Friday, June 17, 2016

Thoughts on the mass murder in Orlando

My reaction to the Orlando shooting is hard to describe.  Many of us understand that American society is deeply ill (the shooter spoke in an earlier interview about problems with people profiting off crises for example) but most of us don't go out and start shooting people.  What can convince a husband and father to go and do such great harm not only to other families but to his own as well?  For a religion?  Out of general frustration with the state of the US?  Something else?

But I have decided I have to write what I can.   Since there is some thought that this was an act of international terrorism, it is worth looking at the larger pictures of the intersection of American culture wars and international media, and how this is perceived throughout the world as well.  But it is hard.  As a husband and father, I cannot imagine what would cause someone to rob his own family not only of his presence but of his memory as well.  There is pity, outrage, and much more within myself directed at the shooter and deep sympathy for those who, for whatever reason, have to carry on without family members.

But there are aspects to this case which need to be discussed and I suppose if I can do so, I have a responsibility to bring them up.  I am not advocating changes to policy.  I am trying to articulate larger political patterns going on.  If this is political violence, then an understanding of other sides is important to preventing further acts in the future.

But I will say one thing clearly so there is no misunderstanding.  Violence like this is one of the worst things a person can do.  It is not only a crime against the general public, but even more importantly the shooter deeply betrayed his wife and child in a way that should never be forgotten.  What is his child going to think, growing up aware that his father was a mass murderer?  In some ways, of those who lost someone important, his young son was the most harmed.

At the same time, I think it is only through the search for common humanity with the worst of us that we can come to understand how to build a more flourishing society.  For in such a search is where we find the worst of the problems.

The largest problem I see is the faith in individualism and the system in the US, which effectively makes people who don't or cannot fit severely disadvantaged and leaves them no way to carve out a place for themselves.  For groups we decide to protect, we push an ideal of equality which somehow is never really equal because of hidden assumptions.  For other groups (in particular immigrants and cultural minorities who do not fit the liberal progressive narrative), there is not even that.

There is a reason why so many heinous crimes in the US are committed by immigrants and children of immigrants, and it is not a condemnation of immigrants as individuals.  When we tell people their cultural framework is inferior and bad, when we deny them a real voice in the culture, and deny them any reflection of themselves in the culture around them, we cannot blame them when they become monsters.  Here you have the child of an immigrant who was probably bullied, and at the same time his whole family was almost certainly existing outside the major central cultural communities.

What of international aspects to this?  Is it possible that international radicals pushed someone who was vulnerable and unstable to commit this horrible crime?

There is a fear in much of the world that the US will use global media to proselytize gay rights to the world, and I think this fear underlies much of the recent changes in Indonesian censorship.  That fear is reasonable and arguably even correct.  But with many of the most populous countries in the world (China, India, Indonesia) lining up to try to put an end to this, it effectively forces film makers to choose between commercial success abroad or currying favor at home.  If Disney wants to be able to show Frozen 2 in some of the most important markets internationally, they cannot give Elsa a girlfriend.  I expect this to become a very large issue in coming years.   But was it an issue here?

What is at stake is the question of whether a rights-based narrative or whether a community-based narrative is the right one for addressing people who do not (whether by choice or circumstance) follow the accepted normative narratives of the community.  The narrative may be that everyone gets married to someone in the community, has kids, and takes over the family business, but for one reason or another not everyone will do all these things.  The American approach is to decide that some things are worthy of rhetorical (but probably not substantive) equality, and therefore to say "well, they aren't like us and cannot help it so they need equal rights." But this never covers everyone.

While "marriage equality" means same-sex couples in the US should have the same legal protections as straight couples, it does not mean, for example, that those who marry non-citizens should be entitled to the same family protection as those who marry citizens.  No concern is given to the fact that families with non-citizen spouses (thanks to Clinton-era and Obama-era legislation, and a few more minor contributions by Bush) have more responsibilities and fewer protections than families where both spouses are citizens.  So it isn't clear to me that "equality" rhetoric and "rights" are a perfect solution.  Surely if there is a right to equality in marriage, then it is a Constitutional violation for the Affordable Care Act to ban my wife from the expanded medicaid for the first 5 years following a possible return to the US and still attach liability for failing to insure.

A very different approach is the devolutionary approach.  In this approach, power and responsibility are highly decentralized and communities are responsible for taking care of their own.  This never worked in the Jim Crow South because it requires a degree of economic equality that we have never had in the US as a whole, but it means that if someone is gay in Indonesia (one reason the narrative might not be met, but surely not the only one), it is possible for him or her to navigate society and carve out a place.  Indonesia is in fact so decentralized that a lot of things we think of as done by lawyers in the West (drawing up contracts, for example) are done by notaries public instead.

A community-based approach (rather than a rights/equality rhetoric approach) means that as uncompromising as a society may appear to be, there is always room for human judgement to make things humane, for people to treat eachother with humanity, and so forth.  A rights-based narrative is a threat to all that.  And so I think it is entirely appropriate that countries protect themselves from what really amounts to foreign propaganda by restricting messages from foreign films and television programs.

But did that have anything to do with this horrific act? If there is an international dimension then there must be.  It may also be that ISIL understands how shocking this would be to Americans and pushed the target for that reason.  Or maybe the instructions were more vague and Mr Mateen selected the target himself?  I doubt we will ever know.

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