Primal Issues

Primal Issues.

What few in the media (but a great many down on the street) are
saying about the Virginia Tech massacre is that law enforcement botched
the whole thing. Between the time Ho began firing in the dorm and when
he started exterminating people in Norris Hall was a gap of two hours,
during which time very little was done. The criticism is not exactly
fair, but that doesn't matter—it's the perception that the public is
taking away from the incident: The police are unable to protect me. This is a political issue with some interesting wrinkles.

hoped-for momentum toward additional restrictions on firearms will be
more than balanced by the crawling fear that self-protection is the
only viable option if the police can't be trusted. (Chicago's recent
scandal of a police officer videotaped beating a female bartender
toppled the city's police chief and—again, unfairly—cemented the
conviction in many people's minds that the Chicago police are thugs.)
This is worsened by the fact that the victims were college
students—people's children, albeit legally adult children—whose parents
had entrusted them to the university and, by implication, to the local
police. People are notoriously irrational when it comes to the safety
of their children.

Gun control is one of a class of political issues I call primal,
because the passion they evoke in many people is older than and runs
deeper than reason. It's about fear, specifically fear of death, which
is about as primal a fear as they come. Primal issues easily become
political “third rails” that politicians fear to deal with, because
primal interest long outlives casual interest. (CNN has an interesting short article
on this topic.) The nation as a whole is already losing interest in the
Virginia Tech massacre, but gun rights advocates are taking notes on
who's saying what in the political realm, and those notes will be
organized, retained, and remembered next fall, and for years and years
after that. Bill Clinton himself admitted that Democratic anti-gun
activism cost the party control of Congress for twelve years. Even
Obama touches that rail at his peril.

another primal third rail out there: abortion. Abortion rights
advocates are just as primal in their support of abortion rights as gun
advocates are in support of gun ownership rights. Abortion advocacy
isn't based on anything as simple as fear, but on the complex
strategies for human sexual reproduction that evolution has handed us.
I could never figure out why abortion was so primal an issue until I
read The Red Queen
by Matt Ridley. That's worth an entry or three all by itself, but if
you're interested, do read the book. The point I want to make in this
entry is simply that if you want to understand politics, you must
understand the primal nature of certain issues, including gun control,
abortion, and Social Security, which is another third rail based on the
primal fear (sometimes even the rational fear) of being put out on the
street and starving to death.

The tribalism that
infects our whole political process is energized by primal fears, most
specifically the confoundingly deep fear that if the other tribe gets
control, they will destroy my tribe and all that my tribe
stands for. Pressure groups use such primal fears to make people cough
up money and get them to vote for their tribe. Saving democracy in this
country is mostly the process of identifying our primal fears and
defusing them before they make us slaves of one tribe or another, both
of which exist solely to make the world safer for their leaders and
largest donors.

Primal emotions (fear, anger,
jealousy, and all the others) trump reason, and can be easily
manipulated to bring us into bondage. Basically, every night before you
go to bed, look in the mirror and ask, “Who owns me?”

Answering that question honestly is the most important single thing that you will ever do.  [Jeff Duntemann's ContraPositive Diary]

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