Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Violence in America

Today's post was supposed to just be an upbeat appreciation of Jackie Robinson, the barrier-breaking ballplayer who transcended sports and epitomized courage in the face of racist hostility and hatred. Sixty years (and two days) ago he stepped onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn in the Dodger uniform, and changed America. Defying threats of violence against himself and his family, he paved the way for integration not only in baseball but in American life generally. Martin Luther King, Jr. said the successes of the civil rights movement would not have been possible without Jackie Robinson. He was a splendid athlete, but far more importantly he was a man of resolute and fearless grace who made our country a better place.

But Jackie Robinson's America was murderously violent, and it still is. The massacre at Virginia Tech yesterday is just the latest illustration. Firearms proliferate here, along with the disturbed assailants who use them. It was especially shocking for those of us who live and work at similar large institutions of higher learning, but we can't really be surprised when such atrocities happen in America anymore.

"Life is not a spectator sport," Jackie Robinson said. It's time for us to decide, as a nation, that we're not any longer going to tolerate the level of violence we've become inured to. It's time to revoke the misconstrued personal "right to bear arms" once and for all. Guns do kill people. A truly civilized nation would impose sane restraints on their prevalence and accessibility.

We have to stop feeding the monster. One source of its sustenance is the culture of verbal brutality so much on exhibit in the popular music culture. A student played a snippet of rap music by a musician called "Nas" in class yesterday, contending that it exemplified an acute contemporary philosophical sensibility. But what it instead exemplified to me was an alarming level of insensitivity to violence and verbal aggression: a rap imploring "N--gers" to live intensely, in anticipation of an early and violent death. This is the insight and inspiration of a generation? It's appalling.

Why do so many young people now venerate vulgar thugs and punks and misogynists, while ignoring genuine heroes like Jack Roosevelt Robinson? How can we help them reclaim his legacy? This is a practical challenge for parents, educators, musicians, producers of popular entertainment, and everyone who cares about our future and would nurture the spirit of the children who must become its stewards.

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