“Every country has, along with its core civilities and traditions, some kind of inner madness, a belief so irrational that even death and destruction cannot alter it.”
That was my colleague Adam Gopnik commenting the other day on America’s attitude toward gun laws. Having read some of the comments on my own post about President Obama’s failure to pursue more restrictions on the sale of firearms, I can only agree with Adam. When Bill Moyers, Keith Olbermann, Mayor Bloomberg, and Rupert Murdoch are all in favor of something—in this case, tougher gun laws—and there’s still no chance of it being enacted, you can rest assured that forces other than reason and partisan politics are involved.
My only quibble with Adam is his use of the singular form: “a belief.” Are firearms the only subject on which Americans are, let us say, a little batty? I’m not so sure. Having lived here for almost thirty years, and having been a U.S. citizen for the past five, I am greatly attached to this country and admire many aspects of it enormously. But the dogged persistence of certain American shibboleths has always struck me as somewhat curious.
What are these shared convictions? I could go on all day, but here, for argument’s sake, are ten. Not all Americans subscribe to them, of course. In some instances, the true believers may amount to a small but vocal minority. Still, the popular sentiment underlying these statements is so strong that politicians defy it at their peril.
1. Gun laws and gun deaths are unconnected.
2. Private enterprise is good; public enterprise is bad.
3. God created America and gave it a special purpose.
4. Our health-care system is the best there is.
5. The Founding Fathers were saintly figures who established liberty and democracy for everyone.
6. America is the greatest country in the world.
7. Tax rates are too high.
8. America is a peace-loving nation: the reason it gets involved in so many wars is that foreigners keep attacking us.
9. Cheap energy, gasoline especially, is our birthright.
10. Everybody else wishes they were American.
Some of these statements may be true. But truth or falsehood isn’t the point here: it is whether or not certain beliefs are amenable to reason. I don’t think these are, which is what puts them in the category of irrationality, flakiness, nonsense, nuttiness, absurdity, craziness….
Call it what you want, the upshot is the same: a failure to look reality in the eye and deal with it on a sensible, empirical basis. Which, if you think about it, pretty much defines Washington politics over the past twenty or thirty years.