This past Sunday night, the United States witnessed yet again another worst mass shooting in modern American history. Dozens of people are dead, and hundreds of individuals will have the rest of their lives marked by this violent catastrophe. It’s heartbreaking to think that all they were trying to do was have a good time and a catch a Jason Aldean concert. Now, in a near formulaic fashion, some media outlets are dominated by discussions on matters like effective gun control and a little less on issues like access to quality mental healthcare. A strongly partisan and highly rhetorical battle ensues, where conservative voices become increasingly creative in their defense of the present lack of gun control while liberal writers become continuously more pessimistic in their hopes that stringent laws will ever be passed. No one in the Trump administration will label what happened in Las Vegas as an act of domestic terrorism. Seemingly, nothing changes. So it goes.
I would like to state here plainly that I fervently support more active legislation on gun control. I do not believe that there are many reasons for private citizens to own guns, and I think that any situation is made immediately more dangerous by the added presence of guns. When another New York Times columnist writes a piece about a distracted congress and the need for control, I am certainly snapping my fingers along with all of my friends on Facebook who share it. That being said, could the resulting arguments following instances of mass violence be made more productive?
In class yesterday, my music history professor mentioned that in such moments of horrible acts, it is often spiritually calming to appreciate the beauty of music. While music itself is far from universal in its aesthetic beauty, I do believe that music and other art forms possess a level political complexity from which we can all learn in the time following serious events. I feel as if I have done a lot of shouting into the void lately about the relevance of art in these moments of adversity, but horrible things keep happening and so the dialogue must continue. Seriously, hear me out again.
The most recent and effective work directly dealing with gun violence in America that I can think of is Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine. For those of you who have not seen it, Bowling traces the prevalence of gun violence partly to the relative lack of gun control in the United States, but primarily to the general normalization of violence in American culture. Why does this ingrained acceptance of violence exist?
Moore asserts that the United States has a history of justifying institutional violence, or the threat of it. This includes the near constant — since at least World War II — invasion or arming of foreign countries under a number of different political guises as well as the violence inherent in our domestic criminal justice systems. The documentary also highlights the culture of fear which plagues the United States and convinces many American citizens of the unrealistic need to own guns for self-defense.
Fear mongering can stem from a number of outlets, including media network’s obsession with crime or the political manipulation of statistics. The more recent documentary 13th also sheds light on this fact as it discusses the effect of the prison-industrial complex and police brutality on the African-American population. So, perhaps in addition to our debates on gun control, we should consider resolving our foreign military conflicts abroad, abolishing capital punishment and addressing the excessive actions of our police force in order to signify that we are not such a violent society.
It seems like American artists have long addressed the culture of violence which exists in the United States. Following the world conflicts, authors like Vonnegut wrote dystopian novels dealing with the havoc that battle wreaks on its victims and the absurdity of adapting to society after war. Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) brilliantly satirized ridiculous Cold War-era anxiety over Russian invasion and world destruction. With the development of hip-hop in the 1980s, black artists began to discuss the police brutality and gang violence they witnessed on daily basis. Artists have long warned us of these facts, but too often these viewpoints — especially those of Michael Moore — are labeled as radical and disregarded. Art can augment relevant debates in profound ways by making them more nuanced and inclusive. Whether art grounds itself in reality, like in Bowling for Columbine, or abstracts from it, like in Dr. Strangelove, it seeks some truth, to a certain degree. Rather than merely looking toward partisan rhetoric in these moments, we need to consider the messages of artistic dissenters in order to gain further perspectives.
Nick Swan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.