Badass: The Culture that Makes Gun Reform Impossible

Another news cycle, another mass shooting. Here we go again.

As we all know, because of last week’s Oregon school shooting, a “debate” over gun control will now ensue, with talking heads on all the networks rehashing all the old arguments. As we also know, this debate is absolutely meaningless, because nothing is going to change. Gun culture defines America, and the rising body count has no long-term impact.

By now we’ve all heard about America’s uniquely high rates of gun violence. That being so, and with discussions about gun control being basically pointless, it seems that we are left with only one legitimate issue that is actually relevant to gun violence: the culture itself. That is, gun control is made impossible in America because of an underlying culture: a macho, gun-toting, tough-guy culture of crooks, cowboys and even cops who see firearms as sacred and bloodshed as socially tolerable. A don’t-fuck-with-me culture.

Think about America’s self-image for a moment, and what comes to mind? Sure, liberty and democracy are part of the idyllic creed we teach our children, but even the youngsters soon learn that the essence of America is that we are badass. You do not want to piss us off. Many have done so—Tecumseh, John Brown, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden—and it never ends well for them.

Commentators sometimes argue that our bloodthirsty culture is the result of violence on television or in video games, but that argument is far too simple and just plain wrong. America has been violent since long before television and video games—it would be more accurate to say depictions of violence in media are a reflection of our violent nature, not the cause of it. Sure, glorification of bloodshed in the media might occasionally push a vulnerable, mentally deranged person over the edge—but that doesn’t explain the brutality and pervasive violence that have defined American society at a core level since the beginning.

As an American, whichever side of the law you’re on—Dirty Harry or Tony Soprano—your solution is to blast away any dirtbag who gets in your way. This is not literally the case for everyone, of course, but it’s at least figuratively so. A badass gene is intrinsic in American DNA: our economic system depends on it, and our society romanticizes it and mythologizes it.

Whether good or bad, hero or culprit, America celebrates badass characters: The Founding Fathers were badass for sticking it to the British crown. Andrew Jackson, racist to the point of being genocidal, is nevertheless praised as a tough-guy badass. Lincoln, of course, exemplified a badass leader who would not be beaten. General Custer thought he was badass, but discovered the Sioux were more badass. FDR, taking charge during the Depression and Second World War, was definitely badass. Jimmy Carter was a one-term president largely because he wasn’t badass. Then came Ronald Reagan, who ripped Carter’s solar panels off the White House as one of his first acts, telling the world in a badass way that he expected American domination of Middle East oil for years to come.

American society reveres aggressive, take-no-shit behavior, an attitude that naturally sees violence as not just a plausible option, but often a desirable one. For those who would truly like to see gun policy reform, it’s important to realize that cultural change cannot come without widespread acceptance that there is a cultural problem. That means understanding that sky-high rates of violence are not the result of one or two bad policy decisions, but that they reflect deeply rooted habits of behavior that arise from a complex array of sources.

Consider, for example, that despite its name, the United States has never had a track record of being united as a society. Rarely has a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood been prevalent across the nation. On the contrary, we forcibly enslaved a sizable portion of the population, fought each other in a horrific civil war that killed over 600,000, then grotesquely mistreated the former slave population and its descendants for another century thereafter, and still do in some ways. Amidst all of this has been a constant flow of immigrants who, while adding to the nation’s mythological narrative, have just as often been seen by the general population as an unwelcome scourge.

Ironically, we celebrate the fact that America is a melting pot, but the reality is that our various ethnic, racial, and religious groups have rarely enjoyed a true sense of fellowship. There’s been some crossover here and there—the divisiveness of Catholic-Protestant feuding has all but disappeared, for example, and there’s been some mixing of ethnic groups—but any suggestion that there is a consistent sense of common purpose and community among the population would be a distortion.

Lacking solidarity as a people, Americans have little compassion for one another and instead often revert to badass attitudes as a default setting. Thus, our economic system predictably breeds insecurity, which in turn inevitably enflames more resentment, hostility and aggression. As a people, even those with jobs work longer hours than the rest of the developed world, get less vacation time, have less job security, and have fewer social safety nets and assurances. In this atmosphere of anxiety, Americans tend to look at outsiders—meaning anyone with whom we do not feel camaraderie—as a threat. A different skin color, a funny accent, an uncommon religion—these are grounds for suspicion, not celebration, for many.

Ours is a violent society because, despite the sugar-coated history we like to tell, ours has always been a fractured society. Bullwhips and chains, institutionalized injustice, class antagonism, constant insecurity, and a total absence of empathy have defined the culture much more than any cooperative spirit. Maybe a conversation about this unpleasant truth is a necessary antecedent to any real effort at gun reform, and for that matter any wider effort to gain control of the reins of government from the various institutional interests that have seized them.

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