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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Psyche Unleaded

We've unleaded our gasoline. It's time to offer a society unleaded, an American psyche unleaded. No, I'm not talking about energy or oil. I'm talking about guns. I know little of constitutional law or the gun control debate, but it's plain to see that we have a problem and difficult to ignore the extraordinary tragedies of violence that have unfolded in shopping centers, nursing homes, and universities over the past few years.

I wholly understand and support the existential right to self defense, but this is not the flashpoint. The issue at hand is the underlying psyche of America— a twisted one borne of a three hundred year old mind-frame awkwardly persisting in a changed, modern world. I'm sure it has perplexed and, at times, amused most of us that the precious right to wield pint size, lead-hurling killing machines made it all the way up to second in line under the right to free speech. Yes, the debate has the slight aroma of town mouse-country mouse, but it's more than just that. I like the city and the country equally, but have never really understood buying a gun, hunting deer/quail, or civil war paraphernalia. And I'm sure many can find my obsession with LeBron James and Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee alien as well. While we can conjure the images of backwater, gun clinging, Bible slinging un-sophisticate, such blanket representations are parochial in themselves and miss the point. However, they do come from somewhere and reflect an aspect of the American psyche, one that is all too ignorant of the world stage, ignorant of context, and ignorant of connection.

What does this have to do with guns? The weighty right to bear arms stems from a different era— a time of militias, defending America's sovereignty, defending state sovereignty, and overall existential uncertainty and un-clarity. It's not just that we were young and building our nation, but we were vulnerable, insecure, and protective of fresh new ideas. The greatest qualities of America are that it is so fiercely independent, self reliant, and surviving. While such a qualities work wonderfully in so many ways with business, policy, and freedom, they do not mix well with lethal weapons. The oil and water combination is further compounded by three main chasms (that also resonate in conservative thinking):

  • Failure to fully understand that cultures change as economies and education change. Clearly, the ancient caste hard lines in India have mostly melted away as social mobility has increased and the economy has prospered. Further, in Iran, women in the early 1980's typically had nearly six children, but with a surge in women's education and health access in the next two decades, they now average two children.
  • Underweighting of individual responsibility, not just to America, but to the globe. Freedoms in a young America seemingly came with no strings attached. But, in a much more crowded world, responsibility needs to be half the pie.
  • Complete ignorance (or at best a superficial understanding) of the sharedness and connectedness of today's world. There is much to be understood on what bank account we put our money in, what car we drive, to what we eat affects a rancher in Montana or a squatter in Somalia.

All of these bubble up from one simple reality— we live in a different world today than yesterday and it will be different tomorrow. When we were kids, my brother and I used to debate about which was the tallest building in the world— the Sears Tower in Chicago or the World Trade Center in New York; now one of them tragically does not exist and the tallest truth is half a world away in Taiwan with an even taller blueprint coming to life in Dubai.

Arcane norms suited for Virgina coal towns in the early nineteenth century cannot mesh with the broader world today. This is not 1809. We live in a world with more than five billion additional people. We are not sitting on our porches protecting our backyards with "No Trespassing" boards. When will we realize that today's "trespassers," or immigrants and first generation Americans, make up half of the vertebrae in America's working class backbone, hold more than half of America's Ph.D.'s, and own half the innovative companies in Silicon Valley.

We could talk about gun control laws until the cows come home. We could even make analogies to world nuclear disarmament and how to make society safer by doing the same with guns. What about a Gun Non-proliferation Treaty? Abstinence education has been shown to have little effect, but how about abstinence from violence? We have a right to bear arms, but we need a mandate to drop arms. What about education? In many parts of the country it is easier for an inner city youth to obtain a nine millimeter handgun than to get hold of a world class education.

While these points are important, in the grand picture, they are just tactical. Broader, more disparate notions have much more to do with gun violence than seen on the surface. The only way to truly change course is to get to the core. We must un-lead America's consciousness. This is not peace and love, girlie man, flower power. This is not high minded moral indulgence, but a chorus for all the victims of violence that we've seen of late. It is time to re-calibrate and re-condition the psyche of our society.