Monday, February 11, 2013

Culture of violence: what does that mean?

Writers search for voice and commitment. It is important to me to bring those two things together. The authenticity of voice roots itself in a stand one takes, a space where one situates oneself, a vantage point from which the writer looks out on the world and tries to articulate what one sees there.

And for me, this other point - to tell the truth about it. I don't just mean factual or objective truth, but truth that rests in the integrity of what one sees, interprets, describes. The reason why writing and art are so endlessly rich is because in this sense truth is as varied, diverse, and dynamic as the world in which we live.

Okay, to the topic here. A question: relevant to a reflection on the meaning of the phrase "culture of violence," what, at its heart, is the difference between these two stories?

Put 'innovation' back into Innovation Park - a story about the surprise, unwanted, unsuspected destruction of a large stand of old growth trees in Wauwatosa, the suburb in which I grew up, to make way for a controversial development, and;

Chicago's gun violence has a role in the national gun debate - another in a long recent list of articles about the scourge of bloodletting in our society, enhanced always and forever by the search for greater, more efficient and lethal force.
Here's my answer - not much. In terms of human tragedy, they may seem on different scales. But in terms of our culture's attitude toward life, nature, and each other, they reflect something that is remarkably the same - we go at this world with a great deal of violence, with force. We are bent on destroying what is in our way, even if it means destroying one another. We respond to being alive out of a sense of power and fear. We are fear-based and we use power to try to control our fear (which continues to grow the fear). We are power-based and we do not believe things like trees should stand in the way of our technological prowess or the bottom line.

That our local university is complicit in this is more than sad...

Empire Mine. Act of extreme violence against nature
Another example - the Empire iron ore mine in Marquette MI. This is an act of violence against nature in the extreme, and the Republican government of my state (minority rule brought about by constitutionally dubious redistricting) is prepared to repeat an act like this on an even larger scale in Wisconsin's northwoods.

Now this story today: I know we have been militarizing law enforcement in this country inexorably over the past 2-3 decades with little public discussion or disclosure, and the threat to civil liberties is getting really scary. But we have learned that we are using a surveillance drone to try to hunt down rogue LAPD officer Christopher Dorner. Are we prepared to shoot him down from the skies without due process?

Because we live in a culture of violence, if that happens, most of the nation will cheer.

The title page over this blog explains why I created it - because this is a space where I can explore why I write, what is important to me, what feels crucial.

This nation, so bent on a grandiose perception of itself as somehow morally superior to the rest of the world and the greatest most remarkable nation every conceived (I am not making this up, we actually talk about ourselves in these terms), conveniently forgets how much violence it has been willing to perpetrate in defense of this grandiosity. And when we use weapons to 'defend' ourselves (which often means to try to shape the world according to our national security interests or the interests of economic/corporate power), in our case, it never seems like violence. I mean, we actually do not perceive ourselves to be a violent people.

And yet we are armed to the teeth, from our bloated defense industry, our perpetual state of war (even when we are out of Afghanistan, there will be war everywhere, from the dubious, grossly failed 'War on Drugs,' which has made Mexico into a militarized nation thanks to our help, to 'little' but lethal wars in Yemen, North Africa, and on and on...), to our now militarized urban police forces, to our massive amount of personally held weapons, we are armed, we are armed to the teeth. We are armed as if we really do believe we live in a perpetual state of threat to our lives and well-being, whatever the evidence that this is not the case.

Bushmaster rifle: weapon of extreme violence
Despite Newtown CT, it is not the case that our children are in danger from deranged killers all around the nation. Despite Al Qaeda's persistence in many locations around the world, it is not the case that we are all in danger every day of our lives of a terrorist attack. Despite the frenzy of the gun crowd, it is not the case that we all could be attacked, raped, maimed, shot at any moment and therefore must have arsenals at home, or carry them around with us - concealed.

My country - armed and dangerous indeed.

What feeds all this fear? Blaming TV and video games is way too easy because we have been like this since long before TV and the internet. And the media wouldn't show us so much violence if we didn't want it, if there wasn't a market for it. They don't create the market for violence, we do.

This nation was not only built on ingenuity and the spirit of freedom. It was built on incredible amounts of violence and oppression. We fear other nations having nuclear weapons without being able to see from a different vantage point what this might look like to others - that we remain the only power that has ever used them - and we justify that, we think it okay, even though the victims were then, and remain (because the resulting impacts continue to be felt in the bodies of Japanese people to this day) overwhelmingly innocent.

A lot of justified collateral damage to support our vaunted self-identity.

I'm a writer, among other things. I give lots of talks and workshops as well on the topic of our ecological crisis. The more I do these things, the more I feel like most progressive work does not go to the heart of the matter - why change comes so hard to this nation. We have an orientation to the world that is profoundly fear-based. Fear-based people need power and control to feel okay in the world. But the world is big and in flux and often chaotic and right now is encountering multiple upheavals that will last a long time because none of the drivers of chaos and change are fixable in the near or even long term.

We need a new US culture.  Art by Mary Southard CSJ
If we decide to respond to this changing world out of fear, we will continue to do what the Puritans did, we will continue their destructive legacy - to cut down the forests because we fear the demons and ghosts that inhabit them in the night; enslave, oppress, and now incarcerate African-American men because we fear their freedom; tear down old growth trees to make way for Innovation Park or tear open the earth to dig out iron ore, and the watersheds and wetlands be damned (and they will be).
We need to get down to the core of ourselves, what made us to be like this. Not all people are like this. Few cultures are as violent as we are.
I blog here to write about writing. What I want is to continue to develop, to deepen, my voice and my commitment to revealing ourselves to ourselves, and in doing so, hoping to find through the written word, through metaphor, through public presentations, and more, some light in our cultural darkness, to work with others who care about these things in pointing to a new U.S.American identity, one that might ease the fear, tamp down the violence, speak a language of compassion and letting go, of human and ecological solidarity.
We need a new cultural path, because the one we're on is leading us to an abyss by way of a very violent future.

by Margaret Swedish

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