Friday, July 23, 2010

The United States of Punishment

Readers, this is something I have been wanting to comment on for a long time: a growing spirit of meanness, even sadism, in the thought, behavior and culture that I feel is becoming stronger and stronger in the United States. This country has a lot of problems right now, but it seems to me that there are not a lot of people interested in actually THINKING about what our problems are and trying to solve them TOGETHER. No. What many, and I fear most Americans want, is just to beat up on someone. You can see it in reality television shows and on that internet voyeur known as You Tube, where the great fun is to watch some misguided average Joe or Jane humiliated and ridiculed. You can see it in our obsession with celebrity, in the delight that so many take in seeing the famous brought low.

You can see it in our criminal "justice" system, where there is much more support for punishing the people locked away, even for very minor offenses, than for rehabilitating them so that they will have a snowball's chance in hell of living a normal, productive life when they get out of prison. Why rehabilitate them? Better to let them remain criminals so that we can enjoy locking them up again and again and feeling superior to "those people."

You can see it in the anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic sentiment that seems to be growing in popularity. Look at that one more closely and you will find things like Hispanic people being beaten up and even killed, not in the Deep South, mind you, but on Long Island, just a few dozen miles from diversity central (NYC). You can see it in the popularity of police drama television shows, which give the people a steady dose of a very particular view of American society, in which there is no hope of improving society, only the adrenalin rush of hunting down criminals and locking them up. You can see the real-life ramifications of this media indoctrination in the way states like California have, for many years, been pumping much more money into prisons than schools. Did you know California used to have free university tuition? Not anymore, but plenty of free services for the thousands upon thousands in California prisons, a situation mirrored in states across the country. Priorities are clear! Why educate people when you can punish them? Is THIS the American dream? Most modern democratic countries have abolished the death penalty. Not here! It is a dear and cherished tradition!

You can see it in our national government's foreign policy spending priorities, in that the amount of money devoted to peaceful foreign projects is far dwarfed by what is spent on the military, not only our several ongoing wars that have ripped apart whole societies and left shattered cities, psyches and limbs in their wake that will take decades to heal, but also our "peaceful" military presence in so many countries around the world, which sends a clear message that we are ready to stomp on anyone who disagrees with us or fails to support our military objectives and corporate business interests. Remember that what kicked off both of our most recent wars was a desire to PUNISH: punish the Afghans for 9/11 (even though all or most of the terrorists were Saudis), punish Saddam and Iraq for anti-American weapon programs. Call it "war on terror," call it "nation-building," but I would argue that the root motive is punishment of dark-skinned, non-Christian, uncooperative foreigners.

You can see it in how every city and even very small towns in the USA always have military parades, which for some reason often feature police as well as soldiers, but nothing to honor artists, teachers, or people in non-punitive helping professions. It was a hard-fought battle in this country to establish Martin Luther King day as a national holiday, for the obvious reason that he was a man of peace, as well as an African-American, and in the view of many, THAT AIN'T AMERICAN!! Do you know which state held out for years on accepting the holiday? Same state (AZ) that is now set to implement a law that will give police carte blanche to harass and arrest Hispanics suspected of being illegal aliens. It is also the state with a cruel and humiliating prison system, in Maricopa County, that happens to be immensely popular with the general population, to the point where the head of this police state, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who his fans call "America's Toughest Sheriff," has his own reality television show.

I can't wait until someone finally puts on a show that will televise live executions. "Live from Death Row," sure to be a big hit in the near future! Fun for the whole family, taking America back to the days when people would bring picnic lunches to watch hangings and lynchings. I am not joking about that last point: executions and lynchings were popular entertainments in the not-too-distant American past.

We just love Love LOVE to have someone to beat up on, someone to bomb, someone to throw into prison, someone to hate. And, final irony, some of those on the right-wing side of the political spectrum seem to be gearing up and gunning up to take up arms against our democratically-elected government--and they think of themselves as patriots. The obsession with guns, the fear that you will need to defend yourself in a John Wayne movie always showing in the little cinema in the back of your mind, where does that come from? I suspect it goes back to the culture of the American frontier, when "the west was won" by white Americans shooting and killing Native Americans and taking their land. A great victory, right? Or maybe it was the time not long past in the Jim Crow South when the white man could shoot blacks with impunity? Maybe there is a bit of guilty conscience, fear of payback from people no longer cringing in fear?

What is it that many right-wingers and conservatives shout nowadays? "TAKE OUR COUNTRY BACK!!!" Back to what, exactly? They never say...Perhaps the good old days of white supremacy, the KKK, lynching of blacks and gays? I for one have no doubt that there is an ugly racial undercurrent running through the so-called Tea Party movement. First a black man is elected president, and then sales of guns and ammo shoot through the roof. What is that about? And what was it that made Bush so popular for several years post-9/11? His promise to "punish the evil-doers." I wonder, will Obama now be tempted to attack Iran to bolster his own popularity?

I am afraid. I fear that this country is becoming an increasingly harsh and brutal police state. I fear that young people today are being raised in a culture which values and validates violence and aggression over all things, that sees compassion, compromise, gentleness and intelligence as disgusting, undesirable, effeminate qualities. A culture that believes the ONLY solution to social problems is to beat people down, shut them up, lock them up. A mindset that has no doubt that the ONLY solution to international conflicts is to use force to beat and bomb foreign people into submission to our will. A mentality that asserts that the ONLY way to be a man is to be a tough-as-nails, ain't never backin'-down, fist-fightin' gun-totin,' brute (A REAL MAN!!) Women too are encouraged to be more aggressive, more selfish, more mean, maybe pack a gun in the purse along with the lipstick. Now there's some great feminism for you! Real gender equality, all through the magic of gun ownership! And now, thanks to the Supreme Court, it is going to be easier and easier for every American to carry a gun wherever they want! Finally, we will all be SAFE. This is surely what the forefathers dreamed of when they set sail for America: a nation where guns will one day outnumber brains.

I don't believe that violence and aggression will make this world a better place. I think we are WAY off track and completely losing sight of the need for gentleness, calmness, compassion and civility. If it were not the fact that something deep in me resonates strongly with the gods and traditions of the European Pagan heritage, I would be very tempted to take up Buddhism. I greatly respect the Buddhist path of self-control, self-reflection and non-violence. I would like to believe they can also be found in Pagan tradition, but I know many disagree. In American Asatru, there are many who primarily relate to this tradition as a warrior path. I don't want to begrudge anyone the right to their own views and interpretations, particularly military veterans who have a need to validate their battlefield experiences, but I feel that there is just too much war-mongering going on, to the point where other priorities and possibilities are lost. I mean, come on! "Hail Thor, Hail War, Let's drink some beer then drink some more!" Wow, now THAT is really spiritual! Come on, please. Anyone who studies any Pagan tradition, whether Norse or Celtic or Slavic or what have you should realize that warrior machismo is not the only thing going on in these religions. There is so much about nature, about sensuality, about peace, about friendship, about art, about beauty. I fear that the warped priorities of modern American society are being read back into ancient Paganism, and then held up as Pagan virtues that all should honor and obey.

Well, I for one am NOT going to play along with this. I worship the sky, the earth, the trees, the ancestors, and I don't need guns or weapons or fantasies of violence to feel right with MY Paganism. I do NOT accept narrow definitions of "tribe" that would cause me to turn away from my brothers and sisters of all races and ethnic backgrounds. I do NOT see the military punishment of foreign populations and disruption of their societies as honorable or worth emulating. I believe that there are more pleasant and productive forms of travel than military invasion. My Paganism is wide and loving and embracing, not narrow and hateful and punishing. I want to see a Paganism that teaches peace and co-existence, not a glorification of war and aggression. Those things have their time and place, I don't doubt, but that place is not everywhere and the time should not be everyday and every minute.

What kind of world do YOU want to live in?


Seeing Eye Chick said...

I have been fighting against this for a very long time. Its everywhere. It contributes to the Great American Brain Drain, it diminishes creativity on individual and collective levels, it reduces the coherence of communities from the bottom to the top. America is going through a very petulant, sadistic, self absorbed phase and has been for a while. It takes a lot of toxic entitlement issues for a person--much less a whole country to feel so perfect, so infallible that they are the chosen ones to deal out punishments large and small.

Personally I blame it on the modern incarnations of the American Interpretation of British Israelism. Its even more complex than that, but I feel that is the major taproot of this collective dysfunction, and it permeates every aspect of our culture, regardless of actual or perceived religious belief or ideological bent, because it is ingrained into our culture on a very deep level.

And that is also secretly why so many feel unworthy, and defensive, and that just makes them even more unstable and mean.

I mean if you are the "chosen elite" how can you be out of control, or mistaken, or wrong?

That simply doesnt happen.

Maelstrom said...

Chick with Eye, could you expand on your reference to "the American interpretation of British Israelism?" I am not familiar with this, and probably others reading this blog are likewise in the dark on this point. Inquiring minds want to know....

Seeing Eye Chick said...

British Israelism is the belief that the British People are actually the true Jews, who have the authentic covenant with the almighty, and that the Jews that were in the Near East were in fact the spawn of Eve and Satan. Certain British religionists, Christianists, etc., saw themselves as the decendents of the lost 10 Tribes, pure, undefiled, unlike the rest caught up in the [other] Diaspora. [note sarcasm]. In its more extreme form, is the basis for religiously inspired racism and bigotry. But to me, there is this other more subtle form, that is sort of caught up in the American Identity, with America always being referred to as The Promised Land, etc., And of course, who is the land promised to? But it's very special children.... {read that however you want to} It's been this sort of philosophical permission slip to take over, feel special and basically shit on everyone else that doesn't fit into that paradigm. And now its turned back on itself, so that this venom is seeping into our culture from within, and once again, just my observation/opinion this is most evident in the Christian Reconstructionists, who dominate the most dysfunctional wings of the Republican Party--i.e., I would like to point out that it's most visible in those places/groups, but it is a pervasive mindset throughout American Culture.

Its all about the High and Mighty, teaching the rest of us dummies, important lessons. Its the epitomy of arrogance.

Maelstrom said...

I see....I think what you are describing is more commonly known as "American exceptionalism," the belief that America is superior to all other nations and cultures, and need not follow the rules that apply to all the rest of the world.

Leviathan said...

Your analysis is very perceptive and accurate. You describe much evidence of the "mean culture" that permeates society. Sadist, the word you use, is also very accurate. Spend 1/2 hour watching Fox News (if you must) to see plenty of evidence of this.

While the aggression is not confined to the political right, it seems they have elevated hatred to an art form. Witness the lampooning of Obama, Pelosi, etc. As if these objects of scorn were not our democratically elected leaders.

I have no reason for optimism, but for some reason I still am so. I think we will finally realize that our hatred is so debilitating that it interferes with us being Americans, doing what Americans do best: innovate and lead the world.

I don't know when we will come to this realization, but I think it will begin after President Obama wins his second term.

Matt said...

I'll answer your last question first. I would like to live in a world in which there is a strong commitment to the principles of social democracy. As you have pointed out before, there are actually existing models of reasonably decent societies: Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, etc. One hopes places like Poland and the Czech Republic are following suit. I think if we hadn't been embroiled in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson might have led the United States down this path. We have a long way to go, but I refuse to rule out the possibility that the people of the United States can overcome the military industrial complex turn our swords into plowshares.

As far as actually existing heathenism is concerned, I don't see any reason why folks can't incorporate elements of Buddhism and Hinduism (or whatever personally is enriching) into their practice. Can you think of any actually existing religion that is not syncreatic in some way? Its human nature to learn from and adopt pleasing and sensible practices and concepts from other cultures.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

I am not sure I want Obama to win his second term. I have been disappointed with his and the Democrats lack of testicular fortitude for starters. And to be totally blunt, the moment Obama left BP in charge and pulled a Mayor Giuiliani with regards to air and water safety in the Gulf, my perception of him as a man of integrity disintegrated in milliseconds. That he has actively kept many of Bush's bad domestic policies in place, failed to dismantle that constitutional abomination of the other FBI {Faith Based Initiatives} and allows the most extreme factions of the right to trample any effort to accomplish anything even if it benefits the conservatives--what is there to say? I cannot respect a man who allows foreign corporate powers to threaten our National Sovereignty and trample our civil liberties ON OUR OWN SOIL.
And I helped campaign for him.
And no I don't miss Bush or his cronies, and I can see their boney claws in this mix too.
As for American Exceptionalism--I believe that stems from the British Israelism mindset. Chosen People= Perfection. Chosen People are above the law and anyone else not chosen should be punished and humiliating for stealing air from the Chosen Ones.
Personally I am quite sick of being caught inbetween the Democrats and the Republicans everytime they decide to pull Retarded Cop/Bad Cop on the American People. really.

Anonymous said...

Mjölnir - the Hammer - is the veapon, the TOOL to make way for summer, since Thor care for human beeings.

This force aim to make room for pic-nics under a clear blue sky. The power of Thor aim to protect the human children eating ice-cream.

This power has its focus on sympathy for the humans.

Lightning reminding of Thor´s bond to his holy mother Jord ( Earth )
Rain and thunder instead of snow and freezing feet, honouring his mother and those who dwell upon her soil. Supporting her while she feeds us.

Thor care for the humans and the enyojable life of summer.
This force is its essence love among ones sisters and brothers in Midgaard. In the whole world of man.

Gungnir - the Spear - flies high obove, giving ower-wiew.
The power of Allfader Odin is the power of selfsacrifice, aiming to gain selfknowledge and in the end; unselfish clarity, rationality and efficiency.

This force knows its own history. It knows its forebearers among the giants, and moves accordingly to this:
This power aims to clear out the lower instincts of fear.

This power aims to show us a possible way out of the giant´s focus on survival of the body, towards LIVING.

This power aims to clear the mind and soul, make room for spirit and spear-sharp personal responsibility for ones perception:
a true platform for every democratic assembly, every decision among humans that is not funded on fear; dominance or submission, threat and violence.

This power invites you and me personally to take steps from simple sympathy towards empathy. A very freightning path to the ones who carry around fear of pain and identification with ones own ego.

This power invites us to lift us up to see the horizon of free will and ability of choice.

These "weapons" are not weapons.
They are specified symbols of active forces.
These gods are not warriors.
They are simplified pictures of active forces.
The actions of these gods are not the actions of these gods.
It is simplified descritions of the movements of these active forces.

The lowest level of religion is the level of symbol.
To stay at this level is to insult both oneselfs intelligence and the philosofical truths behind the the myths.

- Aldo asp, Stockholm, Sweden


Maelstrom said...

Thank you Aldo, for your heartfelt comments from Sweden. You provide us with an excellent re-framing of the picture of the Norse cosmos. I agree with you that we need to move beyond simplistic views of the mythology and seek deeper spiritual meanings.

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