Friday, April 7, 2023

Hamburgers from A Golden Calf

I wrote an entire mini-blog on the Facebook page about last week's mass shooting in Nashville, then erased it. Lately, I find it hard to express my feelings succinctly; yet, I know that most people couldn't be bothered to read a rambling long-form piece either...but I press on, hoping that maybe this isn't all an exercise in futility.

We are broken as a society. 

That is my short take. We are screwed. We are doomed. And all because we place more value on the things we acquire than on the blessings we have been given.

Life is a blessing, but if you spend it in the unending pursuit of acquisition, what is the point? A couple of weeks ago, I started to watch that documentary about that couple in Florida that tried to replicate the French royal palace at Versailles, but I fell asleep midway and now it is no longer available on Amazon Prime. I did look up the family because one little detail got stuck in my head--how the husband had been involved in the Florida election debacle of 2000. Hmm, I thought, right before it dawned on me that instead of probing into the machinations of his election frauds from behind bars, he's the subject of a movie about his unfinished house. His wife is starring in a reality series and they will soon be featured in a Broadway musical, because why not? It's the American dream...

I saw enough of the documentary to be introduced to the eldest daughter, Victoria, who has since died from a drug overdose. That is tragic beyond words, so upon reading that in her memory the family set up a foundation that distributes Narcan and engages in other prevention advocacy, I won't center her as the object of my criticism. However, it is her death, as well as the other senseless and avoidable deaths of children and innocents that bring me to my central premise: we are broken because we aren't more mindful of what we value.

Do we value life or things? Because it really comes down to that. We are given ONE life, and during its course, we are presented with various choices of how best to live. Some people are blessed with circumstances that allow them an array of options while others have to struggle for every crumb. Many of us fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. And most of us are deluded by thinking that we would be better off if only we had more, including those who already have more than enough. 

The title of this piece is a metaphor of how we can have everything, but in the end, it amounts to very little. What does it mean to amass everything and still have nothing of value? I thought of a video I saw during the pandemic of a 24-carat gold-encrusted steak, and how utterly ridiculous and wasteful it seemed. If gold is one of the world's most precious and valuable metals, then who thought it was a good idea to ingest it? Of course, once someone utters these three indulgent words, because I can, it no longer matters if they've ordered a steak or a hamburger, because it's still going to be shit in a few hours.

This latest school shooting is just another poignant example of how our society chooses its things over life itself. What life or death battles need to be fought in the aisles of Walmart or at a Subway sandwich shop? Most of y'all allegedly live in these nice suburban neighborhoods where you claim life is so splendid and wonderful, so why do you need an AK-15 to carry out your daily errands? Nobody in this country needs a military-style combat weapon for personal protection, but when asked to explain what purpose it serves, you all stumble through the same jumble of words about Founding Fathers, freedom, liberty, Donald Trump, and then ultimately arrive at because I can. Yet, when it comes to considering any kind of compromises aimed at preventing mass tragedy, you suddenly become powerless

It isn't as if gun violence is some unpredictable natural disaster or act of nature. Guns are manmade tools, and each lethal incarnation is someone's intentional creation. The entire point of having a gun is to shoot something (or imply that you will). For the sake of argument, let's agree that gun collecting is an acceptable waste of your hard-earned money. Your priceless collection isn't just piled up on a tacky TV tray; it is inside some kind of display case or it is locked away in a safe. It is protected, because the last thing you want is for Junior to take your antique Civil War era pistol to school in his backpack to pass around for show and tell. 

You choose to secure that which you deem priceless and valuable. So why can't we think of better ways of keeping people safe in public places? Because we choose not to do so.

Some of you know this, but I have been around these debates over gun control for a long time. I have been taking note of how our country responds to these incidents for even longer. My first vivid recollection of a gun massacre took place at a McDonald's outside of San Diego in San Ysidro, California in 1984. I was ten, and I read every gory detail that had been published about the shooting spree that left 21 workers and patrons dead. I remember how it would be weeks before I felt comfortable going into a McDonald's restaurant. It was a well-known fact that certain locations were more dangerous than others, which I knew first-hand from having been warned most of my life which ones to avoid after dark.

Of course, I came of age in a city wrecked by the crack epidemic that resulted in a daily tally of drug and gang-related murders. If you took the time to watch that Nightline clip, just know that I grew up in one of the neighborhoods that was identified as a warzone. Notice that they didn't interview any community leaders from that West of the Park quadrant, because none of them had to wrack their brains for solutions to urban gun violence. Their kids did drugs too (ask me how I know), but as I got older, it became clear to me that safety was a function of access--on the one hand to the resources that could keep one's home and streets secure, and on the other hand to the instruments that made another person's neighborhood unsafe. As long as the danger was confined and kept off their streets, our problems could and were avoided. We weren't worthy of attention until the crime in DC became a national embarrassment. 

Marinate on that point, because it needs to be emphasized: It was embarrassing that our murder rate was high. Not tragic, but embarrassing, the same word used to describe what it feels like to have a zit on the tip of your nose on picture day.

I referenced the San Ysidro Massacre because I keep seeing all of these heartfelt pleas from families to protect the lives of our most vulnerable, but we weren't moved by the picture of a dead child lying next to his bicycle, nor by the descriptions of how the gunman indiscriminately shot babies and seniors alike. That was nearly 40 years ago, and none of the subsequent mass tragedies moved the needle. NOT A ONE. I was a Hill staffer during the gun control debates after the Columbine High School massacre, and I have never forgotten how then-Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) recounted the personal tragedy of having lost her husband in the Long Island Railroad Massacre just a few years earlier. No one changed their votes. When that gunman opened fire at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina, the Confederate flag finally came down (allegedly), but no reforms to gun laws. Sandy Hook Elementary, Tree of Life Synagogue, Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, Pulse Nightclub, Tops Friendly Market...

I guess no one is embarrassed enough yet.

The claim that none of those incidents could have been prevented is patently false when we've taken decisive action to prevent subsequent tragedies. Perhaps we could not have stopped the Kennedy assassination, but we no longer allow the President to go anywhere without sufficient security, not even an ex-President going to his arraignment. When a gunman killed two Capitol police officers in the Rotunda, they erected cement barricades and built a Visitor Center to screen entrants to the Capitol. Because there used to be an explicit ban on firearms, the January 6th Insurrectionists had to resort to flagpoles and bear-repellant spray as weapons. And all of us are familiar with the various security measures implemented after 9/11, with not nary a shoe bomber.

However, because you can, you claim that your Second Amendment rights are more important than safety at the grocery store, at church, on the Vegas Strip, at a nightclub, and for children while at school. Yet, if you were to demand that Jerry Jones grant you a waiver to bring your guns into his skybox at AT&T Stadium, I'm 100% sure he wouldn't even entertain the thought. Because he can.

In response to more senseless and preventable death, the people with power can spin the wheel to choose who lives and who dies. Drop permitting and licensing requirements (so now any and everybody can claim to be a "good guy with a gun"). Arm the underpaid teachers (and shift the liability to them for failing to save lives). Post the Ten Commandments in every classroom (to blame the godless atheists when bad things happen for their disbelief). Refuse to feed any hungry children at lunchtime (too expensive to feed them in school, so we'll wait until they're incarcerated). Sanitize the retelling of history so that the 'bad guys' are always the people who were enslaved or annihilated, or who protested against enslavement and annihilation (everything that isn't old-fashioned America-is-exceptional patriotism is Critical Race Theory and communism). Turn everything inside out so that people are more upset that drag queens are reading to children than they are that the protestors against these events have come with loaded guns.

In another reminiscence from my childhood, I recall when John Lennon was killed in the doorway of his Manhattan apartment building. Apart from not knowing who he was at the time, I later saw a political cartoon that had a line-up of various notable people who had been assassinated that included the Kennedys, MLK, and Gandhi with the caption, "Guns don't kill, people do." While I have never been able to track down that image, it has stayed with me all of these years. The slogan itself has morphed into a perpetual meme, with different phrases added such as 'men with mustaches', 'Dads with daughters', and whomever your political enemies of the moment might be. This 1980 editorial by Mike Royko accurately satirizes the sentiment that we would rather choose to preserve and protect gun rights instead of people. 

Because we would rather have ALL the things, the choice to protect guns is just like the greed of King Midas in requesting the golden touch--already blessed with abundance, but still not satisfied with anything. It took the loss of his daughter for him to realize what was worth more than his possessions. In the 40 years since San Ysidro, the only people living with the nightmare of what happened were those who were there. It's the same with every other mass shooting and any weekend murder tally from Chicago, especially now that tragedy strikes with such regularity that the media can only devote a few hours to each in a 24-hour news cycle. As long as the threats don't get too big or too close (to adapt a phrase that my Dad often uses when commenting on how white people feel about Black people in the South and North, respectively), this is DC in the 80s all over again. The statistics and body counts won't matter unless and until those chickens come home to roost.

Having lost so many lives and seeing no desire to choose differently from the people who have been in power, we're at this inflection point: either doomed to wander in the wilderness until we perish or choosing to demolish our idols and false gods in order to be saved. To briefly revisit the Siegels, note that they aren't donating their fortune to provide Narcan to prevent other addicts from dying like their daughter; they're trying to figure out how to resurrect the remains of their American Versailles. Because they can... 

What can we do? Keep fighting like hell. Getting back up when we get knocked down. Showing up. Speaking out. Standing up. Sitting in. Refusing to take whatever they give us as a consolation for not keeping us safe. Fighting for what we believe is worth more than hamburgers ground from a Golden Calf.

* I've been mulling over this piece for a few days, while paying attention to the shenanigans on the ground in Tennessee. First it was the proposal to arm teachers (cited above), then the threat to expel three Democrats for staging an "insurrection" by using bullhorns on the floor of the legislature out of turn. Last night, the two Black Members in the trio, Justin B. Jones and Justin Pearson, were expelled. While everyone, myself included, had a visceral reaction to the optics, I would like to add that my reaction now isn't just anger and resignation, but resolve. Yes, these young men are Black, and it should be noted how attacks and efforts to curtail and undermine the rise of Black lawmakers is not new. This is 21st Century Redemption, wherein the rules are being changed and enforced to disempower...because they can. Not unless we allow it.

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