Why the days of the Wild West are far from over.
The United States of America must be a strange place to an Englishman. The pinnacle of Western civilisation, yet a country rife with the kind of gun-toting, racist, religious fundamentalists that you’d expect to find in the third world, not the first. There’s a quite incredible kind of dualism to America today; it’s a country that very much likes the look of itself in a global policeman’s uniform, but at the same time seems unable to police itself. It’s a country where the president himself can attend the site of a deadly school shooting to pay his respects and at the same time be met in protest by members of the National Rifle Association for his renewed attempts at gun control. It’s a country where the population thinks that more guns means less gun deaths, which is clearly not an empirical philosophy.
This is something that I’ve been dwelling on the past few days. What is it about America in particular that breeds this kind of public? The United States is the only country in the Western hemisphere that has a social climate like this. Sure, Mexico has its cancerous drug wars, Central America is dominated by MS-13 and tinpot dictators, and the South is full of pan pipers in teacosy hats, but that can all be put down to the heat – and that the Andean countries are actually protecting us from an invasion of giant guinea pigs. The US on the other hand, is in a whole other ball park.
But, not unlike Mexico and the vast majority of the Central American states, the U.S.A. is a country born out of war and religion. That’s one thing it does have in common with its hotheaded southern neighbours. If not during the turbulent Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763, when America was still a British colony and saw heavy fighting against French-owned Canada, then with War of Independence itself from 1775-1783, which was largely caused by the former conflict. America had to fight tooth and nail for its sovereignty, and its people think it still needs to do today by hoarding as many guns as possible. America’s a “shoot first, ask questions later” kinda guy.
Likewise it is a country steeped in a religiously-infused sense of self-importance. In the 19th Century, as pioneers set out across the vastness of the West, American thinkers developed the idea of Manifest Destiny; that it was America’s god-given right to conquer, colonise, and unify the North American continent under a single banner of the Stars and Stripes. What it really meant was that they had religious cause to wage war against the “heathen” natives, who didn’t need the land anyway as far as they were concerned, but this also provided the lore – if you will – that America was pre-destined to become the country it is today, from John Smith landing on the shores of Virginia in 1607 to fanatics murdering innocent students in their classrooms today. If a higher power had determined America’s future from the get-go, how can they argue with that? Who are they to change the shape of the country they’re destined to be?
The answer is, clearly, that they’re stark raving mad. America boasts some of the most fanatical and bizarre religious sects in the world – things like Scientology, Mormonism, the Amish, the Westboro Baptist Church. The latter’s members are so vehemently religious they would almost certainly be labeled as extremists if they were anything other than Christian.
Charlie Brooker tried to get his head around America in much the same way three years ago, in light of Sandy Hook, and you’d be forgiven for thinking he was talking from the point of view of today, “in the wake of recent massacres”. He looks at the situation better than anyone ever could, but it makes you realise the one defining characteristic of America is that it seems to take everything to an extreme. There’s no moderation, be it in guns, religion, war, the media, or their internal politics; only in America would someone like Donald Trump be running for office whilst the country is systematically destroying the Middle East amid school massacres on the home front that receive news coverage that’s so far-right it paints those clamoring for reform in a bad light.
Drunken legend and former presidential candidate Doug Stanhope does make the point that the British love to have a good whinge about the oddities of America, and he’s right, but only because the country is such a curiosity by comparison.
“The British love to bitch about America. The wars, the government, the torture, but that’s not life in America. Life in America is fantastic.”
Life in America is fantastic. Don’t get me wrong about that. What I find intriguing, if not ever so slightly worrying, are the veritable zealots that make up a sizeable portion of its population. Aside from being stuck in a revolution mentality that places the gun alongside the Holy Trinity like d’Artagnan to the Three Musketeers, with a firmly-rooted belief that God himself thinks the U.S. is the greatest country in the world America doesn’t seem to be phased about death either – whether its Americans doing the dying or them doing the killing.
A country born of bloody and protracted war, who’s most famous and reproduced period centres around men in large hats killing each other over petty card games and railroads. A country that still institutes capital punishment in earnest, and that is able to forget about atrocities within its own borders as quickly as they happen. More Americans have been killed by each other in the last decade than those that died on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day, and that no one seems bothered by that I find a trifle concerning.
Obama said, in response to the Umpqua shooting, that the whole affair had become “routine” – the incident, the reporting, his reaction, the aftermath, and he’s right. Since the incident in Oregon a fortnight ago, there has been three more shootings in schools alone, but everyone just keeps calm and carries on. There hasn’t been any shootings – big or small – in the UK since 2005, and while that may only be ten years, it’s made much longer by comparison when you consider the three post-Umpqua shooting that I just mentioned all took place on the same day.
The USA is two countries in one; it’s like Harvey Dent, “choosing to bring about good or evil based upon the outcome of a coin flip”, only if Denty was a global superpower instead of a Marvel villain. On one side there appears a vehemently traditionalist populace, with people like Alex Jones and organisations like the NRA, that won’t even entertain the idea of change because they don’t want to abandon their national identity, heritage or faith, and would rather protect the “freedoms” that they currently have. Then on the other side there’s a progressive populace that wants to make America worthy of the position it holds on the world stage, but can’t change the country because half the country has got more guns and more religious zeal than some Islamist terrorist groups.