Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Naïve, Simplistic and Tucson – Part II

Coming to Grips with our Murderous Culture

I observe there are a lot of contributing factors to this criminogenic composite that has become 21st CE America. Clearly the political rhetoric which dehumanizes others and constructs them as enemies of the people if not of G-d himself is a part of the problem. Again, it is naïve to suggest that we can flood our airwaves with such misanthropic vitriol and have no result from it. But I would also observe that this pattern is hardly relegated to Rush, Sara and the Fox Fearmongers.

Lyndon Johnson was elected president in 1964 with the Daisy ad depicting a little girl plucking petals from a daisy while a nuclear countdown proceeded in the background. The ad ended with a mushroom cloud and the directive to keep Johnson’s hand on the nuclear strike buttons, a demonization of Republican Barry Goldwater as a nuclear crazed hawk. Richard Nixon would return that favor in 1968 with his Southern strategy which painted crime in racist terms insuring a white Southern electorate’s favor in the election. It worked like a charm.

In 1980, GOP challenger Ronald Reagan set the tone for a tectonic shift which would result from painting government as the enemy. His campaign gave Americans permission to think in strictly self-focused terms asking them “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” According to Roth’s formula, the focus on self to the exclusion of the other – much less the common good – and the cynical beginning point of mistrust of government is a recipe for murder.

1980 marked the beginning of a shift from American self-conception as citizens to consumers. The former see themselves in terms of duties: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (JFK, Inaugural speech 1961). The latter see themselves in terms of self-gain, avoidance of duties to others, indeed, of consideration of the other much at all. Kohlberg’s Stage 2 Pre-Conventional moral reasoning (What’s in it for me?) is heard daily in the consumer advertising with which we are all pounded: “Obey your thirst! Just DO it! Talk all the time!”

But political rhetoric is not the only place self-focus and distrust of the other is expressed. I observe that the self-focus in the ways we see ourselves and our government mirrors the approach of evangelical Protestantism, heavily focused on individual personal relationships with Christ and ultimate existential concerns about salvation in the afterlife to the exclusion of virtually all else.

I see it in the meteoric rise of Pentecostal megachurches with their self-focused “Name it and claim it” prosperity theologies. “God wants you to be prosperous” asserts Joel Osteen who has made his millions on the backs of working class would-be millionaires. A god who is all about the individual (when he’s not blessing the murderous rampages of the tribe in places like Iraq and Afghanistan) serves as a ready legitimation for almost any action which furthers those goals.

I also observe that the scourge of guns which provides the means for the world’s most murderous nation to carry out its bloody business each day as well as serving as the world’s largest exporters of the machinery of death is yet one more manifestation of the fear of the other (lack of fellow-feeling, per Roth), distrust of government and the ultimate expression of individuality in this hyperindividualistic culture. Gun owners always seek to legitimate the ownership and the use of the weaponry of war under the rubric of self-defense. But the statistics regarding their use suggest something very different.

Madison’s preamble clearly pointed toward “provid[ing] for the common (as opposed to the individual) defense” of Americans generally and his Second Amendment clearly was based in a concern for the common protection provided by “a well-armed militia” and NOT for an atomistic, distrustful citizenry armed to the teeth. The current pattern of gun ownership and usage in America suggests that it is the individualistic impulse which has come to dominate the role of guns in our nation. America’s obsession over guns reflects a fear of the other. It also reflects a preoccupation with self.

Even our use of technology reflects the focus on self to the exclusion – and sometimes at the expense – of others. The flame wars in which disembodied names on screens become the target of incredibly abusive behaviors is but one example of the deadly narcissism combined with indifference to the other that Roth sees as essential ingredients for a murderous culture. And the net has also become the big silver screen on which all of our anti-social pathologies are daily projected from political sites featuring gun cross-hairs on politicians later actually shot to sites marked by religious zealotry advocating violence against whole groups of people like Matthew Shephard and Kansas physician George Tiller to sites urging self-appointed “patriots” like Timothy McVeigh to engage in terrorist activities against his own countrymen and women.

The implication of Roth’s study appears to be that if America wishes to come to grips with its violent nature – a huge if given our seemingly willing acquiescence to that violence as somehow normal for our daily lives – we must first consider the attitudes and understandings which give rise to it. That would mean coming to doubt the unquestioned “wisdom” of self-interest as the driving force of interaction with the world. It would mean critically reappraising our attitudes toward government and our duties to the same in a democratic society. It would mean exercising control over the tidal wave of media blather complete with its hyperindividualizing consumer advertising which washes over us daily.

In the face of such an enormous undertaking, there is a natural tendency to disingenuously describe the reluctance to exert the energy, patience and endurance necessary to accomplish it as somehow meaning that such is impossible. There is a world of difference between an honest “I don’t want to be bothered” with a dishonest “We could never do that” which seeks to legitimate laziness. The question that remains, as I see it, is simply when we Americans will decide that a world made existentially insecure by a violence which we have the means to at least diminish if not substantially eliminate becomes ultimately untenable.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)

Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)

Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law

University of Central Florida, Orlando


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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