Friday, August 29, 2003

Could it be?

I finally saw Michael Moore's movie "Bowling for Columbine." Highly recommended, especially the DVD version which has lots of worthwile extra goodies. It is an amazing movie. It slaughters many sacred cows on both the left and the right with respect to gun violence.

There are three scenes that made a particular impact on me. The first was when he went door to door to see whether Canadians really don't lock their doors (they really don't). And despite the fact that they have more guns per capita than the United States their gun murder rate is two orders of magnitude lower. That ought to lay to rest once and for all the idea that gun control is the answer to gun violence in the U.S.

The second was a South Park cartoon "A Brief History of the United States" which puts forth the (plausible IMO) thesis that gun violence in the U.S. has its roots in slavery and segregation.

The third was the interview with Charlton Heston, which was amazing on so many levels, not least of which was the fact that Moore got an interview with Heston simply by walking up to his house and asking for one. But the most amazing (and painful) part of the movie was watching Heston, the president of the NRA (and probably showing the early symptoms of Alzheimer's) squiriming after he said that he thought that the root cause of gun violence in the United States was the "racial diversity" we have, which of course makes it look like code for: it's all the niggers' fault.

That is why I was surprised yesterday when I was watching a retrospective of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington and saw that Heston had been there supporting it.

Then in the middle of the night I suddenly made a connection. My parents are from Israel, and so I was raised with certain elements of Israeli culture (which is distinct from Jewish culture, by the way). One of the most striking differences between Israeli and American culture is that Israelis love to argue. It's a spectator sport, and a normal part of family life. Most Americans, on the other hand, seem to bend over backwards to avoid getting into arguments. Being confrontational is anathema to most Americans. An American family that argues too much is considered dysfunctional.

(There is one exception: there are polarizing issues, like abortion, where Americans love to argue, but they do it in a peculiar way: they frame the debate as two extremes, they choose sides, and then the sides shout at each other. The goal on both sides is not resolution but victory.)

So here's my theory: I think Americans are deathly afraid of resolution. The reason they are afraid of resolution is that to resolve something both parties must take the risk of having to admit that they were wrong about something, and the American psyche is unwilling to take that risk. And the reason for that is that Whites are paralyzed with fear that they might have to face up to the horrible reality of how blacks have been treated in this country. Our culture of violence, our 10,000-plus gun deaths a year, perhaps even the war on Iraq, is nothing more than a psychological defense mechanism writ large.

We like to think that the evil of slavery is a thing of the past, but the slaves weren't really freed in 1861, they were just sold into a more subtle form of slavery (sharecropping), where they remained for 100 years, when they were sold into an even more subtle form of slavery (being the stock villains on the evening news). At every stage there were (and are) both whites and blacks willing to stand up to defend the status quo. But I think that deep in her heart America knows that she has not truly repented for her racial sins, which continue to this day. I don't know this for sure, of course, but it could explain a lot.

What to do? I don't know, but here's a shot in the dark: I ask the blogosphere to hear my confession. I am a first-generation immigrant to the United States. Neither I nor any of my ancestors ever owned a slave. Nonetheless, I have benefited from having white skin at the expense of those who have black skin. I had no direct hand in creating the system that provided me with these benefits, but I accepted them without complaint, and that makes me culpable. I have looked at black men in the night and felt more fear than I would have if it had been a white man. I am ashamed of this. I am sorry. I ask for forgiveness -- and understanding. I, and I think many white people, do what we do out of ignorance and weakness and not out of malicious intent (though to be sure there are those who would oppress blacks - and Mexicans and Jews and gays and Muslims... - out of pure evil) and we haven't got a freakin' clue what to actually do to start making things right (though repealing the Draconian penalities for crack cocaine posession would probably be a good start).

I think it's important that we figure this out, that we start to seek resolution rather than victory, because if we don't I think there's a good chance our children are going to keep shooting each other. As I said, I don't have an answer, but the first necessary step towards recovery is simply to admit you have a problem.

1 comment:

denis bider said...

How about: make the law straight, and enforce it equally?

I certainly agree that, to the extent that blacks are discriminated indirectly by the law, that is an issue. Having drastically different penalties for drugs consumed by whites than for drugs consumed by blacks does seem like racist indeed. Such laws need to be fixed.

I guess everyone in the United States should lobby their congressmen to fix them.

But beyond that, if blacks still continue to receive fearful looks from passers by on the street, I'm sorry, it is tragic to be presupposed a criminal when you are not, but if this continues to be so when laws are truly enforced equally, then people's reactions will be based on fact. Why aren't people equally scared of Indian people? Or the Chinese? They, too, are easily recognizable on streets. They, too, were on the receiving end of brutal racism.

What are the blacks doing that makes the racism problem continue? If they aren't doing anything but being black, then how come that Asians aren't subject to the same? Hmm?