From Columbine to Umpqua, It's Not Just Bullets We're Dodging

Once again, we've heard that the gunman was deranged. Once again, we've heard that gun control is imperative. What we aren't hearing is that Americans, for many more years and with greater intensity than inhabitants of other countries, have been groped and goosed and pummeled by a sophisticated, multi-trillion dollar drive to short-circuit deliberation and dialogue in order to spur the self-centered impulse buying that is ruining our civil society.

This campaign isn't partisan or avowedly ideological. It isn't malevolent as often as it's mindless in civic-republican, non-market terms. As Daniel Greenwood and I argued in The Atlantic two years ago (and as you can hear me arguing on NPR, it's driven by fiduciaries and managers of anonymous, ever-shifting whorls of shareholders pursuing maximum profit and market share. They're civically mindless even when they're trading on fear and rage by pushing violent video games, guns, and devices to forestall armed home invasion, all in their increasingly financialized rush to bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets.

What we also aren't hearing from political leaders or business leaders, let alone from our Supreme Court, especially since the disastrous Citizens United ruling, is that these anonymous whorls are overwhelming our already-weakened capacity as citizens to deliberate about how best to regulate them. Freedom of speech means little if the invaders have megaphones while most citizens have laryngitis from straining to be heard. (Recall that Occupy protestors were denied megaphones and, soon enough, disbanded by militarized police.)

Growing numbers of Americans are responding to the unending tsunami of titillation, unsubtle intimidation, and destruction of their political and economic options with heart-breakingly impulsive, socially corrosive and self-destructive behavior that includes not only the shootings but road rage, sale-day rampages, gladatorialization in sports, degrading and sadistic entertainment, sexual assaults, bullying, and, in futile response, the militarization of police, mass incarceration, intrusive surveillance, and new toleration of torture.

It began innocently enough. I think of a moment in 1972 when I first heard the anodyne jingle, "You deserve a break today. So get up and get away -- to McDonald's," on a transistor radio while sitting -- in a McDonald's, as it happened! -- in leafy Natick, Massachusetts. The message worked and seemed utterly harmless because it was playing off of lots of thick but voluntary social discipline. But countless other, increasingly sophisticated efforts were underway to dissolve that social strength, and just when declining remuneration and protection of work were also dissolving it in favor of lotteries and vapid escapes.

Twenty years later, in Jihad vs. McWorld, Benjamin Barber noted that the tsunami was prompting violent reactions of a less libertarian, more communally organized sort abroad. "They're fanatics, crazed and murderous," we thought then.

But look at us now, another 20 years on. The relentless, ever-more intimate dissolution of social discipline and comity has subjected Americans of all creeds and colors to levels violence and anarchy that we thought only racism, religious fanaticism, and "mental illness" could generate.

The truth, as I learned while covering such shootings as the Long Island Railroad massacre of 1993, is that the deranged are sometimes attuned more acutely to signals being sent subliminally by powerful social engines than are those of us who can still filter them out.

Hunger for something better isn't restricted only to the insane. A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain republican virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets themselves do much to nourish or defend. The liberal state can't do it because it's not supposed to judge too harshly between one way of life and another. Markets can't do it because their very genius is to approach investors and consumers as narrowly self-interested actors in market exchanges.

That leaves republican citizen-leadership to be nourished all the more intensively somehow, in what we call civil-society -- the very schools, colleges, churches, civic associations, sports programs, that markets and our market-conquered government are handing over increasingly to markets alone, in ways reported every day in these pages.

For those of us not yet too ill to bear these sicknesses and their cures, the cure begins in recognizing that a more vigorous, truly republican government, far from being our enemy, is our only protection and guide to navigating these tsunamis. In the American republic, the enemy hasn't been government censors but the commercial sensors that are groping and grouping us.

A bought government isn't far behind them, of course, and maybe only a new politics that's more global than national can deflect or even channel the riptides. But, for starters, those of us who miss ordered republican liberty should stop imagining that we can reconcile it with knee-jerk obedience to every whim and riptide of the casino-like financed, consumer-bamboozling juggernaut that is dissolving republican virtues and sovereignty before our eyes, under our feet, and, yes, in our lower viscera.