Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sharks and Bullets

Perhaps I've mentioned this before, but the matter bears repeated mention:

The Chinese have no clue why Americans love guns so much.

In fact, most of my students seem to think that the US is just as dangerous as Africa, if they are to go by the news they read about both regions. Now while the more thoughtful among us might take this as a good reason to reconsider our prejudices about the dangers of Africa, others might wish to leap to the bedraggled pride of our country. Even I find myself countering with such gems as: "It's usually the poor people who kill each other." (The rest of the country only gets concerned when the bullets start flying in a leafy, white-bread suburban school--Columbine--or at a leafy, white-bread college--Virginia Tech. ) Or how about, "Just stay out of Detroit and South-Central LA". Granted, Chinese tourists probably should stay out of these places anyway. Aside from the extreme lack of chintzy tourist traps for their buses to trundle to, the Chinese have a word they often say which sounds a lot like another, very bad, word which could get them in a lot of trouble there. Ne ge (pronounced: neh guh) means "that", and my Chinese friends in college liked to point out the windows of the car and say this word an awful lot as they drove through poor and largely black neighborhoods in southeast Michigan. I cowered in the back seat.

I showed Cherry "Bowling for Columbine" the other evening, in an attempt to give (at least the liberal interpretation of) American reasoning about the guns and violence to be found in America. I've been wanting to show this to my students for some time. Besides raising a number of important points about the use of fear as a political motivator, the movie is entertaining and catches both the Bush crew and various captains of industry in their worst light.

In the end, I think I mainly convinced Cherry that Michigan begets many of homicidal monsters and that we should move to Canada. If she thinks that now, I probably shouldn't even mention the premise behind Moore's newest film, 'Sicko', which also has me considering a permanent state of expatriation.

And what is my conclusion regarding gun violence and other ills of society? That we are merely reaping the reward of an arrogance which presumes we can have the whole world's cake and eat it too. Short of doping the entire human population of this planet on soma, there is no lasting peace to be had on earth. Short of eradicating everyone who is different from yourself, there is no harmony to be had either. And yet we always assume that this is our due. Strange. Anything that deprives us of personal passion and struggle is sure to provoke an equal and opposite reaction... of passionate struggle.

In that light, these things we struggle with and fear--obesity, distant terrorism, and $4 a gallon of oil--are all small prices to pay for the degree of ease and luxury with which Americans flit about their lives. As for gun violence, perhaps this is the price we pay to live our clean, safeguarded lives in sanitized suburban ghettos. This is the id expressing itself, after a long suppression. The oft-feared "causes" of violence--the savage drum beat reincarnated in heavy metal, virtual-world bloodbaths, unsanitary heroes of stage and screen--are just lesser vents for something that always slouched through the shadows of our minds, despite our best attempts at conveniently forgetting the truth of what we are. As communist idealists have taught us through the failure of their ideology, there is no escaping from human nature. Even the least of us--with the most to gain--will ultimately rebel against the leveling of playing fields, the mowing over of greener grasses. We need a darker place behind us, to keep us moving forward; we need a brighter star ahead, lest striving become languor.

It is not bullets, but human nature, that spews from the mouth of a gun. Even the castrated suburbs will sometimes find such a voice with which to break out of a fallow peace.

In any case, if life in China has taught me nothing else, it is this: we are all far more likely to die of cancers brought by man-made filth than by sudden violence. It is the unexpected nature of violent tragedy that fascinates us and frightens us, not the statistical actuality. No, neither sharks nor bullets shall get the majority of us; more is the pity, because at least sharks and bullets do their work quickly and efficiently.

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