May 20, 2013
Violence Is Deeply Rooted in American Culture
Posted on Jan 22, 2013
This piece originally appeared at Truthout.
C.J. Polychroniou: America’s fascination with guns is turning into an ever growing nightmare, with the latest carnage taking place last month at Sandy Hill Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut where 20 young children and six educators were killed. Yet, there is no evidence that the US is any closer to joining the rest of the civilized nations and imposing strict gun control laws in order to reduce violent crime. Is the National Rifle Association largely to blame for this?
Henry A. Giroux: After every national tragedy involving guns, the American public is being inundated with figures about gun violence, ranging from the fact that more than 84 people are killed daily with guns, to the shocking statistic that there are more than 31,000 gun-related deaths annually. In 2010, for example, there were 8,775 murders by firearms in the U.S., while in Britain there were only 638. Moreover, there are 300 million firearms in a country of just over 311 million and just over 47 percent of Americans own guns. Most disturbingly, as pointed out by the Children’s Defense fund, is the fact that in 2010, “2694 children and teens were killed by gunfire [and] since 1979 …a shocking 119,079 children and teens have been killed by gun violence. That is more child and youth deaths in America than American battle deaths in World War I (53,402) or in Vietnam (47,434) or in the Korean War (33,739) or in the Iraq War (3,517).” These are startling figures, but they do not tell us enough about the cult and spectacle of violence in American society. Nor do they make visible the myriad of forces that has produced a country drenched in bloodshed and violence.
There is little doubt that the role of the NRA is instrumental in the violence haunting American culture, or that gun control is important, but it is only one factor in the culture of symbolic and institutional violence that has such a powerful grip on the everyday cultural apparatuses and workings of American society. The issue of violence in America goes far beyond the issue of gun control. When gun control is the focus — instead of a broader consideration of violence — it can actually serve to deflect the most important questions that need to be raised. The grave reality is that violence saturates almost every aspect of North American culture. Domestically, violence weaves through the cultural and social landscape like a highly charged forest fire burning everything in its path. Popular culture, extending from Hollywood films and sports thuggery, to video games, embraces the spectacle of violence as the primary medium of entertainment. The real issue here is the existence of a pedagogy of violence that actually makes the power of deadly violence attractive. Representations of violence dominate the media and often parade before viewers less as an object of critique than as a for-profit spectacle, just as the language of violence and punishment now shapes the U.S. culture — with various registers of violence now informing school zero-tolerance policies, a bulging prison-industrial complex, and the growing militarization of everyday life. There is also the fact that as neoliberalism and its culture of cruelty weaves its way through the culture it makes the work place, schools, and other public spheres sites of rage, anger, humiliation, and misery, creating the foundation for blind rebellion against what might be termed intolerable conditions. Accepting the logic of radical individual responsibility, too many Americans blame themselves for being unemployed, homeless, and isolated and end up perceiving their misery as an individual failing and hence are vulnerable to forms of existential depression and collective rage. We have seen such violence among students reacting to bullying and among postal workers responding to intolerable work conditions. There is no one cause of violence, but a series of a number of causes that range from the war on drugs and the militarization of police departments to mass incarcerations in prisons to the return from brutal wars of many trained killers suffering with PTSD. All of these factors combine in an explosive mix to create an dangerous culture of violence and cruelty and as Jeff Sparrow points out a “willingness of ordinary people to commit unthinkable atrocities.”
C.J. Polychroniou: Is this what you mean when you refer in your writings to a break down between the realm of war and civil life?
Of course, what I mean by this is that is the United States is not only obsessed with military values shaping foreign policy, but war and militarism have become a mediating force that now seep into almost every aspect of daily life. War now makes men, and becomes the most important logic mediating not simply contemporary views of masculinity but social relations in general. We see war and its dynamics of cruelty and punishment seeping into a whole range of institutions. For instance, we see schools and social services modeled increasingly after prisons. We see police forces being paramilitarized. We see popular culture endlessly celebrating the spectacle of violence. What is startling is that the logic of war and violence have become addictive, a socially constructed need that we simply cannot get away from. Violence has become a defining organizing principle of society that has become one of the few shared mediating forces that now holds everyday life together. What is crucial to acknowledge here is that “the fields of politics and violence—a violence that seems to lack rational organization, not excepting self-destruction—are no longer separated. They have progressively permeated one another.”
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