The Fatalists

That last year of college was going to be odd. In the spring of 1968, so long ago, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Many cities exploded, and after the riots burned themselves out, in the summer, it was Bobby Kennedy shot dead out here in Los Angeles, followed by those massive riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Dan Rather was roughed up by the Chicago police on the floor of the convention. Something odd was going on in the country, and then it was off for that senior year.

Nixon won the election in November – after he talked about law and order a lot and about that silent majority – the people who never took to the streets but wanted things just as they were and as they always had been. Many of them, however, did take to the streets. They weren’t silent. Those were the construction workers and angry Midwestern housewives with the big hair, shouting at the scruffy antiwar crowd – America, Love It or Leave it! They were on television every night, between the scenes from Vietnam of our guys slogging through the jungle and dying right before our eyes, or so it seemed. That fall was the Tet offensive, and Walter Cronkite – we all called him Uncle Walter – ended that one newscast by telling America it was time to get out of Vietnam. There was no winning this.

The silent majority trusted Cronkite implicitly. Now what? And all of this made it hard to focus on the college stuff. The honors thesis, on the structural semiotics of satire in the minor satires of Swift, seemed silly. That was, as they say, academic. The real issue was what the late sixties in America exposed – the total underlying incompatibility of conservatives and liberals.

Something was happening here. For almost two hundred years, conservatives and liberals had managed to keep America moving forward, more or less, save for that Civil War thing, by reaching grudging compromises on this and that. Give and take was assumed to be a necessary evil, and not really all that evil, but like slavery and states’ rights had ripped the country apart a hundred years earlier, Vietnam, and sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, had ripped the country apart again. It was a thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying “hooray for our side” – as in that famous song about the 1966 riots right here on the Sunset Strip. That wasn’t an antiwar song. That was about the apparent end of the possibility of people getting along with each other ever again.

That was the late sixties. Necessary grudging compromise didn’t end with Newt Gingrich in the nineties, or in 2010 with the Tea Party. It ended when we got stuck in Vietnam. Politics and cultural matters were reduced to the bare basics. Those on the left, from the meek dreamers to the angry militants in the streets, knew, for a fact, that what was wrong could be fixed, and what seemed good enough could be made better. Anyone who thought otherwise was a fool, or worse. Screw them. Those on the right, from the wordy intellectuals like William F. Buckley to the John Birch Society conspiracy folks, wanted things just as they were and as they always had been. If things were awful, the fix would be worse, and really, things are fine just as they are. If fact, some things just can’t be fixed. Deal with it. Those on the right settled into a rigid fatalism. What can you do about this or that anyway? Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool, or worse. Screw them right back. America, love it or leave it!

No one says that anymore, at least that way – history has added too many layers of irony to those words – but America is just fine, so sit down and shut up. And dismissive fatalism is now what those on the right practice as a matter of course. Choose an issue. There’s nothing that can be done, and certainly nothing that can be done by government. Life is hard. Deal with it. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

That still plays out:

Donald Trump doubled down on his climate denial this week, saying on the Hugh Hewitt radio show that climate change isn’t something he thinks is happening.

“I’m not a believer in global warming,” he said after Hewitt asked about his views on climate change. “And I’m not a believer in man-made global warming. It could be warming, and it’s going to start to cool at some point. And you know, in the early, in the 1920s, people talked about global cooling. I don’t know if you know that or not.”

Trump really is a fatalist:

“I believe there’s weather. I believe there’s change, and I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again.”

Only a fool would try to deal with the oceans rising and drowning Miami or whatever. These things happen, and that’s a theme here:

Donald Trump says even if he becomes president, he doesn’t expect to halt all mass shootings like the massacre at an Oregon community college Thursday because there will always be people that society can’t stop.

Trump on Friday was asked what he would do as president to try to prevent attacks like the shooting at Umpqua Community College, but he said there are “millions and millions of sick people all over the world” that make it difficult, no matter how strong the laws are.

“You’re going to have these things happen and it’s a horrible thing to behold, horrible,” Trump said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

“It’s not politically correct to say that, but you’re going to have difficulty and that will be for the next million years, there’s going to be difficulty and people are going to slip through the cracks,” Trump added. “What are you going to do, institutionalize everybody?”

You’re going to have these things happen. Anything you try to do will be stupid, and Trump isn’t the only fatalist:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush reportedly told a South Carolina crowd on Friday that gun control is not the answer to reducing gun deaths in the U.S. because “stuff happens.”

“I had this challenge as governor. Look, stuff happens, there’s always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something and it’s necessarily the right thing to do,” Bush said, in response to a question about gun control.

The remark, first reported by The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, came amid renewed calls for greater restrictions on guns in the wake of a massacre at an Oregon community college that left 10 dead, including the gunman.

Bush doubled down on the remark after the event. In video posted online, Lizza asks the presidential candidate is the phrasing was a mistake.

“No, it wasn’t a mistake. I said exactly what I said. Explain to me what I said wrong,” a visibly frustrated Bush responded. “Things happen all the time. Things. Is that better?”

Maybe not, because this came up at President Obama’s press conference later that day:

Obama, who clearly had not yet heard the quote from Bush, paused before saying, “I don’t even think I have to react to that one.”

After another few seconds of silence, he added, “I think the American people should hear that and make their own judgments based on the fact that every couple of months we have a mass shooting… and they can decide whether they consider that stuff happening.”

The Bush campaign then issued a statement – the response from Obama and other Democrats and the media was “sad and beyond craven” – these things DO happen. They’re awful. But that doesn’t mean we should do something stupid.

Slate’s Jim Newell tries to figure out what Jeb Bush was really saying:

Was he shrugging off the massacre, in a “what a crazy world we live in, whatcha gonna do” sense? Or was he – as conservatives like Frank Luntz as well as liberals like the New Republic’s Brian Beutler and the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald suggested – implying that the “stuff” was tragic, but it’s best to react cautiously lest hastily thought-out public policy decisions are made?

How about somewhere in the middle?

Bush wasn’t shrugging off the incident as unimportant, or just one of those things that happens. But he also seems to be treating it as an isolated incident that we haven’t seen recurring over and over again for years now. This massacre was not the dawn of a previously unconsidered public phenomenon; there are gun-control policy options available that legislators have been working for years to enact. It wouldn’t be an “impulsive” decision to move on them now, nor would it have been several years ago when President Obama pushed unsuccessfully to get them through Congress.

Yes, you “never want to pass a sweeping law immediately after a tragedy, before the country has had an emotional cooling-off period to properly assess its consequences” as Newell puts it – but the tragedies keep mounting up. They keep rolling in. That makes Bush’s static fatalism a bit absurd. What’s he waiting for? How long do we wait?

That depends on your sense of fatalism, as Heather Parton explains:

It is hurricane season and all along the east coast residents are girding themselves for major weather. Every once in a while a major storm makes landfall and property is destroyed and lives are lost. One hopes that doesn’t happen this year. But natural disasters are a fact of life people just learn to live with. Tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, major floods and fires are considered to be acts of God and while we try to mitigate the damage everyone knows that we cannot stop them. It’s just the way it is.

In America, gun violence is just another natural disaster. Like an earthquake for which you can never really be prepared, most people have come to see a mass killing like that which happened in Oregon yesterday as being unpreventable. We might as well try to stop the sun from coming up in the morning. All we can do is try to comfort the survivors and help people cope with the aftermath. On any given day we could personally be the victims of gun violence or turn on our TVs and computers and witness some kind of mass shooting, horrifying domestic dispute that ends in carnage, accidents or criminal activity. And that’s normal.

To the rest of the world, this is simply insane. Elsewhere they treat gun violence like a public health threat and limit the public’s exposure to it through strict gun regulation. Different cultures have slightly different approaches but there is no other developed country in the world that treats gun violence as if it were a simple fact of life they must live with.

But the fact that Americans accept this doesn’t mean they want it to be this way. The polling shows that majorities of Americans support common sense gun regulations of the kind which are proven to work in other countries.

That was what the polls showed after the Newtown massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Those majorities of Americans, however, faced the ultimate fatalist:

We can thank one man who runs one powerful lobbying group, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA. According to the Frontline documentary “Gunned Down” it was clear that the NRA was thrown by the Newtown massacre and there was personal pressure on board members to accede to some kind of gun safety regulation to appease the national sense of horror over the event. At the very least, they thought it would be wise for the organization to keep a low profile in the aftermath. But without telling anyone LaPierre staged a press conference in Washington DC and came out swinging. He said in no uncertain terms that there would be no compromise, no negotiation. He doubled down on the vacuous, insincere NRA logic that the reason those tiny children were gunned down in their 1st grade classrooms was the fact that there weren’t enough guns there. …

The best they can do is to say that if we had sharp-shooters stationed in classrooms all over the country we could maybe cut the death toll. There would still be dead kids, of course. Maybe even more would die. But it is simply inconceivable to them that we might seek ways to end this violence in the first place. They say the world is full of monsters and predators. But just as we cannot hold back the tides it is impossible to keep deadly weapons out of their hands.

LaPierre gave no quarter after Newtown and the results speak for themselves. The bill the president pushed, as hard as he could, died in the Congress. And that, I believe, was the watershed that convinced Americans that we were impotent to deal with the problem. If the NRA is so powerful that it could single-handedly derail some very minor regulation in the wake of a massacre of babies then it just seemed hopeless. (And politicians wonder why people have lost faith in government.)

The fatalists won that one. Nothing can be done. Send in the armed guards. Arm the teachers. Hell, arm the kids. What else can you do?

Parton isn’t happy with that:

There is literally no reason the gun proliferation activists and the NRA will allow the common sense gun regulation that exists everywhere else in the developed world.

There are many fine people working to bring some sanity to American gun laws. In fact, one of the saddest consequences of all this gun violence is that each time a new mass killing takes place you see that more family members from previous horrific events have been radicalized by the government’s inability to deal with this problem. And one cannot give up hope. But the world’s worst terrorist attack couldn’t budge them. The wanton killing of 20 little six-year-olds merely motivated them to strengthen their resistance. Constant gun violence in work places and churches and movie theatres and schoolrooms has only caused them to redouble their efforts to put more and more guns into society. It’s hard to even imagine what could possibly make a difference at this point.

So Americans now carry on as if it’s as normal for average citizens to be randomly gunned down in a classroom or during a prayer meeting as it is for a tornado to tear through a small town in Oklahoma or wildfires to burn through the forest. All they can do is watch in horror and be grateful it hasn’t happened to them.

Conservative fatalism won the day, even if after the 2013 Navy Yard attack, President Obama recalled the massacres at Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown:

No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence. None. Here in America, the murder rate is three times what it is in other developed nations. The murder rate with guns is ten times what it is in other developed nations. … We Americans are not an inherently more violent people than folks in other countries. We’re not inherently more prone to mental health problems. The main difference that sets our nation apart – what makes us so susceptible to so many mass shootings – is that we don’t do enough. We don’t take the basic, common-sense actions to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous people. What’s different in America is it’s easy to get your hands on guns.

William Saletan takes it from there:

Republicans don’t buy the gun-supply theory. They blame our homicide rate on culture and mental illness. In January 2013, shortly after the Newtown massacre, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is currently on the rise among GOP presidential candidates, rejected Obama’s plea for new firearm restrictions. “Guns are not the problem,” Rubio asserted. “Criminals with evil in their hearts and mentally ill people prone to violence are.” In a Fox News interview, Rubio elaborated: “The issue America faces is not guns. It’s violence. I think the fundamental question is what is happening in our culture and in our society that’s leading to people committing these atrocities, whether it’s mental illness or some other violent propensities that have come into our culture.”

John Kasich, the governor of Ohio and another GOP presidential candidate, expressed a similar view. A month after Newtown, he argued that gun control didn’t work. Instead, Kasich touted his state’s increase in funding “for people who are potentially violent and have mental illness.” Rather than crack down on weapons, Kasich explained, “My focus is on what I believe is the most important part of this, and that is a person who has violent tendencies who has nowhere to go.”

Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, takes the same approach. Since Newtown, he has allowed tougher penalties for violating existing firearm laws, but he has also repeatedly vetoed new restrictions. Last year, when state lawmakers sent him a bill that would have trimmed the maximum capacity of gun magazines from 15 rounds to 10, he stripped out that language and rewrote the bill to propose changes in the state’s mental-health system. “It simply defies common sense,” the governor argued, “to believe that imposing a new and entirely arbitrary number of bullets that can be lawfully loaded into a firearm will somehow eradicate, or even reduce, future instances of mass violence.”

They’re all fatalists, but fatalists in action:

These politicians aren’t just tossing around idle rhetoric about depravity and mental illness. They’re betting people’s lives on the hunch that these factors – not the supply of weapons – account for gun fatalities. After Newtown, Rubio and his Senate colleagues killed legislation that would have tightened background checks for gun buyers. This year, Rubio introduced a bill to facilitate interstate gun purchases and remove local control of firearms laws in the District of Columbia. Christie vetoed a ban on .50 caliber rifles, as well as the 10-round limit on magazine capacity. Kasich signed laws that made it easier to carry a concealed weapon and to bring it into a bar or stadium. Both governors have waived or relaxed safety training requirements.

At no point have any of these men – or, for that matter, any other Republican presidential candidate – offered a plausible reason to believe that something unique in American psychology, rather than our high volume of firearms, explains our homicide rate. They have yet to answer the challenge Obama put to them not just on Thursday, but a year ago during a conversation with tech executive David Karp:

“The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It’s not the only country that has psychosis. And yet we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than anyplace else. Well, what’s the difference? The difference is that these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses, and that’s sort of par for the course.”

That is sort of par for the course, if you’re a fatalist. The Second Amendment may or may not permit those guys to fill their basements and attics with massive firepower and enough ammunition to seize control of Cleveland. Original-intent strict constitutionalists argue that’s fine. What are you going to do? The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788 – it can’t be changed – the courts cannot say the Second Amendment doesn’t say what it says. America, love it or leave it.

Is that so? If you’re not a fatalist you believe it’s not 1788 at the moment. We’ve amended the Constitution. The Supreme Court has often ruled that what was codified in 1788 can been seen in lots of ways. America, love it and make it even better.

That was one of the two arguments in the late sixties. Fatalism can be fatal – but we still seem to be having those same arguments. There’s talk of the silent majority again. Something happened in the late sixties that is still happening. Damn, the senior year was difficult. It doesn’t get any easier.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The Fatalists

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    I took a stab at Roseburg in a blog, yesterday. My good friend in Paris, a long time journalist and filmmaker, commented: “It was risky to call your message. “In Love With a Gun”. Of course, one can understand your real feeling about it after reading the message. I wrote her back “The title was deliberately chosen. I don’t consider ours a violent nation overall (you could better judge that than I). But we enable violence with weapons by a tiny majority because we, through our politicians, refuse to act, because the NRA is so potent politically.
    I keep trying. It seems a hopeless case, however.”
    I wish I would have left off the last sentence…but quite a few are reading my post, I note. Take look. (click on my name to get to the blog).

  2. Rick says:

    As accomplished a theoretical physicist as Albert Einstein was, what with his attempts to reconcile the laws of classical mechanics with the laws of the electromagnetic field, leading to the development of his special theory of relativity and later his general theory of relativity, he was never quite able to unify all the laws of physics with gravity, to develop one big “unified field theory”, which pretty much would have been an all-encompasing “theory of everything”.

    Unfortunately, Einstein died in 1955 and didn’t live long enough to witness Jeb Bush’s explanation of why we have all these mass killings in America, which could, if you’ve noticed the way these people think, even be seen as a wider attempt at a “Republican Unified Theory of Everything”:

    “Things happen all the time. Things.”

    Yep. Things. The implication, of course, being that if those things be bad things, you should just leave them be, since they’re just natural occurrences in the Almighty’s own cosmos, and any attempt to fix them will somehow just upset God’s master plan.

    So yes, as Bush says — and seems to get an “amen” from the amen corner of Republican candidates that includes Trump, Rubio, Kasich and Christie — while “things happen all the time”, many more of them seem to happen in our country, and one would hope our next president would not only notice that and see it as a problem, but would look for ways to fix it.

    And yet, many of us non-Republicans immediately spot the flaw in the theory, that being that, while these “things” do “happen all the time”, they do seem to happen more in the United States than they do elsewhere. In fact, President Obama tried to make that point back in June in his comments after nine people were gunned down in a Charleston Church:

    At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”

    All obviously true, right?

    Well, not according to some nit-pickers who asked PolitiFact to rule on it. After showing a chart that lists the incidence of mass shootings between 2000 and 2014 in eleven advanced countries, including our own — with the United States in first place, with 133 shootings happening during that time, and the second place going to Germany with six, and last place being a tie between four countries (England, France, Switzerland and Norway) with one each — Politifact announces its ruling:

    On balance, we rate the claim Mostly False.

    And so, in my mind’s ear, I can hear your mind asking, “Whaaat?!?!” Yeah, that’s what mine did, too. How the hell did they come up with that?

    It seems that they decided, firstly, to break the statement into its constituent sentences, the first being “this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries” — which, okay, if taken literally, is obviously not true. After all, it even happened in Britain that one time. Still, Obama didn’t leave it at that, he completed the thought by adding, “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”

    Yet secondly, rather than determining how often (“frequency”) it happens in America in comparison to other countries, PolitiFact wandered off on its own to, instead, analyze how many fatalities and injuries there were per 100,000 people of each country’s population, in which we ranked behind Switzerland, Norway and Finland.

    I see that shortly after PolitiFact put out its ruling, a guy named Jason Linkins mercilessly, but justifiably, ridiculed it on Huffington Post, in which his rejiggering of the same data showed that America’s incidence of the events — that is, not deaths or injuries — per million of population was in first place, at .417, followed by Finland, at .380, with Norway in third place, with .194 (all from that one incident, where the guy blew up a building, then went on a shooting spree of that island, killing a total of 77 people).

    China came in last place on Linkins’ list, at .003 events per million, but if that country, with their much higher population, had experienced the same number of events as we did — 133, instead of 4 — but they’d be way up in first place, way above us, at 9.810!

    In fact, Linkins goes even further, using that same chart, by ranking the U.S. incidence of mass shootings against all the other countries on that list (Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Germany, England, Mexico, France, and China) combined, and gets this:

    United States incidents: 133 population: 318,892,103
    incidents per million population: .417

    The Others incidents: 23 population: 1,752,555,493
    incidents per million population: .013

    Keep in mind that the United States has only about one-sixth the population of the rest of those countries combined, and yet experiences about 32 times the number of mass shootings of all of them put together! This gives a whole new meaning to the term, “American Exceptionalism”.

    But if you think this should convince even the other side that we really do have a mass-shooting problem in this country, forget it. First of all, Republicans don’t care what happens in other countries, and they especially don’t like to dive too deeply into science and statistics that contradict their opinions.

    So none of this matters, since none of these facts refer to real problems — like Benghazi, long-form birth certificates, and the murder of Vince Foster.

    Whoops! Wait! That last one hasn’t come around again yet, has it? Well, give it a little more time. The campaign season is still young.

    Rick

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