Sunday, July 22, 2012

On Mass Murderers in America

The names James Holmes, Eric Klebold, and Charles Whitman belong to mass murderers of innocents. There is also Seung-Hui Cho, a college student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. There are others. They are representative of a peculiar social pathology marked by social incompetence, withdrawal, and academic promise. They are victims of bullies who, after bearing numerous jeers and slights and humiliations, eventually overflow with rage. 

The news media cover these murders relentlessly. By making these murders a part of the national conversation, the media perform a social rite that allows Americans to communicate their shock and sympathy for the families of the victims. Briefly, the discussion will become a renewed debate regarding the ill effects of violent movies. Briefly, people will raise concerns about the easy availability of assault rifles in the United States and the outsized influence of the National Rifle Association on policy and politics. These discussions will fade from the public consciousness as they always do. The electronic versions of the newspaper articles will be saved, ready to be copied and pasted the next time a mass shooting or bomb attack occurs. 

Regarding the more fundamental question of whether American society contains a flaw of some kind that contributes to the creation of these emotionally crippled, violent creatures – that is a discussion that we might have entertained in the past, perhaps during the heyday of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the vogue for sociological explanation. But it is simply not true that -- as the sociologists once claimed -- crime and poverty fluctuate in perfect tandem, or that individual responsibility can be removed from social prediction. 

The idea of the criminal as a so-called “victim of society,” which had its moment in the 1960’s, has fallen into disfavor. By the 1980’s, Americans were militating in favor of a renewed focus on crime victims – a “victim’s rights” movement sprung up to correct a perceived imbalance of popular sympathies. Popular crime dramas began to depend rather heavily on the trope that the American legal system is virtually incapable of locking up people who deserve to be locked up. Of course, this fictional perspective entirely overlooks the fact that, when it comes to the proportion of residents that are incarcerated, America ranks first. America is home to 5% of the world's population but houses nearly a quarter of the world's prison population (source).

And Americans have become hardened by public tragedies. Nowadays, many of us will insist that these murderers bear the entire burden of blame themselves. 

The privatization of responsibility is, perhaps, a manifestation of a kind of “either-or” thinking. Either the mass murderer is entirely absolved by the assertion that he is a “victim of society,” or he is to be expelled – cast like Lucifer into the darkness, utterly disowned. This distils down to mere emotivism. Americans take pride in despising evil-doers; it is a chance to announce our own virtuous sympathy for the families of the victims, accentuated by condemnation of the transgressor. We retreat behind the walls of gated communities, we opt out. 

The question at hand is not whether this view of things is defensible; the question is whether this view of things is effective. A comparison may be made between Americans and the Japanese. The Japanese are just as likely as Americans to heap blame and disapproval upon criminals. However, as I have learned from reading T.R. Reid’s excellent book Confucius Lives Next Door, the Japanese differ from Americans in certain important respects. First, every Japanese child is taught to value chowa: that is, social harmony. As a result, Japanese are deeply apologetic if they arrive late to a meeting or a social engagement, if they disturb a neighbor by making too much noise, or inadvertently say something that causes offense. In contrast, Americans thrive on disharmony: We thrive on being noticed, standing out, making a statement. As I write, a very loud motorcycle hurtles past my home, and it doesn't sound like it slowed down at the stop sign.

Secondly, the Japanese have been taught to scrupulously avoid meiwaku: that is, something which brings shame or trouble upon the group to which one belongs. Japanese value their membership in certain groups: the family comes first, then the neighborhood, the city, and the country. Together, chowa and meiwaku help form a foundation on which civility and a sense of community are built. 

Von Stuck's prophetic painting, "The Wild Hunt"
The point is that the Japanese take responsibility for fostering social virtues just as they take responsibility for punishing wrongdoers. Whereas Americans have hopelessly entangled the discussion of teaching values in school with the discussion of religious freedom, the Japanese enjoy nearly universal agreement on social virtues that ought to be taught and upheld. These social virtues are independent of any particular religious faith. They do not conflict with any of the varied faiths practiced in that country, and are also compatible with a secular worldview. It is reasonable to suspect that the low crime rate in Japan has something to do with the fact that these core virtues are understood and shared and taught by everyone: parents, friends, teachers, employers, and members of the clergy. Everyone accepts the responsibility of correcting people who transgress against these values, and will speak out (however politely).

These social virtues are perhaps entirely alien and inassimilable to America’s defiantly individualistic ethos. But this wasn’t always the case. The Puritans who helped settle this country had strong communitarian beliefs, as did the Quakers, and the classical Republicans who founded this country. According to historian Gordon Wood (in The Creation of the American Republic), the views of the Founders are conveyed by the view that true liberty will exist when “every one must consult his neighbor’s happiness, as well as his own.”  

It would be trite and inaccurate to attribute the decline of public virtue to the increase in individualism per se. Instead, it is worth considering whether a fragmented, Balkanized state of affairs exists with respect to Americans’ perceptions of what it means to be an American. The overwhelming social tendency appears to be one of disintegration. We sort ourselves into communities that share our political views and socio-economic class, listen to news stations which confirm our biased perceptions. We blame the unemployed for being unemployed and foreclosed families for being forced out of their homes. We blame the immigrants. We blame Islamists. We blame members of the other political party. We blame the bankers, even as we continue doing business with the worst of them, and let their crimes go unpunished. We blame others for our own failure to experience a feeling of closeness with others, even as we continue to shrink from interaction with them -- fleeing to the suburbs, averting our gaze when we see someone who is troubled and in need of kindness. This blaming amounts to anger, and anger begets further anger. And anger is not a constructive means of participating in society, and from time to time, anger will be carried to its logical extreme in the form of violence.

And it is instructive to consider another place and another period in history during which this social disintegration occurred; namely, Weimar Germany. The government was divided and ineffective; the masses were motivated by a sense of grievance rather than common purpose. Nature abhors a vacuum, and soon, a leader came onto the scene prepared to provide what the people were unwilling to provide for themselves.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

On President Obama’s Hypocrisy

This is an election year, and President Obama and his allies have arrived at a strategy for attacking Republican challenger Mitt Romney. They have drawn attention to Romney’s years working at Bain Capital. Bain Capital is an example of the principle that if a group of investors is wealthy enough to do so it can break small firms and strip them of their assets. And, once it is shorn of its assets, the small firm will cease to exist.
The purpose of this essay is not to condemn Romney but to point out that President Obama is equally complicit in these sorts of destructive practices. To make this case, it is enough to point out that the president signed a Free Trade Agreement with South Korea. This agreement, which had originally been drafted by the Bush administration, had bipartisan support. As noted in USA Today, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), issued a statement in support of the signing, saying that "years of perseverance have been rewarded today as American job creators will have new opportunities to expand and hire as they access new markets abroad (source).” I’ve learned to pay close attention to any legislation that has bipartisan support (like Keystone XL), or suffers from bipartisan neglect (like campaign finance reform). And I've learned that the phrase "job creators" usually means "job destroyers."
Even supporters of the South Korea FTA admit that the deal will result in U.S. job losses. A U.S. International Trade Commission report notes that the following industries will suffer the “greatest declines” in employment: “Textiles, wheat, wearing apparel, and electronic equipment (source).” The report stresses that these lost jobs are nothing to be concerned about, because the displaced workers will simply move on to other jobs. The same argument had been made in favor of NAFTA, and yet hundreds of thousands of jobs lost through NAFTA were never replaced.

Critics of the South Korea FTA point out:

We have felt for many years that our government isn’t supporting the idea of keeping manufacturing alive in the United States,” said Ruth A. Stephens, the executive director of the United States Industrial Fabrics Institute, a trade group that represents companies with domestic factories

Critics also see little evidence that American workers are moving on to better jobs. The main benefit of the deals, they say, is that corporations can make goods more cheaply for consumption in the United States (source). 
Other observers believe that the South Korea FTA may be even more destructive than NAFTA. Under this agreement, "made in South Korea" means 35% or more of the product's "value" is created in South Korea. The other 65% can be manufactured in China, Myanmar, or remarkably enough North Korea. The predicted increase in the U.S. trade deficit is nearly $17 billion (source).

In 2007, Obama's campaign flyers touted his opposition to NAFTA (source).
It is widely understood that politicians who can create jobs in their home states will become more popular with the voters. If the South Korea FTA will result in a loss of American jobs, why would a politician be in favor of it? The answer is fairly simple: a politician wouldn’t vote in favor of eliminating American jobs if all of the job losses occurred in his or her home state. But as it stands, these job losses are spread out across the country, and can be blamed on the weak economy. This doesn’t entirely explain the situation, though. To understand why politicians in Washington are motivated to vote in favor of fewer American jobs, one need only look at a couple of large campaign contributors.
The South Korea FTA was signed on October 21st, 2011. In November of the same year, a company called TenCate Protective Fabrics formed a partnership with the South Korean firm Samil Spinning Company to increase its production in South Korea (source). Since TenCate has a history of acquiring and downsizing firms (source), one may speculate that increased production in South Korea will mean layoffs here in the United States. Out of all firms in the textile industry, TenCate ranks first in terms of money spent on government lobbyists (source).
Going down the list, the second highest spender on lobbyists is a firm called Gibbs International. This firm’s specialty is liquidating textile companies. Gibbs sells pre-owned textile equipment, and their largest customers are Asian textile firms.
And then there is the Korean car company Hyundai. Hyundai spent $260,000 on lobbying in the third quarter of 2011 -- right about the time that the South Korea FTA was signed. The amount of money spent during this quarter is close to what they spent for the entire year back in 2008 (source). One of the most vocal supporters of the South Korea FTA was Congressman Vern Buchanan. When he is not representing the people of Florida in Washington, he is running his Hyundai dealership (source).

Sunday, July 1, 2012

On 'Liberty Enlightening the World'

Recently, I visited Liberty Island for the first time. Seeing photographs of the statue is no substitute for experiencing its imposing presence firsthand. Context is also important. One may look to the north and see Ellis Island, the port of entry for millions of immigrants who endured a level of hardship that few of us comfortable 21st century Americans would be willing to endure, and gave more to this country than we can readily appreciate.
Looking a little further east, there is the skyline of lower Manhattan. It is now proudly rebuilding itself following the terrible tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001, and the new One World Trade Center, although not yet complete, positively gleams. A few blocks further east are the buildings that overlook Zuccotti Park and Wall Street.
Liberty Enlightening the World
Visitors to Liberty Island speak French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese and other languages that I couldn’t identify. A tour group of teenage Muslim girls in headscarves posed for photos, unmistakably excited to see the famous landmark. The night before, on the Staten Island Ferry, I’d observed that the boat actually listed from the press of passengers gazing at the statue.
Still, from the perspective of long-time residents of this country, the Statue of Liberty likely suffers from over-exposure. Barrymore Scherer, writing in the Wall Street Journal, observed, “Familiarity does have a way of breeding, if not contempt, then a kind of numb oblivion … we take the Statue of Liberty for granted, too often glancing at it without actually seeing what it represents as both a monumental work of sculpture and an allegory of national and international significance.”
When I was an adolescent, I held the Statue of Liberty in disdain along with triumphal depictions of eagles grasping arrows in their talons, the Stars and Stripes, and the marble monuments ringing the Washington D.C.’s National Mall. The source of my disdain was the belief that patriotism inevitably leads to blind patriotism. When the expression “my country, right or wrong” was still in vogue, spoken earnestly by jingoes and sardonically by anti-jingoes, the smart set consisted of people who rejected kitsch and cant and sat out the Pledge of Allegiance.
A pattern of anti-patriotism began in the 1960’s and flourished in the 1970’s. It arose, in part, as a result of anger toward apologists and perpetrators of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and racial inequality.
At the time, flag-waving patriotism appeared to mean that one ought to meekly accept the status quo. As frustrations flared, too-frequent episodes of flag-burning, vandalism, and rioting ensued. In retrospect, the anti-patriotic pattern may be viewed as an example of emotivism: that is, choosing to use words and actions to express feelings and separate interests instead of using one’s words and actions to articulate a set of rational principles. Older now, I no longer scorn the statue for being bombastic. I am instead glad that Lady Liberty stands watch in New York Harbor, sharing her message with anyone who is prepared to receive it.
The statue, officially titled ‘Liberty Enlightening the World,’ is rich with classical symbolism. It explains what American patriotism means. The woman herself personifies Liberty. Her crown represents Enlightenment, the tablet Truth, and the lamp “the illuminative powers of Faith in dispelling ignorance and superstition (Tractenberg, The Statue of Liberty).” There are broken chains at her feet; these signify the defeat of Tyranny. The statue, a gift from the people of France, recalls a time when that nation venerated the United States. For the French, and many others in Europe, the United States embodied the Republican ideal: a government based on Liberty and Reason, outshining the crumbling Old World aristocracies.
Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams drafting the Declaration of Independence
John Locke was – as I have discussed in earlier posts – an inspiration to the Founders’ philosophy of classical republicanism. He said, “self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends: and on the other side … ill nature, passion and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others; and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow, and that therefore God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men.” And so the contrast is drawn: on one hand, the Apollonian virtues of public-spiritedness, enlightenment, impartiality and reason; on the other hand the Dionysian vices of self-love, private interest, egoism, and unrestrained emotivism.  
To understand how great of a danger emotivism presents, the words of Benjamin Britten come to mind: “The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.” As the economy continues to falter, and America’s standing in the world continues to decline, emotions will flair and the capacity to exercise reason will be strained. Self-love and ill nature will cause individuals to look out only for themselves.
Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He said this in the context of slavery, understanding that as long as some inhabitants of America are not free, perfect freedom cannot exist. He recognized the error of supposing that self-government is an absolute and perfect right, because human beings are prone to self-interest and cannot judge fairly on their own behalf. If any one of us is to enjoy liberty, we must all enjoy liberty.

Political cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed Lady Liberty gagged and stifled by the influence of monopolies
Occasions will arise when, in order to promote liberty for all, each of us may need to refrain from certain acts, obey certain laws, and pay certain taxes. If members of society want to enjoy the right to own property, then they must agree not to steal from one another. If they wish to be free, they must not encroach on the freedom of others. As Lincoln explained, a reckless and exaggerated belief in self-government boils down to the idea that, “if any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.”
During the earliest days of our Republic, the Founders understood that reason and selfishness would be perpetually at odds with each other. In 1779, John Adams said, “We have so many men of Wealth, of ambitious spirits, of intrigue, of luxury and corruption, that incessant factions will disturb our peace.” Today, the private interests of the affluent are set against the interests of the poor; the interests of blacks are set against those of whites, men against women, urban against rural, union employees against non-union employees. It is almost universally accepted that the blessings of liberty and prosperity only belong to those who know best how to fight for them.
Let us pledge, then, to resist the follies of partisanship and self-interest; instead, let us strive to achieve unity. Let us strive to achieve a form of government in which the owner of a hardware store has the same chance of becoming a Senator as a wealthy lawyer backed by Wall Street money; let us ensure that every American child receive a high-quality education; let us put an end to the cruel practice of forcing American workers to compete against Chinese slaves in order to earn a living. Let us rise as a people to ensure that the flow of Judas money into the hands of corrupt political leaders ends once and for all.