NEITHER FORGIVE DYLANN ROOF… NOR OURSELVES! Quandaries of American “Democracy”
By Gary Corseri
In May, it was all about Freddie Gray, police violence, and riots in Baltimore. Last summer, it was about Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown, police violence and riots. Three years ago, it was about Trayvon Martin and vigilantism, gun laws, the “right to carry,” etc.
Also 3 years ago: a crazy science-guy named James Holmes, convinced he’s been transformed into a character from “Batman”, massacres 12 people and injures 70 in a movie theater in Colorado. Within the past 3 years, we’ve had 20 people— children, teachers, administrators—massacred at a school in an upscale white neighborhood in Connecticut. And—wonder of wonders!—a bomb exploded at the Boston Marathon (quickly followed by “Boston Strong” temporarily replacing “Army Strong” as a meme to make us all feel good about “resilience.”
Now, within a few days of a massacre in an historic Black Church in Charleston, I see my President pull a long face and talk solemnly about the need to have a “national conversation.” And I’m hearing Republican Presidents-manque talk about this being a time for “healing,” not “politics”! And I wonder: Why am I already being “spun”? Why should “healing”—i.e., the health of the nation (its body, mind and soul)—be separate from “politics”? What is politics? Isn’t it about the uses, and abuses, of power? If a person, or a people, should have no real power, or grievously feel that legitimate powers have been compromised or debased—could we possibly call such a person or people “healthy”?
I watched, wondrously, when children, friends and relatives of those 9 slain in the Emanuel AME Church spoke unanimously about “forgiveness” for the confessed perpetrator of the crime, Dylann Roof. It was very moving; I nearly wept. Had someone massacred—or hurt– someone, or people, I loved, I could never master such control—such largesse of heart and spirit. Given the tinderbox that America has become—with unwinnable, endless, wars abroad and the incessant threat of “terrorism” here; a rotten, under-siege economy; Surveillance State-paranoia; recrudescent racism (after decades of PC “making progress”)—the response of the parishioners at the historic Black church was exactly right. Exactly right for them; and for Charleston at this moment in time.
But, in the longer term, and in the wide-angle perspective of this country/Empire—forgiveness of one man-boy with delusions of grandeur will simply wind us up for the next go-round—days, weeks, months or years from now. As a society, we are spiraling downward with dizzying speed, imploding and exploding at once.
And, like your average, run-of-the-mill lunatic (pick your own politico!) we keep repeating ourselves! We’re in a maze of quandaries. We have no more sense of how to proceed than Alice in Wonder-hell: we have snails smoking opium pipes (our mainstream media); a vanishing Cheshire Cat (our education “System”); a Mad Hatter host/director (pick your most despicable politico!).
A chief quandary: Just what is this thing called “democracy”? Ask 100 “average” Americans and you’ll be lucky if one of them knows what “demos” is. Yet, they are certain that their sacred texts—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—have accorded them “unalienable rights”—whatever that means– and that among these are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” “Liberty” means something like: the right to make as much money as Donald Trump! The “pursuit of happiness”? Man, everyone knows what happiness is, you know!
Did Jefferson have the same idea of the “pursuit of happiness” as the 150 slaves he held in bondage at his fantasyland Monticello? Does your average American— even your university-seal-of-approval— American realize that a major reason for our glorious Revolution (and Civil War!) was the capture and disposition of “Indian” territory, and that a major grievance against “mad” King George, as cited in our Declaration, was his refusal to protect settlers (i.e., squatters) against the “savages” (i.e. Original Peoples) who very sensibly wanted us off the land they had tendered for millennia.
“Every nation gets the government it deserves,” Joseph de Maistre wrote. And we wonder, What sort of government do people who are ignorant, even willfully ignorant, deserve? Can it be much different from what we have now?
Dylann Roof was a 9th grade “drop-out”! What kind of society allows a 9th-grader to “drop-out”? And there is no follow-up to see if he is working at a trade, developing social and trade skills that will enable him to have some sort of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” in his eclipsed future?
In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould demonstrates how absurd a-priori assumptions (hypotheses) can eventuate in ludicrous a-posteriori “facts.” In the 19th Century, esteemed “scientists” fabricated lofty careers based on the pseudo science of craniometry—the measurement of human skulls. Amassing huge collections of skulls, they’d clean out the organic detritus, then fill the cavity with mustard seeds (later shotgun pellets, etc.) and then conclude that, according to their unerring measurements, White Anglo-Saxon males had the largest cranial cavities, accommodating the largest brains, and must, therefore—scientifically!– be the apex of creatures on the planet, deserving of all the rights and privileges a generous Providence– and a couple of centuries of perfidious imperialism– had accorded them!
Problem was: their methodology was absurd! They knew nothing about convolutions of brain matter increasing the mass (as mountains and valleys increase a state’s actual area). And, besides that: they cheated. They recorded samples that matched their (racist and sexist) expectations, and discarded those samples that were contradictory.
We still look for “evidence” that affirms our prejudices. (Gould devotes some 90 pages to the misapplication of Alfred Binet’s IQ tests, despite Binet’s strenuous protestations that he had not designed a test to measure absolute intelligence—as though “intelligence” were a “fixed” quantity, something “reified,” not fluid! His intelligence “scales” were designed to measure which students were having trouble at a particular time; and to address how their difficulties might best be ameliorated.)
We can laugh (or cry) over craniometry, palmistry or phrenology today…, but, in fact, we’ve made scant progress in terms of “mis-measuring,” and in terms of polishing our language skills, understanding basic sentence-structure (let alone what Chomsky calls the “deep meaning” or “deep structure”—the more arcane, root structure). In fast-food, fast-paced, neon-lit, electronic, multi-tasking America, who has time to think, analyze, define, interpret, re-define, explicate, critique?
Take the 2nd Amendment (Please!). The last time I heard someone try to reasonably parse it was during a re-run of “All in the Family,” back in the 90s, when “the Meathead” was trying to explain it to his befuddled father-in-law. Here’s what he quoted: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Michael “the Polack”– as Archie Bunker loved to call him in those pre-PC days, clearly evincing his own prejudices and ignorance! — did not talk about the first part of that sentence being a “conditional clause,” but, as a former English teacher, I will. The “condition” for the “right… to keep and bear Arms” is the establishment of a “well-regulated Militia.” (Citizens on both the Left and the Right like to pooh-pooh that grammatical point. Militias are basically anathema to the Left, and the Right wants to take it far beyond that!) Beyond that particular grammatical punctilio, there’s this: our beloved “Founders” were talking about muskets—and at a time when “couldn’t hit the side of a barn” was an accurate assessment of that type of firearm, and at a time when “the United States of America” was a nascent and evolving concept in the world—comprising under 4 million citizens, the vast majority of whom were farmers who knew their neighbors and were likely to keep a close eye on the town “crazy” pointing his musket in the wrong direction!
So, we have this huge quandary: We’re very poorly educated in this Empire—even the “elite” among us: take Donald Trump or Yalie George W. Bush (please!)— and yet we fervently believe we live in a “democracy” and it’s “one man (or woman), one vote” and, of course, every vote counts. We do not consider that votes are fairly meaningless when billionaires and mega-millionaires can buy megaphones and multitudes. If we hear a lie repeated often enough (as Goebbels proclaimed) we’re bound to believe it because, after all, we’re rooting for the “home team” and we’re waving the flag—Confederate or Union!
We’re not going to think about what the “red, white and blue” symbolizes in Iraq or Libya or on an Apache reservation. If they tell us that the banks need a “bail-out,” but underwater mortgage-holders don’t… well, of course, we’ll believe that because… well, what’s a “conditional” anyway? If they tell us that “trickle down” economics is good for us, well, we’ll believe that because the Fed, and the Treasury, and Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan-Chase and Alan Greenspan and Janet Yellen, and Brian Williams and Scott Pelley and that well-coiffed guy, David Muir—they wouldn’t lie to us, would they? I mean, you’re saying, “Trickle-down economics is an excuse for the rich to piss on the poor”? Man! What are we gonna believe in then?
And, that’s why I’m not going to forgive Dylann Roof for what he did, and I’m not going to forgive our American educational system, our Mass Media and our economic system of corporate greed for creating a meretricious “meritocracy” that serves the interests of an elite, mendacious few who spew half-truths to mystify the masses. (Half-truths are always more difficult to battle than outright lies! The half-truthers will tell you, as Madeleine Albright told Leslie Stahl, that we’re an “exceptional” people. And people will nod and think, Yeah, sure, we are. Look at all the great things we’ve done! Then they’ll feel good about themselves and the folks on the “home team” and the folks who wave the same flag they do; but they won’t inquire: in what ways “exceptional”? Is that always good?)
Ultimately, Dylann Roof is responsible for his unconscionable crimes. But, so is the society that spawned him. It’s a matter of theology and teleology: If we are not responsible for our “good” and “bad” deeds, then we reduce ourselves to automatons or actors driven by “biological determinism”—and not amor, not free-will, not “liberty” or “democracy”— but hereditarianism and genetic aberrations conquer all. But, if we deny the medium we thrive or perish within, the matrix of connections and processes we are bequeathed and bequeath, then we surrender to the impulses of solipsism and megalomania.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked after the terrible deed was done. And God marked him— so all might discern the answer.
As John Donne wrote, some four centuries ago:
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main….
“Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”
Gary Corseri has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library, and his dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and elsewhere. He has published novels and collections of poetry, has taught in US public schools and prisons and in US and Japanese universities. His work has appeared at Pressenza, The New York Times, Village Voice, CounterPunch and hundreds of publications and websites worldwide. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.