not one thing. It is sometimes kind and generous and wise, but it is also dark and hateful and murderous. That is who we really are — all of it.

Finally, from Jennifer Rubin, also of the Washington Post:

The Constitution allocates two senators to the most sparsely populated red states (but none to the District of Columbia), and the Senate filibuster provides gun absolutists with a veto over reforms.

If this were only true on guns, one might be able to make an argument in favor of the present system. But the result is the same for a range on matters, including abortion, immigration, climate change and virtually any other mildly controversial topic. The rigid GOP parlays the anti-democratic Senate and filibuster into an iron grip of minority rule. When legislation on nearly every critical issue can be thwarted by an extreme minority, we have “democracy” in name only. . . .

If the Democratic Party — the only party that still supports democratic values and at least tries to solve problems — can muster the discipline and the will, it can run in 2022 and 2024 on ending the stranglehold of unhinged, minority rule. It must electrify its supporters, pledge to tame if not eliminate the filibuster and make clear that, without Democratic victories, we would face an America few would hope to bequeath their children.

The Republican obsession with controlling women, unlimited gun ownership, white grievance and other deadly ideologies must be identified, denounced and defeated. Democrats should be clear about the choices: white nationalism or tolerance; gun massacres or reasonable gun restrictions; control of women’s bodies or respect for women’s autonomy.

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