We got all the stuff I need for repairing our stoop and painting and finishing my office. I’m hoping to do the cement step repairs and the repointing later this week, as it’s fall break, and I’ll have some extra days off. We’ll see.
Anyway. On to less delightful things.
One of the central tensions of the Odyssey is the question of whether or not Odysseus will be able to survive the transition from warrior to citizen. While he was crying on the beaches of Ogygia, Ajax and Agamemnon were meeting their nasty ends, and Menelaus’ complicated homecoming was as good as it got; clearly success in war didn’t easily translate to success at home. As it turns out, Odysseus does succeed, of course – but only at the cost of what is essentially a bloody battle in his own house, the consequences of which are only smoothed over by a deus ex machina. How else do you solve the problem of mass murder impinging on civil society?
The attentive reader may have noticed that it was a decidedly unfair fight: Odysseus and his companions had retrieved weapons from the storage room and then locked it behind them, and the suitors wore no weapons, as they were at a feast, not in a war. And they were in a society that saw no need for having weapons at the feast, that sought to keep weapons hidden away except when needed for war, hunting, or ritual performances (I’m thinking about the Pyrrhic dance in particular, but there were any number of ritualized public displays of militaristic athleticism).
Thucydides remarks on this too, in his so-called archaeology: “The Athenians were the first to give up the habit of carrying weapons and to adopt a way of living that was more relaxed and luxurious” (1.6; trans. Rex Warner). In other words, other societies were compelled to continue the tradition of being always armed due to threats of aggression, primarily from pirates. We know from circumstantial evidence in other sources (Herodotus, certainly, perhaps Andocides?) that carrying weapons within the city was strictly regulated, and limited to specific state-sanctioned events such as the Panathenaia and other festivals; carrying a sword into the agora on a regular business day would have been perceived as bizarre and threatening.
On Thursday at 4PM, I was sitting in the hall of the central humanities building and idling the last 20 minutes before I could start setting up for my 4:30 class, and I glanced at facebook, and saw that a shooting had happened in Oregon, at Umpqua Community College. At that time, nothing was known of the shooter – and I haven’t looked him up, so I still know nothing about him; what is there to know? He brought a weapon into the civilized space of the public sphere, and caused senseless deaths.
On that same day, down in the Ancestral Homeland, the Texas legislature approved a bill that would allow concealed carry on the campuses of public colleges. I haven’t followed that bill closely, although I do have several friends who teach at public universities in Texas, so I also haven’t been completely unaware of it. I realize, too, that simply banning concealed weapons from a certain space in no way means that no one will bring a gun into that space; however, there is, I believe, some significance to the act of condoning the practice that changes the atmosphere. For instance, I will not apply to teach at a school that allows this. I cannot imagine running an open, honest classroom in such a context.
In a grotesque moment of irony, this bill will go into effect on August 1, 2016 – the fiftieth anniversary, to the day, of the Charles Whitman shooting, that first horrific example of what has become a familiar genre of violence in the public sphere. Whitman committed his murders from the central tower of the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, still one of the major landmarks of the Austin skyline.
This afternoon, at 2PM, I was making a list of supplies needed for repointing my stoop when my phone vibrated with a text message. It was my school’s public safety authority, alerting me to the fact that the FBI had released information about a credible threat to a Philadelphia-area college. On further investigation, it seems that the FBI knows of threats of gun violence scheduled to be perpetrated tomorrow at 1PM central, 2PM eastern.
(Which detail I include only because it seems such a strange banality: do we really need to note that 2PM eastern is 1PM central?)
I am not, in all honesty, especially worried or scared of this threat. For one thing, the authorities are clearly on top of it. For another, I wasn’t planning on going to campus tomorrow anyway. And finally, it’s probably some demented, lonely, hurting soul seeking attention, not a strategist announcing his plans. Regardless, that undercurrent of threat has been with me for years, ever since the Virginia Tech shootings. These American moments of mass murder are so often centered on schools.
This threat of violence is by no means limited to schools, of course; often when I am on the train and letting my mind wander, I wonder how many of the people around me have guns. Depending on where you are in the city, and what time of day it is, the numbers are probably disturbingly high. You don’t get a city with a shooting rate like Phila’s unless you have people with guns all over the place.
As the Onion has noted, America is unique in suffering from this disease. Such things don’t happen in France or Turkey or Russia or Japan like they happen here. Nor are we – in spite of the Onion’s obviously satirical final sentence – without recourse; plenty of other states have experienced such violence, and responded to it proactively, and effectively prevented further iterations of it. There was even a lovely quote – which I can’t find now – from an Australian who said that Americans were not, as a culture, mature enough to handle guns. That seems about right, frankly. We have continually proven incapable of acting to secure our public spaces for true civil society. Our obsessive cult of individuality stands in the way of the fundamental concern for the safety of our neighbors that makes room for gun control legislation.
A lot of these people who shut down any movement towards even discussion of gun violence in America are the same people who are fond of the molon labe symbolism. These are Greek imperatives that translate literally as ‘come, seize’ – a challenge, allegedly, to the Persians who demanded Sparta’s submission. It was almost certainly not actually a slogan of the Spartans in question, incidentally; our only source for it is Plutarch, writing centuries later, and prone to flights of fancy that make him an often delightful, if questionable, source.
Regardless of its origin, it was taken a central symbol of the Texas revolution (the revolution fought, may I remind you gently, for the sake of preserving the institution of slavery in the Republic of Texas), and serves now as a standard of the far-right conservatives and Tea Party types who fear that someone – Mexicans? Muslims? Obama himself? Persians? (Not joking: remember that Iranians are Persians; everything works in cycles, doesn’t it) – are threatening to aggress and claim what they see as theirs. And somehow, that defensiveness has become attached to this bizarre insistence on the need of civilians to carry weapons in the public sphere, in civil spaces that are not in the midst of war.
Pythagoras – or at any rate his school – is credited with putting law and public weaponry in explicit opposition: “Let the laws rule alone. When weapons rule, they kill the law.” Greco-Roman antiquity makes a terrible model for blind obeisance (for instance, according to the niceties of antiquity, my professional position would be anathema), but we do well always to heed the lessons of the past. And the fact is that this society to which we pay lip service so adamantly found the question of combining weapons with civic spaces a troubling one, and decided that public spaces in civilized societies deserve protection against weapons, which are tools that have nothing to do with social order, and everything to do with upending it.
As I said before, no amount of legislation is going to stop hateful, violent people from asserting themselves into our social orders. However, I think there is something to letting a larger social force – government, custom, tradition – draw a sharp line between public, civic, social space and the space of violence. Odysseus was Athena’s favorite, and even he barely managed to combine the two successfully – and then only because she stepped in for him and made amends as only a god can.
The rest of us are not so fortunate. No gods step up for us. And that is precisely why I wish my government would. My students and I – and all of us in America – are literally betting our lives on our safety for now.
Entirely unrelated, but simply because we’ve earned it: