Happiness is a warm gun: ‘Totalitarianism with a human face’

I was invited via an email from Cabela’s to trick out my AR. It took a minute to figure that they were talking about an automatic rifle. The picture looked like the M-16 I carried 40 years ago in military service, but more upscale. I don't own an AR. I don't even have a gun. It is usually nice shirts and camping equipment I get from them. So it was a little surprising.

I like Cabela’s. When we lived in Michigan I'd take my kids to see their beautiful four-story displays of bears, coyotes, foxes in hinterland settings. It seemed a representative part of glorious northern Michigan known as the UP. I tend to like guns as well. But the AR is not a hunting gun. It is a war weapon and a lot of people are buying them. In fact, guns today are said to be the only bright spot on the economy and Cabela’s stock is booming.

But why are so many Americans buying guns? It has been like this for several years now. Since Obama was elected president. The question should be asked in the same way Thomas Mann once asked, "Why are they disinfecting the streets of Venice?” Is something dark and unknown rising within us? Is it already here?

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We enter seasons ahead unlike any we had seen in the passing century. New trends, ideas and people — the Tea Party, Ron Paul, Sarah Palin, for beginners — tend to bring shock, even apoplexy to the institutionalized and sanctioned establishment. But the institutionalized norms are rapidly passing. Even the movie “The Hunger Games” brings the predictable scorn and ironic responses on the neurasthenic left and by establishment trend-setters like Vanity Fair and The New York Times. The rising times will not be like the receding times and these new trends mark the rising times. And so does this phenomenon of rapidly rising gun sales.

In the early part of the last century, the Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung developed "psychological types" — which Myers-Briggs and other personality tests today are based on — because the German national character was rapidly changing and he wanted to know why and what it meant. The great poets and visionaries, Maude Gunn, Yeats and Mann, sensed it as well and dreamed of blood flowing in rivers. Our institutionalized entertainment, educational and information networks today lacks these canaries in the coal mine. Liberals outnumber conservatives 88 to three in college humanities classrooms and the pillars of public information, the three networks and the two major newspapers are overwhelmingly liberal, yet the population actually breaks about even, liberal and conservative. This is, to say the least, unresponsive; a dream of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World come true which might even be called, to paraphrase Susan Sontag, “totalitarianism with a human face” — a face so accurately caricatured today in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. So system shock will be greater, with greater difficulty to adapt when new realities arise.

Mann wrote Death in Venice a hundred years ago this year. And our American world this year appears today to be sending signs of subtle and unconscious change — a veiled elephant is entering the room — some of them transfiguring, some of them foreboding. Our world changes. The question is, to what?