Everyone knows the story by now. 22-year old Jared Lee Loughner walked into a Safeway in Tuscon, Arizona last Saturday during a political meet-and-greet, fatally shot six people, and critically wounded Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. It’s been featured and analyzed to death since, and it’s only Wednesday. Among them was New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman who wrote about the recent rise of right wing extremism in “Climate of Hate” and saw the events as something inevitable. I wasn’t surprised either. But I think the viciousness of political banter is only the half of it.
Out here in Prince George’s County, the shock of assassination in Tuscon was tempered by the fact that, by Saturday, we already had eight days of homicides. One for each day of the New Year. And they’ve continued since, averaging slightly more than that.
Towards the end of No Country for Old Men, a town sheriff who has been tracking a remorseless murderer visits his friend, a retired deputy. Weary from being “overmatched,” the Sherrif decides to retire, and wonders to his friend what the hell happened to people. For his friend, the answer is not so complex, and he matter-of-factly replies, “This world is hard on people.”
Nowadays, life seems harder on people than ever. At least when you consider things that, for a lot of us, things were pretty good not so long ago. It’s like all of a sudden, all the foolish short-sightedness became too much for too long and finally blew up in everyone’s faces. And like Sherrif Bell’s awe and confusion, suddenly all of the foundations we put our faith in no longer seem to work.
For people not living on billion dollar incomes, there is an unshakable sense of instability. That the economy will never be restored to what it was, despite unfounded promises of quick recoveries. That government might no longer be able to provide services as the deficit rolls into unfathomable trillions and erases the recent memories of a surplus. That our livelihoods will never again be certain. That the Dream may indeed be dead.
How did this happen? What do we do now?
It’s remarkably unnerving to feel like any mobility upwards is impossible. So that right wing extremism is on the rise lately isn’t surprising. It’s easy to exploit people when they’re vulnerable.
At Johneroo one year, my Number 2 made a simple, but poignant observation about human behavior. He explained it once in the difference between the extreme camaraderie displayed at Woodstock 1994 and the nickel-and-diming induced chaos of Woodstock 1999 that eventually cut the event short. In 1994, ticket prices were reasonable and attendants were permitted to leave to purchase provisions outside of the park. By 1999, corporate sponsorship increased. Ticket prices shot up and attendants were forced to put up with the obligatory price gouging on food and drinks, since they weren’t permitted re-entry if they left the park (and this was all before the security paranoia of post-9/11). The incentive for respect disappeared by the second year and unfortunately, promoted douche-baggery. You may recall the news reports of the Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s stage area catching on fire, which was about the time they shut it down.
While our decade is now sometimes labeled “The Great Recession,” I’m not sure we’ve yet reached the kind of Recession-era panic seen in the 80s and early 90s, a period that Tom recently described as quite a violent one. When Compton asked if there was anything comparable to what we’d seen in those baffling photos of decaying downtown Detroit (see Scenes of a Fallen Empire), the only modern example that came to mind was the footage I’d seen of New York in the 80s (a setting for a lot of grime cinema like The Warriors and Smithereens). A municipality on the verge of declaring bankruptcy, tracts of the city were cluttered with the rubble of demolished buildings like something out of old photos of post-War Europe. I’d like to think that that kind of collapse is comfortably in a distant past, but those photos of Detroit are a reminder that it still lingers. That things can always get worse.