For years, one of the star attractions during Melbourne’s summer was the annual season of A Midsummer Nights Dream in the Botanic Gardens. A magic, ethereal evening, it came back again and again, until everyone who was going to see it had seen it several times. Looking for a replacement, the producers settled on Romeo and Juliet, which – although just as well-performed and produced -survived barely a season.
Why? Because while A Midsummer Nights Dream is about open spaces and the green world, the other play – although its theme is dreamy love – is about closed spaces, about cities.
In Romeo and Juliet what we are seeing is the development not only of the city in something approaching its modern sense, but also of the sort of culture and human personality necessary to its success. The star-crossed lovers only meet because both the Montagues and Capulets have moved into the city from feudal redoubts, and their wilful love is so confronting to their families because they have not yet understood that marriage is becoming more than an advantageous exchange of children.
Throughout the play, much of the drama is provided by the struggle the participants have to refrain from drawing their swords; to solve something by a means other than war and trust that in declining to attack first they will not leave themselves open to attack. Romeo and Juliet is a play about the modernising process – one mark of many in our culture of the surrender of violence to a central authority, from shaking hands (originally done so neither party could draw swords) to clinking glasses (so that any poison would slop from one drink into the other).
Consider in the light of this historical process, the latest trend in the United States’ ongoing love-hate affair with handguns: the rise of ‘stand your ground’ laws.
Thanks to Clay Bennet
‘Stand your ground’ laws are legislative initiatives – currently on the books in Florida and being fought through legislatures in Ohio and elsewhere – which drastically alter the circumstances in which it is lawful to fire a weapon, basically making it legal to shoot first if one has a reasonable suspicion of assault, or the commission of a crime.
And if it turns out that the person you shot was just reaching for a cigarette, you’re safe from legal sanction.
The law connects with other initiatives being pushed relentlessly by the National Rifle Association (NRA), such as the right to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, or the right to carry a concealed weapon in a workplace. These laws – which look amazing, judged by the standards of any other society – are being championed across the country, and while they’re being keenly contested every step of the way (and frequently rebuffed) many of them have extensive support among large sections of the public.
American gun laws have long been a source of bemused fascination for people from across the world, but clearly these laws and initiatives are of a new order entirely. What is going on here? Has this distinctive American fascination with weapons entered a new and baroque phase?
Well, yes and no. There is no doubt that the gun has not merely a functional, but a totemic role in American life. Guns are death-dealing but they appear as life-giving in every aspect of US culture. In most mainstream thrillers or action films, the third act (where the hero, drawn from ordinary life, transcends himself) doesn’t really kick into gear until the main character gets a gun in his hands and finds surprise surprise! that it feels right, that it’s as if he or she had done it a hundred times before. The big new multiplot Crash-style movie in US multiplexes is American Gun, in which it is almost as if the guns determine the action, moving through life with people following in their wake.
Yet despite this awed fascination with the object itself, the new crop of gun laws are about something else: the beginnings of a breakdown in the US of the most basic forms of trust necessary to modern, social life.
It should be obvious that a combination of ‘shoot first’ laws with a general permission to carry concealed weapons into workplaces, schools or – in Texas – churches, creates manifold situations in which any gesture is potentially a lethal one, and the very act of communication becomes impossible.
To a degree, guns have already had an effect on baseline cultural behaviour in US life – the excessive politeness, the sir-ing and ma’am-ing that goes on in the most perfunctory encounters – is, in part, a way of keeping the temperature down. If Midwest American life conducted itself with the sort of default rudeness of British life, for example, there would be firefights in the supermarket on an hourly basis.
In any other society, ‘stand your ground’ laws would be recognised as not so much one possible option for governing everyday life, but as the very antithesis of the social. In the US, such laws are an indication that the basic idea of the social has become so frayed, tattered and faded that many people now have no clear idea of it at all. Of course there is still a society, but it is one in which the essential relationships between generalised trust, violence and the law have been reversed.
To achieve that takes something more than the more-or-less psychotic politics of the NRA – it requires a shift in the understanding of what violence is. Courtesy of its mass culture and the war in Iraq, violence has become not an exceptional social-physical act, but a routine communicative one. The number of American films – going back decades – that feature not only guns, but torture, is staggering. And like Vietnam before it, Iraq has normalised the idea of a resort to violence as simply part of a spectrum of responses.
What remains to be seen is whether these connections can be made in American society and some sort of enhanced understanding of what the preconditions of social life are – and the degree to which the technology of weapons has turned the Second Amendment to the US Constitution (the right to bear arms) into something amounting to the opposite of the guarantee of security intended by its authors.
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