Pop Goes The Political Culture, October 28, 2018
“Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along.
Doesn’t stop the story. Story’s pretty strong. Doesn’t change the song.”
– Stephen Sondheim, Assassins
It is Sunday in America and we are grieving for 11 souls lost to a mad gunman at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. At the same time we are relieved and grateful that a would-be mass bomber was arrested in Florida on Friday, before he could inflict physical harm on others.
On Facebook yesterday, DJ posted this tweet:
This was my reply to the question:
In the case of a person so unbalanced that the idea of sending bombs via parcel post seems reasonable, no. A mind that damaged could twist any outside force into justification for enacting violent ideation. Remember Mark David Chapman was inspired to shoot John Lennon by The Catcher in the Rye.
But – BUT – the Trump style of hyperbolic and negative speech is what is driving more sane people to be awful in uncountable, tiny ways. He has given permission for regular folks to be their worst selves. They may never commit acts of physical violence but they are using words and small actions to hurt the people around them. His supporters’ everyday acts of hatred are a million paper cuts of harm to society.
For many years, I have been active in gun violence prevention advocacy. What I have learned from that work is that the mass shooter is not the real gun problem. The random act of extreme violence perpetrated by the profoundly damaged human being is not the problem we should focus on solving. Because that is not a systemic problem addressable by policy changes. The mass shooter, the bomber, that person is working at the behest of an internal force that would compel him or her to be violent regardless of outside stimuli. The problem of the deranged killer is the derangement, which is a condition that will demand manifestation and will settle on any excuse.
As I quoted above, “Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along.”
In gun violence prevention, the real problems are much simpler. Keeping guns locked away from children. Keeping guns away from domestic abusers. Keeping guns away from people with ideations of self-harm. The smaller, more everyday problems are less visible, but more solvable.
Similarly, in Trump’s America, the real problem – one that is foundational to our society, and probably most societies – is not the crazed zealot determined to cause mayhem. It’s everyday community on community bigotry. It’s the sign in the window reading “No Irish Need Apply”. It’s the housing development with bylaws that exclude certain types of people from purchasing homes. It’s the separate drinking fountains and segregated schools. It’s the country club that won’t accept Jewish members. It’s the indigenous nations pressed into unwanted corners of the country by laws they had no voice in creating. It’s the baker who refuses orders from same-sex couples. It’s the school that denies the self-affirmed gender identity of trans students.
It is the us seeking to exclude a them.
We have all experienced the personal struggle to overcome us-versus-them thinking and accept new people into our personal circles. We have all overcome the fear of the unknown to reach out a hand to the stranger who looks truly strange to us. And we all understand that it bring us closer to being the kind of people we truly want to be.
We also know that it is hard work and it is probably against our evolutionary wiring. We wouldn’t be so quick to exclude if exclusion hadn’t been crucial to survival at some point in our ancient past. Being the better person isn’t easy and it is often a fight against our intrinsic natures.
What Trumpism has done is given people permission to stop having that fight and let their intrinsic natures win. He allows us to be our worst selves. He gathers his “us” close to him and tells the madding crowds that yes. Yes, they may openly disdain “them”.
Most of the people who have gratefully accepted his new rules for social commerce would never shoot up a synagogue. That’s not what we need to fear from them.
Instead, they would be the person huffing and griping in line at a grocery store because the person ahead of them is paying with an EBT card. They would be the one who yells at restaurant server with an accent to “Just learn English!”. They would change seats on public transit if a person of color sat beside them. And they would teach their children to do the same.
The top elected official in our country is a boorish, vulgar man. He is unkind and insensitive. He is a walking manifestation of our worst, most trollish impulses. For the people who share his prejudices, the opportunity emulate him and to stop trying to suppress those feelings is clearly seductive. They are happy to mirror the boorishness, the vulgarity, the unkindness, the insensitivity. They feel free to be their worst selves.
The greatest violence Trump has done is to the social compact we once had where we agreed to do unto others as we would have them do until us. The loss of that contract has made us a restive, anxious, and angry society for the moment. We are all bitter and sharp with one another. We are all struggling and no one is happy because, ultimately, acts of unkindness are unsatisfying and leave no joy in their wake.
We feel helpless in the face of the armed madman because he is unpredictable and his periodic emergence is probably inevitable. But we should not feel helpless in the face of small acts of cruelty because we have power over them. We can weigh our own words before we speak. We can stand at the side of the person receiving the cruelty and show ourselves as allies. We can confront others for their cruelty and ask that they stop. We can do that and we should do that. That is what the ideal of a peaceful society demands of us.
I have faith that we all still have access to our better selves and we can walk back from this shadow of cruelty that Trump has cast over us. All we have to do is remember who we wanted to be before a madman came along into the White House.