The Sentimental Appeal of Live Rounds

                                            Death of Tecumseh, Part of the Frieze in the US Capitol Rotunda

The man with a gun is a familiar American stereotype. Guns are enshrined in our history, art, and even laudatory self-definitions.

A lot of our friends around the world must wonder why we Americans are so willing to tolerate the murder of innocents brought down by private arsenals of weapons. Many warn their citizens about the risk of getting shot while visiting the United States. The nation is awash in guns that would never be used for authentic hunting. Yet, we continue to invoke a “personal freedom” and a misreading of the badly-written Second Amendment to mitigate our own cognitive dissonance. As we like to point out, our national history was secured by people willing to look down the barrel of a rifle.

More than most nations, the U.S. has been defined by lethal firearms kept by ordinary citizens: muskets in the revolutionary war, rifles during the western expansion that ostensibly “tamed” the prairies and its native populations, and military arms from the “arsenal of democracy” that now serve a useful purpose in Ukraine. But as sure as darkness follows day, we must add the private armories of citizens frightened of sharing the culture with those of a different hue. Virulent nativism is again rampant in the United States, and legally purchased pistols and automatic weapons regularly show up in the hands of recluses in Buffalo, Pittsburgh or Las Vegas, most festering with conspiracy fears.

As a child of the west, it was my birthright to have a toy six shooter by the age of 6 and a BB gun soon after. By the time I was in the Scouts, I and my peers were routinely sent to the shooting range for lessons with the NRA on how to handle a rifle. Even Disney reminded us that every homestead needed the protection of a good man like Davy Crockett, who could shoot straight and protect lands that needed to be “settled.”  The cycle for many young men is now completed with gun shows, shooter games and live or filmed war reenactments. Those without the benefit of the communication skills that come with social intelligence are especially primed to game their way to the idea of a  quick “solution” to perceived grievances.

Too many take comfort in the American catechism of the “right to bear arms.”

The man with a gun is a familiar American stereotype. Guns are enshrined in our history, art, and even laudatory stories we tell about ourselves. We can see it in the monumental frieze ringing the Capitol Rotunda (above), in all of the video cowboys of the 50s and 60s and modern versions of the same genre. The film character Alec Baldwin was portraying in the ill-fated Rust aimed for show but killed for real. That accident repels, but—given the American narrative—never quite enough to unseat the attractions of yet another story about the wild west.

If we could think of our society as a person, we might imagine it as suffering from an incurable addiction to mostly sentimental narratives stitched around a misunderstood foundational document. This addiction is fed by stories of shooters and redeeming enforcers, but none of the fiction can match the horror of 211 American mass shootings so far this year.1 So, we mourn the children and adults bleeding out on the floors of schools, stores, and churches.  And we muster anger at the rare, lethal and deranged Americans that see a gun as a tool of self-expression. The bad guys in other modern societies like Norway or the U.K. are mostly captured by unarmed police. But in our stand-your-ground culture, criminals–and those among us who anticipate that they might be their victims–are armed to the teeth. The local bait shop in our affluent nearby town of 500 not only sells fishing supplies, also Glocks and ammo as well.

Addictions are notoriously difficult to break. And in our media we continue to celebrate the history and lore that is constructed about the nation’s many violent conflicts. They have become a buffer against accepting that our addiction to the bullet is any more serious than other human frailties. Even against the wishes of many Americans, we don’t seem to have the political will to disarm. So our recidivism is guaranteed.

A large segment of the political class has learned to look away, or to recite the familiar litany of prayers for the innocents on one day, while some return to stoked-up racial fears the next. Even though too many have lost their birthright freedom to live, most of the rest of us still take comfort in the tired catechism of the “real” freedom in the “right to bear arms.”

Most cultures would not tolerate a policy or cultural routine that enables the massacre of its citizens. But it seems that we have our reasons.

1 Gun Violence Archive, https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/reports/mass-shooting, Accessed May 18, 2022.

Regaining a Consciousness of Character

                        My Dinner with Andre

Sometimes even a friend needs to hear that they need to have higher standards for judging the character of others.

Aristotle famously pointed out that who a person is can speak louder than what they say. He and other wide-ranging thinkers argued that one’s own personal credibility was precious: a character trait necessary to be a force for good in public discussion.  They used a phrase we barely hear today: the idea of the “virtuous person.”

We can’t say the impulse is dead. Novels, documentaries and films regularly put shallow and temporizing characters on display as negative models. Drama lets us see human frailty, keeping the idea of flawed, biased and unreliable sources visible. But the information overload that is now the norm often means that the character of a source is assessed last, if at all. To cite one instance, research shows that users of the internet for medical information are less likely to weigh the source than the “helpful” information, leaving many to bogus remedies promoted by companies whose interests are more marketing than medical.

The maw of fractured conversations we now witness across media platforms distracts us from considering the quality of sources. Narratives of dramatic events can easily draw us in to fascinating details before we have fully considered whether the core values of basic honesty and moral action have been met. Right now, for example, YouTube is full of stories about the Russian invasion of Ukraine that come from individual and private sources. These are usually hopeful but somewhat dubious assessments about Ukraine from individuals, rather than straight reporting from the field. We need to be alert to the likelihood that not every assertion is accurate, even if we want it to be.  People often get a free pass from us if their views and values align with our own.

In the Age of the Con, Who Can be Trusted?

As a culture, we seem increasingly slow to come to an awareness of another’s shortcuts around more rigorous investigation and fact-checking. Think of the claims that Elizabeth Theranos made for her rapid-result, all-in-one blood testing machines. We owe the initial awareness of her invention’s weaknesses to John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal. He was skeptical of the claims to investors made for the machine, and grew even more doubtful when some working at Theranos privately noted that the untested technology was capable of far less than advertised. Usually those working at a startup are as enthusiastic as the founders, hence, not very reliable if problems arise. Too much is at stake to communicate doubts. But the rare doubter within an organization who will talk may be more credible because they have placed truth higher than their own career. Like all of us, journalists must weigh the motives of a source when trying to sort out hopes from hard truths.

Personal credibility has recently received more attention in light of the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion for overturning Roe vs. Wade, the landmark court decision guaranteeing Americans a choice in whether to proceed with a pregnancy.  An apparent majority now seems intent on overturning the landmark 1973 ruling. Politico released the draft copy indicating that Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett had voted with Samuel Alito to toss out the precedent. This was in spite of the fact that Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett had given public testimony at their confirmation hearings declaring Roe to be “settled law.” Critics were angry that these justices had not honored their earlier views to leave this key precedent in place.  Can future court nominees be trusted to act on their stated beliefs?

We need to consider the veracity of those whose who want to shape our attitudes and actions. Sometimes a friend needs to be reminded that they are putting their trust in the hands of someone unworthy of it. Several simple questions about sources are a good place to start:

  • Is the source in a position to know the truth or make a reasonable judgment?
  • Have other serious people supported the source’s reliability?
  • Is a person’s enthusiasm for an idea unreasonably coloring their judgment?
  • Can a source coherently explain their reasoning and evidence for an assertion?

And there’s one more question I find reassuring when answered in the affirmative.

  • Does a source have enough honesty to acknowledge not knowing enough to answer?