The Independent newspaper in the UK today has a report about three men from Kentucky who decided they’d launch a personal vigilante program to “rid the world of evil”. To that end, they kidnapped and murdered a drug dealer, then dismembered his body with a machete. Two of the men were former US Marines and the other a convicted cocaine user, one of the Marines had a dishonorable discharge – these people were not exactly squeaky-clean themselves before they decided to take the law into their own hands and commit a heinious evil – brutal murder - to fight evil.
I can’t help but think that it takes a lot of rage at the core to do something like this, rage about percieved injustices and helplessness – and that reminds me of Bob’s question earlier today: “Why are we so angry?” Why is the U.S.A. as a nation so angry right now? What’s wrong with the country and so many of its populace, because this level of rage cannot be healthy, right? Nor can the level of hypocrisy and self-entitlement be healthy. A Marine with a DD and a convicted felon got murderously self-righteous about other people instead of halting their own path to an evil crime with the thought of their own faults. How does that happen?
We can point to signs that answering both these questions has become urgent all day. Lance Armstrong admits to doping and the main reaction is “Meh, no big deal, everybody does it nowadays“. Folk like Armstrong don’t seem to suffer very much - he’s still rich, famous and on TV. Ditto banksters and corporate chiefs who lied and cheated on everything from drug laundering to bribing government officials, from fraudulently fixing financial markets to negligence that caused deaths and widespread pollution. These other unpunished crimes are doubtless more serious than Armstrong’s (he’s just a sportsman after all) but the reaction to Armstrong is indicative that Privilege in its old sense of “private law” – one law for thee but not for me – is rife and with it come two inevitable consequences: a deep sense of helplessness and injustice in those who do not get to live under that private law and an equally deep sense of “well if they can get away with it then I should too.” The two are contradictory but humans are complex, well able to believe two conflicting things at once.
Take the current gun control debate as another indicator, if you will. I live in West Texas and I know personally many fervent supporters of free and entirely unfettered gun use. Most will tell you their arguments for their position are primarily twofold: to protect themselves and their dear ones from criminals and to protect from the predations of their own tyrannical government. The criminals they fear are not removed from the streets by the government they fear. To them, the Second Amendment exists because the Founders, in their wisdom, saw the the need for those protections – it has nothing whatsoever to do with a “well regulated militia” to defend from the tyrannical British government the Founders had just fought clear from. “Well regulated militia” doesn’t even merit a mention – an unregulated gun-bearing cadre of them and theirs is what’s important.
Yet when I say I know these people personally, I mean I know their faults and foibles too. Many, a majority even, have an involvement in the grey economy of these West Texan small towns – stuff that “falls off the back of a truck” or cash in hand that the taxman doesn’t need to know about. Many take drugs – weed, meth and prescription painkillers are the favorites around here. Many have done time for some crime themselves. Still, they fear “the other” – people who they may have experiences in common with but are not them or their small clique of good ol’ boys. The hypocrisy is obvious but never mentioned, because that simply makes the tension between their notion of what should be and their notion of what is unbearable. There’s a lot of “exploding white men” in West Texas, what Bruce Jacobs describes as “an emotional breaking point inherent in the late-capitalist tension between the venerable white male expectation of dominant power and the widespread white male reality of pain and loss and rage”. Gun control, crime, religion, race – they’re all part of and stand as proxies to an underlying zeitgeist.
We shouldn’t really be surprised by this. Humans are above all pattern recognisers. We’re obsessive about it, to the point where we’ll recognise patterns that aren’t there at all – optical illusions, shapes in clouds – and it has done the species well over the millenia, from recognising the leopard in the undergrowth to the systemized pattern recognition that is the scientific method. We’ll keep on recognising patterns even when we know they aren’t really there and given enough time our pattern compulsion will smoothe over even the most extreme cognitive dissonance. When we see a pattern we’ll galdly put aside the knowledge it conflicts with reality just to keep seeing the pattern. One of our most compulsive pattern impositions is the separation of the world into “us” and “them”, and we’re so adept at that the notion of which is which can shift based upon circumstance. As an Egyptian adage has it: “Me against my brothers, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my brother and my cousins against the world.” We recognise a pattern – injustice and privilege – and construct heirarchies of “us” vs “them”, from the local to the national and beyond. For Americans the adage could easily be “Me against my neighbours who are ‘different’, me and my neighbours against the other States, me and the other States against the federal government, me and my government against the world”.
Yet not being surprised by it doesn’t mean we should ignore it. The Texas AG yesterday invited New York gun lovers to move to Texas – and news comments threads in Texas and on conservative blogs were filled by people saying they wanted no damn Yankees coming here – often in very violent terms. A new West Point study highlights the dangers of extremist rightwing groups. Republicans in Congress are acting like revolutionary zealots. Conspiracy theories that feed the epidemic of dissonance and tribalism are rife.
The question perhaps shouldn’t be “why so angry?”, then – because that’s perfectly understandable – it should be “what can we do about it?” The trouble is that folk who feel the pressures of percieved injustice and priviliege against their “tribe” are going to continue to do so even if it is pointed out how irrational or hypocritical they are being – and that the stress of cognitive dissonance thereby induced is likely simply to drive them further into the embrace of conspiracy theories where those pointing out irrationality are conspiring against them. It seems to me that the situation won’t improve and is liable to boil over – just as the worst of the rightwing threats promise – in the relatively near future.