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America’s Madness

by on October 04, 2017 5:00 AM

“This isn’t supposed to happen here.”

Usually, those words are spoken after a shooting spree in a place like Edinboro, Pa., or West Paducah, Ky., or Jonesboro, Ark. Usually, they are supported by claims that “here” is the sort of place where people leave their doors unlocked and everybody knows everybody else.

I doubt anyone says that of Las Vegas, population 633,000. Yet an attendee of the Route 91 Harvest festival made that very comment after a man with 23 firearms opened fire on festival goers from his room in the Mandalay Hotel.

With all due respect to the stunned bystanders who say such things, there is no meaningful sense in which mass shootings aren’t supposed to happen here, there and everywhere in the armed madhouse that is America. We allow them to happen. We allow them to happen by making it easy for even our most deranged citizens to get guns, and by raising a disturbing number of deranged citizens.  

As the poet William Carlos Williams put it, “The pure products of America go crazy.”

When I say we live in a madhouse, I don’t just mean right now, in this age of mass shootings and mass incarceration, of mass delusion that a conman will lead us to the promised land, and mass denial that the planet is warming, the oceans rising and the forests dying.

We live in what has always been a madhouse. When I visited Gettysburg some years back, the insane essence of the Civil War suddenly revealed itself: Kids from Pennsylvania were shooting at kids from Virginia.

Watching bits and pieces of Ken Burns’ “Vietnam” last month, I had a similar reaction: People who didn’t know each other and had no grievance against each other were fighting over unnamed hills that were of no strategic importance.  Once again I did not understand how presidents and their minions, afraid of appearing weak, afraid of losing the next election, could send other people’s children off to die, kill and scorch a beautiful land.

I watched one installment of “Vietnam” with my 23-year-old son. This war, I told him, realizing it for the first time myself, was the wallpaper of my entire childhood. Eisenhower articulated the domino theory the year I was born. The first American “advisers” arrived when I was 2, the first American soldiers when I was 11. The draft ended when I was 19 (was I ever lucky!). The war ended when I was 21.

The episode we watched together covered the first half of 1968: Martin Luther King dies.  Bobby Kennedy dies. Riots in the streets. If you think your old man is nuts, I told my son, now you know why.

In 1971, Art Hoppe, a longtime columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote these words:

“My generation was raised to love our country and we loved it unthinkingly. We licked Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini. Those were our shining hours. Those were our days of faith.
“They were evil; we were good. They told lies; we spoke the truth. Our cause was just, our purposes noble, and in victory we were magnanimous. What a wonderful country we are! I loved it so.”

Then came Vietnam. And Hoppe wrote: “I doubt that I can ever again love my country in that unthinking way that I did when I was young.” Ditto.

We treat blacks like sub-humans for 400 years and take them to task when they decline to participate in patriotic rituals.

We enshrine greed, power and competition as cardinal virtues and ignore the plague of depression, anxiety and substance abuse among those whose elbows aren’t sharp enough to clear a path for themselves to the front of the pack.

We talk about hurricanes as natural disasters while ignoring the extent to which unchecked development and a refusal to confront climate change made them man-made disasters, as well.

I’m sure some of Art Hoppe’s readers responded to his anguished column by telling him to love America or leave it. If you don’t like it here, go to Russia.

But Hoppe wasn’t thinking comparatively, and neither am I. There are better and worse places than America and the better places, the ones where there is less violence and less poverty and better care for those who have a hard time caring for themselves, tend to be less complex than America: smaller and not as diverse.

At a certain point, though, we cannot look upon our nation’s inaction on gun violence, on climate change, on the harassment and persecution of minorities, on poverty, mental illness and homelessness, and continue to believe the pretty little ditties America recites about liberty and justice for all, and brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

America, 10 months into the Trump presidency, we have gone quiet. It’s time to get loud.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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