Sunday, 29 April 2018

The trauma of the United States

Recently I read "Loaded" by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. It is a history about the US Constitution's Second Amendment and the mythology surrounding it. The Second Amendment is once again in the news for a reason that occurs with depressing frequency. This time it is the shooting that occurred at the Douglas High School in Florida in February and which has resulted in a mass movement Never Again led by some of the survivors at the school.

I must confess that I began Dunbar-Ortiz's book with pessimism. I expected to read the usual arguments for gun control and the usual counter-arguments and I thought cynically that believing anything would really change was just pie in the sky. That is not exactly how it worked out.

The first thing to say is that the book has a deep and well-researched thesis that the history of the USA from even before its foundation contains a number of deeply disturbing causes for the national gun culture that go way beyond the usual excuses. This is not about personal freedoms endowed to the citizenry by the Founding Fathers. It is not about the national hunting culture. Nor is it about the distrust fostered by the NRA that the government wants to disarm the people to enable their suppression ("from my cold dead hands").

No, it is about slavery and genocide. The US Constitution is not about all men being created equal; it is about the privileges of white male landowners and the second amendment is why white male landowners needed guns. They needed guns to contain their slaves through patrols looking for escapees. And they needed guns to carry out the systemic slaughter of Native Americans so that their lands could be seized. It is interesting to reflect that a key reason for the Declaration of Independence is that King George III tried to restrict the colonists' "right" to seize territory west of the Appalachian mountains whose inhabitants were described as "merciless Indian Savages".

This is not an interpretation of their history that most Americans will like. They are more used to a narrative in which heroic settlers fought for their freedom from an oppressive colonial tyrant and then, through the nineteenth century, expanded ever westwards claiming land for themselves. A history in which brave cowboys and fearless rangers protected farmers from violent attacks by Indians and they came into their manifest destiny much like the Old Testament Jews settling Canaan (just after God gave them their marching orders to kill every one of the original inhabitants). These myths protect them from their murderous pasts and are part of the defence of their wide gun ownership. They revere the part that guns played in taming their land, they laud the bravery of the family man whose gun is to protect his nearest and dearest as part of a long tradition, and they hold their constitution in almost superstitious awe.

So, on reaching the end of the book, I had a sense of hopelessness. How on earth could one penetrate these myths so that a rational discussion about how to go forward could be held? After a few days I began to read some other historical material in the same vein and this left me feeling a little more optimistic. To begin with the USA is not the only country burdened by a very shameful history. The Doctrine of Discovery promulgated by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 initially gave the Spanish permission to take possession of colonise any lands they  discovered which were not under the control of a Christian ruler and it became the justification for later European powers to colonise at will (and the American colonists inherited this idea from the British). The world is still suffering from the aftermath of colonisation by force but other colonial powers have at least begun to recognise their catastrophic agency with apologies, reparations, and deliberate reconciliation. The American haven't really started down this road but they did come late to the game - maybe their eyes will be opened in due time.

But also we should not overlook that there are movements in the USA that are trying to confront their racist misogynistic culture: the Woman's Movement, Metoo, the LGBT movement, Black Lives Matter and more. Some of these movements have extraordinary charismatic leaders who recognise the extreme difficulty rank and file Americans have in facing up to their past. I encourage you to view the lecture by Mark Charles; he is a native American who, for all his criticism of the oppression of his people, ends his lecture with some prescriptions that might change the discourse. We have a long way to go (and other colonial powers are still travelling that road) but it is important to try to keep reason, tolerance and understanding alive - and maybe in a couple of hundred years we can emerge in an enlightened sunshine.


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  2. What a coincidence we are each becoming interested in this subject at the same time!