Saturday, January 7, 2017

Trump Trends

The victory of Donald Trump shocked and dismayed me, as it did many other Americans and people around the world, which I know from the reactions of my friends in Europe. The prospect of what he may do as President is truly alarming and I find my psyche in a near-constant state of low level anxiety as I numbly await the new president's inauguration. I am, however, feeling greater clarity about how and why such a man could be elected. My thoughts are not comforting, except that there is always some small measure of comfort in being able to make sense of what otherwise seems senseless and incomprehensible.

I realize that there were quite a few social and cultural trends that led to Trump becoming president. First of all, ever since the Reagan years, if not earlier, American society has been filled with two opposite but in a sense, complementary messages about who and what is worthy of respect and who and what is not. Politicians and public servants, indeed, the public sector itself, indeed, the very concept of government, have been consistently denigrated and vilified, even as millionaire businessmen and billionaire entrepreneurs have been held up as the heroes of our world. Look at Trump vs. Clinton through that lens, and it is clear what an enormous tailwind of attitude and perception was boosting Trump's political fortunes, no pun intended, at every stage of the campaign.

Then there is the rise of reality television as a major genre of entertainment in America. I first mistyped this as entertaint-ment, but that may have been a Freudian slip expressing my dim view of this misbegotten genre. Reality TV aided Trump's rise in two ways. First of all, as the star of one of the most popular of all reality TV programs for 14 years, Trump became a familiar face to audiences across America, a major plus for his campaign. As a constant presence on people's TV screens, Trump became a trusted, comforting presence, however rude and unpleasant his TV persona. Secondly, as reality TV depends on the entertainment value of characters who are loud, abusive, argumentative and all-around obnoxious, Trump both got training in portraying the kind of personality that many Americans find interesting and entertaining, and America got training in relating to this kind of personality, so that when a person acting in this manner became a candidate in a political campaign, a considerable segment of the American population was primed and ready to find him fascinating and irresistible. This may have also helped protect Trump from criticism of his many faux pas, crude and mean behavior and outright contradictions, as the reality TV audience "knows" that this kind of behavior is the very secret of success for reality programs, not something to be objected to, but something to be applauded.

There have also been many different ways in which aggressiveness and just plain meanness have been championed in American popular culture and social mores for many years. "Nice guys finish last" is a cliche that expresses a widely shared view of human nature in our competitive society. On the international stage, diplomacy and humanitarian assistance are seen as "weak" and "wasteful." Armies, wars and weapons are praised as inherently virtuous and not only excused, but rewarded for their failures. In today's macho-aggressive America, no one wants to be a "wimp" or a "loser," the latter term being one of Trump's favorite terms of disparagement. Trump's vicious comments and cruel nick-names for "Lying' Ted," "Little Marco," "Low-energy" Jeb Bush, and "Crooked Hillary" are not unlike the snappy one-liners that action heroes utter as they dispatch villains with their karate-kicks and high-tech weapons. Hollywood action films have trained us to enjoy and expect this kind of behavior, this slaying with sarcasm, this trope of psychologically as well as physically beating on the bad guys, and Trump was in this regard acting out a role that Americans know and love. The fact that this has little to do with understanding complex issues, getting along with other people, or crafting intelligent policies to improve life in America mattered not a whit; entertainment value trumps all. Trump had little experience in government affairs, but considerable experience as an engaging television entertainer. Clinton had the opposite background, and the result of the election made clear which kind of experience was more meaningful to many voters.

Trump's admiration for Russia's "strong man" leader Vladimir Putin also fits in with this trend of high regard for cruelty and aggression. Trump has praised Putin as a "real leader," a praise that cannot be divorced from Putin's brutal track record as a leader who bullies, intimidates, arrests and even executes his critics, censors the press, and drops cluster bombs on civilian populations in Syria. In the worldview of Trump, and presumably his followers, this brutality is not condemned but condoned, even lauded as the essence of "leadership." I know another word for this style of leadership: Fascism.

Then there is social media's impact. Trump clearly loves Twitter, and Twitter clearly loves Trump. His inability to formulate complex thoughts in a coherent manner is not a liability in an age in which many people communicate through 140 character thought-belches. As thought-belcher-in-chief, Trump will either train the media and the public to love this style of communication from the office of the president, or he will make such mangled and childish communication so disreputable that he will bring down Twitter with him.

The rise of right-wing media was another factor, as angry, anti-liberal, anti-government, race-baiting talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly established a platform, a mode of discourse, and an angry white male persona that were ideal for Trump's anti-liberal, anti-elite, anti-"politically correct," perpetually pissed-off, and racially charged style of angry populism. The many years in which such right-wing media, especially FOX News, had endlessly trump-eted accusations of corruption and misconduct against Hillary Clinton and before her, Bill Clinton, created a cloud of mistrust around Hillary which made it impossible for her to reach segments of the population whose brains had long steeped in the anti-Hillary paranoia of the "tea party." The shooting incident in the Washington pizza parlor after "fake news" reports of Secretary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta operating a pedophilia ring among the pepperoni and pizza dough shows how effective that kind of paranoid internet propaganda can be in poisoning the minds of the mentally unprotected. The further evolution of far-right media into internet-based distortion fields like Alex Jones' program and Breitbart News also primed the population to follow a candidate who embraced such media, as Trump did.

Taken together, we can see that Trump's political success rests on many different pillars in our sick and troubled society. To resist Trump and what he represents, we must apply ourselves to counteracting and deconstructing the attitudes, perceptions and tastes that made his seemingly implausible rise to power so very plausible that we might even say it was inevitable. I hate to say it, but the preponderance of evidence, the logic of my argument, and the brutal reality of his electoral success all require it: Trump truly is a man of our times. However, to paraphrase Bob Dylan's words from 50+ years ago, the times are always a-changin,' and so there is hope.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Seeking the Light in the Darkness: Winter Solstice 2016

Tonight is the night of the winter solstice, the time of year when the earth is farthest from the sun and days are at their shortest and nights their most long and dark and cold. This is a time of year when ancient Pagan peoples would celebrate light in darkness and the hope of renewal to come in the new year. In America, after the election of a man who seems intent on raping and defiling Mother Earth to the maximum degree possible and devastating the natural environment for the sake of corporate profit, the solstice, with its echoes of ancient peoples who cultivated an earth-centered spirituality, has extra meaning to me. I say to my friends, embrace the light. Tend to that spark of truth and good will within yourself, and prepare for battle in the New Year.

Prepare to stand up and fight against lies, greed, intolerance, bullying, racism, and oppression. Remember that many who supported Trump were not well-informed or fully aware of what they were endorsing or empowering. Many were simply fed-up with the difficult conditions of life today, and hoping for reasons that I still do not fully understand that an orange-haired, celebrity-bully-billionaire would be the answer to their frustrations. Let us hope that in months to come they will see the light of truth and realize that this man is not their savior, and that his election represents not their salvation but a huge and harmful mistake that we will have to work very hard to resist, rectify and move beyond. Peace.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Living in a Foreign Country: America in the Age of Trump

On Tuesday night, November 8th, I went to sleep on an overnight flight to Europe for a conference taking place later in the week. While I was on my way to Helsinki, I assumed that America was on its way to electing Hillary Clinton as president. When the plane touched down Wednesday morning and people began to turn on their smart phones to check messages and get the latest news, a murmuring spread through the passengers. I began to hear "Trump... Trump..." and soon learned the truth: The impossible had happened. The catastrophe had arrived. The arrogant, loudmouthed, ridiculously boastful celebrity businessman with hateful views toward migrants and minorities, who had been caught on tape talking about how he used his celebrity status to take sexual advantage of women, who had zero experience in government and offered little more than vague promises to "make America great again," had narrowly edged Mrs. Clinton to become the new president-in-waiting.

I had had an awful dream on the flight. I saw angry mobs, fires, violence. I woke thinking the dream probably represented my anxieties about the election, but when I found that Trump had been not vanquished but elevated by the election, I now feared the dream was if anything prophetic, a grim premonition of what may lay ahead for country run by an ignorant, erratic, thin-skinned and hot-tempered, right-wing billionaire bully fueled by resentment and egotism.

She had won the popular vote, by a margin that has now proven substantial, but since America awards the presidency through its complicated system of the "electoral college," Trump had prevailed by winning almost all of the rural and less populated states, white majority areas where Hillary Clinton's greater appeal to more diverse populations was not only not an advantage, but actually a disadvantage. Donald Trump had signaled in many ways that he was sympathetic to the far-right, racist, white supremacist wing of American politics, not least by appointing Stephen Bannon, a leading light in the dark universe of the so-called "Alt Right" movement through the "Breitbart" news web site, to a top position in his campaign. Trump's triumph may, I fear, represent a chilling turning away from the social progress that American had painfully achieved through the civil rights, anti-war, feminist and gay rights movements from the 1960s through 2016, and particularly the advances, limited though they were, of the Obama years.

Going, going, gone: an educated, thoughtful President who cares about minorities, women's rights, the environment.... Gone, a Justice Department that looks into the killing by police of unarmed black people.... Gone, any consideration for the rights of Muslim-Americans.... Gone, the protection from deportation that President Obama had extended to the children of undocumented migrants.... Gone, compassion.... Gone, intelligence.... Gone respect for diversity.... Hello, belligerence, intolerance, crassness and braggadocio, implicit support for racism and xenophobia....Hello government by kleptocracy, Donald and his friends and family grabbing up goodies and making deals to enrich themselves....Hello to America as not the leader of the world but a diminished, puzzling "rogue nation," an erratic kleptocracy....

As a Pagan who sees respect for nature as a core, perhaps THE core spiritual value, I am most pained by the potential damage that will be done to the earth by a new government that scorns the threat of global warming and may withdraw from international agreements like the Paris Climate Treaty.... I will be looking for opportunities to join arms with other like-minded Pagans who support policies of protection for the environment rather than opening the door to all-out exploitation of nature and unrestricted extraction of carbon fuels as seem to be favored by our new president. I wonder how many Pagans will stand up for nature, and how many will instead support Trump because they like his nationalistic, tribalistic tendencies?

I do believe that in a democracy, it is important to allow a newly elected leader and government some time to establish their policies and programs before passing judgment. I just do not have much hope for the next four, or eight, years, based on who Donald Trump has been in the past, his inflammatory and ignorant statements during the campaign, and the kind of extreme right-wing people he is surrounding himself with, from appointing the right-wing, "white nationalist" (translation: racist and white supremacist) Stephen Bannon for the nebulous, and thus potentially extremely powerful because invisible and undefined role of untitled presidential "adviser" to selecting the anti-Muslim, Iran-hating, Michael T. Flynn as National Security Adviser to offering the top job in the Justice Department, that of Attorney General, Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions, a throwback to racist politics of the Old South who has in past expressed more sympathy for the KKK than the American Civil Liberties Union or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the venerable civil rights group. I see growing evidence that Trump was not joking about wanting to undo many actions and policies of the Obama years.

Worse still, as I discuss election results with students and others, I am meeting more and more people who are belligerently pro-Trump and quickly turn to anger when this new American Fuhrer is subjected to any criticism or challenge. I have studied the rise of Fascism and Nazism, and I have to say Trump's supporters scare me, as they remind me of nothing so much as the kind of thugs and bullies that Mussolini and Hitler relied on to cement their grip in power. I fear that Trump is laying the groundwork for a new Fascism of the 21st century.

A train conductor on a route that I often use told me that he feels more hope for America now than he has in 16 years. When I told him that I pretty much felt the opposite, he told me that he knew Trump would win because "he harnessed the most powerful force in America...the pissed-off white guy vote!" When I complained that Trump had no government experience, which to me made it rather unlikely that he could work the miracles that his followers expected, he countered, "Well, what experience did Obama have...beside being black?" Though I would concede that Obama was not the most qualified candidate to ever run for President, he did have some important experience. Barack Obama had worked as a community organizer in poor sections of Chicago, had served as an Illinois State Senator and then a U.S. Senator, and had also taught constitutional law at the college level at one point. My trainman then said, "Maybe Obama did some good things for people on his side....I won't dispute that. But he did nothing for people like me." This despite the fact that Obama had rescued the country from the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

The reaction of this trainman and others that I have spoken to in my largely white, conservative area of New York State, including in my classes, suggest to me that there is a substantial white population in this country who are simmering with rage and varying degrees of animosity toward Muslims, immigrants, blacks, and anyone they see as different from themselves, and who are bursting with energy that Trump will give them a government that will celebrate their identity and uphold their priorities and proclivities, and also their prejudices, racial, religious or of other sorts. My made-in-the 1960s heart that beat proudly for the election of Obama as the necessary and positive breaking of a barrier that I thought would open the way for a country more able to handle racial, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity is now pounding with fear and anxiety about what America is going to be like in the 2010s and 2020s if Trump's backward-looking rhetoric about "making America great again," emphasis on AGAIN, means a rebirth of flagrant racism and white supremacy, as if George Wallace had risen from the grave and won the election. I am truly afraid that he has....

I feel myself a foreigner in this version of America. I actually take some small measure of cold comfort in that, remembering that when I came back to America after living abroad in the past, I always felt some strangeness in returning to "my" country, as being away had broadened me and changed me, and coming "home" did not always feel like "home." I saw myself then and see myself now as somewhat of a foreigner in America, among so many countrymen with such a radically different view of what a healthy and sane society is or should be. With my growing international connections to the Baltic States and elsewhere, I will now keep one eye on the possibility of relocating abroad if the situation here goes from bad to worse, from simmering to burning, from quasi-Fascist rhetoric to brutality in practice, presided over by an erratic, intellectually incoherent, ethically questionable, orange-headed celebrity-buffoon who has indeed accomplished an amazing thing, to convert a country that eight years ago seemed to be heading for a new more inclusive future into a country where a considerable number of people are calling for the building of walls to keep out foreigners, the use of prisons to torture suspected terrorists, and the rounding up of Muslims into 21st century concentration camps. I hope that each of these awful items that I just mentioned never comes to pass....but all of those ideas have been voiced by members or supporters of the Trump team.

I am afraid for my country....and do not think I will live along enough to see the damage likely to be done by this new president undone. I hope I am wrong.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Reflections on "Southside With You" and Racism in Paganism

Tonight I saw "Southside With You," the film about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date. It is a poignant study of the beginning of a relationship and an interesting time-capsule of American life 25 or so years ago, with the future Obamas going to see the Spike Lee film, "Do the Right Thing." At several points the two lead characters reflect on the divided, almost split-screen reality they live in, shuttling between the predominantly black American neighborhoods of the South Side of Chicago that they live in and the white-dominated corporate America in the downtown of the city that they go to work in each day. When the Michelle character reflects on how she has to continually perform and achieve at an extra-high level to win respect and status while being black and a woman in America, it made me think of how that has been true for Barack Obama as President. No white President was ever put through the kind of unrelenting scrutiny and vilification that he had to endure. Many people give him no credit at all for major achievements like stabilizing a downward-spiraling economy and not only restoring the stock market but bringing it to record heights, restoring economic growth and rising employment, putting in place regulations that will improve the safety of our air and water for generations to come, reorganizing Federal Student Loans to make it possible for borrowers to pay back on an income-contingent basis--truly a life-saver for those, like your author, with massive educational debt--and improving American's international reputation after the embarrassments of the Bush years. This is not to say the Obama record is perfect; far from it. In fact, I voted for the Green Party in 2012, but that does not mean I do not realize that things could have been much worse and that Obama did make many things better, despite incredible Republican obstruction. There are many disappointing things about his presidency, but to write it off as a nation-wrecking disaster when it was really more of a national Heimlich maneuver is to look at the last eight years through a terribly distorted lens.

Donald Trump is banking on millions of Americans endorsing that twisted view, and he may succeed. Why? There are multiple reasons, one of the foremost being that many economically struggling white Americans are responding to the old, old Pied Piper's tune of racial resentment, which provides scapegoats and rationalizations that many find comforting and reassuring. It is not the increasing power of global capitalism and massive, inhumane business corporations that are causing your declining income, status and job security; it is those nasty Mexicans and Muslims and Chinese. And all of this started when America went down the suicidal road of "political correctness" and voted a black man into the White House, a black man who is probably not even a real American, and who is probably a "Secret Muslim" though he claims to be a Christian. Don't forget that the Dunce-ald got his start in politics by gleefully endorsing the "birther" conspiracy theory that questioned the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency by casting doubt on the authenticity of his birth certificate. The birther show was quite a media circus, for a time, but in the end it produced nothing of value and only wasted America's time and attention. If the Golden One were elected, I expect that his presidency would achieve similar results.

The longer I live, the more people I know, the more classes I teach and students I work with, the more clearly I see how the real "birther" problem of America is how this country was founded in racial hostility, economic exploitation and bitter injustice, a nightmarish and haunted legacy from the extermination to the enslavement to the continuing disadvantaging and disrespecting of non-white people, and the more this sickens, saddens and angers me. This is the "original sin" of American life, and it never goes away. It affects all of us who breathe the air and walk the streets and make our homes in America.

And to turn to my own chosen spiritual home in the evolving religious framework of contemporary Paganism, I see how this haunted legacy poisons modern American Paganism too. The recent controversy over statements made by the new leaders of the AFA, the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, that suggest a desire to perpetuate Ásatrú/Heathenry/Norse Paganism for the sake of "our beautiful white children" is repugnant but unsurprising, as this has always been one of the threads women into contemporary Norse Paganism, especially, though not exclusively, in America. As I see it, the desire of these people to employ Norse spirituality in the service of creating a lovely all-white world for their darling pure-gene children is just the old racist American story all over again, if one that is charmingly decorated with runes and eddas.

I do believe that there are well-meaning, generally kind-hearted people who are not deeply or overtly racist who fall into this unawares, not realizing that lore is being used as a lure for the unwary, to gradually indoctrinate them with a racist view of the world. A deeper understanding of American history, including its ugly chapters of racial injustice and brutalized and terrorized populations, would serve them well, as would a visit to the cinema to see "Southside With You."

Hopefully, over time, as they explore more deeply and gain greater experience, at least some who have been lured into more racist forms of Heathenry will come to see that Yggdrasil, that mythical Ash tree that links together different worlds in Norse mythology, is the WORLD tree, not the WHITE tree! Hopefully, they will come to understand that just as the mythology envisions different "races" or types of beings living together in one interlinked universe, interacting and intermingling, combining and creating, so too can we humans of different ethnic hues and backgrounds, and that together, we can breathe new energy into originally Norse-based traditions to make them more vibrant and beautiful than ever.





Saturday, July 23, 2016

After the Republican Convention

The horrible freak show that was the Republican National Convention has now come to an end, with a red-faced candidate shouting at the faithful that America is on the edge of violent collapse and their only hope is to trust in Him as the Second Coming of Richard Nixon, or is it Mussolini? Thankfully, a more sunny scenario was offered today by the Democrats, when Hillary Clinton introduced Tim Kaine as her choice to be her Vice President, should they win the election. Finally, after days of gloom and doom and angry mobs shouting for blood, we saw two relaxed, very intelligent and very experienced public servants offering hope rather than hate, compassion rather than anger. I think Hillary summed it all up when she said, earlier in the day on Friday, "Love trumps hate." Kaine reached out to the growing numbers of Hispanic Americans by speaking Spanish...FLUENTLY.

For me, one of the most important issues here is experience. Hillary was a U.S. Senator for eight years and Secretary of State for four, not to mention eight years as First Lady. She can also boast of earlier years spent in advocating for children's issues. Kaine has been a city councilman, the mayor of Richmond, the governor of Virginia, and a U.S. Senator for three years. He also worked with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras when he was just out of college.

Trump has zero experience in public service and government, and his much-vaunted business experience is clouded by all those bankruptcies and law suits that seem to buzz around him like flies around, uh, food. All he does is shout about how great he is and how he can fix everything, without ever giving any details! At least his VP pick, Mike Pence, has some solid experience as a U.S. congressman and a governor.Though I do not agree with his political views, I appreciate that Pence has a calm and thoughtful temperament. Problem is, the experienced and thoughtful Pence is not at the top of the ticket. The very loud but completely inexperienced and unthoughtful Trump is the boss, and poor Pence is his "apprentice."

If you believe that important jobs, like President and Vice-President of the USA, should be done by experienced and intelligent people, the obvious choice is Clinton-Kaine. That is my view, anyway!

Reflections on violence and violent gods in Paganism still forthcoming....

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Stop Feeding the Fire, Stop Romanticizing Guns: A Cry for Orlando

A week ago, on the early morning of June 12th, 2016, Omar Mateen carried out his brutal rampage in the LBGT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, setting a new American record for number of people killed by one American gunman at one time. Though much attention has been paid to the killer's Muslim religious background and his claim of allegiance to the Islamic State, I find it more important to point out that this massacre was clearly motivated by intense homophobia. He could have gone anywhere to take innocent lives and make his point, but Mr. Mateen chose a place that was associated with the LBGT community. He made a conscious decision to target gays, lesbians and others of non-conventional sexual and gender preferences for his night of infamy. In deploring the killing, many politicians and media pundits have chosen to focus on his religious identity and his attempt to link himself with violent Islamic extremism, but fewer are the voices that have made as resounding a denunciation of anti-gay attitudes and violence as they have of Islamic extremism or terrorism.

This is quite ironic, considering that LBGTs are among the populations most prone to suffer persecution and violence--and thus live in terror--in America. One would think that those who denounce terrorism in broad, sweeping, flag-waving, moral-crusade terms would take note of how often LBGT Americans are terrorized, and bring this front and center in denouncing the Orlando rampage, but no. The reason is not difficult to surmise. Many right-wing politicians have made quite a point of vilifying LBGT people and rejecting their efforts to gain equal rights over the last several decades. In their demonization of gays, lesbians, transgender people and others, such politicians helped to set the stage for the Orlando massacre, for they have targeted LBGTs with their rhetoric and legislation as surely as the Orlando killer did with his assault rifle. And so, when this holocaust raged in the Orlando nightclub, the right-wing politicians and gay-haters found themselves in a quandary, and took the easy way out, focusing on the religious aspect to engage in some free and easy Muslim-bashing, to avoid the issue of how their words and actions have contributed to the beating and killing of LBGTs on many occasions including this horrific night in Florida. Sadly, their pointing to Islam, rather than homophobia, as the cause of the Orlando catastrophe is likely to lead to more Muslim-bashing around the USA and beyond. Of course, for those like Donald Trump, who depend on whipping racism and bigotry to a "white"-hot froth for their surest source of political support, this result will probably suit them just fine, regardless of how it traumatizes Muslim-American individuals and families, tears apart our society, and bolsters the anti-American sentiments and ideology of groups like ISIS.

Today, however, I want to call attention to another aspect of the Orlando shooting spree. Omar Mateem didn't just go to the Pulse nightclub armed to the teeth to kill others, but also to be killed himself in an orgy of violence, a ballet of bullets. In so doing, he was acting out a script that has been portrayed and played out all too many times in America, in both the fantasy life and the real lives of Americans. This is the tired but never retired old trope of the valiant, gunslinging hero who goes to fight against invincible odds and dies in a blaze of glory. Think of "Custer's Last Stand," fighting bravely against the "Injun" enemy. Think of all the movies and television shows, from "High Noon" to "Dirty Harry," from "Pulp Fiction" to "American Sniper" to (add your own), where soldiers or police or vigilante he-men or charismatic criminals end up fighting alone, one gun against a hundred or a thousand, to either die or miraculously triumph, or both.

All hail the lone male hero and his mighty gun, one brave penis against the world! If he dies, he dies happy in one last ejaculation of lead, blood and sperm! If he prevails, it is because of the magical power of a noble man and his majestic weapon!

I would go so far as to say that this scenario, this man-and-a-gun-against-the world script, has achieved a quasi-sacred status in the American imagination, particularly the American male imagination, helping to explain why guns are such a sensitive political issue in the USA. Any proposal to limit access to guns in the USA ignites such ferocious and irrational opposition, you would think that the proposed laws were aiming at castrating men rather than simply placing limits on gun access, use and purchase similar to those in other countries. Perhaps if more men played more with their penises and got their jollies that way, perhaps if our society were more open and accepting of sexuality, we would not have this problem. Perhaps if Omar Mateem had gone to that bar seeking an orgasm rather than a gun-gasm, this tragedy could have been avoided. Unfortunately, it would seem that gun play had become more satisfying, more meaningful, and more heroic than sex play for him. I fear, however, that he is not alone in this, shall we call it, "lifestyle preference," where aggression trumps eroticism and carnage is preferred to coitus.

This needs to change. I say that unequivocally, and I don't see how any sane person could disagree with the proposal that we need to completely reject and lay to rest the persistent, pernicious and tragically popular mass hallucination that teaches young men in America that the ultimate exercise of American male heroism is to die in a hail of gunfire, shooting and being shot, taking down as many others as possible before submitting to death oneself. John Wayne, RIP! Quentin Tarantino, please find something else to aim your camera at besides endless and repetitive displays of gunfire!

But it will not be enough to retire this script. It has to be replaced with cultural representations that are not only non-violent, but also attractive and inspirational. American boys and men--and boys and men in other countries who grow up to the sights and sounds of bullet-riddled American media, from police procedurals to war movies to gangster rap--need to be shown other models of heroism to aspire to, other ways of being fulfilled and proud as men without fetishizing guns and shooting to kill. We need a paradigm shift, in Thomas Kuhn's phrase.

We need a massive, all-hands-on-deck commitment to creating images and narratives that celebrate the value of peaceful pursuits and non-violent forms of achievement and heroism for American men. Instead of only glorifying policemen, soldiers and psychopathic killers ad infinitum and ad nauseum, we need to showcase the drama and significance of other occupations and situations. To a public trained to feel bored by any story that does not involve the firing of guns, and equates heroism with good guys with guns killing bad guys with guns, this is indeed a difficult task, but that does not mean it is an impossible one. Popular television programs have been built around the work-lives of lawyers and doctors, with the ethical dilemmas of law firms and the life-and-death drama of the operating room proving just as gripping and just as lucrative as battlefield heroics or the stereotyped shoot-out in the crime-den. The work of teachers, social workers, legislators and other public servants could also be converted into compelling dramas if the networks and movie studios were willing to take a chance, as they did with "Mad Men" and its portrayal of the advertising world, for example.

And then there are video games. Surely more could be done to create a wider range of alternatives to the kinds of single-shooter kill-fests that would almost seem to have been designed as how-to manuals for disturbed mass killers like Omar Mateem?

I know some who read this will object that there is no direct correlation between violent entertainment and gun violence in America. I would answer that while there may be no direct correlation, there is no escaping the fact that American gun violence in American life very much reflects the portrayals of gun violence in American popular culture, suggesting a kind of feedback-loop between what people see on screen and what they do in life. There may not be any one-to-one causal correspondence between any particular media display of gun-violence and any particular mass-shooting in a simplistic sense, but that does not mean there is NO influence on the American psyche from the constant screening of scenes of men with guns who shoot to kill and are killed by shooting. If images and narratives on the screen had no effect on us, billions of dollars would not be spent every week on television and internet advertising. What we see, what we hear in the media DOES affect us. Looked at in this way, the massive and ceaseless displays of gun violence are one long and unending advertisement for the glorification of guns and an equation of American masculinity with gun violence, an anti-public service announcement, you might say.

Women of course can play and slay with guns as much as men, and I would sadly predict that the rising number of films and programs with gun-toting females will eventually usher in a new phenomenon of female mass-shooters. I suppose this could be seen as a victory for gender equality, but this is one glass ceiling I would rather remain unbroken.

One more thing. I have noted for many years now that in many places in America, most public monuments are dedicated to soldiers and police. One could easily develop the impression, growing up in the average American town or city, that the only men who are real heroes in American life are those who brave danger with guns in their hands. Why are there so few memorials to people in other walks of life, to doctors, nurses, engineers and musicians, poets, artists, composers and playwrights? Many are the American highways and byways named for army regiments and state police officers; few are those named for teachers or writers or scientists. This is another area in which we can alter the atmosphere of our country to advance more peaceful values and images, and start reducing the amount of energy that our culture pumps into a misguided romance with guns and violence that may not directly cause events like the Orlando massacre, but which helps make them more imaginable, and thus more possible. We need to drain this swamp, whose polluted waters allow toxic tendencies to flourish...

I remember once reading a book called "Wisconsin Death Trip," a photographic journey through images of death and funerals in Wisconsin. I feel like our country has been on an "American Death Trip" for years. Let's get off this sad trajectory, PLEASE!

Next: Paganism and gun violence.


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