When Lyndon Johnson, standing before a joint session of Congress and a national television audience to propose the Voting Rights Act, said, "We shall overcome," he risked his party's political future to defy long-entrenched interests and arrangements. Progress would require more than laws and federal marshals and troops. It would depend on nothing less than a long, wrenching reconfiguration of many Americans' national myths and viscera.
Now President Obama should urge a joint session of Congress and a national audience to overcome the delusion that arming ourselves as we do has made the United States a safer or freer country in which to raise children with hope.
We're far less safe -- or free -- than other western countries that prohibit or restrict guns. We're certainly no safer or freer than the regime of racial segregation that Johnson ended. And yesterday Newtown, CT, like a growing list of other communities, felt like Iraq or Afghanistan after our heavily armed invasions of them.
We have forgotten where power really comes from and how it really flows or is drained. Since the middle of the last century, vast empires and national-security regimes, armed to the teeth, have been brought down by unarmed peoples in British India, apartheid South Africa, the Soviet-ruled nations of Eastern Europe.
Yet, as Jonathan Schell shows unforgettably in The Unconquerable World, a book you should find time and courage to read, some national elites keep trying to assert authority with refreshed ignorance of what really sustains or undermines authority.
Those photos of already-defeated SWAT and state police and FBI teams trotting haplessly toward the Sandy Hook School are photos of a nation on its knees. A society that floods its streets with armed men announces its impotence, humiliation, and enslavement to the delusion that packing heat secures it against harm.
Equally delusional is the belief that freedom of speech is enhanced by bloody and prurient news and entertainment, driven by an algorithmically guided desperation to keep eyeballs glued.
All our guns and military might and ever-expanding "rights" to carry assault weapons and concealed weapons; all those Wall Street Journal editorials urging women to get with the program and put guns in their purses; and all those witlessly bloody local TV evening "news" shows and cable TV crime and prison spectacles haven't protected us from the Oklahoma City bombing, the Long Island Rail Road massacre, the dozens of school and college and shopping-mall massacres.
They have induced them. They have warped and demoralized our children. They are multi-billion dollar, self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.
It's too late to blame deranged loners like Adam Lanza in Newtown, Jared Loughner in Tuscon, and Colin Ferguson on Long Island. Of course, they're deranged. But they swim in a sick social sea, isolated from the rest of us in some ways yet more attuned than we admit to the swift, dark undercurrents I've mentioned but that we avoid facing.
American news media are sharply if unwittingly mocked by the Chinese Communist Party's declaration that its news media are "guiding public opinion to create an active, healthy, and inspiring atmosphere" in society.
They're lying, of course, brutally. But what are our media doing to the hopes of a decent public in their obsession to assemble and dis-assemble audiences on any pretext -- porn, cruelty, and, indeed, humiliation -- as long as it boosts profit?
Stopping these engines of destruction would require a new birth of freedom as convulsive as the one Lincoln envisioned while standing by mountains of corpses at Gettysburg. It will require a domestic civil war against the gun lobby and against interpretations of the First Amendment that unleash the conglomerate rapists of public discourse, especially FOX, a network devoted to making Americans mistrust, fear, and resent one another.
It could be as bloody. The president who leads it could be endangered. But the more recent, less-violent take-downs of brutal regimes that I've mentioned are possible, too.
Are we too far gone to undertake it -- too ill to bear our sickness or its cures, as one ancient Roman put it about his society? Untangling the answer will require untangling a lot within ourselves, starting with the demented linkage of libertarianism and corporate bottom-lining that has given us the Citizens United decision and gun laws based on interpretations of the First and Second Amendments that future generations will rank with the Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott decisions.
It might also entail living less "well" materially, and better psychologically, instead of stressing ourselves out by working at jobs we hate in order to buy things we don't need. Yes, it would have to go there. That's what deranged loners are telling us about us, as much as about themselves.