By Jim Sleeper
The Senate Judiciary Committee was told often enough last week that the United States' intolerably high levels of murder and maiming by gunfire would drop sharply if we had the gun control of other developed nations. (Only Mexico and Guatemala have constitutional provisions resembling our Second Amendment.)
It won't happen, unless we dissolve the deep bond between our libertarian individualism and our glorification of runaway corporate engines that are disrupting public trust more brutally than their own managers ever intended or know how to stop.
The challenge is too deep for law or social science alone. A republic can't shape aggressive, impressionable youngsters into citizens unless it can nourish public narratives, myths, or constitutive fictions that give kids direction and hope.
Sneer if you like at the innocence of old movies like
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
or of Norman Rockwell's paintings (which, by the way, depicted Muslims at prayer and a frightened, brave black girl walking to school with federal marshals). But we do need to update them.
We're so deluged now by "violence without context and sex without attachment," as Sen. Bill Bradley put it in 1995, that more Americans accept depictions of torture impassively than would have done so when Bradley spoke. And more now think that gun ownership is their only way to safety.
We can't legislate great public narratives or censor bad ones. But even if we keep government from selecting our civic stories, we can protect their creation, however varied, from asphyxiation by sophisticated market sensors that simulate violence and sex not to tell any story or advance an argument or art that the First Amendment would protect, but to bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our gut instincts and wallets.
We can also stop these runaway engines from inundating political debate about how to cope with this crisis. Their products aren't advancing freedom. They're imposing a civic vacuum where the republican virtues and sovereignty that free market champions claim to cherish can only wither.
When mistrust and fear proliferate, words become more empty and deeds more brutal. And more people arm themselves against one another and then try to relieve the stress by blaming minorities, saluting demagogues, and embracing frantic solidarities.
There's nothing wrong with fathers taking their sons hunting or helping them join rifle clubs. But people who love their guns too much can't imagine how unarmed masses in British India, South Africa, Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, and even our segregationist South brought down well-armed regimes without firepower. They could do it partly because most of them weren't armed against one another and could trust one another.
The cure for our paralysis and violence begins with reconfiguring the socially mindless corporate wrecking balls that we, through government, created. Overregulation would stifle markets, but sometimes they must be saved from themselves. We had to do that in the 1930s and in 2009, reminding ourselves that sometimes a republic must be sovereign over the economy. That can't happen if business leaders capture the regulators or if their global reach dissolves the republican sovereignty and virtues that markets themselves require.
We can't wait for social science to prove that barbarically violent video games cause violence. The Supreme Court didn't buy that in its Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association ruling of 2011, and such claims miss the point: Violence erupts when even nonviolent people become desensitized and directionless.
Even when the court has accepted social-science findings - as in its most famous Brown ruling, of 1954, against racial segregation - actual change required a difficult, extralegal politics of persuasion, sustained by public myths, or constitutive fictions, that weren't scientific at all.
The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 thanks to a consensus woven by nonviolent persuasion among citizens sharing a powerful myth (in the South, a civic-Christian one) that overcame their deepest fears and resentments.
Thanks to that civic myth, the movement "disarmed" its white adversaries by crediting them with integrity and dignity even while exposing their shortcomings. When good civic myths are dissolved, democratic resilience dissolves, too.
Gun merchants and producers of the worst video games who try to boost sales by perverting good sportsmanship are only doing what corporate law and their corporate charters make them do: anything "lawful" that will maximize shareholder returns.
We can change that. And, with a politics of persuasion like the civil rights movement's, we will.