Saturday, December 22, 2012

Another New Convulsion: Americans, Intellect, and Bad Faith

In his 1959 essay "Nobody Knows My Name: Letter from the South," James Baldwin wrote, "The South . . . was now undergoing a new convulsion over whether black children had the same rights, or capacities, for education as did the children of white people. This is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on, in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people. (We do not trust educated people and rarely, alas, produce them, for we do not trust the independence of mind which alone makes a genuine education possible.)"

A half-century after Baldwin wrote those words, I lay in bed reading his essay. I'd spent a week weeping over the schoolhouse slaughter in Connecticut, and now I was fuming over the subsequent "not our fault" press conference of that ass Wayne LaPierre, spokesmodel for the neanderthal organization known as the National Rifle Association. And Baldwin's words leaped from their context into mine--for yes: this, too, "is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people."

Any member of my household would be the first to confirm that I am irrational, illogical, and unscientific in my approach to living. I'll do almost anything to avoid a world that involves formulae. I am a devotee of wishful thinking; I cling to the old ways; I fall apart in arguments. But despite my failings as a rationalist, I have always believed in the scientific method as a reliable pattern of discovery. When trained and careful scientists, one after the other, explain the causes and effects of global warming, I tend to believe them. Likewise, when trained and careful researchers explain that the simple equation more guns = more deaths is exactly accurate, I also tend to believe them. Why do I tend to believe these people whom I don't know personally, whose endeavors are mysterious to me? Because they are intellectuals--that is, people who actually think. I believe in the workings of the intelligent brain.

On the other hand, I have spent most of my adult life in a section of rural America that worships guns, hunting, and traditional definitions of manliness; that devalues education and art and independent thought. In Tracing Paradise I wrote extensively about why and how I live in this place, even to the point of including a long chapter on why I purposely asked a friend to shoot a goat. I may not own a gun, but I understand their utility--in this case, as a way to quickly and humanely kill a large sick animal. It was a relief, and a gift, to have a friend who was willing to do this for me, and to do it not only respectfully but with full cognizance of his, and my, moral ambiguities in the matter.

I love my homeland, and I respect my neighbors for reasons that have nothing to do with education or politics. Simple contiguity has, over the years, pressed us to cross such divides, and this necessity has--and I feel this deeply in my heart--allowed both of us, on both sides of the chasm, to learn to love one another and value one another as individuals rather than stereotypes. Nonetheless, I fear--I know--that many of these individuals, whom I can embrace with genuine affection over the bed of a sick child, also automatically accepted the idiocies that LaPierre spewed in his press conference. These are the same people who suffered with me through the horrors of the murders in Dexter a year and half ago; they are, for all I know, the parents of the murdered woman. I would not be surprised, not at all, to learn that most of her family and friends assume that LaPierre's claims are facts.

I am frustrated, and sickened, and terrified by such perpetuated blindness. I have no idea what can be done to change it.


Carol Willette Bachofner said...

Dawn, I have never agreed with you more (and I agree with you much of the time!). I am sickened and sad. I am having nightmares and moments of blankness. I feel traumatized as would any parent who has ever bent over his/her sleeping child and kissed a damp forehead in times of illness. I wish to have this ugliness go away. I cannot, for the life of me, understand any definition of "manliness" that could include or excuse the use of guns to take human life. I cannot understand the lack of rationality and logic in my fellow humans. I cannot get the inverse (and perverse) logic that more guns = safety. Violence only breeds more violence. I KNOW this too. All the cloyingly public candlelight vigils, minus meaningful culture change, is just that: cloying and without hope. What to do? I have no idea either other than to support and vigorously support a ban on these killing machines, these personal weapons of mass destruction. I need something to make me feel better and that is the only thing I can see that might do it. SIGH.

Dawn Potter said...

Thanks for writing, Carol. The perversity of ignoring evidence . . . I have reached the end of my tether as far as this goes. I know that innocents around the world are murdered every day; I know this is not an American issue alone . . . but the prideful, obtuse, hypocritical, "not my fault" mindset is so quintessentially American. I find it unbearable.

Carlene said...

thank you.

As ever, you are not only erudite, but also articulate.

I have been struggling to keep respect for people I have known for years, who, out of fear or willful ignorance, have exposed their own blind spots as this issue develops. I don't want to entertain the notion of guns in my school, I don't want to carry, load, or have to shoot one at a person, ever.
And who, then, will stand guard at the grocery store, the movie theater, the fast food place? A police state introduces an element of fear and anxiety that will undercut all of our efforts to maintain some semblance of civility and humanity.

jen revved said...

such a cogent, moving and important essay, Dawn. Yesterday Lindsey Graham actually said on MTP that he has an AR 15 and would fight any efforts to institute an assault weapon ban. That comment points to the mentality you illuminate.

As you know I've written less coherently about this topic at my blog, the business of turning our fellow countrypeople into enemies to justify the owning of guns. All we can do is to press to get the guns off the street and out of the stores and whittle away at the psychotic American minority-- those people who perpetuate the gun culture and admittedly own AR15s to use against the government if necessary, i.e., utter Lawrence O'Donnell put it, the "psychotically self-centered" incapable of getting that simple equation. Whittle away: stop electing them, squeeze them down to nothing. xxxj