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Corona Diaries: myth and reality, rights and responsibilities

May 1, 2020

The images of the latest incursion into the Michigan State House by a group of armed men protesting about the extension of the lockdown has resulted in howls of outrage from many quarters in the United States.

The repeated refrain is that it’s Trump’s fault. He’s empowered the extremists, encouraged the militias and shown contempt for the rule of law. And so on.

Their contention of the president’s critics is neither true nor untrue. It’s a matter of opinion.

It’s easy for me, living in a country where the kind of weapons these guys were brandishing are banned, to think that if we were allowed to carry rifles in the streets there wouldn’t be similar people looking to storm Parliament.

Just as for the past seventy years many of us have watched Holocaust commemorations with the smug belief that if the Nazis had conquered Britain we wouldn’t have enthusiastically participated in the rounding up of the country’s Jews.

We would be wrong on both counts, in my opinion. And I can opine all I like, because my view can never be tested. I can only point to our history of violence, riots and insurrection and civil war over the past ten centuries, and to our sporadic outbreaks of anti-Semitism over a similar period, as evidence. And in the end, who cares?

In America, even if you can’t be bothered to look too deeply into the country’s history, you can point to two hundred and fifty years of similar civil turbulence. But, as everybody knows, with one critical difference: that the right to bear arms was enshrined in the constitution more or less from the outset.

So are the good ole boys in Michigan just Americans doing what Americans always do? Or is there really something different about the antics of these people?

Yes and no. Cultures might differ, but basic human traits crop up wherever there are humans. These guys do what they do because they can.

What is different is the speed and ease of communications that enable them to organise or be organised. I posted about this after the initial demonstrations in the US, so I’m not about to go through the argument again.

Another difference I would phrase in the form of a question. Is life imitating art, or the other way round?

For as long as cinema has been one of the main modes of cultural expression in America, movie makers have offered a consistent stream of moral absolutes – goodies versus baddies. From Wyatt Earp to Rambo to Captain America, vanquishing bank robbers, commies and Thanos. Moral ambiguity has also always been there as the sauce that spices up the narrative. But over the past twenty years mainstream movies have become increasingly unambiguous. Good prevails over evil, in blockbusters, Marvel movies and so on. By the way, I include TV in the movie basket.

To supplement, and in some cases rival the movies in popularity, we now have games. So these days you don’t have to sit passively watching the bad guy get his just deserts. You can dispatch him yourself.

I’m not saying that computer games turn people into murderers, vigilantes and armed militiamen. There are plenty of kids who will become law-abiding delivery drivers, musicians and accountants who sit in their bedrooms, night after night, killing the bad guys.

But where did this stuff come from? Are the movie makers and games designers creating role models, or are they simply reflecting morality in the real world? Or are they building on a century of art imitating life which then imitates art which imitates life? In other words, a spiral of myth that becomes real, inspires more myth that turns into new realities?

It seems so to me. Perhaps the Michigan militias are just playing out their fantasies. Just as Trump opponents claim that he’s playing the role of president rather than doing the actual job, maybe the brave boys with guns are following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood.

I have no idea how many of these guys have experience of real war, but I suspect that most of them would shit themselves if they ended up staring down a Taliban barrel in Afghanistan. Veterans of wars such as Vietnam came home with mental and physical scars so traumatic that the last thing they would contemplate was brandishing weapons in a statehouse. The sad reality is that more likely they would turn those weapons on themselves.

The same goes for veterans in my country. Most of them are reluctant to talk about their experiences unless the stories are prised out of them. Apart from those who use their exploits for commercial gain, such as the macho SAS types who have turned special forces legend into an industry, most would spit in derision at the poseurs who prance around in uniforms at far-right rallies.

The other key difference – and this applies to the US, the UK and many other parts of the world – is that those of us who have grown up during the past seventy years have become acutely aware of our rights. They’re codified in laws and the most fundamental of them have been placed in an overarching basket that we refer to as human rights.

But what of responsibilities? There is no civil law setting out our responsibilities as human beings. Obligations, yes. All countries have laws that describe the norms of behaviour that if breached result in some form of punishment. But an obligation is not the same as a responsibility.

There is no universal code of responsibility other than those enshrined in religions, and these also often take the form of obligations, rather than acts carried out in free will. Since we’re becoming decreasingly religious, even if we carry the DNA of religious thought in our cultures, responsibility is becoming a matter of personal preference, or even convenience.

Perhaps it takes a unifying event such as a pandemic for people en masse to remember a sense of responsibility to other humans, to future humans and to other species. And yet if rights are seen as immutable, and responsibilities as matters for individuals or self-regulating peer groups, where you have differences in attitudes among individuals and between different groups, then you have a recipe for fractured societies.

No doubt the boys in Michigan have their own codes of responsibility, but if they’re not aligned with those of other groups who believe that their responsibility is to self-isolate so as not to pass the virus on to others, then further conflict is inevitable, especially when they’re inspired by a sociopath with his own warped sense of responsibility, principally to himself.

So yes, America seems to have come a long way from “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Perhaps it’s time also for a Declaration of Universal Human Responsibilities. Or maybe I’m just pissing in the wind.

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    …the right to bear arms was enshrined in the constitution more or less from the outset.
    Glad you said “more or less” because until fairly recently, it was not taken to mean that.
    What it says is:
    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.
    Until the middle of the last century, the understanding was (and still is among a large number of constitutional experts) that the right to bear arms was as part of a well regulated militia. In other words, the people in the militia had a right to bear arms in case the government went loco.
    It was never intended to be a right to bear arms for any and all, nor to have a private arsenal with armaments beyond their imagining.
    The reason the “understanding” changed was the ’60s brought civil rights marches and black rights groups. The white people panicked and armed themselves to the teeth.
    Then the Liberation movement people did the same.
    It’s been all down hill since then.

    It’s too late in the day for me to respond to some of the other interesting items that caught my eye, I’m sure you’re happy to hear.
    Maybe tomorrow.
    Maybe not

    • Thanks Debby. Yes, I’m aware of the original intent. Trouble is, to reverse the current situation would probably take the imposition of the most rigorous form of martial law you could imagine. As you and I know, it won’t happen without some cataclysmic upheaval. There are so many things I admire about your country. Gun ownership isn’t one of them. S

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        Gun ownership is not high on my list, either. I was a pretty good shot when very young, but developed a phobia of guns while still in grade school.
        My problem with, in ANY way, misstating the intent of the second amendment, is that it gives
        the gunnuts (yes, all one word) license to lie and I want to confront them over that misinterpretation whenever and wherever it pops up.
        Even if it pops up with a bang…
        It’s possible that you are right (I think so, too) that it would take drastic measures to remove any significant number of the guns in this country. However, that said, I keep hoping that a change of attitude (a la no smoking) might help a bit to ease the situation. Of course, it is never safe to assume that a change of heart (in this country, people “feel”, they don’t “think”) would not change back, but at least the idea is a hopeful one, no?

      • Definitely worth it. You would have thought that all the mass shootings would have created a constituency for reform, but the NRA is a very powerful lobby. Find a way to weaken them, and maybe….

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        The law enforcement and IRS are working on it… if allowed to continue.
        Mass shootings are spectacular, but far greater death toll is suicide. Next is “family issues”.

      • Hope so. S

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