No Country for Old … Middle-Aged or Young Women and … Men

Mass Murder Pedagogy in the Heartland of Democracy

The increasing tendency of Americans to harbour a growing devotion to authoritarian leaders and to find it necessary to pledge their slavish, undying fealty to Trump signals the lack of faith in democracy. It signals a watershed moment in the annals of American history and will be remembered with increasing and incandescent shame in the decades to come, assuming the United States is able to escape being politically masticated into oblivion by the jutting jawbones of the likes of Trump, or the long list of Trump wannabes that include DeSantis, Hawley, Cruz and others. Democracy, unlike dinosaur bones, is difficult to carbon date, yet many historians are beginning to suspect that its half-life is not as long as we thought. The actual warp and woof of our tumultuous history has given us some telling signs. The more that the Trumpists can reflexively cast themselves as the party of the working-class and dissuade ordinary Americans from giving serious consideration to proposals mustered by the Democrats, the more they are able to sow hopelessness and make the case that democratic governments anchored by the rule of law are always already irredeemably dysfunctional institutions, especially those run by elites accompanied by their ugly spawn of ‘woke-ism.’

Trumpists have successfully hardened the political ends of the spectrum by claiming a commitment to public order as justification of repression of Black Lives Matter, immigrants, LGBTQ+ groups and any woman who may have an unwanted pregnancy because a condom broke during sex. Or for the repression of teachers who wish to teach the history of slavery and racism, which included calling for books about race and sexuality to be burned. Such execrable calls in places like Virginia are redolent of Nazi Germany when books consigned to the flames in 1933 included the works of the great nineteenth-century Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who, in 1822, penned the prophetic words, ‘Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too’ (in the German, ‘dort wo man Bücher verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen [verbrennt]’) Such words proved to be chillingly prophetic. White would-be school board censors are now targeting young Black authors who are writing about history, racism and their own experiences, mainly because their books are highlighting the experiences of children of colour, which makes White parents uncomfortable because they feel increasingly threatened by the power of the Other to command the right to exist.

Trumpists are successfully limiting the political power of Black Americans and other voters of colour, and they have put the rights of GLTBQ+ Americans under erasure. They are limiting voting rights for African-Americans, and we need to be wary of the fact that voting rights are preservative of all other rights. The unelected, nine-member, life-tenured body known as the Supreme Court is about to restructure American society, and not in a good way. But the white Christian evangelicals will be only too eager to transform the United States into something like the dystopian theocratic regime called Gilead. The recently leaked Justice Alito opinion on abortion rights could impact same sex marriage rights and put new limits on contraception, and potentially open up the possibility of states banning interracial marriage. In Texas, the state government has the ability to force women to give birth through draconian new abortion laws, which is morally equivalent to enacting unwanted violence since ‘forced-birth extremism is the logical extension of rape culture,’ and, as Laurie Penny put it, equivalent to ‘enshrining maximalist control over the sexual autonomy of women as a foundational principle of conservative rule.’ Elizabeth Hira notes that

rape was initially deemed a property crime against the victim’s father. And as property themselves, married women couldn’t own property under the common law principle of coverture; states gradually granted property ownership to married women through 1943. To keep women in their place – and thus, out of power – American laws long forbade women from full societal participation: In 1948, the Supreme Court affirmed women couldn’t be big-city bartenders unless their father or husband owned the establishment; only in 1973 could women serve on a jury in all 50 states; and until 1974, women without their husband’s permission could be refused credit cards.

Forced pregnancy refers to laws that prevent people from making their own decisions about whether to continue a pregnancy or have an abortion. Banned abortions disproportionately affect those who are already victims of systemic racism and discrimination, including people of colour, undocumented people, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people, as well as young people from low-income families.

Holly Thomas warns about the politics surrounding foetal personhood:

‘Foetal personhood’ – a movement advocating that foetuses should have the same legal protections as people – is inexorably linked to the prosecution of pregnant women…. This degree of protection, persistently advocated for by the personhood movement, creates a legal quagmire with potentially terrifying ramifications. Criminalising abortion opens the door for people to be charged with murder or manslaughter for miscarriages over which they have no control. Since Roe, there have been hundreds of instances in which a woman’s pregnancy has been a decisive factor in attempted and actual deprivations of her physical liberty… [A] woman who miscarries, enduring what is often the heartbreaking end to a pregnancy, should not find herself at the mercy of a cruel and erratic system that weaponises her loss against her.

The more that Trumpists can convince average Americans that more power should be accorded to individual states – and they have been highly successful at doing so – the more they are able to advocate successfully for a strident opposition to democracy. The last thing the Trumpists want is to live in a democracy. Of course, they won’t name what they do want for what it is – fascism – they will find another term less freighted by the negative weight of historical judgement, such as ‘populism’ or some other term as they make a clench-sphincter deke around the issues of authoritarianism or ultranationalism associated with Donald Trump or the regime of their mini-Trump, Viktor Mihály Orbán, so admired by neo-conservatives such as Douglas Murray and pampered personas like Tucker Carlson. While Republicans decry the state of American life, such as the frequent appearance of gunmen mowing down rows of innocent victims, they fight against all and any gun laws that would seem reasonable to the average American citizen and, in so doing, intone a sense of unqualified rejection of sane public policy through mastering the craft of mixing ideological gobbledygook with bug-eyed balderdash.

So, for instance, in perusing the news stories today – some would label this ‘doomscrolling’ – I read that a man fatally shot two women with a 9mm handgun before killing himself in the parking lot of Cornerstone Church on the outskirts of Ames, in Iowa. The man had apparently been romantically linked with one of the women, who were students at Iowa State University and were on their way to a weekly service that is popular with ISU and high school students. But this occurred just hours after two people were shot at a cemetery during a funeral service south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Just a few days ago, I read that a gunman killed two doctors and two others at a Tulsa, Oklahoma medical building. The gunman blamed one of the physicians for causing him pain from recent back surgery and had legally purchased an AR-15 weapon just earlier that afternoon. The Tulsa shooting is one of the 233 mass shootings in the US this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The archive defines a mass shooting as one in which at least four people are shot, excluding the shooter. I read that an 8-year-old boy in South Carolina who was visiting from New Hampshire was shot and killed by a man firing a gun on-the-fly at passing cars from woods near his house. These killings occurred very close in time to last week’s shooting by an eighteen-year-old gunman, who killed nineteen students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and only weeks from the racially motivated attack by a white man on shoppers at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighbourhood in Buffalo, New York, killing ten people.

Whether or not these killers were afflicted by mental illness does not diminish the argument that easy access to guns made such mass slayings more likely and allowed such tragedies to continue. Every daymore than 110 Americans are killed with guns. More than 200 are shot and wounded. And there are family members and friends who are emotionally impacted by the deaths. The knowledge that you live in a violent society where there is considerable access to guns does not create the generalized anxiety that can help us focus on issues. This is a different kind of fear than the diffused fear that might be useful to us in managing our lives. This is not the anxiety that is often noted as the essential condition for making our lives more creative and adaptable. This is not the kind of shadow anxiety that takes our feelings of impending doom and mediates them in ways that foster neuro-adaptability. Perhaps it does dovetail with the kind of anxiety that speaks to the idea that a certain stratum of the population (white, middle and upper-class) is entitled to a stress-free existence. People who live in ghettos do not have the luxury of those living in gated communities. The knowledge of living in a country with an excessively high murder rate does not create the same types of social phobia that may have a protective effect on our health. Yes, hypervigilance about being murdered may lead to more resourcefulness in preventing yourself from joining the same fate as murder victims, and, in certain contexts, fear can be an adaptive defence in protecting ourselves from harm, but there is an existential nausea that accompanies the knowledge that many of the people that you encounter on a daily basis have the means to kill you, and kill you at a distance. Which accounts for the feeling of relief when I cross the US border on the way to my native Canada, knowing that there is less chance that, were I to upset a driver on the highway, I may be gunned down in a road rage incident.

An existential fear of violence, the touting of a strongman that can not only protect you but can channel your fear into moral outrage and a path to justifiable vengeance, a heightening of the desire to punish those ‘elites’ who drive better cars and live in more expensive homes, the opportunity to exercise your racism with impunity and the assurance that you will be offered refuge in your local evangelical community whose cherry-picking of scripture can defend almost any transgression in which you wish to partake – all this must be consoling. The country is being taught something, and at least half the population is listening. It’s called mass murder pedagogy, and it’s trying to sell you comfort in the knowledge that you, too, can have what was offered George Zimmerman and Kyle Rittenhouse. That must be extremely gratifying to those white, ethno-nationalist fascists and neo-Nazis who have carefully disguised themselves as populists with their rolled-up sleeves, work boots and hearty grins. Yes, the Chosen One and his minions have truly arrived. But for whom?

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). No Country for Old … Middle-Aged or Young Women and … Men: Mass Murder Pedagogy in the Heartland of Democracy. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.