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On Sunday Raul Campos, ace deejay at KCRW in Los Angeles, opened his afternoon show without a word about the back-to-back massacres in Texas and Ohio. He let Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” do the talking for him.
Hearing Gaye’s exquisite plaintive voice allowed me to weep openly. Weep for a country that seems irredeemably lost in so many ways, a country where, in the words of Paul Simon’s equally haunting “American Tune”:
I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
The thing is, we do know what’s going on, but too few seem capable of saying it.
We now have a fair number of political and civic leaders who are willing to say the word trauma and talk about the all-pervasive violence in this culture, not to mention the extent of mental disturbance and the fact that American civilians have more assault rifles in their possession than does the U.S. military.
All well and good. But we have too few leaders who will talk about the deeper roots of these things or attempt to explain why American culture is “exceptional”—exceptional in its toxicity, that is.
A growing number of truth telling historians are eager to help us discover these deeper roots if we are willing to listen. Here I’m thinking mainly of scholars like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Gerald Horne who focus on the connections between settler colonialism, white supremacy, and an unparalleled level of gun violence.
To me the question that grows more acute daily is how to amplify the truth-telling and thus speed the reckoning. Houses of worship ought to serve as amplifiers, but for the most part they aren’t helping. I’m a preacher and I can say with near certainty that 99% of the sermons preached yesterday morning didn’t get close to the level of truth-telling that’s needed. Nor will the compulsory “thoughts and prayers” pronouncements, nor the words spoken at memorial services over the next days and weeks.
Of course as a pastor I’m aware that words of consolation are appropriate and necessary at a time like this. But if actual truth-telling isn’t also appropriate now, I don’t know when it will be.
American violence doesn’t emerge from thin air. It has a very specific pedigree in the failed project known as whiteness, with a strong assist from toxic masculinity. We won’t heal unless we can name what’s ailing us. It’s time we had this talk.