Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mass Shooting in America (2/2): American Mythical Violence

When it comes to violence, there is something different that sets the United States apart from the rest of the world.
In his masterpiece, Gunfighter Nation, Richard Slotkin says this:
What is distinctly “American” is not necessarily the amount or kind of violence that characterizes our history but the mythic significance we have assigned to the kinds of violence we have actually experienced, the forms of symbolic violence we imagine or invent and the political use to which we put that symbolism. (p.13)
Slotkin sees it as one foundational element of the American narrative, which dates back to the Puritan Era and the Frontier stories of “captivity narrative” and "American hero-as-Indian-fighter".

In political terms, think of the prevalence of the WAR METAPHOR for example. From Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, Ford’s “War on Inflation”, to G.H Bush's "War on Drugs" or G W. Bush's "War on Terror".  American media even talk about the "Cultural War" within the nation.
This may not seem like much, since after all, these are 'just' metaphors. But the war metaphor implies policies that leave no room for compromise, especially in the domain of law and order. War metaphors favor binary views with a threatening Other. It excludes ideas and polarizes. It also makes violence seem like a normal part of life.
It also favors resolution of conflict through violence over, say, diplomacy. Beyond the argument as to whether wars are necessary, it must be noted that the United States has been almost consistently in some kind of war (declared or not) since WWII.

This rhetoric of war finds its roots in the Puritan dogma of absolute good and absolute evil, which tends to rationalize violence. Interestingly, religious rhetoric in U.S. politics today also tends to emphasize the God of the Old Testament, with His wrath and judgement over the Jesus of the New Testament, with His forgiving and somewhat passive attitude.

Violence in America has become mythical (in the sense of 'sacred'), just like guns, because it is seen as a necessary evil. This is clearly visible in popular culture, especially in superhero stories that depict impotent communities requiring an extraordinary outsider to cope with the evils in their midst. The underlying effect is to consider the hero's violence (and therefore ours) benign because it is the response to the apocalyptic fight between good and evil. (see Jewett ,Robert;  Lawrence, John Shelton; Captain America And The Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma Of Zealous Nationalism)

Of course, I am not saying that superhero stories or war rhetoric should be blamed for the massacre in Colorado. And like the pro-gun people will certainly say, it is not the guns that killed people, but the owner of the gun. Yet, this sacredness of violence, not only in movies, but also in every day language helps create an atmosphere that, in addition to the availability of guns, may make lose canons more likely to see redemption or doom in some kind of mass killings. This is after all what he has been exposed to all his life.

Despite knowing little of the killer's motivation, I find it very perplexing that he should have claimed to be "the Joker".

There is probably no short term solution. I am certainly not advocating for censorship. But maybe this great nation should have a conversation about the meaning of violence.

Maybe, the negative consequences of violence should be also shown or talked about more. Maybe people should be less accepting of vigilantes like Zimmerman. Maybe, the violent past should be less mythified, and past wars (even WWII) less glorified.
Maybe people should be less shocked about sex and more about violence when it comes to kids.

And maybe young parents should not take their infants or babies to see Batman past midnight (or any other time for that matter.), and maybe they wouldn't if the consequences of exposing young kids to violent images was frowned upon or at least talked about at a national level.

NOTE: I was glad that I was not the only one baffled by the fact that some (young) parents apparently took their infants and babies to see Batman, given the violence of the movie.
Last night, NBC newsman Brian Williams asked a relevant question
 "A whole lot of parents woke up this morning across the country and said "what were young kids doing at that movie, at that hour in that theater?".
Here's what Ann Curry responded:
"I think the answer to that is something we all really know the answer to. and that is that parents, especially young parents need a break, like everyone else. So they were going because they heard so much about this movie  and everyone was so excited to see and it was just an opportunity for them to be together, to have a family moment."
An opportunity for them to be together"? Seriously?

Mass Shooting in America (1/2): Guns

The most horrific thing about mass shooting is not just the number of people killed or wounded, but it is rather how easily one can identify with the victims.

The massacre in Aurora, Col is a no exception: who hasn't been (or doesn't anyone who has been) to the movie premiere of a much anticipated blockbuster?

Mass shootings are horrible abnormalities in very normal time and places - in schools, on campuses, at political gathering, in shopping malls, in churches - in all those locations that we are so accustomed to and that are part of our everyday life. And so the victims could be us because, even though it is statistically unlikely it should happen near you, the sentiment is that it can strike anyone, anywhere, anytime. 

The other scary element is that contrary to what you may see in Europe, those are recurrent events. (see my post on this blog last year). The last killing spree in the U.S. happened only last April 2012.
And every time, it prompts a "national talk" on gun control in the United States (NYTimes, Wash. Post), while the rest of the world is watching, bewildered.
And the two sides of the issue are mostly divided along party lines:
With 70% of Republicans but only 30% of Democrats saying it's more important to protect the rights of gun owners than to control gun ownership. (source here)
Now it seems that the conservative side has won the argument, despite the recurrent mass shootings, and even optimists, likes James Fallows cannot imagine this to change any time soon.

It is very hard for the rest of the world to even begin to understand where Americans come from on gun issues, especially if they hear an argument like that of this representative from Texas who questioned "why nobody else in the theater had a gun to take down the shooter." (here) - a typical pro-gun argument.
There is a sense that the United States is really apart from the rest of the world on this question. And it is.

First because because the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. But from reading it, you'd never guess it is about people carrying weapons for their private use. It reads
“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"

This has been used by the Supreme Court to strike down gun restrictive laws. Yet, it was not always so. 

Jill Lepore, a Professor of American History at Harvard University, had an excellent (but very long) piece on the gun issue in the New Yorker last April.

She explains that the current prevalent view of the 2nd Amendment is something rather recent and finds its origins - against all odds -in the liberalism of the 1960s, she says.
They are the product of what the Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet has called the “rights revolution,” the pursuit of rights, especially civil rights, through the courts. In the nineteen-sixties, gun ownership as a constitutional right was less the agenda of the N.R.A. than of black nationalists.
Even more surprising, the NRA (National Rifle Association - the very powerful gun lobby) supported the 1968 Gun Control Act, in the wake of the assinnations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The N.R.A.’s executive vice-president said at the time that although some elements of the legislation “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”
In the 1970s, the N.R.A. began advancing the argument that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to carry a gun, rather than the people’s right to form armed militias to provide for the common defense. 
Opposing gun control was also consistent with a larger anti-regulation, libertarian, and anti-government conservative agenda. 
Ironically (since he was himself shot), Ronald Reagan was the first Presidential candidate whom the N.R.A. had endorsed.
In 1986, the N.R.A.’s interpretation of the Second Amendment achieved new legal authority with the passage of the Firearms Owners Protection Act, which repealed parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act by invoking “the rights of citizens . . . to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.” 

In 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5–4 decision, that the District’s 1975 Firearms Control Regulations Act was unconstitutional. Justice Scalia wrote, “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.” Two years later, in another 5–4 ruling, McDonald v. Chicago, the Court extended Heller to the states.
Despite this:
Since 1980, forty-four states have passed some form of law that allows gun owners to carry concealed weapons outside their homes for personal protection. (Five additional states had these laws before 1980. Illinois is the sole holdout.) A federal ban on the possession, transfer, or manufacture of semiautomatic assault weapons, passed in 1994, was allowed to expire in 2004. In 2005, Florida passed the Stand Your Ground law, an extension of the so-called castle doctrine, exonerating from prosecution citizens who use deadly force when confronted by an assailant, even if they could have retreated safely; Stand Your Ground laws expand that protection outside the home to any place that an individual “has a right to be.” Twenty-four states have passed similar laws.
There may be hope:
The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.
(End of Part 1)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What American fiction Says About America: The Newsroom.

One of the most powerful elements of American fiction is its ability to deal with current social and political issues.

For obvious reasons, TV series prove particularly reactive to the news and a great medium to reflect the talk and anxieties of the nation. Think of police procedural crime dramas like Law and Order, (read my posts here and here), or even sci-fi series like Galactica or V, or of course political shows like Aaron Sorkin's highly praised The West Wing
Now Sorkin has a new show on cable television called The Newsroom, and after watching the first 3 episodes, I am amazed at  how much he has furthered his ability to use fiction to talk about important yet controversial issues in the United States. 

The Newsroom is about a fictional  cable news network (Atlantis Cable News, ACN) and its news program  "News Night", whose anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and staff decide to transform by prioritizing the truth over ratings. 
Charlie, (Sam Waterston) who heads the news division, declares that he wants "news for the center. ... We don't pretend that certain facts are in dispute [just] to give the appearance of ‘fairness' to people who don't believe them. ‘Balance' is irrelevant to me. It doesn't have anything to do with truth, logic, or reality." (source)
The words "fair" and "balance" are clearly a direct hit at Foxnews (which is anything bu, as Jon Stewart has shown many times). 

As you might expect given the pitch, it is a show about journalism, corporate power and politics. But what is most impressive is its mix of fiction and reality, including the criticism of actual politicians. 

The last episode (Episode 3, "The 112th Congress") is particularly amazing - it is supposed to take place during the 2010 mid-term elections. Will McAvoy who claims to be a Republican, wants to take on the Tea Party for driving his old-time party to the right. He tells his boss, Charlie that he initially understood the initial impulse of the Tea Party as a grass root movement but that it's been co-opted by corporate interests, specifically the Koch brothers. 
This is interesting because the Koch Brothers are REAL very powerful American industrialists who are also political activists. They have been financing the Tea Party and right wing issues through organisations such as Freedomworks, or Americans For Prosperity (see my posts here or read this NYTimes article) and have influence up to the Supreme Court
It goes even further by portraying the owner of the cable news network that broadcasts News Night, Leona Lansing, threatening to fire Will for going after the Koch brothers. It is not that she cares about ratings because the cable channel accounts for less than 3% of her corporation’s profits, but rather it was her other business ventures, unnamed, that were potentially in peril."  I have business before this Congress,”, she ends up saying (source). 

The irony is that Leona Lansing is (very convincingly) played by Jane Fonda, who is known for her liberal views,(she is continuously called 'Hanoi Jane' by FoxNews) but also the former wife of CNN founder Ted Turner. 

Clearly the show has it flaws: it has been (probably rightfully) criticized for its somewhat sexist depiction of its female characters (here and here), for being too preachy (which it is) and unrealistic (which remains to be proven... but who cares... this is fiction after all!) (here), or for its middl-school soap opera tone at times (which is true - and annoying-  but not unlike many American shows). It also smacks of nostalgia, (especially in Episode 1), as if the time of Edward R. Murrow ever was this perfect time when the United States was "the greatest nation" on earth.

Despite its flaws, the show works for me because it has balls and tackles current issues heads on. It is precisely what makes American fiction far superior to any other. No other country in the world, not even in Europe, and certainly not in France would have the guts to use reality in fiction to such an extreme. even though Senator Mike Lee has taken on HBO over the newsroom allegation, it gives me hope that freedom of expression is not dead in the United States.
After all, whether you agree with its political bias, which is clearly to the left, (and granted that most conservatives must be turned off after episode 3), this show has the potential to make people think about the broken state of media and politics, and its incestuous relationship in today's America. In fact, it is not about a news channel, it is about America itself.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A French Story.

Abundance of major news this week: 
- the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of the so-called Obama-care (the Affordable Care Act),  (and the initial misreporting of CNN and Foxnews whose journalists forgot to read through the entire ruling)
- the unexpected bold move of Europe's leaders at the European summit to which stocks rallied in sheer (but overrated?) optimism. 
- or even, rumors that DSK's wife, Anne Sainclair might have finally kicked him out

These have made the headlines and have been largely covered, analysed and commented upon. What else is there to say worth of this blog? 
So I'd like to choose to talk about a much-less significant but culturally interesting piece of news: the disappearance of a French dinosaur - a device made in France, by the French, for the French: the MINITEL. 

Most of you outside France may have no idea what the Minitel is because it fails to sell outside France, mostly because of the success of the Internet. 
And indeed, the Minitel was probably the world's most successful pre-World Wide Web online services in the 1980s. As vintage as it looks now, it was the most advanced information service in the world when it was launched in 1978 in Brittany, over 10 years before the Web was invented in Europe. 

While the rest of the world was still lining up at the bank, or at the train station, the French could already get information or buy train tickets "online" (BBC). When I graduated from high school, I had to apply to college on the Minitel. 

The Minitel terminals (which look terribly old fashioned today) were freely distributed by the then state-owned France Telecom so it spread quickly even to the the poorest households. It would usually sit next to your telephone to which it was connected. Then you dialed a specific site (which often started by 3615), which could offer a free service (like electronic yellow pages) or a commercial pay-per-minute service (among which the most successful ones were the semi-porn services called "Minitel rose". Some things don't change!).  

It has been suggested that because of the Minitel, the French initially lacked behind in the number of people connected to the Internet. This is indeed my experience. 

Back in 1993, when I had my first connexion to the Internet in France via a company called Compuserve, I was met with doubt and suspicion from my friends and family. After all, France did not need an American version of the Minitel and I was known for being too much into American stuff, which in itself made me biased. But even then, although there was very little available on the Web, and I was using it mostly for email, I thought the Internet was a thing of the future. Imagine, you had to pay per minute to chat on the Minitel which guaranteed millions to the unique provider France Telecom. Those huge profits and the highly centralized system gave France Telecom no inventive to evolve technologically. (arstechnica)

This is what FB would look like on the Minitel: 

This is such a typically French story: good innovative invention but no flexibility and bad commercial policy. It could have been made more graphical and the Minitel terminals could have been used to connect every household to the Internet with a sort of French cloud system. After all, the power of the device was that it was available in every home and business (PC Mag) and very simple to use, especially for the elderly (NYTimes). But instead of adapting the system to the needs of a changing world, France Telecom tried to sell a whole system lock (, i.e. "all inclusive" (NYTimes) and naturally it failed. When the semi-porn services left the Minitel to the Internet was its death warrant. 

The Minitel is still used by a few elderly people, notably in rural areas (NYTimes), but its costs is not worth its gains any more. What a fitting symbol! 

Minitel, R.I.P (1978-2012).