Monday, January 02, 2012

A culture of fear, a culture of violence

I live in the Toronto area, and am a Canadian, but, as you may know, I lived in the U.S. for a long time. (I can prove it with my high school and college diplomas.) And while I love Canada, I wanted to stay in the U.S. after graduating college. ('Twas grad school that brought me to Toronto.) If not a citizen, I was still very American -- and I remain so still.

Like many Canadians, and like many around the world, I have mixed feelings about the U.S. It's hard not to. It's a force for good in so many ways but also an arrogant, bullying empire. But I certainly still love America a great deal, in spite of its massive flaws, and, needless to say, I spend a great deal of time thinking about, and blogging about, American politics and culture. This blog, after all, is almost entirely focused on the U.S.

But things have changed. I used to think seriously about going back. Now, not so much. (Not unless, say, Obama offered me a job.) It's partly nostalgia on my part, but America just isn't what it was as recently as 15-20 years ago. There was a period of optimism and hope following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, when I was in high school and college, but that quickly came to an end. Basically, what I sense whenever I go down to the States now is not hope and optimism but fear.

Simply put, the American Empire is collapsing. The manufacturing economy, long the engine of geopolitical supremacy, is struggling and not about to improve. Ever. The political system, both because of its structure (thanks to Madison) and because one of the two major parties, the GOP, has descended into madness, is unable to respond, paralyzed. Income inequality continues to worsen, while a plethora of social problems, including poverty, are tearing the country apart. And the celebrity-entertainment culture has proved to be a narcotic that distracts from meaningful civic engagement.

At some level, I think, Americans know this. They know, if only vaguely, that their time is up, that it will never be the same, that the glory years of the last century will recede further and further into the mists of time. All the flag-waving nationalism, all the stupid talk of exceptionalism, is just denial. You can say you're the greatest country in the world and you can strut around like an unrivaled hegemon, but you can't escape the truth, the force of history that is leaving you behind. It happens to every empire. America is no exception. Like Rome, like Britain, America is crumbling. The gap between perception and reality is growing. And there's no turning back.

Of course, 9/11 only made this worse. It brought Americans' long-percolating fears to the surface. Instead of compelling them to confront who they are and to think seriously about what they're doing around the world, it truly and utterly terrorized them. The mythology built up quickly: They hate us and our freedom. They're out to get us. And so America responded, as you know, by turning itself into a sort of police state. It responded to an act of terror by constructing an infrastructure of terror, both domestic and international, based on, and then perpetuating, the terror that was felt on and after 9/11 and that, more broadly, was an core component of the American psyche long before that fateful day. The Patriot Act, the Iraq War, domestic surveillance, torture -- you know what happened. America decided to defend its freedom by becoming decidedly less free.

That's a long and overly general introduction, perhaps, but I think it helps explain this:

According to the FBI, over 1.5 million background checks on customers were requested by gun dealers to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in December. Nearly 500,000 of those were in the six days before Christmas.

It was the highest number ever in a single month, surpassing the previous record set in November.

On Dec 23 alone there were 102,222 background checks, making it the second busiest single day for buying guns in history.

The actual number of guns bought may have been even higher if individual customers took home more than one each.

Explanations for America's surge in gun buying include that it is a response to the stalled economy with people fearing crime waves. Another theory is that buyers are rushing to gun shops because they believe tighter firearms laws will be introduced in the future

There is no doubt some truth to these surface explanations, but I don't think they hit at the underlying problem. Americans are scared. Understandably, perhaps, but scared nonetheless. Their world is collapsing all around them. The comfort and security of the world they knew is no more. And 9/11 terrified them.

And when you add all that to a violent and gun-loving culture, well, is it really any wonder they're buying up all the guns they can get their hands on?

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