Paranoiacs With Guns: Violence and More Violence

I was contemplating the irrationality of violence. People turn to violence out of a desire for safety. Yet violence in the end makes the world a less safe place for everyone, not just for the supposed bad guys.

I can’t stop thinking about one piece of data. The US doesn’t have the highest rates of all kinds of crimes, compared to other similar countries. What makes the US crime rates stand out is that for Americans crime is more likely to involve violence and so more likely to result in injury and death. Why is that the case?

It occurred to me that criminals are more violent because our society unintentionally incentivizes violence. We have a heavily armed population who are trigger-happy. It isn’t always clear who is and isn’t a criminal. You only know a criminal after they commit the crime. Americans are a paranoid people, seeing criminals everywhere. Cops regularly shoot people who they mistakenly thought had guns. So do regular citizens. To a paranoid mind, a bag of skittles or a cell phone looks like a possible weapon.

The criminal is also in a paranoid state. Knowing so many people carry guns, the criminal isn’t going to mess around. He is more likely to shoot someone, if he has even the slightest reason to think the victim might pull a gun. Also, because our criminal system is so harsh in its punishment, the criminal is more likely to kill all witnesses to decrease the probability of going to prison. Our desire to protect ourselves from bad guys backfires and creates a less safe world.

Even mass incarceration just makes everyone worse. It has been convincingly argued that prisons have become schools for criminals where people come out the other side more dangerous than when they went in. Incarceration destroys lives, destroys families, destroys communities, destroys social capital. It makes our society worse in every possible way. We are surrounded by people who are the victims of our demented compulsion to punish at all costs. Some data shows that at least 6% of people in prison are entirely innocent of all crimes charged against them. Over the past few decades, that would amount to millions of Americans who have been falsely imprisoned and had their entire lives destroyed for no reason. These are the walking wounded, the desperate and hopeless, the victims of a society that betrayed them.

On a larger scale, our entire society has become militarized as our country increasingly has embraced its role as a police state and a military empire. The US has become the militarized policemen of the world. The Cold War, the War On Poverty, the War On Drugs, the War On Terror, all of these first and foremost have been wars on people which includes American citizens. We’ve made our country and the entire world into a war zone.

In lowering the standards for recruitment, the military allowed people with criminal records into service. This unintentionally led to the military training of criminals who in many cases were gang members. So, the gangs in this country became militarized, using military tactics and military weapons against both other gangs and the police. At the same time, the police have militarized and our country is beginning to feel like a military occupation with police who look like soldiers, with guns being pointed at innocent citizens, and with military vehicles on American streets.

This creates a state of fear and paranoia. From right-wingers to minorities, people are arming themselves as the society becomes increasingly dangerous. American citizens aren’t sure who to trust anymore. Not even the police seem to be entirely on our side. If we can’t trust the police, as minorities and the poor understand all too well, then the only other choice is to defend oneself, to defend one’s family and community. Americans have started forming militias and are training in preparation. Even gangs in many ways are simply the poor person’s militia.

In our paranoia, we’ve projected our violent behavior onto the entire global society. In acting like Big Brother, we’ve simply become yet another authoritarian bully. All of the US war crimes and atrocities make us less safe as a country. These include: wars of aggression, long-lasting occupations, assassinations, overthrowing democratic governments, arming and training militant groups, mass bombings and drone strikes that kill innocent people (often women and children), funding Israeli’s genocide of Palestinians, allying with authoritarian governments in the Middle East and Latin America, and on and on.

As many have pointed out, the 9/11 attack was blowback from all that our government has done. When we do horrible things to others, they feel motivated to return the favor. It becomes a vicious cycle of violence. It creates and entire mentality and reality tunnel where everything is seen through the lense of violence and where violence is seen as the solution to all problems.

This is social dysfunction brought to its extreme. It is a vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-destruction.

Substance Control is Social Control

Substance control is social control. And social control always targets minorities first. The minorities targeted sometimes change. The methods remain the same.

Many Americans say, “But I’m not a minority”. What short memories we have. Those minorities of the recent past, just a few generations ago, were the grandparents and great-grandparents of most Americans today. They were ethnic Americans, what the likes of the KKK disparaged as “Hyphenated Americans”. They were German-Americans and Irish-Americans and many other ethnic ancestries as well.

Besides, it never is just about minorities. That is simply where it begins. The tactics of oppression used against minorities, in time, are used against the entire population. Social control is about controlling all of society, not just keeping those minorities in line. Other people’s problems are our problems, that is what history demonstrates, and yet we never learn from history.

Many Americans in the past supported Prohibition because it was sold as targeting those other people, the ethnic Americans, immigrants, and Catholics. In the generations following, the War On Drugs was sold as targeting blacks and Hispanics (at an earlier time, Chinese were targeted with the early prohibitions on opiates; also, interestingly, the Scots-Irish in places like Appalachia who in the past were targeted by the Whiskey Tax and Prohibition also now are targeted by the War On Drugs, as Appalachia has become a major center for the growing of marijuana and the production of meth). It is true that these were the primary targets, but in the end all citizens became targets. It is the same as with the Cold War and the War On Terror. When the government gains that much power, it never ends with the original justification. This is how police states are always formed.

Ignoring that, everyone knows Prohibition was a failure. It wasn’t a secret. It was one of the worst public policies in all of American history. Yet the War On Drugs was started several decades later, as if this time substance control would be different. Actually, it was an extension of the same substance control policies for the earliest drug prohibition began in 1914, five years before alcohol prohibition began. As the minorities targeted change, so do the substances prohibited. Nonetheless, the fundamental pattern is the same, repeating the same tactics and problems, and in the end failing the same basic way.

Repeal always happens when it is found too many white people, especially middle class white people, are getting harmed by the policies intended to only harm the minorities and ethnics. When these policies are formulated, those in power try to protect those of their perceived group, their demographic, their class, race, and ethnicity. During Prohibition, for example, the ban wasn’t on consuming alcohol in one’s home but rather the making and purchasing of alcohol. An important distinction. The wealthy had or built large cellars prior to Prohibition and filled them with alcohol. All alcohol bought before Prohibition began was legal to drink in one’s home. Besides, it would have been near impossible to prove when some rich guy bought the alcohol in his cellar and certainly he was given the benefit (i.e., the privilege) of the doubt. Rich white people weren’t the target.

Anyway, few revenuers would have been stupid enough to target the politically well connected. If they did attempt that, their careers would have been short. The same is true now with the War On Drugs. The police target poor minority communities, even though the wealthy do plenty of illegal drugs and even though whites use and carry drugs more than blacks (not to mention more likely to carry illegal guns). There wasn’t much attention given to the police confiscation of property in relation to drug crimes, until they attempted this on some wealthy and well connected people.

There is another interesting angle. I’m not an anti-tax libertarian or anarchist. Still, I can’t help but notice that there is a connection between tax laws and social control. Taxation isn’t just about procuring the funding for government and its activities. This also relates to why there are so many tax lawyers and tax loopholes that help the rich. Almost any category of law mostly targets those least able to avoid and defend against government oppression. Social control is the greatest tool of the privileged and wealthy, a tool that they use mostly against the most undreprivileged and disenfranchised (and, in the case of jury duty, targeting of underprivileged minorities just disenfranchises them further which is the entire point).

When the government couldn’t get bootleggers on their bootlegging, they implemented tax evasion laws. That is reminiscent of why the government went after the Whiskey bootleggers after the American Revolution. And it comes back to the War On Drugs, when tax evasion charges are often added on top of charges of possessing and dealing drugs. Of course, these tax evasion laws in their use toward substance control have disproportionately impacted minorities, yet more social control for non-WASP Americans.

That is also one of the weaknesses of substance control. Once the government makes the tax evasion argument, the public might start wondering why we don’t legalize the substance and just tax it (even many local government officials start asking that as well, when their tax revenue is negatively impacted). Economic hard times brings home this realization in the minds of Americans. Government oppression often becomes less tolerable when the general public is also experiencing economic oppressiveness.

On a positive note, I was considering some past thoughts I’ve had on minority communities. The focus of mainstream media, a majority white perspective (and a professional upper class perspective at that), reports on such issues with particular frames and interpretations. Even mainstream academia often fails on this account. There is a social capital that exists in the most poor minority communities that people not living there can’t see or even comprehend. It is entirely outside of their sense of reality.

I have two examples in mind that I’ve recently made note of: family structure and socioeconomic class, often portrayed in terms of “broken families” and “welfare queens”. On the issue of marriage and family, here is some commentary I made in my post Black Feminism and Epistemology of Ignorance:

Blacks and women, most especially black women, are among the poorest people in America and in the world. Being poor, in some ways, makes them more likely to act in ways that are considered caring and humane. To be on the bottom of society, an individual is more dependent on and interdependent with others.

This could explain why middle and upper class people, both black and white, don’t understand the family structures and support systems of the poor. All they see are marriages under stressful conditions, calling the families weak or broken, but they don’t see the strength of communities surviving under almost impossible conditions.. The ignorance of this judgment from privilege hit home for me when I read the following passage from Stephen Steinberg’s “Poor Culture”:

“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””

Those rich in wealth are poor in so many other ways. And those poor in wealth are rich in so many ways. It depends on what you value. People can’t value what they don’t see and understand.

And on the issue of poverty and unemployment, I explained an insight I had in my post Working Hard, But For What?:

These people believe in the American Dream and try to live it best they can, under almost impossible conditions. They aren’t asking for handouts. They are solving their own problems, even when those problems are forced on them by the larger society.

Take gangs, for example. Most gangs are what white people would call militias. When the police fail in their job, gangs do the job for them. If you are a black who is targeted by the police and everyone you know is targeted by the police, you’ll organize in order to protect yourself, your family, your friends, and your neighborhood.

That is how community forms when all of the outside world is against you, when life is difficult and desperate, where daily living is a fight for survival. When there are no jobs available, poor minorities make their own jobs. When there are no police to protect them, poor minorities police themselves. When the larger society is against them, they make their own communities.

There is a strength that comes from adversity. This was demonstrated by ethnic immigrants in the past, such as the close-knit bootlegging community of German-Americans in Templeton, Iowa. People who have had histories of disadvantage and/or oppression sometimes learn amazing skills of social adaptation and survival. They develop forms of social capital that those more privileged lack. If the economy really tanked or our society fell into disorder, the present American underclass would handle the challenges a lot better than the more well off whites would.

This directly relates to why the American Dream has always had life breathed into it primarily by immigrants. They actually believe in the ideals of our country, whereas most native-born Americans are too cynical to take it seriously. When the Templetonians illegally sold alcohol or now when the poor black guy illegally sells weed, they are working harder than most upper class white people. Those upper class white people have no fucking idea what hard work really means. It means doing whatever it takes to make a living, to pay the bills, to support one’s family. Sometimes that means working in the black market (not just selling drugs, but also taking cash for doing yard work or car repair), and at other times it means working two or three legal jobs (when such jobs are available).

Social control ultimately fails because it makes those at the top lazy and weak, while forcing those on the bottom to become ever more innovative and persevering. Some people become so dependent on racial and class privilege that it becomes both a personal weakness and a moral hazard. They see their position in society as a strength when in actuality it is their Achille’s Heel. If we are to look for positive change in our society, we need to look further down from the top.

Journalists, Employees of Media Oligopoly

From Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism by Thomas E. Patterson (Kindle Locations 1270-1317):

“If truth were the test, the machinery of news would grind to a halt. Whole areas of public life would be walled off to reporters because judgments about them are speculative. When Woodrow Wilson said he had spent much of his adult life in government and yet had never seen “a government,” he was saying that government is a concept and not an object. 23 How can journalists claim to know “the truth” of something as complex and intangible as government? Political scientists spend their careers studying government without mastering the subject fully. How can journalists with much less time and specialized training somehow accomplish it?”

A very good question. The best journalists know a little bit about many things, but rarely do they know a lot about anything in particular. They aren’t experts in knowledge. Their expertise is simply in communicating, which means they translate and filter the knowledge of other experts. They are middlemen. Most of the time they don’t even understand what they are attempting to communicate, but they must always speak with the authority of the experts they claim to speak for.

“Journalists are asked to make too many judgments under conditions of too little time and too much uncertainty for the news to be the last word. “When we expect [the press] to supply a body of truth,” Lippmann wrote, “we employ a misleading standard of judgment. We misunderstand the limited nature of news [and] the illimitable complexity of society.” 24 3.”

The one thing journalists have little training in is how to communicate complexity. Most of them don’t even try. However, without complexity, there can be no truth.

“Almost alone among the professions, journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge. 25 The claim is not that journalists lack knowledge or skill, for that is far from true. Nor is the claim an entry into the perennial but ultimately fruitless debate over whether journalism is a craft rather than a profession. 26 The claim instead is a precise one: Journalism is not grounded in a systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgment. 1

“Medicine, law, and the sciences, even economics and psychology, have disciplinary knowledge that guides practitioners’ decisions, narrowing the choices and reducing the chances of error. Journalists have no such advantage. Although there is a theoretical knowledge of journalism, it is not definitive, nor is its mastery a prerequisite for practice. 27 Although a majority of journalists have a college degree in journalism, many have a degree in a different field and some have no degree at all. 28″

I’m constantly shocked that so many news reporters (I’m not sure the fancy word of ‘journalist’ applies to most) are seemingly ignorant about what they report on. Doesn’t curiosity ever get the better of them? You’d think they’d feel some moral compunction to inform themselves first. Instead, it seems like it is just a job to them. They go to the office and someone hands them a script. Or else they wing it and try to appear intelligent.

“Journalists are often in the thankless position of knowing less about the subject at hand than the newsmakers they are covering, a reversal of the typical situation, in which the professional practitioner is the more knowledgeable party. Only rarely do clients know more about the law than do their attorneys , whereas newsmakers normally know more about the issue at hand than the journalists covering them. During the Persian Gulf War, journalists who visited the Pentagon press office were greeted with a sign that read, “Welcome Temporary War Experts.” 29

“The knowledge advantage that newsmakers have over journalists is not simply that they are privy to what’s said in closed-door meetings or contained in briefing papers. 30 They are assisted by experts. The president would never rely on his own instincts across a host of issues without the advice of policy specialists; nor would any congressional committee chair, top bureaucrat, or lobbyist. To be sure, journalists acquire expertise as a result of being on the same news beat for lengthy periods, but this form of expertise does not compare with that of most professionals . Doctors, lawyers, and engineers are masters of their own house in a way that journalists are not.”

In some ways, it isn’t the fault of journalists. They are being asked to do the impossible. No one can know everything or even most things. That is why the author suggests that journalists should specialize and only report on what they are experts on.

“Journalists’ knowledge deficit does not appear to be a major concern within their profession. In 2008, the Knight Foundation created a blue-ribbon commission aimed at strengthening journalism so that it could better serve communities’ “information needs.” None of the panel’s fourteen recommendations spoke to journalism’s knowledge deficit. 31 Yet the public has a sense of it. In a Freedom Forum study, journalist Robert Haiman found that although the public “respects the professional and technical skills [of] journalists,” it feels that journalists “don’t have an authoritative understanding of the complicated world they have to explain to the public.” In the five cities where he held public forums (Nashville; New London, Connecticut; Phoenix; San Francisco; and Portland, Oregon), Haiman heard repeated complaints from local civic and business leaders who questioned reporters’ preparation. “We heard stories,” he writes, “about reporters who did not know the difference between debt and equity, who did not know basic legal terminology used in a trial, and who had little idea of how manufacturing , wholesaling, distributing, and retailing actually work and relate to each other.” 32″

Journalists know little about even the wealthy and powerful they report upon. It isn’t their job to understand because that might mean questioning. If the corporate owners and management of newsrooms wanted informed intelligent journalists, they would hire such people. The point is that news is about business, not knowledge and understanding.

These journalists live in their own media bubble. They know even less about those who aren’t wealthy and powerful. As a college dropout, I know more about many issues, from poverty to racism, than does the average journalist. Having a good looking face and speaking clearly, for the job of journalists, is more important than being informed and insightful.

“If journalists are, as has been claimed, “the custodians of the facts,” 33 their armament is sometimes akin to that of a palace guard. It is difficult to protect the facts in those instances when someone else commands them. 4.”

That is the whole point. Journalists, generally speaking, aren’t independent actors. Most of them are employees. And most of them are employed by big business. They work for corporations that are subsidiaries of a few holders of all of mass media. They are part of a media oligopoly.

“When it comes to a subject of more than average complexity, the truth in news typically comes from outside of journalism. The news media, Lippmann argued, “can normally record only what has been recorded for it by the working of institutions. Everything else is argument and opinion.” 34″

Journalists are just extensions of the organizations and mouthpieces of the institutions they are enmeshed in. Why would we expect anything different from them? Demanding higher standards of the employees of corporations is only meaningful if we demand higher standards of the corporations that employ them. The first higher standard we should demand is a breaking up of the media oligopoly.

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence

“Europeans immigrated to British North America to gain religious, economic , and political independence during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and they built their freedom on the labor of slaves and on the land of Indians whose independence they stole. In London, meanwhile, kings and queens, imperial ministries, and members of Parliament believed that the colonists harbored treasonous ambitions for independence from the very founding of the colonies, and they described them pejoratively as “independent,” by which they meant chronically rebellious.”
~Thomas P. Slaughter, Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution, Kindle Locations 72-75

Independence, that is the central theme of American society, according to Slaughter. I tend to agree. As he explains, independence is a theme not simply because it is a cherished value, but also because it has been a regularly betrayed value. It is the frame by which we understand and judge our society, including our failures.

Unlike most other societies, liberty is our ideological watchword. It is a ambiguous term, no doubt; but it obviously means something very different than, for example, fairness. David Hackett Fischer associates this difference, in Fairness and Freedom, with the era of the founding of the United States. Freedom and liberty was in the air and it left a permanent imprint.

This wasn’t just about the English colonists declaring their independence from England. Early on, “as the colonies ’ domestic economies and population grew, as they geographically expanded and became ethnically heterogeneous , the colonists developed identities independent of the one that tethered them to the British Empire” (Independence, Kindle Locations 83-84). It was probably a two-way response to changing demographics, as I’ve speculated. America has always been ethnically diverse. This was noted centuries ago by the likes of Thomas Paine, about which I wrote:

Most interesting to me is his focus on the diversity of the colonies. What did it mean to speak of attachment to England as a mother country when colonies like New Netherlands weren’t originally English (with laws and a population that remained largely Dutch) and when colonies like Pennsylvania and New Jersey consisted only of a minority of Englishmen. This kind of thinking seems radical to many conservatives today as it did to conservatives back then. The only difference is that the conservatives back then were British Tories.

What ever returns to my thinking is how often the arguments against Britain would now apply to our federal government. The argument against both, respectively by the Revolutionaries and the Anti-Federalists, was an argument for freedom, for democratic self-governance. The American Revolution wasn’t fought for patriotic conformity and ethnocentric nationalism, for authoritarian subservience and centralized statism; but the complete opposite. The Revolution never ended and we continue to fight for those Revolutionary ideals.

It is hard to believe that the British aristocracy back in England didn’t take note of this obvious fact about the colonial population. This probably would have been alarming to their English identity, for they had not yet come to terms with what being an empire entailed. Their politics were firmly grounded in being English and the same was true for most of the ruling elites in the colonies, as I’ve explained in another post:

One of the conflicts colonists had with the British government was over the rights of Englishmen. I wonder if the reason the British government was so uncertain about the colonies was the fact that there were so many colonists who weren’t Englishmen. I could understand as the ethnocentric ruling elite of an empire that they were wary of equally offering the rights of Englishmen to people who weren’t Englishmen. Those are the kinds of problems that come from empire-building. Nonetheless, the ruling elite in the colonies were also mostly Englishmen. So, they took quite seriously their supposed rights as Englishmen and took offense at their being denied.

American colonists weren’t just seeking political independence, but cultural and religious independence as well. Many of these early Americans were less concerned about assimilation than we are, for assimilation was at that time identified with the British Empire and its attendant oppression. Most colonists didn’t have the understanding of toleration for all, but that idea had taken root early on with the likes of Thomas MortonRoger Williams, and William Penn.

Immigrants such as the Irish, German, and French understood the need for freedom from oppression to a greater degree than most English immigrants. The violence and persecution they were escaping was at times genocidal. Their choice to immigrate was in the context that, if they had remained in their homelands, they might have been mass murdered or forced to assimilate. They escaped for the very reason they valued their independence and understood all too well what it meant to lose that independence.

These non-English typically didn’t find independence in the urban coastal communities that tended to be majority English in population or else majority English in ruling elite. What they found was xenophobia and new forms of oppression. So, many of them went West, which at the time meant the frontier territory of Pennsylvania and Virgiania. For example, “The 1790 federal census” for Virginia, “provides some information on the size and ethnic background of the region’s populace. About 37 percent were of English origin or descent, 7 percent had Welsh names, 17 percent were Scottish, 19 percent Irish, and 12 percent were German. The ethnic heritage of the remaining 8 percent cannot be determined. The various immigrant groups were not evenly distributed among the western counties. Germans, for example, were the largest single nationality to settle in Bedford County. Non-English settlers predominated in all the western counties, but most strongly in Westmoreland and Bedford. Those of English origin or ancestry comprised 47 percent of Fayette and 43 percent in Allegheny” (Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, Kindle Locations 1340-1344).

Independence for European-Americans was culturally linked to alcohol, the freedom to make it and the freedom to drink it. It was as much a part of their ethnic identity as was the religious practices they brought with them. Germans, French, and the Alsace-Lorraine border people had traditions of beer and wine, in particular. This link existed just as strongly for the non-English British people. Whiskey originated with the Scottish and Irish and later was popularized in America by way of the Scots-Irish. Other ethnic groups such as the Dutch also favored making whiskey.

Their reasons for heading to the frontier even included their love of alcohol. In the 1700s, this mostly meant the Scots-Irish. In her article When Whiskey Was the King of Drink, Mary Miley Theobald explains that,

About a quarter of a million Scotch-Irish came to the American colonies in the fifty years before independence, making them the largest immigrant group of that century. They brought with them a fiercely independent spirit, abhorrence for government regulation, and an affinity for whiskey.

Interestingly, it was the British government that unintentionally helped make Whiskey so popular beyond the non-English British settlers. “The Revolution,” Theobold writes, “meant the decline of rum and the ascendancy of whiskey in America. When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, most New England rum distillers converted to whiskey. Whiskey had a patriotic flavor. It was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain, unlike rum, wine, gin, Madeira, brandy, coffee, chocolate, or tea, which had to be imported and were taxed.”

The independence of American alcohol and the protest against taxation has always gone hand in hand. This continued with the new American government creating yet another tax, this time on whiskey. Small producers were taxed at a higher rate than larger producers, at a time when economic inequality was growing and the power of the wealthy was growing. The small producers were so poor that they barely had enough money to live on, much less pay taxes on the whiskey they were producing to make a living. The response was the same as when the British tried the same tactic. This led to the Whiskey Rebellion (similar to Fries’s Rebellion, it involved many ethnic Americans). The wide protest movement was put down, but resistance continued for it was difficult to enforce. The government was forced to repeal it.

One of the effects of the Whiskey Rebellion was to push many ethnic Americans further West. Kathy Warnes points out (George Washington’s Whiskey Legacy from the Whiskey Rebellion to NASCAR) that, “After the Whiskey Rebellion, many of the rebellious Dutch and Scots-Irish farmer and distillers moved farther west to escape the tax collectors. Many found the right kind of water for whiskey distilling in Southern Indiana and Kentucky.”

During the Civil War, a tax on whiskey was put back in place. Like with the British and with the early US government, taxation on luxury goods such as alcohol was used to pay for the war. This caused a decrease in whiskey consumption, although it remained popular in the South. In its place, beer became the new alcoholic drink of choice for most Americans. With new waves of immigrants, especially Germans, beer consumption really took off around 1900. This coincided with a new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. The KKK in the North was mostly concerned with the menace of immigrants and Catholics. Because of this, the Klan was a big proponent of Prohibition, for the same reasons marijuana was made illegal because of its association with African-Americans and Jazz.

It wasn’t just groups like the KKK, though. The KKK at that time was fully mainstream and fully in line with mainstream opinion. Even though most Americans had non-English ancestry, those in positions of power tended to be largely of English descent or if they weren’t they wouldn’t admit it publicly. Being a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant became the very ideal of a true American, according to those with the power to make such declarations (Bryce T. Bauer, Gentlemen Bootleggers, Kindle Locations 550-563).

Like many celebrities across America, preacher Billy Sunday took up the charge against Germany when the First World War erupted— but he did it, as he did all things, with more vim and vitriol than anyone else. He began promoting Liberty Bonds at the pulpit— demanding that his congregants either purchase them or stay away from his tabernacle. And he decided that if America was God’s chosen country— and to Sunday, America was God’s chosen country— then Germany must be the domain of the devil. The Kaiser and the Huns became Satan incarnate, and he spared them no consideration , even going so far as to state, in a prayer before the United States House of Representatives, “Thou knowest, O Lord, that we are in a life-and-death struggle with one of the most infamous, vile, greedy, avaricious, bloodthirsty, sensual, and vicious nations that has ever disgraced the pages of history. We pray Thee will beat back that great pack of hungry, wolfish Huns, whose fangs drip with blood and gore.”

It’s surprising he didn’t add alcohol to the list. For years Sunday had also been linking alcohol with anti-Americanism. In his Famous Booze Sermon, he declared that he was drawing his sword “in defense of native land,” and that he held alcohol responsible for “every plot that was ever hatched against our flag and every anarchist plot against the government and law.” But now temperance leaders throughout the country were using anti-German hysteria to take down booze as well. And they were assisted by the indelible connection in popular minds (as well as in reality) between Germans and the liquor trade.

“We have German enemies in this country too,” one dry Wisconsin politician stated in early 1918. “And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller.”

The real purpose of Prohibition, as with the anti-immigrant movement overall, was to destroy the independence of ethnic Americans, to eliminate their culture (language, religion, traditions, customs, etc), and to force them to assimilate. This is why public education and child labor laws were implemented in the same era as Prohibition. All of these were intended to target the non-English and to finally end the independent ethnic communities that had existed in America since before the Revolution. People forget or never learn the fact that the ideal of the Melting Pot is modern and hadn’t previously been so dominant in American society.

It is unsurprising that those who fought back the hardest during Prohibition were the non-English. This was true of the Irish mafia in the Northern big cities, the Scots-Irish that had been illegally making moonshine for centuries, and the Germans across the Midwest. Not all of these were gangsters. Most were just people trying to make ends meet during one of the hardest of economic times.

There was a farm crisis at the time. Small family farmers weren’t able to make enough money from crops. The only way they could avoid losing their farmland was by finding new sources of income. There weren’t many opportunities, besides bootlegging.

This is my family story as well. My mother’s family were ethnic immigrants (mostly German ancestry) who went west to Kentucky and Southern Indiana. Some of the earliest work they did was distilling. During Prohibition, they returned to this family tradition and skill by trying their  hand at the bootlegging business when no other work was available. This included the running moonshine across state lines.

Farming was hard work and it was far from dependable. The Populist Movement was largely built on the struggles of farmers. In the end, many rural people were forced to head to urban areas. Ethnic Americans, in particular, became concentrated in the big cities (and African-Americans as well). My mother’s family likewise headed toward the industrial North. This is how anti-immigrant sentiments became associated with anti-urban sentiments (and why to this day the rhetoric about inner cities is so powerful in the American psyche). There was a movement getting Americans back to nature and making men of boys by promoting hunting and fishing, which is why the Boy Scouts formed and the federal park system promoted. Because so many immigrants were Catholic, this is how cities became associated with Catholicism and so did labor unions, high rates of both existing in the same regions of the industrial Midwest.

Even so, pockets of ethnic Americans remained in rural areas. An example of this is Templeton, Iowa. You might know of it for its famed Templeton Rye, made famous of course during Prohibition. It was a unique place right from the beginning. As Bryce notes (Kindle Locations 146-148),

Templeton was founded in a township known as Eden, in southern Carroll County , which was named after Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence . In their own ways both names, Eden and Carroll, were apt, providential.

It was no accident that it was named after a Catholic of such distinction. Catholic churches are found all across rural Iowa. The difference was that these were a very specific ethnic group concentrated in one place. “Templeton wasn’t united just by its religion, as the author explains (Kindle Locations 168-171) for, “It attracted a specific kind of Catholic: immigrants from Germany, especially the western and southern provinces of Bavaria and Westphalia, who sought the opportunity of cheap land. Only a few places in the country could claim a higher percentage of residents of German heritage than could Carroll County and, specifically, Templeton.”

This town had one of the highest numbers of Germans per capita in the country, and they were almost entirely Catholics from the same region of Germany. They had a lot of common culture and a lot of what would be called social capital. These people weren’t just pioneer individualists. No, like other Germans, they believed in taking care of their own. They were a tight-knit community and they were determined to stick together during hard times.

They would be tested during Prohibition, as this town became one of the most famous bootlegging communities in the country. They weren’t big city gangsters. They were just Germans who liked to drink (Kindle Locations 179-182):

And as the paper also indicated, the German settlers brought with them their traditions, such as a fondness for beer in celebrating family and community. It was just one of many customs associated with people who attached with a hyphen their old identity to their new American one. The German-Americans were hardly alone in their fondness for booze. They’d arrived in a country that already had, by the late-nineteenth century, a well-developed and, at times, fraught relationship to alcohol.

The law came down hard on this town. The only snitch in the community was, of course, a non-German. Otherwise, no one would turn on anyone else. The last safeguard of democracy is a jury of one’s peers. In this county, no jury would convict any of its citizens of bootlegging. Gangsters like Al Capone had plenty people turn on them, but Templetonians were a different breed. They practically flaunted their bootlegging and they couldn’t be touched, within their county. Prohibition was hard to enforce, especially in the big cities, but Templeton was unusual for a dry state like Iowa.

I take their example as an inspiration. “We must, indeed, all hang together or,” as Benjamin Franklin warned, “most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” A jury of peers is a precious thing that we should defend at all costs.

This lesson is more important than ever during this era of the drug wars that target otherwise defenseless poor minority communities. If minorities don’t create close-knit communities that take care of their own, no one else can be depended upon to do it for them. Justice is never given easily by those who benefit from injustice. Indpendence has always required interdependence.

The most powerful weapon against oppression is community. This is attested to by the separate fates of a Templetonian like Joe Irlbeck and big city mobster like Al Capone. “Just as Al Capone had Eliot Ness, Templeton’s bootleggers had as their own enemy a respected Prohibition agent from the adjacent county named Benjamin Franklin Wilson. Wilson was ardent in his fight against alcohol, and he chased Irlbeck for over a decade. But Irlbeck was not Capone, and Templeton would not be ruled by violence like Chicago” (Kindle Locations 7-9). What ruled Templeton was most definitely not violence. Instead, it was a culture of trust. That is a weapon more powerful than all of Al Capone’s hired guns.

What the mob forgot was that the Mafia began as a civic organization, the Black Hand. It was at times violent, as was the KKK, but most of what these civic organizations did was community work. They defended their communities and cultures, their traditions and customs. The Germans had their Bund, which served a similar purpose. Hispanics also have a history of forming tight-knit communities that will defend themselves.

African-Americans, however, have a tougher road to travel. Their unique African ethnic culture, language, and religion was annihalated by slavery. Even Native Americans fared better on this account. The social capital of African-Americans was intentionally destroyed. It has been an uphill battle for them to rebuild it, against all odds. They don’t even have the privilege of a jury of their peers, for the police targeting of blacks and the racial bias in the courts has disenfranchized so many of them from the opportunity of jury service. Many blacks find themselves before a jury of white people and, unlike the Templetonians, they have little hope of being saved from the jaws of injustice.

The War on Drugs will fail as Prohibition failed and as the Whiskey Tax failed. But many lives will be destroyed in the meanwhile. This War on Drugs is in reality a war on specific groups of people. The only way to fight back is to fight for independence as have so many generations before. Independence is what this country is about and that is what the oppressed today must demand. And they should accept nothing short of that demand. It is a war that can only be won by fighting together, communities across the country making their stand together.

Systemic Suckitude

I just wrote about my views on what I called a fucked up world. I was ranting about the failure of politics, specifically partisan and identity politics, to deal with real world suffering. It all comes down to rationalizing the problems of my group and scapegoating some other group.

It irritates me, to say the least.

I’ve never felt like I had a group. I don’t strongly identify with any social identity. It feels rather incidental and random that I was born a particular gender, race, nationality, class, etc. I can’t take credit or blame for these conditions of my fate.

Anyway, suffering doesn’t care all that much about your social identity. Anyone can suffer, although suffering is far worse for some. I mean, if you have a car accident or get some crippling disease, the animal reality of suffering is basically the same. Maybe you can get better pain drugs and a little bit more comfort, but no amount of wealth or privilege can solve the mystery of suffering.

I have a clear sense of this because of my personal experience. I’ve suffered severe depression for I guess more than a couple of decades now. I’ve had severe depression for most of my life now. I can hardly remember what life was like before it.

Depression is a unique category of suffering. Unlike the PTSD of a veteran or the physical disability of a parapalegic, depression typically has no obvious cause or reason, no obvious effect even. It pissed me off, when I first began struggling, because there was nothing I could point to and blame. It was some internal failure inside me that couldn’t even be pinpointed. There was no dramatic story to be shared about being abused or growing up poor, no political oppression or horrific racism.

Depression is just pure unadulterated suffering. My experience of it has allowed me to better grasp suffering on its own terms, and not get stuck on the proxies of suffering. Race is a proxy for class in our society, but then class is proxy of other things. Everything is a proxy of something else, except for our most intimate and direct experiences. Depression needs to be proxy for nothing. It just is.

This is what few understand about the essence of suffering. It ultimately doesn’t matter what causes your suffering because in reality there never is a single cause. Suffering is irreducible, humanity at its most fundamental. To understand suffering, we must understand the human condition.

Yes, this involves all those other factors that contribute and exacerbate suffering. I don’t mean to dismiss the objective realities of victims. But in a world of suffering, the struggle of individuals is never really individual nor even demographic. Your social identity will offer you little comfort or protection from this shared human condition enmeshed in a shared society. It is the entire world that is fucked up. It is systemic suckitude.

Social labels only separate us from this harsh reality.

A Fucked Up World

Who grasps how massively God-forsaken fucked up the world really is?

Even many well-informed people appear to be fairly clueless, including activists directly confronting truly messed up problems. Most just don’t get what it all means. They see some data, if they know the data at all, but almost no one looks beyond their little niche of ideology, interests, and personal experience.

Take the victimization cycle. That sounds too abstract. A cycle? To put it in simple terms, suffering leads to more suffering. From one person to the next, generation after generation, century after century, all across society. Fucked up people fuck over other people leading to even more fucked up people. An endless tidal wave of fucked-upness, seeping into every crevice of the lives hit by it. A flood of suffering that leaves destruction and disease in its wake.

What is the typical response to this? Blame the other guy, the other group. Scapegoat someone, anyone.

What is to be avoided at all costs? Looking at the ugly reality straight in the face.

That is a major problem with both partisan politics and identity politics, or really any kind of ideological dogmatism. It leads to groupthink, an us vs them mentality. It is pointless and stupid. It just makes everything worse. The larger problems are ignored, the problems that are so immense that taking them in would lead some to suicidal despair. Maybe many people know on some level how fucked up it is and they want to avoid that awareness at any and all costs, even if it means never dealing with the problems they claim to care about.

The example that has been on my mind relates to the “Not All Men”. It irritated me not because there wasn’t some important discussion that should be had about the issues but because that discussion wasn’t really happening. Most of the posts on both sides of that ‘debate’ were bullshit, pointless attacks of the other side (not to say there weren’t a few intelligent responses in the mix). It mostly became an ideological turf war.

I chose not to join in the internet fiasco, the righteous posturing in articles and blogs. I chose not to join in because I didn’t want the bullshit to get on me. I kept my mouth shut and my mind open. Instead of voicing an opinion, I put my head down and tried to figure out what it all meant.

I knew about the statistics feminists repeat. I had no reason to doubt those statistics, but my curiosity got the better of me and I went into obsessive research mode. I had to know for myself what was what. Although I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I wanted to see the data on some specific issues. I wanted to see the data on physical and sexual abuse, spousal and child abuse, female and male abuse, and anything else along these lines. I’d never looked at this data and all I knew was that there was a high rate of reported rape of women by men. So I made my search broad and checked every source I could find.

A real shocker came up. Some sources showed that women were more likely than men to abuse boys. Also, some sources showed that boys who reported being abused by women were more likely to have their allegations dismissed by the agencies/organizations that are supposed to record that info and deal with those problems. This apparently is a blindspot that may be as big as what once was found with spousal abuse by men. In both cases, something thought rare has turned out to be not so rare, after all.

My point isn’t some bullshit tit for tat. The feminists get their jab in with the rape statistics. And then the men’s right groups get to jab back as well. I don’t care about “Not All Men” or “Not All Women” or whatever else anyone wants to think up. Screw that! I’m not going to play those stupid games. Let’s take all of this seriously.

Are we prepared to deal with this soul-crushing fucked-upness? Or are we going to stick our heads in the sand once again?

This is mind-blowing stuff we’re being faced with here. How many women who abuse boys were themselves abused by men at some point? And how many men who abuse women were once abused by women?

Do we have the gut-level courage to ask these questions out in the open and look for the answers? Will we accept what answers we might find, for this issue and so many others? Are we adult enough to take shared responsibility for these problems?

Slumming in Hipsterdom

Ramon Glazov has an interesting article about David Foster Wallace. Although long, it is a good read. Ite isn’t just about DFW, but other similar writers: William T. Vollman, Hubert Selby jr, Bret Easton Ellis, and Dave Eggers.

I don’t have strong personal opinions about any of these writers, as I’m only vaguely familiar with most of them. That said, the article resonates for me in its takedown of hipster lit.

I’ve never liked word play that serves no purpose and, much worse, that hides its own superficiality and emptiness. It is intellectual gymnastics, a self-absorbed verbosity of little substance or depth. It is hipster pseudo-/anti-intellectuality with, as Glazov explains, an often crypto-conservative or crypto-Calvinist taints:

David Foster Wallace is a subtler bigot than Vollmann, and a better writer, but, like Selby, he’s still a Calvinist – I think that’s what you call someone who believes human beings are doomed to be wankers no matter what. It’s a lazy ideology that fits the Eggers circle like a glove: “Well, it’s not like I could ever be completely sincere about my parents’ deaths, without at least some profit motive, so I may as well stop trying altogether and hope you’ll love me out of reverse psychology.” But while it works for Augustine to question his motives endlessly, getting all miserable over the fact that even his best deeds have microscopic traces of selfishness, there’s no good reason to worry about this unless you believe in a literal Hell. In fact, it’s downright annoying behaviour for anyone born after the Middle Ages. I guess I can forgive religious people for it, since they’re doing it out of sheer terror, but I can’t forgive mopers who expect sympathy for expecting sympathy for expecting sympathy and expect me to care. And unlike Augustine (who at least had some belief in free will) writers like Eggers and Wallace don’t even try to break out of the pattern because they find it cleverer to flaunt their (painless, terrorless) yuppie version of Mediaeval Scholasticism. (Or worse – because they think “analysis-paralysis” is the only intelligence there is.)

And it’s the rehab clinic chapters of Infinite Jest where Wallace’s prejudices really come out. This is the opening to one of them:

If, by virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts.

(A list of “exotic new facts” follows for about six pages.)

The most interesting word here is “you” – this is the chapter where Wallace reveals his ideal reader. And what kind of reader is that? Apparently, someone who finds it “exotic” that “females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males.” Or “that cockroaches can, up to a certain point, be lived with.” Or “that not all U.S. males are circumcised.” Or that “black and Hispanic people can be as big or bigger racists than white people.” So, Wallace pretty much admits that his book is written for pampered yupps who’ve never lived in a house with cockroaches or heard a woman swear before.

From Glazov’s perspective, it obviously isn’t just using a lot of words to say little. It is also saying something that wouldn’t be palatable if the message weren’t hidden.

It’s not unlike racism being translated into and obscured by color-blind language. It isn’t even clear that the message is consciously understood by the one communicating it and so isn’t a simple case of intentional vagueness and misdirection. People who speak this way likely also think this way. They don’t know how to get to the point because they don’t know what their point is and it is in their self-interest to never seek greater clarity. It is an existential unwillingness and inability to be accountable for their worldview. The implications are too great to be spoken of directly.

Maybe this relates to the complaint some make about the undercurrent of conservatism in post-modernism, an anti-intellectual and anti-Enlightenment reactionary worldview. Maybe it is similar to why the Dark Enlightenment seems counter-culturally cool to a certain kind of person, so alternative that it seems subversive while in actuality justifying the status quo.

I’m not entirely sure about my ultimate conclusion about DFW or this particular assessment of his writing. I do think, more generally speaking, that Glazov gets at an important point about what goes for good writing in many literary circles. Either empty or unpalatable, some writers don’t merit the acclaim they receive from critics and fans, although it could be argued about which writers should be included in this criticism.

Anyway, Glazov’s conclusion about hipsterdom appeals to me:

That’s all Infinite Jest boils down to. An anti-intellectual (yet amazingly pretentious) Calvinist cautionary tale that makes the same death threats about thinking that Requiem for a Dream made about drugs – “Brains: Just Say No!” Plus a few voyeuristic scenes of depraved poor people in a rehab centre. Bum fights, in other words. Cleverish ones. Hobo torture porn for postgraduate smirkers.

Still, if the great Ned Flanders Lookalike Association of hipsterdom has one talent, it’s finding an excuse to adore practically anything. Poking fun at these vermin is like trying to kill bedbugs with pine-scented air freshener. They’ll always find a way to survive, at least until the rest of us take to the streets, form brigades and make it unsafe to be post-ironically ironic after dark. And even then, they’ll just join another, rottener subculture. Eventually, some Wallace groupie will find a way to spin everything in this article into a plus. I can already imagine the blurb: “Brilliant! Like a bum fight refereed by Einstein and Descartes!”

But that doesn’t make it any less of a bum fight.

That is an interesting way of putting it: bum fight. I guess that is like blacksploitation/blaxploitation films, but a high culture literary version of it “refereed by Einstein and Descartes”.

I’m not quite as dismissive as this. If someone appreciates reading DFW, it doesn’t bother me. I found it hard to get into some of his writings, but I feel wary about asserting his writings are without value and should be avoided by all. Even if it is fancied-up trash writing, there could still be enjoyment in slumming in hipsterdom.

As for my tastes: Give me Joe Bageant or Henry Fairlie, easily accessible writers who combine worthy ideas with personal observation. Give me some hard-hitting scholarly analysis like Michelle Alexander or insightful cultural analysis like David Hackett Fischer. And, if imagination is what is desired, give me the playful and probing vision of Philip K. Dick or the dark contemplations of Thomas Ligotti.

I just don’t do hipster lit. But each to their own, I guess.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 212 other followers