"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 22, 2013

Is America A Violent Country?

Todd May, writing in the New York Times (4.22.13) has concluded that America very definitely is one of the most violent countries in the world; and suggests that our violence is a result of three factors.  First our individualism and our rejection of the concept of social solidarity predominant in countries like Sweden and Denmark.  Second our insecurity.  America is no longer a world power, says May, and our military adventurism (violence) is a frustrated reaction to that erosion of international authority.  Third the decline of the welfare state and the rise of neo-liberalism or individualistic free-enterprise.

While our particular brand of muscular individualism has certainly contributed to our confrontational settling of disputes, it is more a result of our history of Westward expansion, settling lands in hostile country with no law, and a fierce and natural desire to protect our own than an inherent defect in individualism. We have definitely retained the independent,entrepreneurial, risk-taking and confrontational behavior of our ancestors, but our vigorous, innovative society is the result.

Europe, on the other hand, developed much differently.  In medieval times society was feudal with power and wealth concentrated within kingdoms and principalities.  Kings collected taxes and conscripted peasants to wage almost continual wars of expansion, revenge, or self-defense. As history progressed, the wars became fewer, and the political system less monarchical and after the revolutions of the 18th century less exploitive, but the traditional social systems remained. Aristocrats owned the land on which farmers worked, and an increasingly dense population was concentrated around hundreds of small towns.   It wasn’t the peasants who were responsible for the defense of their land and property.  It was the aristocrats who were, and they were as confrontational as any American cowboy. After the revolutions and social upheavals of the 18th century, the idea of participatory government took hold, but the propertied classes ruled in these new, secular kingdoms.  Government and paternalism grew and eventually evolved into the welfare state where individualism, never a European characteristic, was subsumed within the larger entity of the State.

Therefore it is misleading to hold up European Socialist political economies as the result of progressive insight and a moral commitment to social integrity and harmony.  They evolved logically and understandably to their current political context; and will continue to evolve away from it as economic liberalism and the introduction of American-style individualism continues.

Therefore, while American historical individualism most definitely has shaped American confrontational behavior; and we are a society less concerned with negotiation and compromise than those of Europe, individualism is not a virus to be extirpated. Violence is a by-product of a unique system of positivism and energy; but the establishment of a communal, statist political system like those cited by May is not the answer.

In other words, the answer to controlling violence is not to impose an oppressive government on individual-based system and engineer a more symbiotic and sympathetic populace.  This is what American ‘Progressives’ have tried to do for the last 50 years.  They have tried to tame that very spirit which has led the country to its greatest domestic achievements – individual enterprise – and replace it with a homogenized, neutralized system of idealistic equality.  They have failed and will continue to do so; for it is impossible to reconfigure and restructure a society which has been on an individualistic trajectory for 400 years.

Another reason why it is disingenuous to hold up Scandinavian Socialism as the ideal is because Norway, Sweden, and Denmark – up until very recently – have been small countries, densely populated with homogeneous populations.  The constant racial, ethnic, and religious divisions in the United States – the source of both problems and vitality – are alien to these Northern European societies. There was never the need to debate ‘inclusion’, civil rights, or participatory democracy in the American sense.  Scandinavian societies grew together, and it was logical – and not contradictory – for individuals to be subsumed within the State. Denmark is rapidly becoming multi-cultural and the rest of the region will follow.  There is simply no way that in the 21st Century countries can maintain impermeable borders and remain ethnically and culturally pure.

What May is really proposing is the dismantling of American capitalism; for while he does not explicitly call for this radical solution, he indirectly refers to it.  Income inequality – always a necessary and sometimes unpleasant by-product of a laissez-faire economic system – will always produce resentment, crime, and violence; and when this is added to the powerful and seemingly ineradicable strain of individual confrontation in our national character, violence will always ensue.  The assumption is that if we were to have a Socialist state where income inequalities have been erased, social distinctions minimized, and equality assured for all, violence would decline and eventually disappear.  Socialism, despite its having been debunked, discredited, and marginalized, still has its hangers-on.  It will never happen.

Even more fundamentally, what May, and other similar critics continue to contend is that violence itself can be removed from human interactions – that it is not part of human nature to be acquisitive, expansionist, self-protective, and confrontational; and with a little assiduous application of ‘modern’ norms, peace can reign.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  If Western history is anything to go on, wars, violence, marauding and depredation in the name of God, King, and Country will certainly continue.  Even a cursory reading of Shakespeare', a firm believer in the absolute, immutable demands of a well-defined human nature, will show that history – both political and personal – is always played out again and again according to the same rules.

There is no doubt that the ethnic conflicts heating up in Denmark will produce violence. The clash of cultures is only beginning, and formerly homogeneous societies like those of Northern Europe have no clue about how to resolve the problem.  How much do we accede to minority wishes, and how much to we hold our ground to defend traditional white, Christian values?  France, another country admiringly referred to by May has already shown what happens when traditionalism meets the 21st Century.  The riots in the northern suburbs of Paris are only the beginning.  France will become as violent as the United States because of ethnic and religious conflict and great disparities of wealth, income, and power.

I do not understand why May includes international wars in his discussion of American violence.  While our Wild West pistol-packing, gunfight at OK Corral mentality certainly plays a role in our foreign adventurism, it is by far not the most important.  Once again, one only needs to look at both Western and Eastern history to see how war is an endemic expression of human nature and society.  The Crusades, Genghis Khan, the War of the Roses, The Hundred Years War, the perpetual armed conflicts of the 20th Century are part of world civilization ad infinitum and ad nauseam. The most presumptuous and historically ignorant book of recent years was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History.  There, of course, is no such thing.  Once some major international configurations change – e.g. the end of the Soviet bloc – new ones take their place.  Our wars are now asymmetrical, but they are still wars.  Russia and the United States may not enter into a nuclear exchange, but we and the North Koreans or Iranians might.

As in the past, most American wars have not been related so much to American cowboy individualism, but political ambitions.  The War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War were all fought to defend American economic and political interests, to expand American regional hegemony, and to display intimidating American might.  The second Iraq War was no different.  It was certainly part posse manhunt to find and string up Saddam Hussein, but it was also about oil and especially the vain desire of the Neo-Cons to spread American light and wisdom to the rest of the world.

May does himself no favors when he uses pop psychology to explain American international violence.  We are like frustrated, insecure bullies who push people around:

The second reason is the decline of our ability to control events in the world.  We might date this decline from our military failure in Vietnam, or, if we prefer, more recently to the debacle in Iraq.  In any event, it is clear that the United State cannot impose its will as it did during much of the 20th century.  We live in a different world now, and this makes many of us insecure.  We long for a world more cooperative with our wishes than the one we now live in.  Our insecurity, in turn, reinforces our desire to control, which reinforces violence.  If we cannot control events in the world, this must be a result not of our impotence or the complexity of the world’s problems but of our unwillingness to “man up.”  And so we tell ourselves fairy tales about what would have happened if we had committed to victory in Vietnam or bombed one or another country back to the Stone Age.

Nothing could be more misguided.  Countries always undertake military adventures and usually (see Shakespeare) for the same, predictable reasons. If a country already has dominant power, it has a tendency to use it because reprisals will be few and ineffective.  If a country is feeling the pressure of internal conflicts, it often goes to war to deflect political pressure and to coalesce arguing factions around a singular cause. The English kings often used wars with France, Ireland, Spain, and Scotland for this reason. Countries go to war to show ‘em. After Vietnam, the Pentagon was certainly waiting for an opportunity to show that America could decisively win a war, and itching for a casus belli.

The point is, there is nothing new in this.  It is not American insecurity that is a unique and special cause of our international violence.  It is reaction to a complex of social, economic, and political factors that is little different from any other armed conflict in history.

May concludes with some very shopworn idealism:

To recognize someone’s humanity is, in perhaps the most important way, to recognize him or her as an equal. Each of us, nonviolence teaches, carries our humanity within us.  That humanity cannot always be appealed to.  In some cases, as with the tragedy at Sandy Hook, it can even become nearly irrelevant.  However, in all but the most extreme cases nonviolence summons us to recognize that humanity even when it cannot serve as the basis for negotiation or resolution.  It demands that we who act do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other.  It demands the acknowledgment that we are all fragile beings, nexuses of hope and fear, children of some mother and perhaps parents to others:  that is, no more and no less than fellow human beings in a world fraught with imponderables.

“It demands that we do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other”  What a lovely sentiment, how heartfelt, warm, and cuddly.  There is nothing in our past from the caveman clubbing his hairy rival to the likes of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz to suggest that any such beatific and peaceful utopia will ever come our way. 

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