Don’t Give Up On Gun Control or America

Anthony Rizzo plays first base for the Chicago Cubs. Anthony Rizzo chokes up on the bat and still hits the long ball. And Anthony Rizzo’s old high school just got shot up by a 19 year old whom students there say was too uncool and creepy to pass even at the “Emo Gazebo,” where the misfits usually gather. So far, 17 people are dead. That number may rise. Our Tralfamadorian politicians say, “So it goes.”

The continuation of mass shootings, met only by a loosening of gun laws by the conservative right, risks beating the rest of us down into an impotent state of learned helplessness, where embittered cynicism becomes a natural response and sardonicism becomes an attractive survival skill.

For Kurt Vonnegut, who survived the Dresden bombing as a prisoner of war, the Tralfamadorians looked at humans the way humans look at the Rocky Mountains. They are always there. Sometimes they are happy. Sometimes they are dead. Each condition is as real as the other and as permanent and inevitable. So it goes.

But, unlike the Tralfamadorians, human beings don’t live outside of time and we’re not supposed to be fatalistic. Apathy is our enemy. We learn from experience so we won’t repeat our mistakes, but if the only thing we learn is that our mistakes cannot be fixed or prevented, we run into problems.

We may see the same type of thing happen with immigration and the Dreamers, where there seems to be overwhelming support to do something, perhaps even something that isn’t cruel and awful, but nothing can be done because of the immovable force and entrenched power of conservatives.

This condition is not permanent. Our problems can be fixed. Objectively, our problems are tame compared to ones our grandparents faced in the 1930’s and 1940’s. But adopting a dark and detached mood of powerlessness and grim humor isn’t going to move the process along. I fall into this myself as a coping mechanism. I mock the “prayers and condolences” of conservatives as the new “So it goes,” and with good reason.

But I need to remind myself of something I learned from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. There’s a scene in that book where the character Joelle van Dyne finds herself compelled to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings because her inability to conquer her drug addiction has given her a choice between recovery and death.

But the religious component is too much of a stumbling block for her and she’s particularly hung up on the cliches that are used in AA.

Her trouble is that ‘But For the Grace of God’ is a subjunctive, a counterfactual, she says, and can make sense only when introducing a conditional clause, like e.g. ‘But For the Grace of God I would have died on Molly Notkin’s bathroom floor,’ so that an indicative transposition like ‘I’m here but But For the Grace of God’ is she says, literally senseless, and regardless of whether she hears it or not it’s meaningless, and that the foamy enthusiasm with which these folks can say what in fact means nothing at all makes her want to put her head in the Radarange at the thought that Substances have brought her to the sort of pass where this is the sort of language she has to have Blind Faith in.

Gradually it becomes clear that she’s misapplying her faith in reason. It can’t be rational to be dead because ‘But For the Grace of God’ is a subjunctive while the person across the room whom can’t recite the alphabet is alive because they’ve bought into the program. What’s rational in a situation where your choice is life or death is only what works, not necessarily what passes logical muster. If you can’t quit drugs because you consider belief in a higher power to be submental, you might wind up a stone cold rationalist who can’t celebrate your fidelity to reason because you are dead. True, functional reason doesn’t compel you to commit suicide when you’d really rather be alive.

Steps two and three of the 12-step program ask us to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity and to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him. Alcoholics Anonymous may have an annoying array of seemingly juvenile cliches but the rationalist who won’t give the program a chance because they won’t do the work to conceive of a higher power that they can understand? That’s also a cliche.

And that was Wallace’s point. He was really giving an autobiographical treatment of how he went through a process of finding a new level of reason. It wasn’t the reason he’d been taught to revere, but a kind of reason with better odds against natural selection. He needed sobriety or he’d die. He saw who lived and who died in the program, and he realized that people like himself didn’t make it. The rational thing to do was to figure out what the people who did make it were doing differently.

Now, if it isn’t clear how this discussion of A.A. applies to our politics, I can understand that. It really applies to our attitude towards a politics of gridlock and disregard for reason. It applies to any situation where you discover that things absolutely need to change but you find yourself totally incapable of changing them. The addict who can’t kick often becomes consumed with self-loathing and they disguise this with feigned apathy, dark humor, and lame self-justifications for their helplessness. That way lies death.

When it comes to guns, we’re a nation of addicts. Like addicts, we have two voices in our heads. One sees the problem and considers it as urgent that something change. The other voice will go to any length to rationalize the status quo so it can continue its self-destructive behavior. The addict voice is winning.

The way forward isn’t clear, but the wrong attitudes to take can be. First, we have to maintain a belief that this can be solved, even if we acknowledge that we can’t solve it all by ourselves. We need a support group. We need allies who will pick us up when we lose resolve. We can have coping mechanisms, but we can’t become synonymous with them. Individually, we may be helpless, but together we are a Higher Power.

So, as tempting as it might be to throw up your hands or make plans to move to Canada, we need to stick together and keep going. We can’t ever look at our schools getting shot up and just say, “So it goes.” We don’t have to accept what conservatives are doing to our country.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.