Friday, March 23, 2012

Sanford, Florida -- Gunfighter Nation

Choose one:
A. Life imitates art.
B. Art imitates life.

Humans learn from experience, and stories (art) are often drawn from our experiences.  So one might think the answer is B.

But think about how young you were when people started telling you stories.  Think about the books that were read to you by your parents.  Think about the television programs and commercials you saw.

Most of those stories involved things you had not experienced yet -- journeys to far away lands, the experiences of children older than you, etc.  Many of those stories involved things you would never experience -- talking bears, trips to the Moon, magical chocolate factories.

In ways big and small, those stories shaped your expectations of the experiences that would come later.  You expected your "real world" experiences to match your "story book" experiences.  Many times they did, and so you were comforted and well-prepared.  Many times they didn't, and so you discarded the "story book" lessons and revised your expectations of the "real world."

And some times, when the "real world" didn't match your "story book" expectations, you discarded the "real world" and maintained your belief in the "story book."  Or you re-imagined your experience with the "real world" so that it somehow matched or confirmed your "story book" expectations.

Some stories are so powerful they are hard to resist and hard to eradicate, even when they have outlived their usefulness.  Those stories that are particularly powerful, especially for an entire culture or nation, can be called "myths."  These are stories that have more power than fact.  Their veracity is not nearly as important as their ability to influence and motivate groups of people.  Because they are so powerful, it is important for us to understand them.

I know this most clearly from my experience teaching American literature and from my experience with American Indian Studies.  The American Indian most commonly found in American literature has little or no relationship to any actual, living, breathing Indian.  This started with Columbus and continued for hundreds of years.  It still goes on.

Like someone pounding a square peg into a round hole, the Europeans who came to the Americas forced Indians to fit into the categories and expectations they already had in place.  Many of the Europeans based their "real world" interactions with the Indians on their "story book" expectations.  And American Indians paid the price for that.  They still do.

But the power of narratives to influence behavior and belief can be seen in almost every aspect of human life.  From politics to love to family relationships to international diplomacy.  And politicians are no less susceptible to this influence than other people.  In fact, many times they get elected based upon their ability to evoke narratives, regardless of their truth or usefulness.

The Florida legislators and Gov. Jeb Bush seemed to have had a "story book" in their heads when they passed their state's "Stand Your Ground" law in 2006.  They seemed to understand their "real world" of 21st century life in Florida through the filter of a Wild West "story book."  Theirs was a world where bad guys roam the streets, like Jack Palance in Shane, terrorizing decent, church-going folks.  Theirs was a world where a man should have the right arm himself against such brazen attacks upon his person and property.  In fact, theirs was a world imagined as being so threatening and dangerous that a man needed the right to bear arms no matter where he went; a man should be able to protect himself with deadly force regardless of where he was.

Richard Slotkin wrote a book about the power of such Wild West narratives in American culture, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America.  He states the frontier myth is a "vein of latent ideological power."  It speaks very deeply to mainstream America's beliefs about itself, confirming its self-image as a nation of rugged individuals, heroes in an epic tale of people civilizing a savage wilderness.  It is a myth cited often by politicians because it is a powerful tool for "explaining and justifying the use of political power."

Never mind that Florida was not part of the Wild West.  Never mind that the "frontier" phase of American history ended more than 100 years ago.  The Florida legislators were forcing the "real world" to match the narrative that was in their heads.  By allowing private citizens to protect themselves with deadly force, they were holding back the forces of chaos (often times in the shape of ethnic minorities and immigrants).

They were not alone.  Other states have similar laws.  This notion of the frontier also shapes other issues in the nation.  The illusion of radical independence and self-reliance shapes everything from debates about education to health care. 

So on the night of Feb. 26 in Sanford, George Zimmerman probably had a story in his head, a story similar to that in the head of the legislators who passed the law that has kept the local police from arresting him.  In that story, he was a good guy.  In that story, young men with dark skin were likely to be bad guys.  In that story, the bad guys didn't wear black hats, like Palance did; they wore hoodies.  In that story, bad guys were willing to attack good guys and do them harm, so good guys were justified in shooting first.  So long as they claimed it was in self-defense, their actions were legal.

We can only guess what story Trayvon Martin had in his head.

I believe in karma.  I don't mean the kind of karma that involves reincarnation.  I mean its more basic definition of "cause and effect."  I believe that generally we experience the consequences of our actions, and generally they are in line with each other.  I often times say, "You have to own your karma."  By that I mean you must accept the consequences of your actions.  I am not saying Trayvon Martin somehow brought this upon himself.  Karma does not eliminate tragedy or injustice.  But his death is part of the karma the state legislature must  own.  When you make it easier for people to legally carry handguns, and when you make it easier for people to legally shoot other people, this will almost guarantee that more innocent people will get killed.

State legislators who opposed the "Stand Your Ground" law said as much. When the bill was being debated, Sen. Arthenia Joyner said, "When you give a person the right to use deadly force anywhere they’re lawfully supposed to be, then we open Pandora’s Box, and inside the box will be death for some persons."

Although I am an "English teacher," I prefer to describe myself as a Story Teacher.  More than talking about grammar and writing, I spend more time talking about stories -- how we tell them, why we tell them, how we change them, and how they change us.

Stories are powerful.  They can have serious consequences.  Ask George Zimmerman.  Ask Trayvon Martin's family.


  1. I always enjoy your perspective, Scott. I still learn so much from your insight. Thanks. You're on point with this one.

  2. Evidently, many in my home state of Kansas feel that we are still part of that "Wild West" narrative. (Of course, we were a frontier state and we do have that wild west history.)

    Several students at the school where I work are advocating for an expansion of the concealed carry law to include college campuses. There is currently a bill in the works for permitting firearms in local and state government buildings. For now, colleges and nursing homes can be excluded, but the thinking exists that we'll all be safer with more armed citizens, even on college campuses.

    I support legal gun ownership, but I dread the thought of armed students in my classroom. Do I have to be completely anti-gun to oppose the idea that private citizens need to be armed in public places? I hope not. Sadly, this story illustrates what can go wrong with the gunfighter mentality.