Wednesday, December 19, 2012

America Is A Violent Country

First, some cold, hard facts. America is an extremely violent country. See the above for proof. Here's a paraphrase from the West Wing in 2001:

“If you combine the populations of Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, you get a population roughly the size of the United States, where, last year, there were 32,000 gun death. Those other countries, which all have a form of gun control, had a total of 112."

That article also points out the connection between gun violence and dopamine, which pairs nicely with my recent post on the neurochemistry of Americans. Combine that with antisocial dog-eat-dog behavior and widespread mental illness, and you're off to the races:
Two things make this even more alarming. First, because the human brain evolved in an era of immediacy—when threats and rewards were of the lions, tigers and food variety—the dopamine circuitry has an inborn timing mechanism. If the reward follows the stimulus by roughly 100-200 milliseconds, it’s sitting in dopamine’s sweet spot. Firing a muzzle loader—for example—would certainly release dopamine, but it takes too long between multiple firings for a significant reward loop to be created. Firing an automatic weapon, though, sits close to the sweet spot—an assault weapon can fire a round every 100 milliseconds. Meaning not only are guns addictive, but automatic weaponry is far more addictive than most.

Unfortunately, there’s a more frightening downside to consider. As Nora Volkow and her colleagues at the National Institute of Drug Abuse have well documented, the first true taste of a dopamine rush is always the best. After that, there are always diminishing returns. What this means in drug addicts is that the first time someone inhales cocaine feel so outrageously good compared to all the following times and, as a result, a junky will keep escalating their use patterns to try to get back to that original high. The same goes for guns. This suggests that for addicts, the desire to do more damage, cause more harm, and generally unleash holy terror will only increase over time.
Mass shootings are on the rise. 24 of the last 62 worst mass shootings have taken place in the past seven years alone. See this link for more. And Matt Yglesias points out the real reason gun fatalities are dropping is not because there are less of them, but because we're better at patching people up so they don't die. And I've often said that gun deaths will be as common as auto crashes. Well, according to the CDC, gun deaths will outstrip car crashes by 2015. Americans are driving less and shooting more. And the following is a snapshot of headlines all of which took place since the Sandy Hook Massacre:

Gunman shoots 1 in Texas movie theater parking lot (Yahoo!)
Argument Over Sandy Hook Shooting Ends in Gunfire (Gawker)
Police: Man cooperative after firing shots at mall (Yahoo!)
Colorado Mother Arrested for Driving to Her Daughter’s School and Threatening Her Bullies with a Semi-Automatic Weapon (Gawker)
Indiana Man With 47 Guns Arrested After Threatening to Attack Nearby Elementary School (Gawker)
6th-grader brings gun to school to protect against ‘Connecticut-style’ attack (Yahoo!)
911 caller among four dead in Colo murder-suicide (Yahoo!)
After Newtown, Sales Boom for Kids' Body Armor (Mother Jones)
Florida Man Shoots Pizza Restaurant Patron for Complaining About Slow Service, Tells Police He Was Standing His Ground (Gawker)

Have armed citizens ever brought down a mass shooter? Yes, but it's pretty rare (Slate). And here is a good post about some of the rationalizations behind gun violence in the United States (The Global Sociology Blog). It also contains my favorite chart connecting religious belief and societal wealth, but we'll explore that another time (praise the Lord and pass the ammunition).

Okay, so facts out of the way. Feel free to leave. Rant follows.

So I see the following article on BBC Future: Will we ever have cyborg brains? This seems to be something of an obsession with the techno-optimist/singularlty progress crowd.

And I can't help but think in light of recent events that maybe we should do more ensure the proper development and healthy functioning of the brains we’ve already got! We can’t stop a deranged killer like Adam Lanza from murdering a schoolroom full of children. We can’t stop a Jared Loughner from shooting a senator or a Seung-Hui Cho from shooting up a university. We have no idea what goes on in the minds of people like this. Maybe we should devote some resources to finding this out before trying to wire our brains into computers, huh? Maybe we should devote some resources to healing our damaged people with the knowledge we already possess before trying to build artificial intelligence. Just a thought.

We’ve already speny decades stubbornly and resolutely  ignoring what social science already on the books tell us: that we are not acquisition machines and worker bots: that we are social creatures conditioned to a specific environment in which we evolved, and that we need tight-knit social groups, stability, belonging, and meaning in our lives; that we don’t want to acquire, we want to love and be loved; that we want to engage in activities that give us meaning; that we don’t like to be coerced; that we want stable, healthy communities; that we need relaxation and leisure time; and that our brains are not fully developed until teenagers and we need stable nurturing environments and good nutrition to develop into healthy, functioning adults. We ignore all of this in our productivist fantasies of wealth as the measure of a good society. Nancy Lanza’s 1.4 million dollar house and $289,000 a year in child support didn’t stop the Newton massacre, did it? Pawning these murders off on mental illness is no excuse – either we have more mentally ill people than in other countries, or they are much more deadly than other countries. Both raise serious questions about the nature of our society. A heavily armed populace walking around just waiting to blow each other away is not the society I want to live in, but it seems to be the direction we’re heading.

 And now we learn that the shooter's mom was stockpiling food and guns for an economic collapse. This is just another facet of the intensely anti-social nature of American society. The idea that we’re atomized individuals engaged in a Darwinian war of all against all every minute of our lives is uniquely American perception, and the notion that we can break ourselves off from society and remain safe while the wider culture goes to hell in a handbasket is another primarily American conceit. Why do we hate each other so? Why do we seek to profit even from decline? Stockpiling guns, ammunition, gold, food and water, rather than dialogue, constructive engagement, socially useful activity, mutual aid, and taking time to get informed is the order of the day. Note that America, with resources far in advance of most other nations, is the epicenter of this.

“Soccer moms” in oversized McMansions in the “safest community in the country” stockpile weapons and food in case hungry mobs stream out of cities in economic collapse. Survivalists are afraid the government is coming for their guns, and insurrectionists fantasize about overthrowing the government and seceding from the union. Suburbanites are convinced the United Nations is going to confiscate their houses, ration their water, ban their automobiles and move them into urban high rises. "Tea Partiers" believe the President is a foreign Born Muslim Luo tribesman determined to impose socialism on the United States. Politicians spend their time passing laws condemning  Sharia Law and Agenda 21, while ignoring the fact that they no longer have money to keep streets paved or fund fire departments. Trains are denounced as social engineering schemes but interstate highways are presumed to spring up magically like dandelions in the springtime. We’re told we enough shale oil and natural gas to be energy independent and that it will last for centuries, forget about the growing economies of China and India. People believe global warming is a vast scientific conspiracy to get funding but believe everything they hear on Fox News without question. Schools have become chain linked fortresses with metal detectors, processed foods, demoralized teachers, rampant bullying and a Lord of the Flies style pecking order that would put a baboon troop to shame. For profit prisons house a quarter of the world’s prisoners and correction corporations dragoon schools for drugs while their prisoners provide free labor for major U.S. conglomerates. U.S. drone attacks target children. Creationist museums teach that the world was made in seven days and Christian churches preach the prosperity gospel, propose the death penalty for homosexuality and legitimize rape and torture.

This is a nation in the grip of madness. And our descent is only just beginning.

Religious thinking dominates every area of this country.  That’s why I don’t bother arguing with gun enthusiasts (or libertarians or goldbugs or...). They have what amounts to a religious belief, and nothing I say will change their minds. It’s the same with just about every subject in this country. People are dead certain, and you can’t change anyone’s mind about anything. And that’s the problem. There’s no “debate” in religious-type thinking, just the black-and-white need to defeat the other side. When we say everything has been politicized, what we really mean is that everything has been turned into a religious belief: party politics, economic systems, the environment, transportation, etc. It’s been said that minds are like parachutes, they only function when open. Well, we’re nearing terminal velocity and our ripcords are permanently stuck. And the ground is rushing up awfully fast. Is the only away Americans can relate to each other through a target sight?

People stumble through the aisles of WalMart with the thousand-yard stare of the walking wounded. There’s a deadness, a hollowness in their eyes. It’s no wonder people are compared to cattle, for the U.S. resembles one giant feedlot from coast to coast, with a totally manufactured environment of office parks, strip malls, big box stores, freeways, muzak, reality TV, 24 hour sports channels, talk radio, billboards and casinos, all designed by the corporate machine to keep the cattle fat and happy until the slaughter. Humans weren't meant to live in this manufactured theme park environment.

This country was born in violence, and it chews out men and spits them out. It has never been, in any way, civilized if by civilized we mean any other purpose than for a small minority to exploit people and natural resources to get filthy, stinking rich. What can we expect where every person is no more than a productivist hamster running in a wheel to make someone else's fortune, and you are broken and discarded the minute you no longer serve that purpose? Where the wealthy are free to do anything to the wider society - anything- to increase profits. Where we are constantly pitted against one another in a desperate battle for status and what little wealth trickles down from above. We must work, we are told, or we do not eat, with the lash of financial ruin and utter destitution always at our backs. It is a civilization only in the way that a casino is a business.

When the annals of the fossil fuel era are finally written centuries, or perhaps millennia from now, what they will find most remarkable, I think is how unhappy we were. How having resources at our beck and call that, as we are constantly reminded, the kings of old Europe could not command, we were desperate and miserable. How sick a society with the power of gods was. That, I think, is what they will find most remarkable. It will be a permanent reminder ot the utter uselessness of running a society around nothing more than raw power, continuous acquisition, rampant overwork, constant competition and naked ambition, and the idea that creature comforts are all that is needed for a high quality life.

Finally, I'll leave the last word to these blogger commentaries, which I think capture my feelings well:

 And here's what I have to say—after the news on Friday, it really hit home to me in a overwhelming, visceral way just how intolerable life in this miserable hellhole called the United States has become. This is not a society; it's a loony bin. There is clearly a difference in kind between mass killings and foreclosure robo-signings, predatory "subprime" loans, usurious interest rates and a million other abominable practices I could name, but all these things are of a piece. Violence is violence, whether it's carried out by some deranged kid or some money-crazed banker in lower Manhattan.

I have likened America to a giant game of Survivor, and that's a good analogy, but it's good to remember that crazy is crazy, whether it's a "game" on TV or a typical day in the life of an American citizen. Oh, did that Big Corporation just ship your job overseas? I guess you've just been kicked off the island! Too fucking bad, hey?
...It has to do with empathy, which came up in the comments section of my post The President's Remarks At Newtown. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Doomers have no empathy, or very little, kind of like Wall Street bankers. If empathy is absent, what happens to others doesn't matter. The suffering of others doesn't matter.
Adam Lanza's Mother Was A Doomer and The President's Remarks At Newtown (Decline of the Empire)
And that, really, is the problem. Gun manufacturers have successfully exploited a current of paranoia, anxious masculinity, and aggrieved privilege to sell their marks lots and lots of guns that don't actually do anything to fix their problems. In fact, Nancy Lanza is far from the only person who will die this year at the end of a gun she presumably bought to make herself feel powerful. It's time, as Drew Magary at Gawker argued, to shift focus from gun owners and toward the people who are making a fortune selling products that have no other purpose but to kill. We should see gun owners like we've come around to seeing smokers: people who were successfully ensnared by clever marketing into a lifestyle that does them, and others, way more harm than good. By making gun owners the enemy—something I've done myself, and now regret—and not gun manufacturers, we will remain locked in this go-nowhere debate. Shifting focus is the only hope we have of change.
Sympathy For Nancy Lanza (Slate)

That's all for that. Back to our regularly scheduled programming...

1 comment:

  1. Hey EscapeFromWisconsin,
    Thanks for writing this essay.

    I am still overwhelmed at times with horror and sadness. The libertarian-minded folks like Karl Denninger (the Market Ticker) like to display statistics showing that mass shootings are rare in terms of your chance of getting caught up in one, etc.

    That may be true. But what matters is the rate of increase.

    They correctly point out that gun control laws wouldn't have stopped this guy from murdering his mom and stealing her guns.

    But what would stop it, is for his mom not to have felt a need to have guns. For his mom to not have felt that in an economic collapse (which is indeed probable, since that outcome is over-determined by the greed of our "elites" and the fact of peak oil, etc.) she would need to fend off hordes of hungry "zombies."

    Even that outcome (hordes of hungry, desperate people) is possible, considering the lack of empathy of our business and political rulers, and the neo-feudalism they have created. But that does not mean that we will have to respond by turning on each other. Heck, we could turn on them! But at the very least, we could choose to help each other.

    So that's the rationalize for the political theater of modern politics! To keep the peons distracted and divided.

    If you are a father or mother to a child of the ages that were massacred in Connecticut, it's hard (for me at least), to not feel a deep sense of dread, horror, and chilly fear.

    I suspect that most Americans are numbed and drugged enough by media, medications, and consumerism that they won't have to risk PTSD over this episode. They certainly don't give a damn about the thousands of innocents killed by our drones.

    For those citizen humans who are capable of empathy, and who don't want to lose their humanity, how do we go on with everyday life, pretending that modern America is not a horror-show through and through? From the White House to the ghettos, from the President to the janitor at the mall, everyone everywhere is part of this matrix of denial, repressed rage, and repressed despair.

    If one tries to overcome some of the isolation by loving unconditionally, one is often ridiculed or even attacked. The politics of fear and greed are considered "adult," while the politics of love and community are considered childish - the opposite of the truth.

    God help us.


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