America is surrounded by democracies that adopted Lincoln’s conviction that popular democracy—government by the people, not just for the people—can work intelligently and advance human happiness. American democratic ideals, once scorned in the Old World and in their loyal colonies, have infiltrated progressive thinking everywhere. Americans are surrounded by people who insist that freedom, peace, and social justice can prevail, globally.
We live in a more hopeful world because the American Revolution worked. Yet, when something ghastly happens, hopeful people elsewhere often shake their heads and write America off as a lost cause.
There’s no mitigating statistic to balance the murder of twenty children in Newtown, Connecticut. Finding one and uttering it would be indecent. On the other hand, it is invalid and indecent as well to suggest that Americans can’t fix one core social element of last Friday’s tragedy—the ubiquity of guns.
Even Toronto’s insolent Margaret Wente succumbed to this sentiment this morning with this affecting column headline “In the US, Chances are Mommy’s Got a Gun.”
“These tragedies must end,” Barack Obama told a grief-stricken nation Sunday. Don’t count on it. Guns are more American than mom and apple pie. Gun ownership is entwined with the nation’s DNA. Every time more innocents are massacred, we hear: The answer isn’t fewer guns, but more! We should repeal gun bans in school zones! If only their teachers had been armed to the teeth, those kids would be alive today. “Gun control supporters,” insisted Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, “have the blood of little children on their hands.
“This love affair with guns is not susceptible to logic. And Americans’ beliefs about their right to weapons are essentially religious.”
Why so stingy about our closest friend?
We are cautiously hopeful about authoritarian China. We are cautiously hopeful that theocracies will eventually stop persecuting homosexuals and women. We reach for reasons not to give up on places we’d never visit without notifying our embassy. We hope that if these dangerous places get a taste for freedom and rational discourse, they’ll want more. (Internationalists agree to make collective decisions with bad governments in the United Nations, right now.)
Is America too crazy about guns to figure out how to make their schools, homes, and public places safe? Does political extremism trump their fear of death, their ability to analyze data, and their preference for problem solving over stoicism? Do the loudest lobbyists speak for America?
Wente, on this occasion, and others consistently feel it’s safe to overlook the extraordinary fluidity of American culture and social norms—in fighting racism, in respecting gays, in advancing women, in electing a black man to the biggest job in the world, in quitting cigarettes, in fighting diabetes, and being more contentious parents. They don’t listen to us and, anyway, they’ll never be perfect.
American politics took on universal healthcare recently and may take up gun control again. Pundits elsewhere may feel its best to be pessimistic when Americans first start fighting over a significant problem. While we don’t dwell on it, however, they often do make progress.