The year closed with some real bangs from some assault rifles, as their owners found an open season for using their cherished weapons. A nation that was still coping with the July mass shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, which renewed the anguish of the Columbine High School shooting, was given the ultimate national atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut, when 20 first graders and six of their educators were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was a slaughter of the moral magnitude of Wounded Knee. The nation was coping the with the moral enormity of killing children and their protectors when volunteer firemen went out early one morning to put out a fire in western New York state, and found the fires were a trap set up so that they could be gunned down. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
One of my favorite Christmas songs, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," contains the lyric "Let your heart be light, Next year all our troubles will be out of sight." No way can that be possible.
The character that our nation has become was revealed most dramatically when the Sandy Hook shootings produced a comment from President Obama that school shootings and the gun violence in the nation were intolerable, and that the presence and easy access to all manner of weaponry is clearly a factor. The nation has 5 percent of the world's population but owns 50 percent of the world's guns. It is among the nations having the highest murder rate by guns, ranking only behind South Africa, Columbia, and Thailand. Most stunning and depressing in the Sandy Hook aftermath was the response of the gun lobby. It dismissed the slaughter of 20 first-graders and the effects on the community and families, but rather issued angry warnings about any talk of firearms regulation, suggesting that the only control to gun violence is more guns everywhere. The New Yorker cover artist, Chris Ware, whose wife teaches high school in Chicago, captured reaction of responsible, reflective people:
I was privy to the exchanges among my wife and her colleagues about Newtown, culminating in flabbergasted e-mails and Facebookings following the farcical N.R.A. press conference. Memes abounded, like, “First they call us union thugs and now they want to arm us?!” and self-mocking jokes about their own forgetfulness: “Do you really want to trust people like us with guns?” (Teachers are notoriously overworked and so occasionally forget their two pounds’ worth of keys in one classroom or another.) What astonished me most was that the gun lobby seemed to imply that it was somehow partly the unarmed teachers’ fault that the Newtown shooting occurred at all. Well, why not? Isn’t everything lately always somehow the teachers’ fault?His piece states the case of a nation that is disintegrating into raging divisiveness as a maliciously small-minded and education-resistance segment of the population has found ways to shout down and obstruct any attempts at informed, reasoned dialogue. (The Onion provides a sane and coherent perspective on the matter.)
America has always had its problems and troubles with insane violence, but its attitude has been one of employing education and enlightenment as a means of coming to some agreement on how to fix them. If the nation is exceptional, it has been in its capacity to eventually face and and fix its ills. No where is this illustrated better than in the change from a slave-holding nation to one which steadily extended civil rights to people of differing backgrounds and orientations. The impossibility of productive dialogue between the nation's factions has ended that vision of America as a people that could surmount differences.
For example, a teen-age girl was shot in the head in Pakistan for advocating education for girls. America can no longer claim to be a culture that allows young people to aspire and grow without being threatened by violence. Another young woman is deceived into boarding what she thought was a bus to carry her to her home, only to be gang-raped by some raging monsters and die of her injuries. America can no longer assure that such actions will not happen here. A couple of dead firemen in New York state testify to that falsehood. Daily people in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan engage in mass killings of each other. America has lost any claim that its society does not engage in such decadent massacres. In fact, it participates in some of those killings in foreign lands.
Americans are immersed in the mire of hatred and violence. In the past, there has been a political leadership that has acted as a guide to ways out of human degradation. But while this holiday season has been filled with accounts of how low and deranged society can become, the leadership has demonstrated the arts of blame, vilification, and the refusal to find reasonable agreements for ending the constant state of confrontation and malicious exchange. As many commentators have pointed out, the leaders cannot be blamed. The exceptionally low approval ratings of Congress are inspired by a Congress that reflects quite vividly the people it represents. The failure of the American republic that world observers have predicted for more than 200 years seems to be happening.
Founders such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Adams had their differences, but they firmly believe that enlightenment and education could resolve them. As the movie Lincoln shows, that quintessential American preserved the nation and moved it through its darkest hour by employing the efforts of his political rivals to thrash out ways to surmount the differences among people. In the darkest hours of the Civil War, Congress devised the Land Grant College Act and Lincoln signed it to provide the building of institutions that are primarily the force behind America's rise to a world power. The effectiveness of that act was intensified after World War II with the passage of a G.I. Bill which gave America's fighting troops the wherewithal to build the world's most successful culture and economy. Education and enlightenment were working in just the ways Jefferson, Franklin, and Lincoln envisioned.
The decline of American culture is related to the tampering with education by people who see it only as the way to create a compliant and disposable workforce. We have still to understand what an insidious scheme "trickle down" economics is, as it aggressively changed the American workforce from those who create and build to those who merely serve their self-appointed masters.
The blogosphere is a handy symptom of the pervasive cognitive and educational failure of America. When one reads the comments on blogs or on the Internet news media, the striking fact is that the commenters cannot focus upon a fact. They are immediately set off in finding ways to invoke their own warped and false visions that they would like to impose on other people. Our Congress reflects precisely that inability to deal with facts through the careful gathering of information and enlightened analysis of it.
In the South Dakota blogosphere, it is most significant that the two blogs in which their authors raise issues but do so in a careful tradition of learning and constructive discourse are by people who are currently teaching in high schools. (View them here and here.)
If America is to climb out of the morass of ignorant belligerence and intolerant bigotry into a dominating segment has brought it, it will be through the work of teachers who study, think, and teach. Not those who see education as a business enterprise for producing a submissive workforce that will not resist its own demise at the hands of their would-be masters. Democracy can be revived not by the proliferation of guns, but by the growth of young minds that are allowed to aspire and develop without having to fear the tyranny of the gun cult.
Note: Most of the comments after a blog post or a news story seem to come from people in a special education program somewhere, so when one shows some wit and prescience, it is a genuine event. In a story in Talking Points Memo announcing that Joe Biden had extended an invitation to the NRA to appear before his task force on examining and proposing some new regulations, an NRA spokesman said he would be there to listen to what the panel has to say. A commenter posted this response: "The location of the meeting is still under negotiation, with Biden suggesting the White House, and the NRA insisting that it take place at the OK Corral."