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Terrorism & Narratives

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 14, 2016

For most of us the idea that things just happen runs against our basic human intuitions. We try to impose order on chaos and find patterns in everything. In doing this we forge narratives to make sense of what might be utterly senseless. In the case of the slaughter in Orlando, people are struggling to explain and understand by weaving stories that match their understanding of the world. This is not, in general, to be condemned—it is part of how we endure the awful.

The narratives of explanation can quickly turn to narratives of exploitation; the weaving of a story to advance some ideological agenda. Sticking to the stereotypes, many liberals are weaving a narrative around guns—the ease with which they can be acquired, the special danger posed by semi-automatic weapons, the terrible threat of high capacity clips, and the scariness of “assault rifles.” On this narrative, one conclusion is that if there had only been more regulation, then the massacre might have either been much smaller or not occurred at all.

While the desire to do something through the law is understandable, the alleged shooter acquired his guns legally. While he is believed to have been a domestic abuser and was investigated by the FBI, he had no criminal record. Put simply, he passed all the reasonable tests for purchasing a gun and there was no evidence that he would commit a crime.

I have written extensively about the potential effectiveness of assault weapon bans and magazine restrictions, so I will not go into detail here. However, such bans do not address existing weapons and restricting clip size just means slightly more reloading or gun switching on the part of a shooter who lacks high capacity clips. That said, improved gun safety (one must not say “control” is something broadly accepted and can have a positive impact on reducing gun crime (or so it is claimed).

There is also a narrative about the blame: the general liberal view here is to reject collective guilt: the murderer is accountable but the fact that he claimed to be Muslim does not make Muslims complicit in his crimes. Many in the LGBT community have made this point very clear: they do not condemn or hate Islam because of what one Muslim did.

I have also written extensively about group guilt and here I agree with the LGBT community: Muslims are no more to blame for the shooting than Christians are to blame for the hate of God Hates Fags.

The general narratives on the right are rather different. Right after the bloodletting, there was the usual mobilization in defense of guns and the usual stock narratives went into reruns for the thousandth time. One of these was the story that if only people in Pulse were armed, then they would have been able to shoot down the attacker—this is the classic tale of the good guy with a gun. Some take this narrative as involving some victim blaming: if only they had been smart enough (or pro-gun enough) to be armed, then they would still be alive. Some focus on the laws that forbid guns from certain places—if only people could carry guns anywhere, there would have been armed citizens ready to blast the attacker.

Unfortunately, the restrictions imposed on studying gun violence (lobbied by the NRA and gun industry) means that the statistics needed to judge this matter rationally are not available. One would think that if the gun lobby folks truly believed the good guy with a gun theory, they would be funding research to prove their point. Their opposition should make one a bit suspicious about their faith in their own claim.

Some narratives endeavored to clarify the real victims of the killings: gun owners. As always happens after a mass shooting, there was a rush to tell a speculative tale about how this is the time that Obama is going to come for people’s guns. And, as always happens, gun sales start to spike upward. And, as always, Obama does not come for people’s guns.

The right has also generally stuck to the narrative of what they insist on calling “Islamic terrorism”—that Islam is the cause of such terrorists attacks. On the one hand, it is correct to consider religion as a motivating factor. On the other hand, the idea of collective guilt in regards to huge and diverse groups is rather problematic. While the folks in God Hates Fags claim to be acting from their faith, they do not therefore represent all Christians. If a Christian attacks an abortion clinic for religious reasons, that is not Christian Terrorism and his actions do not make all Christians accountable.

Ironically, the “Islamic Terrorism” narrative of the right is in accord with the narratives of groups like ISIS (or ISIL or whatever one wants to call these evil people). Their view is that they are Islam and that all of Islam should be at war with the West (including Western Muslims). The right’s narrative is that the West should be at war with all of Islam, so there is agreement between the right and ISIS on this matter. This should be taken as a good sign that those on the right who buy this narrative should rethink their position. Insisting that all of Islam is the enemy entails that many of our nominal allies would have to be reclassified as enemies as would many of our own citizens and citizens of allied states. This seems a foolish idea.

Trump, not surprisingly, has gone beyond even this narrative—after accepting congratulations (some Trump supporters see the Orlando attack as vindicating Trump) Trump pushed for his proposed Muslim ban once again. Trump claimed that the killer was born in Afghanistan and that his ban would have prevented the attack. As is so often the case with Trump’s stories, it is mostly fiction: the alleged killer is of Afghan descent, but he was born in America. As such, Trump’s ban would not have prevented the attack. While many are endeavoring to milk the massacre for political points, Trump deserves special mention for his handling of the matter—he really stands out in regards to his exploitation of the attack.

 

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Why Demonize the Poor?

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2014
Poverty

Poverty (Photo credit: Teo’s photo)

Certain pundits of the American right have continued the tradition of demonizing the poor. For example, Fox News seems to delight in the narrative of the wicked poor who are destroying America. It is certainly worth considering why the poor are demonized.

One ironic foundation for this is religion. While “classic” Christianity regards the poor as blessed and warns of the dangers of idolatry, there is a strain of Christianity that regards poverty as a sign of damnation and wealth as an indicator of salvation. As Pope Francis has been pointing out, this view is a perversion of Christianity. Not surprisingly, Pope Francis has been criticized by certain pundits for actually taking Jesus seriously.

Another reason for this is that demonizing the poor allows the pundits to redirect anger so that the have-less are angry at the have-nots, rather than those who have almost everything. This is, of course, classic scapegoating: the wicked poor are blamed for many of the woes besetting America. The irony is, of course, that the poor and powerless are cast as a threat to the rich and powerful.

The approach taken in regards to the poor follows the classic model used throughout history. This model involves presenting two distinct narratives about the group that is to be hated. The first is to create a narrative which casts the members of the group as subhuman, wicked, inferior and defective. In the case of the poor, the stock narrative is that the poor are stupid, lazy, drug-users, criminals, frauds, moochers and so on. This narrative is used to create contempt and hatred of the poor in order to dehumanize them. This makes it much easier to get people to accept that it is morally permissible (even laudable) to treat the poor poorly.

The second narrative is to cast the poor as incredibly dangerous. While they have been cast as subhuman by the first narrative, the second narrative presents them as a dire threat to everyone else. The stock narrative is that the poor are destroying America by being “takers” from the “makers.” One obvious problem is crafting a narrative in which the poor and seemingly powerless are able to destroy the rich and powerful. The interesting solution to this problem is to cast Obama and some Democrats as being both very powerful (thus able to destroy America) yet someone in service to the poor (thus making the poor the true masters of destruction).

On the face of it, a little reflection should expose the narrative as absurd. The poor are obviously poor and lack power. After all, if they had power they would hardly remain poor. As such, the idea that the poor and powerless have the power to destroy America seems to be absurd. True, the poor could rise up in arms and engage in class warfare in the literal sense of the term—but that is not likely to happen.

At this point, it is natural to bring up the idea of “bread and circuses”—the idea that the poor destroyed the Roman Empire by forcing the rulers to provide them with bread and circuses until the empire fell apart.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that even if Rome was wrecked by spending on bread and circuses, it was the leaders who decided to use that approach to appease the masses. That is, the wealthy and powerful decided to bankrupt the state in order to stay in power. Second, the poor who wanted bread and circuses were a symptom rather than the disease. That is, the cause of the decline of the empire also resulted in larger numbers of poor people. As such, it was not so much that the poor were destroying the empire, it was that the destruction of the empire that was resulting in an increase in the poor.

The same could be said about the United States: while the income gap in the United States is extreme and poverty is relatively high, it is not the poor that that are causing the decline of America. Rather, the poverty is the result of the decline. As such, demonizing the poor and blaming them for the woes is rather like blaming the fever for the disease.

Ironically, the insistence in demonizing and blaming the poor serves to distract people away from the real causes of our woes, such as the deranged financial system, systematic inequality, a rigged market and a political system that is beholden to the 1%.

It is, however, a testament to the power of rhetoric that so many people buy the absurd idea that the poor and powerless are somehow the victimizers rather than the victims.

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