A Country in Name Only
Our country feels deeply broken. This week’s senseless horror, the mass murder of children and teachers in a classroom in Texas, has stolen our attention away from last week’s horror: the racist slaughter of black people shopping for groceries in Buffalo. This genre of senseless horror is now the norm in America, and there’s a template we have learned to follow in the wake of each occurrence: Many of us, in anguish and outrage, call for some kind of action to curb the proliferation of guns, while others scold us for “politicizing the tragedy.” Many of us shout “this only happens here, in America, because of our unique relationship to guns,” while others blame video games and rap music and not enough church. Many of us want it to be much much harder for people to buy guns, while others propose arming teachers and “hardening” schools. Their answer is always more guns and better guns. Their answer is anything and everything except any limitations whatsoever on their freedom to buy mass-murder weapons and armor-piercing bullets over the counter.
Each time a mass slaughter happens, we repeat all the things we said the last time, and our elected leaders do too. And it’s all performance, because changing laws in this country feels impossible. Gun laws anyway. And environmental protection laws. And healthcare laws. And immigration laws. And criminal justice reform laws…
The laws that the other side of America fights for are the ones that allow them to assert their will—to carry weapons anywhere they want, and to “stand their ground” against anyone they perceive as a threat. The laws they fight against are the ones that would make them share, make them cooperate, make them part of a society.
It’s a huge irony that the people who call themselves patriots and dress up in the American flag don’t seem to want to live in a country at all. Their aspiration is to be left alone. They see their neighbors as threats to their safety—both their physical safety and the safety of their own ideas. Increasingly, they homeschool their kids because they don’t want them exposed to the rest of us. They complain about “indoctrination” even as they insulate their kids against the world of ideas, inside their gun-protected fortresses. They despise American cities and slander them to such an extent that “San Francisco” and “Chicago” (just the names alone) have become code words on the right. It’s no wonder, because cities are shared spaces by definition, where we can’t avoid interacting with neighbors who are different from ourselves.
In America, we pay far more for healthcare than the citizens of any other rich nation, and this fits with the same dog-eat-dog ethos of non-sharing, because those extra dollars presumably end up in the pockets of insurance executives who “worked for it,” instead of subsidizing the healthcare of people who can’t afford it. Or immigrants! Can you imagine? A public healthcare system might cost less, but it would involve sharing, and sharing is the opposite of freedom. Or something like that.
Freedom is a nuanced concept to these so-called patriots. They believe that if you (are like them and you) own a business for example, then you should be free to refuse service to people who are different; but if you are the different person, then you don’t have the freedom to expect to be served. The greatest expression of freedom, of course, is to be an army of one, camoed up and carrying, ready to dominate and able to demand anything from anyone. But then freedom is fragile as well, in that it also means never being made to feel uncomfortable. So the other laws these patriots fight for are the ones that would protect them from dark chapters of American history, from contemporary realities of LGBTQ existence, from any obligation to help slow the spread of a pandemic…
For these so-called patriots, the American flag itself seems to fall short. They are ever inventing new variants—Don’t Tread on Me flags, Blue Lives Matter flags, flags with guns, flags with slogans.
They represent a minority of the American people, but they exert disproportionate control on government right now if you consider the makeup of SCOTUS, skewed structures like the Senate and the Electoral College, and power at the state level. Minority rule feels like bitter irony. Government controlled by people who have nothing but contempt for actual governance is another bitter irony. What they seem to enjoy using power for the most is triggering outrage in their fellow citizens who they consider their enemies. There really is no other reason for a Kyle Rittenhouse to still be making appearances on Fox News and its ilk. What ideas, what perspective does this kid possibly have to offer, a year after he was arrested and months after his trial? Triggering the libz. That’s it. That's the extent of his value to the right.
And so we've arrived at this dissonant reality where a minority controls government, while the majority dominates popular culture. These two are not just dissonant but increasingly in real conflict (see Florida vs Disney). We’re in a kind of standoff, and it’s hard to imagine a peaceful resolution. Indeed in other countries during other times when government and culture were at odds like this, it did not end well.
It’s not going well right now. Stasis is its own kind of hell.