We’re No. 137! The myth of America’s awesomeness

June 20, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

“Let’s be clear: at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” – Barack Obama

One must be careful, in times of yet another violent, humiliating national tragedy, when yet another simpering white male with a gun – and yes, it’s nearly always the simpering white males with guns – decides to unleash his warped sense of wrath on innocents, on black churchgoers or women or schoolchildren, or his wife, his schoolmates, his fellow military personnel, whomever – or perhaps it’s another white cop shooting innocent black teens, or well-armed Texas biker thugs shooting at cops and each other – we must be careful not to extrapolate too widely, not to make some grand statement about the decay and inherent rot of America’s dysfunctional system as a whole.

Because it’s almost too easy, in the wake of Dylann Roof – who, by the way, not necessarily “insane,” not an overt sociopath, not a slice of “pure evil,” but who is, like Elliot Rodger and many others before him, a direct and clear-cut product of the America’s savage underbelly of gun fetishism, racism and ignorance; just a dumb kid trained and taught, like your everyday ISIS terrorist, to hate and kill – it would be easy to suggest the overall system that created him is, you might say, downward spiraling at a nastier rate than ever, and showing no signs of improving.

Racism is learned behavior. He was trained. Taught to hate and kill. It is NEVER just innate

Racism is learned behavior. He was trained. Taught to hate and kill. It is NEVER just innate

This is, I’m happy to report, not quite true. The system is not in overall decay. Signs of life, hope, progress abound. We are, as always, lurching and looping, gems of wonder and joy intermixed with savagery and sadness. You gotta choose your lens carefully, lest the poison suck you under.

But goddamn if the good parts do often seem in the minority, buried and far between, increasingly difficult to locate. America’s childish “We’re No. 1!” macho posturing is an international joke. We do not seem to manufacture, inspire, create, lead in any vital way. We are not number one in any serious, helpful measure you can name. Hell, we’re not even number 20.

It’s with nauseated amazement I hear gun apologists claim, to this day and even on my own Facebook page, that we need guns, that they are somehow essential to our national identity, that keeping a loaded shotgun in the closet is a God-given right, or that it’s a relative few who ruin it for the responsible many. This is both only partially true and does not matter in the least.

Most others seem drunk on some bizarre, pseudo-cowboy revenge fantasy, a gross lie that says we need guns to defend our families from the “gangbangers” and the drug dealers, when of course that is not ever the way it happens, when the vast majority of gun deaths are at the hands of relatively privileged white males, or kids shooting each other with their parents’ guns. Sorry, gun nuts; no “gangbangers” are coming to crash down your suburban door to murder your family. Quit watching so much dumb TV.

The short of it simple enough: Guns are cancerous, innately caustic, ruinous by definition. Their purpose is singular, and wholly lethal. They do not bring safety, justice, fairness, balanced perspective, comfort. Guns add not a single constructive component to a vibrant society, or the joy of the human heart. They bring only what they are specifically designed to bring: fear, pain, death.

Sticker ad for a big gun sale in the Charleston paper, the day after the massacre. Because America.

Sticker ad for a big gun sale on the front page of the Charleston paper, the day after the massacre. Because America.

And when you put 200 million of them into the hands of a mal-educated, violence-obsessed nation (again, mostly paranoid males)? That purpose is guaranteed to manifest, often in the most horrific ways imaginable.

But what of the system that created Dylann Roof? What of the racist troll whose dad got him a gun for his 21st birthday, who wanted to start a “race war,” in a state that still waves the confederate flag, in flagrant mockery of American progress, on the state capitol?

And what of Obama’s statement, one I’ve long expounded myself, that such violence never happens in other advanced countries, very much to our national disgrace?

It’s still a terrific and telling point, one never really addressed by the NRA, except by way of an infantile, intellectually bogus defense of the 2nd Amendment.

Maybe Obama’s point needs one key revision. It’s very true that gun massacres are almost nonexistent in the truly advanced, progressive, intelligent nations of the world.

We’re just not one of them.

Deny it at your jingoistic peril: By any accepted metric of progress across all developed nations of the world, America is nowhere near number one. We lead in almost no category of vigorous human endeavor that actually matters. Can you think of any? Maybe iPhones?

– Our vastly broken health care system, despite Obama’s modest improvements, still ranks dead last in cost, efficiency, overall success.

– Our educational system hovers somewhere near the bottom overall (36th in the world, at last check, not breaking the top 20 in any category), even as school districts throughout Dylann Roof’s dumbed-down world in the South and Midwest strip textbooks of basic factual information about evolution, sexuality, science, women’s rights, and so on, swapping in idiotic Tea Party nonsense that Keep America Stupid.

– What of our “proud” military? It’s a bit of a joke, really. Our armed forces comprise the world’s most bloated, costly fighting force, so grotesquely out of scale as to be downright tragic. The fact remains: The US military is larger and most costly (roughly $700 billion, annually) than those of the next 10 major superpowers, combined.

The list, sadly, goes on.

– We are, at last check, the only “advanced” nation on earth where half of the functioning government – the half, sadly, that controls both houses of Congress right now – that actually believes science is a liberal hoax, that climate change is God’s whim, that we should do nothing about it except drill for more oil.

Sure, dumb politicians abound in governments worldwide, but they are usually laughed to the sidelines. Ours throw snowballs in congress as evidence that global warming doesn’t exist, and then run the agency designated to protect the environment.

Wait, surely we must be Number One somewhere? You bet we are. We top the charts in whole slew of (very bleak) categories:

Prison population. Incarceration rates. Death penalty. Homicides. Gun sales. Drone strikes. Rich people. Very rich people. TV watching. Diabetes. Obesity. Anxiety disorders. Weapons exports. Drug abuse. Infant mortality. Junk food addictions. STDs. Prescription drug sales. Male life expectancy (the shortest). Paid vacation (the least). Reality TV shows. Refusal to give new parents government-supported job leave. Refusal to fund the arts. Number of Walmarts.

Make no mistake, we still have many of the best and brightest engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors and writers and thinkers. But many of them are increasingly flocking to intellectual wastelands like Silicon Valley, lured by mountains of cash, to work on some of the most vacuous, meaningless projects in all of human endeavor.

Hey, did you know SnapChat is “valued” at 15 billion dollars? And that’s just a stupid, largely made-up number for a useless piece of teenage fippery that adds zero to human evolution, and probably corrodes it further? Awesome.

(Side note: Obama, to his vast credit, seems to acknowledge this SiliValley talent vacuum, and is doing something rather of amazing to counter it, and perhaps change how government works, once and for all).

Let us try to not be too fatalistic, even though a new mass shooting happens ever few months, and it’s almost a dead certainty that someone was just killed by a gun in the time it took you to read this column.

Be not discouraged that America is not the best, the coolest, the safest, the most interesting or progressive or honorable. We are merely the most schizophrenic, the most lopsided, the most bipolar and fanatically self-destructive. Same as it’s always been, really.

What we do have is the world’s most unique, fascinating, deadly combination of feral potential, talent and ingenuity, intersliced (and undermined) by a bizarre addiction to violence, entitlement and separation, fueled an ultra-conservative punditry that makes its living espousing only fear.

If we should be number one at anything, it should be at eradicating that hateful, intolerable voice. It is, very literally, the death of us.

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Mark Morford

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