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Saturday, June 17, 2017


Terms of en-Deere-ment

by Tom Sullivan

A line from a recent book review keeps churning around upstairs:

We have failed, he argues, to see clearly the poisoned seed at the core of modernity, which is the way that capitalistic, individualistic society has turbocharged the tension between our desire for wholeness and the incapacity of the world to fulfill it.
Daniel Oppenheimer in his review of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger uses ads for Google's new phone, the Pixel, as an example of how these "sixty-second desire bombs" sell us on "the fantasy that with the right stuff we can all have material security, creative fulfillment, control over our destinies, a tribe of cool friends, and a sense of belonging and place in the world." It helps that I watch little television. I had to find the ads online.

But it is the need for control over our destinies that drives Americans to buy guns in staggering quantities, one suspects. For those without money, political connections or other means to power, guns are the shortcut to short-circuiting a gnawing sense of powerlessness a new cell phone will not dent. Oppenheiner writes:
For these souls, lost and spinning in the space between what capitalism, industrialization, and liberalism have promised and what these forces of modernity have in fact delivered, what does the Pixel commercial provoke? Not just yearning and anxiety, but also rage, envy, anger, self-loathing, a deep sense of loss and humiliation—the whole toxic brew that Friedrich Nietzsche, back in the nineteenth century, diagnosed as ressentiment.
Oppenheimer was not addressing gun culture or the shooting this week in Alexandria, Virginia, but it is related. People like James Hodgkinson don't buy guns to attack politicians. They attack politicians with guns because they feel helpless, adrift in the world described above. Guns make them feel powerful again. Al Qaida? ISIS? Similar reasons, one suspects.

Knives, sticks or fists will do in a pinch. Jeremy Joseph Christian seen screaming at two young women he perceived as Others on a Portland light rail train stabbed three men who intervened. He probably couldn't obtain a gun. The live-action-role-playing protests and counter-protests in Portland in the aftermath? Manifestations of the same angst.

Jane Mayer notices, as have others, that people like Hodgkinson often have a history of domestic violence. Rebecca Traister made the connection last year:
Recent research done by Everytown for Gun Safety has found that of the mass shootings in the United States between 2009 and 2015, 57 percent included victims who were a family member, spouse, or former spouse of the shooter. Sixteen percent of attackers had been previously charged with domestic violence. A recent piece in the New York Times suggested that the impulse toward domestic, gendered violence may be the thing that draws a few terrorists toward the Islamic State, since ISIS’s practices include sexual slavery and a fidelity to traditional gender norms as recruiting tools for young men.
"Obviously, not everyone accused of domestic violence becomes a mass shooter," Mayer writes. "But it’s clear that an alarming number of those who have been accused of domestic abuse pose serious and often a lethal threats, not just to their intimate partners but to society at large."

Not to minimize the misogyny at work or the problem of gun proliferation, but the growing sense of powerlessness underlies much of the violence. Gun store shelves across America don't empty after the election of a Barack Obama because gun owners fear confiscation. They empty because gun owners feel a renewed sense of powerlessness purchasing new guns helps assuage. Temporarily.* It's not just government encroachment on their freedoms that makes people form militia groups or organize alt-right rallies. From reports so far, Hodgkinson was connected with neither. Guns and anger and a sense of powerlessness are the common threads. Hodgkinson was unemployed and living out of a gym bag. Powerlessness and paranoia are turning liberals into conspiracy theorists.

But returning to "the poisoned seed at the core of modernity," I'd argue that underlying the felt sense of powerlessness is real powerlessness. Violence towards family members, politicians, and society at large is an outgrowth of an economic system that relentlessly transfers not only wealth upward, but democratic and personal power. Metastasized capitalism threatens to turn anyone above below a certain net worth (that is, most of us) into 21st century serfs.

An article from Jim Hightower this week points to just how relentless and insidious the process is. Through “End User License Agreements,” manufacturers are attempting to keep a nation of tinkerers from working on the products they've bought. The absurdity of insisting a tractor owner must haul his broken John Deere to the nearest dealership as crops rot has Hightower fuming. You might call the new arrangement indentured ownership:
But while planned obsolescence has long been a consumer expense and irritation, brand-name profiteers are pushing a new abuse: Repair prevention. This treacherous corporate scheme doesn’t merely gouge buyers. Using both legal ruses and digital lockdowns, major manufacturers are quietly attempting to outlaw the natural instinct of us humanoids to fiddle with and improve the material things we own. Indeed, the absurdity and arrogance of their overreach is even more basic: They’re out to corporatize the very idea of “owning.”
Hightower concludes:
As awareness of this attempt by manufacturers to steal such a basic right spreads across grassroots America, so will people’s understanding of the rapacious nature of the unrestrained corporate beast–and that knowledge will fuel the people’s determination to rein the beast in.
High-capacity firearms have just replaced the peasants' torches and pitchforks. Any repairs to the societal problem of firearms and misdirected anger will first require properly diagnosing the disease expressing itself in violence.

* Before God invented semi-automatic rifles, horses and hoods served a similar function.