It is a depressing characteristic of government today to loudly enact legislation and impose regulations of little utility, while neglecting to address the root causes of truly serious problems. We do not know to what degree a Sandy Hook or a Columbine is caused by improperly treated mental illness, violent video games, Hollywood’s saturation of the popular culture with graphic mayhem — or access, by hook or by crook, to semi-automatic “assault” rifles. But we do know that the latter play almost no role in Chicago’s horrific annual tally of 500 murders — and account for less than 1 percent of the gun-related deaths in the United States each year. Yet we also confess that taking on Hollywood, the video-game industry, or the mental-health establishment would be far more acrimonious and politically risky than demonizing the National Rifle Association.
In the case of big-city murdering, serious talk about the culture of gangs and the causes of the pathology of thousands of minority males, who are vastly overrepresented as both victims and perpetrators of gun violence, is a no-win proposition, given the politically correct climate and the existential issues involved. Can one imagine any politician decrying the violent lyrics of rap music, the culture of dependency on government, or the absence of stiff incarceration for the use of a gun during a crime with the same zeal that he has shown in going after the NRA?
The result of such selective and easy morality is that we are now engaging in banning certain types of guns with little understanding of how they work. Take your grandfather’s semi-automatic .22 varmint gun, beef up the round a bit, add some scary-looking black plastic M-16-like adornments, and you now have a demonic “assault rifle.” The gun debate will cause needless divisions and acrimony, but in no measurable way will it either prevent another Sandy Hook or reduce the yearly slaughter of young males in our cities. When the next Columbine occurs — with the perpetrators using pump shotguns, or multiple ten-shot magazines, or sticks of dynamite — we will pat ourselves on the back and say it would have been worse had an “assault rifle” been used. And if the latter is employed, it will probably not have been legally acquired and more likely than not will be used by someone long recognized as unhinged.
After all the fighting over the fiscal cliff, and all the demagoguery over the rich paying their fair share, we have achieved almost nothing tangible in terms of reducing the debt. The president offered no budget freeze, no curtailment of entitlement costs, no adjustments in age or other conditions of eligibility — nothing at all that would have addressed the astronomical rate at which the government has been spending since 2009. Obama is therapist-in-chief, and he avoids any tragic admission that there are sometimes just a bad choice and a worse one — in this case, between cutting back and going broke.
We used to talk of going back to the “Clinton tax rates” — a campaign sound bite that of course meant that we most certainly would not increase the once-hated but now-popular Bush rates on the 99 percent, much less return to Clinton-era spending levels. In other words, we taxed the 1 percent more, felt great about it, declared success, and now still face financial Armageddon — terrified to tell the 99 percent that either their taxes must go way up, or their entitlements must go way down, or more likely both. What we have failed to do would solve the problem and cause a national outcry; what we have actually done is as widely popular as it will do nothing.
Note that the war is not between the easily caricatured 1 percent, who pay almost 40 percent of aggregate federal income taxes, and the put-upon 99 percent; rather, it is a far more messy fight between the struggling 53 percent who pay income tax and mostly do not receive food stamps, unemployment insurance, or disability coverage, and the 47 percent who do not pay income tax and are more likely to receive state and federal assistance.
Keeping small residual forces in Iraq and Afghanistan might well have allowed the provisional consensual governments in those two countries to remain viable and not be transmogrified into tyrannies. To do so might have ensured that the terrible cost in American blood and treasure over the last decade at least had offered Afghans and Iraqis — and the world — something better than the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Yet to keep small bases there would also have angered American voters, sick of both wars and of the seeming ingratitude of those we did so much to help.
In contrast, packing up and going home, as we have from Iraq and will from Afghanistan, offers instant sound bites — something like “ending perpetual wars.” When the videos pop up of Taliban lynchings or a civil war in Iraq — remember the Kurds in 1991 and the Vietnamese in 1975 — we can shrug that this was the inevitable wages of President Bush’s sins, not something that President Obama could have prevented.
No one knows how to break the cycle of Middle East violence, much less how to address the tribalism, statism, lack of transparency and freedom, gender apartheid, religious fundamentalism, and intolerance so ubiquitous in the Arab world and so much at the heart of its wide-scale poverty and violence. To attempt any such discussion would be caricatured as neo-colonialist, imperialist, racist, naïve, or culturally ignorant.
Iraq and Afghanistan have been too costly to serve as models; Libya is now a hushed-up embarrassment; our positions have changed so much on Syria that there now are no positions; and Mohamed Morsi’s achievement in Egypt will have been to create nostalgia for the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak. No need to touch on the events in Algeria. The French, alone, are leading from the front in trying to save Mali from Islamists. Who would wish to wade into these morasses, or even talk about them with any degree of honesty?
It is far easier to focus on the Israelis: They are few. They have not until recently had oil or gas; the world hates them; and their government is lawful and Western. The result is that demonizing Mr. Netanyahu as the nexus of Middle East violence carries no risks, and offers no solutions, and therefore is preferable to the dangers of candidly crafting a policy to attempt to deal with the pathologies of the modern Arab world. If it is a question of attempting to deal fairly with Netanyahu or declaring jihad a personal spiritual journey, the latter wins every time.
Nowhere is tokenism more manifest than in the debate over illegal immigration. No one knows whether there are 11 or 18 million illegal immigrants in the United States. It is taboo to suggest that the nearly $50 billion sent annually to Latin America from the U.S. is largely from illegal immigrants, or that the remittances increase the likelihood that these foreign nationals must seek public assistance here, which drains local and state economies. Nor would any sane person publicly associate illegal immigration with the alarming DUI statistics in California or point out that it contributes to the record number of hit-and-run accidents in Los Angeles County.
Instead we talk grandly of “comprehensive immigration reform” and the “Dream Act,” but both opponents and supporters avoid the subsequent details like the plague. Everyone knows that there are millions of hard-working Latin American immigrants, who steer clear of public assistance and crime, have worked for years in the U.S., and deserve some sort of pathway to citizenship — contingent upon English proficiency, a trial period of legal residence, and a small fine for having broken the law in coming here illegally.
But we also dare not speak the truth about the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens, perhaps a million or more, who are unemployed and on public assistance, who have been convicted of a crime, or who have just recently arrived. We know that unenforced laws erode respect for jurisprudence, and that simply granting open access to Latin Americans shorts those from elsewhere who wait lawfully for their turn and who may in fact have capital, education, and expertise that would allow them to contribute to the U.S. far more quickly.
Given that mess, we prefer the banality of “a grand bargain,” without acknowledgment that the Latino elite community would hardly be willing, as the price of a pathway for millions, to agree to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of illegals who are unemployed, have criminal records, or have just arrived — much less to sign off on closing the border, securing it, and making legal immigration ethnically blind, contingent on skills and education, and roughly equal in its treatment of all applicants. So we blather on.
There are two general types of leaders: the vast majority who talk in banalities while they offer tokens in lieu of solutions, and the rare tragic statesmen like Lincoln and Churchill who tell the truth, endure odium in their lifetime, find solutions, and do not live to see the full appreciation of their courage.
Unfortunately, we live in a low era of tokenism and banality.