I am willing to bet that you’ll able to read this come Dec. 22, and thereafter, too, should you be so inclined. That’s because I don’t think the world is going to come crashing down around us, as the Mayans predict, on Dec. 21, 2012. For that matter, I don’t think any cosmic ending is about to befall humankind. Ever.
We might just well succeed in destroying ourselves, however. Civilizations — ways of life built around common myths, ideas and settled practices — come and go. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, cataloged some 21 civilizations in his 12-volume lifework, A Study of History, published in 1961. By 1940, 14 civilizations, 14 distinctive ways of looking at, and organizing the world, had vanished. Each had a story of origins and endings, each tried to situate people in the seemingly infinite expanse of space and time.
If we destroy our way of life, the causes will be mundane, not cosmic. We might destroy the environment, and make life unsustainable. We might even succumb to collective madness, perhaps arming each and every person with an assault weapon and a thousand rounds, and then just wait for some unhinged soul to pull the first trigger. We can undo the work of civilization, or the very physical conditions that make life possible.
I had intended to write something light, and vaguely mocking, about our apocalyptic fantasies. Then gunfire erupted in Newtown. As if that weren’t crazy enough, the Westboro Baptist Church from Kansas rolled into town, threatening to spew its hellfire and brimstone brand of madness. In their view, we brought God’s wrath upon ourselves given our permissive ways: tolerate gay marriage and abortion, and expect God’s wrath, they say. I’ll defend their right to freedom of speech, but silently wish that God would prove His existence by striking these deluded fools dead, or, at the very least, turning them to pillars of salt.
But the Westboro clan isn’t really that much crazier than many of us, they’re just a little more open and honest about it — playing Old Testament prophet in the 21st century is, after all, a tough act. We all harbor deep-seated notions about the nature and destiny of the universe. We cannot help it.
Consider our Tea Partiers. They’re playacting — blind worship of the founders of the republic, and the claim that we’re a city on a hill, an example of something so new, and so special, that we should serve as a model to the world. What is that but another mythic rendering of origins? Rome had Romulus and Remus, we’ve George Washington and his cherry tree, both serving as discrete starting points orienting us in time. And where are we heading? Our city may not be eternal — Rome certainly wasn’t. But we must serve some discrete end, there must be some goal, some aim, some culmination toward which all our efforts drive us. Otherwise, we’re merely adrift in a senseless world of sense and sensation.
We seem to have lost confidence in the ends we set for ourselves. We’re pressing so hard at the boundaries of these ideas, that the center no longer holds. Equality for all? Why, yes. But not for gays. Why? Marriage is between one man and one woman for life, another time teaches. But what if yesteryear’s dogma no longer fits the felt necessity of our times? What then?
Dread sets in among those for whom old dogma sets the limit of what is acceptable. If events in space and time cannot be reckoned according to ancient standards, then there are no standards. All is flux. The end is upon us. I say the apocalyptic imagination is fundamentally an angry form of nostalgia. If the world as it is is no longer acceptable, then destroy the world. Wipe the sinners, and their sin, from the face of the Earth, and recreate a new, innocent society, filled with people sharing just the right values. That is the appeal of every apocalyptic vision.
We crave the very end we pretend to dread as a means of wishing for simpler times. How else to explain the appeal of movies and fiction about the end of the world?
Gun sales are soaring. Folks stockpile food and supplies to prepare for the end of the world. Others want to secede from a union they say they can no longer support. The gap between rich and poor grows. Although we all live together in a world we rely upon in common, sharing roads, foodstuffs, resources, too much of our politics is painted in the language of extremism. The libertarians want simply to be let alone. But no man is an island. We are social creatures.
Is it possible that increasing acts of violence are less a reflection of individual acts of madness than they are expressions of collective dread? The shooters aren’t mere madmen unhinged, capable of being identified and managed. They are troubled loners, to be sure, but are they acting on impulses the rest of us suppress? We are fascinated with play-acting the apocalypse because we sense how tired our ideals and ideas have become. The weak act, lacking the internal resources to tamp down what the rest of just experience as frustration.
What did Toynbee see when he saw civilizations in decline? What would he say were he alive today? I doubt we’re on our last legs as a civilization. We’ve too much energy for that. But there is something unhinged about the state of our culture and society. There are no ideals, just hatred. Our prophets seem mad, and without vision. We’re killing one another for no reason. Troubling times, but, certainly not end times.
Oh, and lest I forget, Merry Christmas. And Happy New Year, too. 2013 promises to be a wild ride if we don’t rethink the basics.
Reprinted courtesy of the Journal Register company.
Enough, finally, is enough. Your right to bear arms does not yield the right to kill at random. Doesn’t last week’s killing spree at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown give you even a moment’s hesitation? Or are you still going to hide behind the facile quip that guns don’t kill people, people do? Even the tobacco lobby was not that cynical; it just lied about causation, trying to hide the consequences of smoking. You cannot hide the 20 children killed by gunfire.
Twenty little coffins will carry the bodies of the elementary school children killed by a lone gunman, children ages 5, 6 and 7 years old, murdered in cold blood. The children were killed with a .233 M4 carbine, believed to be manufactured by Bushmaster Firearms International, with headquarters in Madison, N.C. The gunman also carried Sig Sauer and Glock handguns, two automatic weapons with magazines capable of holding many rounds. The killer, reported to be 20-year-old Adam Lanza, carried at least two guns reported to be legally registered to his mother, yet another victim of the shooting spree.
Oh, yes, we need those guns in each of our homes and hands, don’t we? That’s our Constitutional right, guaranteed by none other than the founders of this republic, propertied and monied men, some slaveholders. But at least our forebears had the historical justification of needing a militia. They won their independence at gun point from Great Britain, and feared new invasions. State militias were necessary for national security from foreign powers in that bygone era.
No one relies on a militia for national security today. Don’t even suggest that: the notion is a stupid, historic anachronism. Play Tea Party all you like. Wear knickers. Wear powdered wigs. Pretend we live in an 18th century world with weapons far less lethal than those marketed to just about anyone who wants a gun. Proudly carry your gun in public, flash your metal and laugh when law enforcement confronts you, as the president of the New Haven County Bar Association did at a theater one night not long ago, when police tried to find out whether he had a license to carry the gun in public.
And don’t pretend we individuals need the right to bear arms to keep government on its toes. Since 9/11, we’ve happily traded the illusion of security for our liberties. The Bill of Rights, once a bastion in defense of liberty, is happily eviscerated by our courts. A warrant to search your home? A creative cop will find an exception. Firepower is rarely used against the government in defense of liberty. We just don’t do it. We no longer believe in what John Locke called the “appeal to heaven,” the right to rebel and revolt against government. We engage in all manner of trash-talking rhetoric on cable television, but accomplish nothing. No one bears arms to resist tyranny.
Our politics have become a sick, and ineffective, joke.
No, we celebrate our individual right to keep and bear arms as a way of protecting ourselves from one another.
The bodies were still being counted in Newtown, when one pro-gun rights spokesman took to the airwaves to say we need more, not fewer, guns. What next? Arming kindergartners?
Should we just blame all the killing on the insane? Every mass killing is followed by reports about the eccentricity, oddness and outright madness of the shooter. But the mass killings are merely the most public face of gun violence. Guns have become the equivalent of a domestic appliance. Kids kill kids over a trifle.
We celebrate the right of all to go their own way, turning our back on the eccentric and the ill because, after all, we each have the right to be let alone. This is less robust individualism than a form of social irresponsibility. Not my brother’s keeper? How quickly we must arm ourselves against the consequences.
Perhaps it’s time to drop the pretense and call the United States the most sophisticated of failed states. We cannot pass budgets that fairly distribute the cost of the services we demand. The gap between rich and poor grows. We imprison more people per capita than any other nation on Earth. Society frays, but, oh, how we love our guns. Possessing them is our individual right.
Political ideas are not eternal. They change, meeting the needs of the people who use them. Centuries ago, we developed powerful ideas about individual liberty. In the seventeenth century, such political philosophers of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, wrote about the state of nature, a place without states and the rule of law. As Hobbes famously put it, life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Individuals left the state of nature, sacrificing natural liberty for the security civil society and the state provided. But individuals retained so-called natural rights, rights no group could take or impair, whether society or state. Our political heritage in the United States is rooted in this powerful individualism. Ideologues rail against any sacrifice of individual rights, calling it socialism, even communism. The right to bear arms is regarded by many as part and parcel of the rights retained by the people, a right so sacrosanct it has been written into the Constitution.
But the Constitution is not a suicide pact. The right to bear arms is transforming our society into a regulated state of nature, the very sort of chaos life together was supposed to protect against. Could it be that individualism has run its course? Have we pressed our ideas to an extreme breaking point? Can we live together in a community when each is so afraid of the other that we will fight to the death to destroy one another at will?
It’s time to restrike the social compact. You may want a right to bear arms. But I am less fearful of the state than I am of an unhinged or angry man shooting at random just because he can. At a minimum, it’s time to treat gun manufacturers like tobacco producers. Guns make it too easy for people to kill people. It’s time not for communism, but for communalism — there are limits on what individuals living in a group should be able to do.
Reprinted courtesy of the Journal Register company.