Sunday, December 16, 2012


It's been eleven years since I was this angry, sad, and generally rendered incapable of much useful work. It's shocked me how hard the last two days have been: I mean, yes, it's awful—twenty first graders shot dead in their classroom, and the teachers and principal and so on. Of course it's awful. But there have been lots of awful things over the last ten years.

I'm not alone in this. Something about the events in Newtown have made us as a nation viscerally, boiling-over angry in a way that we haven't seen since 9/11/01. We are grief-stricken in a way we don't know what to do with.

I realized tonight that underneath the weeping for those 20 six- and seven-year-olds is something bigger. I am weeping for my country. I am weeping for the sense that this is becoming a place that isn't mine anymore. But I'm not from anywhere else. This is my home. I'm an American.

It isn't cheap political rhetoric. I spent a few days in Toronto on September, and it was such a startling weight off of me, walking through the streets of a very urban, gritty, full-of-urban-problems city, and not feeling the sense of anxiety that hangs even over my nice hometown of Minneapolis. It was like losing a headache I'd forgotten was there.

Toronto's no paradise. Canada's no paradise. I'm probably never moving to Canada. But I just don't get how so many people, including some of my friends, look at Canada and Western and Nothern Europe, and sneer at universal health care and pooh-pooh the lack of gun violence. I could quote figures at you, but I don't want to here. That's not the point. The point is, I felt more at home and at peace in a strange city than I do in my own front yard. I found that profoundly unsettling.

I am angry, angrier than I've been willing to admit to myself. I cover it up pretty well most of the time, I think—both from others and myself—but what I've seen in some of my liberal friends—the bitterness and fatalism—well, I worry I'm coming down with it too. I love my country, and I want it to be a place of love and peace. That's the picture I grew up with, and as I get older, I realize most of my fellow Americans have either given up on that vision as childish, or never had it in the first place. Instead it's a nation filled with demons needing to be stomped out with vigor. No dream of a better place in the here and now, just a resigned sigh that the battle is never won, and hope for peace in the next world.

But we're the nation that made a great industry out of dreams and fantasies. You'd think we'd know better, that we could learn to harness this great national talent for self-invention, and become a nation of Ray Bradburys. But we're not. We produce Ray Bradburys in a way no other country could, but the fantasies we adopt as our national scripts are full not of magic and hope, but of moralizing and fear and brimstone.

We are not the Greatest Nation on Earth. Whoever said that anyway? It sounds like a P. T. Barnum line. It's cheap boasting, and we've always been good at that. But we've also been good at self-deprecation, and we've been sorely lacking that in our national debate lately, outside of Comedy Central. Maybe we were the greatest nation on earth for a while after World War II, but we didn't even get to enjoy it, because we were so consumed with hate for dissent and fear within ourselves.

I love my country, but my country lies to itself. It hates itself. It's like loving someone with anorexia: their body image doesn't match their body, and becomes an ugly tool of self-mutilation, instead of a guide to positive change.

I am angry that we need revisionists like Howard Zinn (We who live in a nation that prides itself on a clarity and practical know-how. No fancy theories with abstact thises and thats—we leave that to the old world. No outdated, ossified social hierarchies). But we need the Howard Zinns to to show us how we have lied and lied again to ourselves. Lies upon lies. No fancy theories, just plain bald-faced ignorance of evidence and stubbornness. We let people say science is just someone's opinion, and all opinions are equal, and so it doesn't matter a whit how much research and effort you've done.

Jonathan Haidt thinks liberals don't care about sanctity and loyalty and respect. We do. I do anyway. And it hurts to think that what was sacred, what I want to be loyal to, and respect, has been dragged through the filth, betrayed my loyalty, and unearned my respect.

I want to live in a country where ideology is not king, especially ideology that masks rapaciousness and greed. I know we're never going to be rid of ideologues, and that's OK. But the floor of our national sense of self is rotting from underneath, and all we seem to be able to summon the collective will to do is tap on the floor with our foot and complain about the funny smell, and argue about whose job it is to hire the contractor and whether we really ought to pay for new sills.

And weep when twenty children fall through the hole and into the basement, gone forever.


Anonymous said...

I read an interesting oped yesterday, by the father of a son who was gunned down at his college in 1992. And he said that he worked for years to make gun violence a public health issue before giving up. He came to the conclusion that in essence, this country has come to the conclusion that we want unfettered access to ANY guns more than we want to prevent something like this. And I think he's right.

I feel sick at the packaged quality of the national mourning of this tragedy. The same balloons, teddy bears, candlelight vigils.
I feel like there is an air of inevitability about these mass killings, and that as much as obituaries of famous people are written in advance, so too is the news coverage. They just cut and paste from the last one while we pull out the candles and kleenexes. Again and again and again.

Our selfishness and our paralyzing inability to do anything about this means that over 20 families are wondering what to do with the presents they have hidden away in the closet. Toys that will never be played with and clothes that will be worn only at a funeral.

We apparently live in an age where a mother doesn't think twice about having four hand guns, an assault rifle, and hundreds of special tissue-destroying bullets in the same house as a mentally ill son. We can say that our hearts are broken, but until we find some way to get from under the thumb of our own selfishness (and the vast sums of money dumped into elections by the NRA) I don't see a way to change this.

Dave Duggan said...

Nate, your first thoughts here are strikingly put, would you consider sending to both TC newspapers as letters to the editor?

Dave Duggan

Hystery said...

Your post speaks to me powerfully and helps me organize my feelings. I'm so tired and frustrated and sad and angry. But I have not been able to write about it at all for months. It is as if my words gave up and went away.

natcase said...

Dave: Thanks, but this seems like where I want to say what I said. Please feel free to share, but I'm not putting this piece further than here, at least for now.

Hystery: "It is as if my words gave up and went away." Exactly. I wrote this because I just couldn't stand it anymore, and I couldn't figure out what it was I couldn't stand. It's bottled up. All I had to do was open the tap and start listing. I think the reason I haven't before is that I hate sounding angry. But the fact is, I am deeply angry. I think a lot of liberals are really really really angry. And we don't want to sound like the hounds of the right. We want to be reasonable, loving, fair, and kind. But you can't be reasonable and kind in the face of a pile of children's corpses. You can only wail. And then when you can stand up again, you can remember that wailing, what it too out of you, and you can clearly state why this will not — ever — stand.

Liz Opp said...

...we don't want to sound like the hounds of the right. We want to be reasonable, loving, fair, and kind....

True, Nat. And because of how we liberals/progressives/activists don't want to sound, we put ourselves in a box, gag ourselves, and let others create the narrative of "Second Amendment rights," yadda yadda.

One important thing I learned during the marriage amendment stuff here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes is that when we take the time that's needed, we can find not only a question or two that can disrupt a person's automatic thinking, but also a story of our own that points to the values cherish.

In the narrative of gun control and the right to bear arms, I think about asking people, "Do you know someone whose life has been changed by a gun?" Or "Have you ever seen a gun drawn on you or someone else? What was that like?" (I have stories that address both questions. One that involves a friend; the other that involves me.)

And then I have to wonder, should the children in America be able to expect a home free of guns, a neighborhood free of stray bullets, and a school free of murder? Would you support measures to protect our kids...?

But if we never start having these conversations, then it's left to those in power, those with the loudest voice and the most money (and the most guns) who will shape the story that the media tells and the legislators vote on...

Writing this out to you, Nat, it makes me wonder why I myself haven't started asking people in my life these sorts of questions. Glad I took the time to read your post...

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up