Thug, or mentally ill? Let’s consider the evidence:
* Racist hate groups’ constant rhetoric of “they’re taking over”
* Assault-weapon gun ownership (for protection) involving less paperwork then a fishing license
* The most overpriced health care system in the world – with mediocre results, for those who can afford it
* White flight to the suburbs
* Two wars in response to terrorist attacks, in countries that didn’t attack us, in an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate terrorism
* The largest defense budget and among the smallest social safety net of wealthy nations
* A homicide rate four to five times that of other wealthy nations
* A heavily armed police force, who serve under the constant threat that someone is carrying a weapon, who are tasked to aggressively investigate anyone who looks suspicious in the particular neighborhood they serve and protect
* 25% of the world’s prisoners, housed at a cost of billions
* A land of little to no opportunity: one of the worst social mobility scores in the developed world
* A society that is heavily segregated by race, class, income, education and age
* Children’s unsupervised play regarded as neglectful parenting
* Adults hurling insults at immigrant children
* An immigration policy that amounts to “let them live in the shadows, as long as they’re making us money”, coupled with acts of intimidation and violence
* People feeling threatened, even attacked, by others uttering the basic affirmation that “black lives matter”
* A confederate flag on the South Carolina statehouse lawn. I’m presuming because a giant sign saying “*#%& you African-American residents of South Carolina” was too expensive
* Regular mass shootings at schools, public events, and houses of worship
What did I miss? Probably quite a bit.
So is our nation a thug, or are we mentally ill? Given this list of behaviors, I can understand how some might declare American society to be a thug – a deranged, violent sociopath, utterly committed to its selfish, destructive agenda, with no hope of socialization or redemption. Sometimes it’s hard to argue with this – on our worst days, anyway. But I love America as one of my own, and so I choose to believe in our chances of redemption, right or wrong. I’m not denying that we’ve done what we’ve been accused of. We’ve caused unimaginable hurt. We’ve destroyed lives. But I am committed to the idea that our issues have causes, which might mean, possibly, that they might one day have solutions. And so, grounded in compassion and love, I subscribe to the notion that our society suffers from mental, emotional, and moral illness.
What’s the diagnosis? I am neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, so won’t attempt a diagnosis here, but I have my suspicions. We seem to be obsessed with safety and the fear of death. Where we live, how we live, how we parent, our gun laws, our penal system, our health care system – everything is built around the individual’s right, even responsibility, to be wholly and completely committed to protecting our own safety. As a consequence of this, we never feel safe. And we are paralyzed from meaningful collective action, stuck on the lowest rung of Maszlow’s pyramid of needs.
Appearing successful is a huge fetish for us, of course, and failure a bugaboo. We are compulsive hoarders – we don’t want anyone taking away our stuff, not the government, not anyone else. Along with our fear of death, we live in constant fear of what we have being taken away. We don’t trust each other very well, and are prone to talk trash about the other members of our family/nation.
I can’t tell you for sure what it all adds up to, but it doesn’t take a degree in psychology to note the signs of childhood trauma. Given our childhood as a nation, that makes a lot of sense.
Whenever I hear remarks of America’s being – or failing to be – a Christian nation, I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, when he was asked what he thought of Western civilization. “I think it would be a good idea,” Gandhi is reported to have said. While I don’t want to live in a religious state, sometimes I do wonder what it would be like to actually live in a Christian nation. A nation whose first concern was helping the poorest, a nation that was willing to risk their own life, even to die to self, in order to help others. I don’t know whether America becoming a Christian nation would be a good idea or not. I do know that we’ve never tried it. The closest we’ve come to being a Christian nation is at the margins of our society: like at that Charleston AME church, who kept the doors open, welcomed the stranger into their sanctuary, sat with him and prayed with him. Yes, they were betrayed. But the folks who are living a truly Christian life – serving others fearlessly, naming oppression and still choosing mercy – are betrayed by the powerful in our country every single day.