The American Illness
The tile above refers, as some of you will doubtless be aware, to Robert Heinleins’ novel Starship Troopers. History and Moral Philosophy is a compulsory element of every stage of education the protagonist of the novel undertakes and is basically a course in militarist, right-wing brainwashing.
At this particular moment, two ideas from that course are kicking around in my mind:
“…their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’ . . . and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.”
“Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms”
Unless something is going on that I can’t see, these two ideas have been deeply internalised in the entire history (all five minutes of it) and culture (in the loosest sense of the word) of America. Heinlein may have verbalised them more neatly than most, but it seems to me that they have been there since 1776 and are still there among the flames and the virus consuming America as I write.
When the Founding Fathers broke away from England and set about forming their Republic, every document and proclamation from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution spoke extensively of rights. One hears these being quoted to justify anything from verbal insults about People of Colour to the cold-blooded murder of an annoying neighbour. But I would be interested in what obligations, what responsibilities, what duties these documents lay on the citizens in return for these rights? Does anyone know?
Some claim the ‘right’ to have a haircut, to go to a bar, to force low paid people to work in crowded and insanitary spaces in order to provide luxury services, in the midst of a virulent and highly-contagious pandemic. Is there anything in American law which equates to the ‘duty of care’ for ones’ neighbours (citizens, customers, employees, service providers etc.) that is such a key element of English Common Law? That’s an honest question, because I genuinely don’t know. But duty of care alone is sufficient, surely, to justify any necessary lockdown and social distancing measures. It should also justify, indeed demand, proper support from governments for those requiring it at such times.
People in America claim, and ferociously defend, the right to carry a concealed weapon in public. They have, they say, the right to defend themselves. OK. So where are the responsibilities, the duties that should balance such a right? The responsibility to undertake training and update it regularly? The responsibility to make sure the weapon is properly maintained and in a safe condition? The duty of carrying, at all times, and producing when requested by authorised officials, the paperwork confirming that the permit, training and maintenance requirements are correct and up to date? The duty to use the weapon, should the situation warrant it, to protect other citizens? Do these exist, and if so, are they enforced?
Which brings us to the second quote. The idea that, not just that problems can be solved with violence, but that violence is the only way to solve problems.
Your fiction shows this again and again. Granite-faced soldiers and lawmen serving freedom or justice in hails of lead. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis -all cut from the same cloth. Police dramas with little or no actual detective work, just a few phone traces or forensic checks as a warm-up to kicking in doors and shooting everything in sight. Compare an episode of Hawaii 5–0 or SWAT with one of Silent Witness or Vera and you’ll see what I mean. These are not professional, trained, dedicated officers of the law; they are hired thugs trained to kill whoever displeases them or their bosses.
Everything Americans do is tainted with some kind of violence. Endless interventions in conflicts which did not concern you, leading to the violence of terrorism, leading to more violence in response. Physical and emotional violence of men against women, answered with the psychological and social violence of #MeToo. Racist violence answered with riots and shootings.
You are conditioned to violence. Born in Revolution, growing through invasion, forcing progress through Civil War, enforcing your ideologies through ‘police actions’.
A lethal disease sweeps across the world. Other rich nations try as best they can to contain the spread, minimise the death and suffering, support the populations at a time of economic standstill. America first decides “It won’t get here.” then “We’ll only have a few cases, some weak people will die, the rest can tough it out for herd immunity.” Violence, at second hand, against the problematic ‘weak’. Then, when finally some states at least introduce sensible measures, out come the men with guns, supported by the President, demanding their ‘rights’ even at the cost of lives.
A man becomes problematic for another man because of the colour of his skin. So the universal solution is applied, and the Black man dies. And the better among you make peaceful, albeit passionate, protests. Others, having become true Americans, strike back violently even as the government responds with yet more violence.
Now we British are no saints. Our history is every bit as blood-soaked as yours and ten times as long. We’ve been the invaders and the invaded, the aggressors and the victims, the warmongers and the peacemakers, the colonists and the colonised. But we’ve learned. We’ve learned the cost of bloodshed. The cost of empire, not only to the conquered, but to the conqueror. We’ve learned how it feels to be unsafe in your own streets. We’ve experienced the anger of those whose lands and freedom we took away. We’ve learned, twice in a single century, the cost of intervening in wars that are not ours to fight. Now, the fact that British troops are fighting and dying far from home in wars between other countries, wars that don’t directly concern us against enemies who lack the reach and power to threaten our homes, is increasingly a matter for reproach. People are tired of it. They want our lads home, or if they have to fight, fighting for us, not some puppet regime in the middle of nowhere useful. Gang violence and street stabbings are met with outreach programmes, education and funding, not demands for the right to carry guns.
But Americans seem to be constantly fanning the flames. Every problem answered with violence, that leads to more violence. Every shooting to demands for more guns, not less. The answer to school shootings? Armed teachers, of course! Fucking Hell, people!
A French cartoon of 1793 shows Robespierre, having had everyone else executed, himself putting the executioner to death. I am reminded of this as I watch the news unfold. Will the end of America come in some bunker, far beneath the smouldering, corpse-choked wreckage of what was once a country that symbolised hope for so many. A bunker where one man, the last man standing, surrounded by the bodies of friends and colleagues, provides the ultimate solution by putting the gun to his own head?