Friday, April 20, 2007

American pastoral

Listening to the debate in the US and over here in the aftermath of Virginia Tech, it has become clear that many Americans are simply delusional about the role of guns in their society. It is a sort of collective unconscious which cannot be questioned that gun ownership is the right of every citizen. The constitutional decree has become embedded deep in the American pysche, like a sedimentary layer buried underneath the American surface. This means that no matter how disturbed or pyschotic, as Cho Seung-hui evidently was (and as his teachers repeatedly warned), it is all too easy to go and buy weapons from your local shop and then go and blast away as many lives as you can. As Katrina exposed the racist underbelly of the American South, so Virginia Tech has exposed the militaristic unconscious that underpins American life.

Why is there always reference to hunting as part of the gun ownership argument? What is there to hunt in America, and why do people want to go out and hunt it? I think in part it stems from the pioneering spirit that haunts American life - the great outside that still needs to be mapped, conquered, and if necessary, 'taken out'. America was founded on the idea of an originary enemy - the enemy within that had to be annihilated (the original Americans) slowly being replaced (when there were scarcely any left) by the enemy without that had to be annihalted (via the invention of the nuclear bomb and the slow construction of the Soviet threat via the deadly theatre of the Cuban missile crisis, and the invention of more recent American enemies, from Gaddafi to Bin Laden). The engine room of American capital, its military-industrial complex, will continue to fictionalise enemies inside and out, leaving deadly material effects in its wake.


ababoypart2 10:49 am  

Another great piece, the discussion and coverage seems focussed on the guys’ mental state rather than the bigger picture, gun ownership. The latter rather than the former will in some way curtail tragedies like this happening in future.

Nkem 11:53 am  

The man who sold the guns to Cho, John Markell, said to reporters, "A university was the perfect place to commit the crime. With 25,000 unarmed students walking around, who was going to stop him?" I'm not exactly sure how one responds to that...

That said, I think you exaggerate when you say that the Americans "fictionalise" their enemies. Too simplistic.

Talatu-Carmen 4:56 pm  

Jeremy, I agree with you on gun laws. I have no idea why it is so easy to buy automatic weapons in this country, and it is ridiculous how easily someone with a history of mental instability was able to buy all of this ammunition. There need to be some serious law changes.

But since I mentioned hunting earlier, let me clarify and play devil's advocate for a moment. I am not a hunter. I have never hunted, and I often go along with the elitest scoffing at hunters as primitive rednecks who go out and kill animals because they can't go out and kill people. But, this is way too simplistic. Why do people anywhere in the world hunt? Most of them (other than the elite who hunt for fun) hunt for food. "You ask what there is to hunt in America, and why do people want to go out and hunt it?" Well, there are still very rural areas in America, where people actually do eat what they hunt (these are not the people who spend thousands of dollars on hunting gear and go out and hunt for the fun of it--like our glorious vice president) My grandparents and some relatives live in rural Louisiana, and I often feel like when I visit them I am going back in time twenty or thirty years. The lettering on billboards and signs alternates between the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s. These are poor people. People live in houses that are falling down. My grandmother still goes out to pick wild berries in the woods and makes jelly to give to neighbors. And I'm not romanticizing this. The racism in Louisiana is still blatent, in your face. This is not a place I want my friends to visit. But, when people hunt there, they put it in the freezer and they eat it; it is cheap food for people with low incomes. And arguably, as I said before, if one is going to eat meat, is it not better to eat "organic" meat that you know where it came from, rather than from churned out meat-growing factories? And, not all hunters in America are your traditional stereotype of the redneck or the millionaire hobbiest either. Some of the biggest hunting population where I currently live are recent Hmong immigrants who hunted in China before they hunted here.

And the last part of the argument for hunting is that with the suburban sprawl and the unfortunate incursion of "modernity" into a natural ecosystem, natural predators have died off, while the population of deer has skyrocketed. My other grandmother used to live in a rural area, but the suburbs of Atlanta have grown up around her. There are office buildings and strip malls around her house. People keep pressuring her to sell her "prime" land--so they can cut down the magnolia trees and make a parking lot or build another car dealership or office building. But she still has heards of 10 deer coming through her garden--(and the coyotes come and eat stray cats... it sounds surreal I know, but it's true)--in the middle of a city...

So, I certainly do not want to position myself as an apologist for rednecks or for guns... I agree with you that it is a cultural problem as well as a logistics problem. But I also want to point out that things are a little bit more complex than you are making them. America is not all strip mall--not quite yet.

Anonymous,  10:09 pm  

Bollocks to the hunting excuse. Americans have the right to bear arms to protect themselves from axe murderers intruding on their homes at midnight (you know how often that happens!)
They will never give up that right, no matter how many innocents get killed. Living in America for 3 years now, can't tell you how many people I know of walking around fully armed, and with guns in their glove compartments. It is a very macho society, and guns and the right to possess one fits in the the American psyche, unfortunately....

allamadogo,  1:14 am  

Where to start? First, I think unless you've grown up in the states it is really hard to get your mind around all of our complexities. You are oversimplifying, though I do agree that easy access to guns is the problem (that's obvious). I think people are talking about guns because of what happened and it is getting coverage in the media here but nothing will change- the gun lobby is too powerful.

I don't agree that Katrina "exposed the racist underbelly of the south" (nice phrase, though). It exposed the racism of our federal government more than anything. We live in a society whose racism manifests itself differently by region but that doesn't mean it's confined to one area.

I grew up in Atlanta and rarely encountered people who owned a gun (and still don't). I can think of maybe 1-2 people. And about axe murderers breaking into your house at night, while I would never own or allow a gun in the house, that comment seems naive. In the US there is a lot of crime- people do break into your house in the middle of the night (has happened to me several times).

Finally, I have to say that for me your piece was a bit of a rant against the US. We are not a monolith. Stop hatin' as we say here in the ATL.

Lolita 9:04 am  

Guns, like any other weapons out there, do not kill people, people kill people. They are inanimate objects until they are in the hands of a wielding agent!

Besides, anything can be made or used as a lethal weapon.

Having said that, there are laws in place already to deter loonies from having the ability to possess guns but as you can see, crazy got by on a technicality!!

Parents need to hug their kids a little more and instil in them self-respect so as to keep insecurity at bay. People in general need to learn to love others as themselves!!

Crazy boy had lived a lifetime of insecurity and self-loathing, he felt everyone was against him, he planned to commit suicide but what better way to do it than to go down and take a few people along with him.

By the way Jeremy, two posts or so from this one, you compared the population of the US to that of Nigeria, if owning Guns was that detrimental then the life expectancy should be shorter as they should expect to get shot once they learn to walk.

I don't think it is easy to buy guns legally and taking time to start debating guns means we should throw in ropes, knives, cars, stones, bleach etc, anything that can be used lethally by any crazy crab determined to inflict harm.

2 quid.

Oh, btw, Talatu, if your granny needs a Real estate agent, I will gladly assist her in the sale of her land :)

Spook E 10:48 pm  

"I don't think it is easy to buy guns legally and taking time to start debating guns means we should throw in ropes, knives, cars, stones, bleach etc, anything that can be used lethally by any crazy crab determined to inflict harm."

Well all you need to buy a gun in america is a clean criminal record, sound mental state and be drug-free. Be all of these and have 3 forms of ID and poof, you're a legal gun toting american. I bet you and at least 70% of every adult in your family qualifies.

Americans love thier guns because it makes them the macho men that they want to believe they are, not like those sissy europeans. They refuse to ammend their ammendments because the founding fathers were the wisest most omniscient near God-like people that ever lived, EVER!

I find it particularly exemplary of the american cowboy image of himself in the fact that the conversation has continued to linger on the mental wellness of this individual as though society has never shaped monsters more gruesome than Mr. Cho. They sidestep the obvious, that a young man with or without a sound mind, bought a gun and with it, carefully orchestrated and carried out the execution of innocent lives. the guy even put out his press release himself. What completely floored me and gave be cause to believe that Americans are doomed to continue shooting them selves in the foot is the suggestion by some in high places that guns in the hands of more people is the solution. *shrug* monkey can, monkey will, ain't nothing i can do!

GG,  8:01 pm  

Random thoughts:

Jeremy, the South's racist underbelly has been exposed for years. Racism didn't end with the signing of meager Civil Rights legislation. Moreover, it is misleading to say that what it exposed, as one of the comments in your blog states, is the racism of the Federal Government, not the South's. What the heck? Try visiting Gulfport Mississippi. The "whites only" signs are not displayed in public, they have been shelved away for 3 decades now, but the racist ideology is still palpable.

The residential segregation of New Orleans prior and after Katrina, demonstrate the racist behavior of our planning apparatus (borrowing from Lefebvre).

About guns, again the South leads the charge on this one. See the gun legislation recently passed in Texas and Florida in which you, as a gun owner, have the right to defend yourself if you feel you are under a perceived threat. I guess you know by now how this has turned out. Much like our foreign policy, people have shot and killed innocent bystanders because they felt they were under a "perceived threat".

Good for you if you are an investor in the gun industry....

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