Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Annie Get Your Gun

From our Founding Fathers to the Wild West to
Hollywood to Columbine, guns have always
been a particular part of our society. In fact, Annie Oakley herself traveled to Paris during the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World's Fair) to perform her gun show as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show--to great acclaim, I might add--as representatives of American culture and society. Even so, I never thought so much about our Second Amendment until I came to France, and more specifically, until I started working here. Apparently, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" in the US is big news here, and is often the burning topic many lycéens* are dying to discuss with the innocent and unaware American assistant, caught off guard by their obesession with our obesession with guns. Of course I knew about this staunchly defended right, the NRA, gun violence across the country, etc, and being on the left, I certainly believed in increased gun control, but I was unaware of the image all of this created for us outside of our great land of liberty. It was just all kind of there, an accepted fact of life--but a specifically American fact of life, I now truly realize. School massacres don't just occur everywhere. We're special--maybe not singular, but as a highly-developed, rich, powerful country, that spouts ideals like none other, it's really shameful. The proliferation of violent American movies and tv shows, a great majority of which are exported around the globe, as well as heavily mediatized events such as Columbine already give the outside world, or at least the French, an extremely violent and image of our country. I certainly never thought about being afraid just living in the US, day-to-day, but given the things an average French person sees and hears, I would completely understand if they had to think twice--or maybe three or four times--about coming for a visit.

During my first couple of weeks here, when I basically spent my time introducing myself to my various classes, one of the most recurring questions was something related to guns and/or general violence/danger in the US. These questions didn't entirely shock me (I mean, I was aware of the sort of tv shows and films they were exposed to), but they did dismay me. After an "uhhh" (oh dear how do I spin this...) I would go on to explain that while yes, some parts of large cities, like LA, Chicago, etc could indeed be quite dangerous, you would not get shot just walking down the street (well unless perhaps you are walking down the street of one of these neighborhoods, ahem, Compton, ahem). Just like in Paris or Lyon, you know the areas to avoid. And ps, gun violence is not the only type of violence, though it certainly can facilitate it. Whether you are pro or anti guns, it's hard to deny that they have helped create a culture of violence in the US.

Several of my classes have gone through a "Second Amendment" lesson. Luckily for the image of Americans in France, it seems to be a favorite on the English curriculum. Hmm we should discuss something about American culture, they speak English too. Oh, I know, GUNS!  Then, while I get to teach about the peaceful creed of Martin Luther King, Jr in one class, in another we're discussing the dangers of keeping a gun in the home. We have such a rich and interesting history and culture, and yet before my eyes, I see our country being reduced to this one thing--this one extremely negative thing. They find it fascinating and almost incomprehensible because in France, they don't have this "right," and as a result, have a much, much lower gun violence rate and it is much, much more difficult for criminals or potential criminals to acquire arms, unlike in the US where two sick high school students can LEGALLY purchase the fire power to commit a massacre in a school in Littleton, CO.

When the lesson inevitably turns to guns, I must simply sigh and do my best to explain that the US is not generally a dangerous place, that I have never seen anyone get shot, not everyone in America owns or carries a gun, etc. I was absolutely bouleversée* to find that not only do we by far rank #1 for gun ownership, but that for every 100 people, there a 88 guns! That doesn't mean that 88% of Americans own a gun because of course, some people own multiple guns, while others own none, but quand même!* Until a couple of days ago, I had also been proudly repeating the "fact" that I didn't own a gun nor was I aware of anyone who did. Upon relaying this to my mother, she revealed to me (or maybe just reminded me) that in fact my father has two guns, his father's hunting guns that he got when he died. While I sputtered in shock, she said, "Well, at this point, it would probably be more effective to hit someone over the head with them then to actually try to shoot with them..."
Yesterday I sat down with one of my classes while they watched Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. I had never seen this documentary, but from the hour I watched with them, it made me a little bit ashamed to be American and extremely depressed at the vision it was giving them of my country. It's one thing for Americans to watch this film, but it's another thing entirely for foreigners, with no experience in America, to see it. They literally were asking, "but, it's not really like that in the US, is it?" after seeing clips of Columbine and of other "average" Americans shooting of guns left and right, proudly exercising their Second Amendment right (at least they had the sense to ask and not just assume). "NO! I exclaimed. Please don't be afraid of coming to the US!" Of course Moore interviews a few wacko backcountry radicals, one of whom literally keeps a gun under his pillow, so that's not very helpful. When Moore mentioned that Gandhi defeated the British without the use of arms, the man replied, "Oh, uh, I'm not aware of that." Another said he was disappointed that he had only made it to #2 on his high school's post-Columbine bomb-watch list. Huh??? Once again, I found myself constantly sighing and shaking my head at the ignorance and bull-dogged...for lack of a better word, "American-ness"(ie I'm Amurrican, this is the way things are in Amurrica, we must save the world from Communism, terrorism, and Obama, owning a gun is my right as an Amurrican, God bless Amurrica!) that exists in the "land of the brave and home of the free." Those are the kind of people that make me glad to live in France, even if it's only for a little while. And those are the kind of people that make my job--essentially that of a cultural ambassador--much harder. Alas, I can't see our country ever overturning that cherished Second Amendment, too many people hold much too tightly to what they see as a "fundamental" right, next to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but maybe someday we will regulate this right more effectively so that tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and the countless other examples, will stop occurring with such alarming frequency. Yeah, ok, "guns don't shoot people, people do," but without guns, no one and nothing would shoot anyone. And some people just shouldn't have access to guns. Period.

It's not like I'm trying to hide the ugly side of America, I would never try to present a shiny, perfect vision that just doesn't exist, and I'm happy(ish) to talk about our history of slavery and segregation, but really, I think they already have enough negative ideas about American and Americans without adding this fuel to the fire. I would much prefer if students would learn about our First Amendment instead. Or even the Fifth. It might be less interesting, but at least it wouldn't add to our international smear campaign.

*lycéens: highschoolers
*bouleverser (verb), bouleversé(e) (adj): great French verb/adj which describes a feeling of being completely bowled over, super shocked, staggered, shattered, distressed, etc. A real emotional catch-all with no perfect equivalent in English, in my opinion.
*quand même : still!

**disclaimer: these obviously aren't my pictures/cartoons, but I found them on a simple bing search while looking for images to use in one of my classes. The first one is from mikecarano.com and the second is a cartoon by someone of the name Margulies. Please don't sue me! thanks.

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