Well, we’ve had a very American week, haven‘t we? We had a mass shooting in Colorado and a set of sanctions against Penn State. Since this is America, and since some things never change in America, I confidently predict that there will be more shootings and more sanctions. And the hard truth is that there is nothing that we as a society are willing to do about it. Here’s why.
Let’s start with guns. Popular culture is to a considerable extent gun culture, from the early western movies to TV’s Gunsmoke to movies like Dirty Harry and beyond. Then, too, there are, or were, rock groups with names like Guns ‘n’ Roses and .38 Special. The NRA has no more ardent proponent than guitarist Ted Nugent. We can easily forget the simplistic idea that popular culture “reflects” society and proceed to the more sophisticated understanding, which says that popular culture engages with its society. Popular culture in its various forms engages with its society in ways that satisfy the needs of that society—which is why is it popular.
So what needs does gun culture satisfy in America? How is it that the man with a gun in his hand—from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood to Arnold Schwarzenegger—is such a powerful icon? Whatever America is, and America is many things, America is an individualistic society. When taken to an extreme—which is where the drama and excitement are—individualism says that only one person matters: me. The logical course of action, then, is to shoot all the people who don’t matter. Lots of stars, writers, and directors in Hollywood have gotten rich by creating situations that justify the actions of a man who does just this. My favorite western, High Noon, starring Gary Cooper, is a powerful allegory of American individualism that may serve as a case in point.
So it’s hardly surprising that from time to time a few nutcases will be so mesmerized by the image of a powerful man with a gun on the screen that they too will imitate that man. After all, people imitate the way movie stars look and talk. Why not imitate the way they shoot?
A thoughtful Russian blog I read reminded me that John Hinckley, the guy who shot President Reagan in 1981, and thus became the nutcase of the year, believed that he was Travis Bickle, from the great Martin Scorsese/Robert DeNiro movie Taxi Driver. Hinckley was only one of many copycat killers such as James Holmes who were inspired—if that’s the right word—by a powerful movie.
Foreigners often understand American gun culture better than we do, because we’re immersed in it. That is certainly true of those musical miracle workers that we know as the Beatles, whose “Rocky Raccoon” on the white album creates a mini-movie about our gun culture. And I can’t help but believe that John Lennon had an intimation of his own death when he wrote “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.”
The assassination of John Lennon in 1980 links guns in popular culture to guns in politics. The traumatic assassinations of the '60s and the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords last year show the continued viability of gun culture. Ultimately, though, shooters just want to annihilate the world. It’s essential to understand that the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and at Virginia Tech in 2007 are pure expressions of the ultimate conclusion of individualism, namely suicide and death.
If American gun culture satisfies the needs of individualism directly, American sports culture satisfies the needs of individualists as a mass. You can’t understand the meaning of football in America without understanding the needs that fans bring to the stadium, especially the needs that the fans themselves can’t articulate. In a world that is splintering into ever greater complexity, where ambiguities and contradictions abound, sports provide a brief, deeply appealing experience of a simpler world. In sports from football to lacrosse, you always know who the good guys are, and who the bad guys are. And—very important!—you always know who won. You very rarely know either of these things in the world outside the stadium.
That’s why in a larger sense the sanctions that the NCAA levied against Penn State were a Band-Aid. They are, and will be, very hurtful to Penn State people, of course. The sports columnists that I’ve read make a persuasive case when they say that the sanctions will probably cripple the school’s legendary football program for a decade. The sanctions will, however, do nothing at all to change sports culture in America. They will not produce any systemic change, and were not intended to do so. At the big football programs in the heartland, from Ohio State to Michigan State, from Michigan to Nebraska; and in the south, from Clemson to Georgia to Auburn to Alabama to Ole Miss; and in the southwest from Texas to Oklahoma, nothing is going to change. At these schools and others like them, the football coach will continue to be the highest-paid state employee and the most powerful person at his institution, just as Joe Paterno was.
Nothing in college football is going to change because football satisfies such deep needs. During the week people experience the world as a confusing place, so naturally on Saturday they need to balance that confusion with the simplicity provided by a 100-yard field and teams in different-colored uniforms.
It’s important to remember that movie theaters and football stadiums are places set apart from the rest of the world; you have to buy a ticket to enter them. Precisely because they are set apart from the world, they can create experiences that are simpler and therefore more satisfying than the experiences that the rest of the world provides for us. While we publicly deplore the criminal acts that gun culture and sports culture facilitate, and do so sincerely, in the long run we are willing to tolerate those acts as long as gun culture and sports culture satisfy some of our deepest societal needs.