Shouting ‘gun control’ across the Atlantic isn’t going to save a single life

“What the fuck is wrong with America?” It’s the stock refrain that echoes across the rest of the developed world after another mass shooting blights an otherwise civilized, progressive and responsible state.

“Gun control,” comes the shout from Europe’s ancient capitals. Kill the Second Amendment; excise the law that routinely leaves bodies heaped in schools and churches across the bloodied republic.

It’s an easy answer and wholly unsatisfactory. Democratic America is what it chooses to be, but the issue is so aged, politicised and now polarised that banning guns is not only impossible, it would likely do little to stop the type of bloodshed witnessed last week in Roseburg.

Here’s what is known:

The US boasts a high murder rate — one of the highest in the developed world. Guns are likely the main cause of this higher rate, being the prime weapon in around 65 percent of all US murders.

An American is five times more likely to be murdered than a British person, and 40 times more likely to be murdered with a gun. However, overall crime rates in the US are falling, with the rate of gun deaths halved since the early Nineties.

Nobody knows how many guns there are in private hands. A 2007 Small Arms Survey suggested around 270million but it’s likely much higher.

The reason there is no national firearms database is because the government has not been allowed to create one. The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, argues that the government knowing who owns a gun is an infringement on the constitutional right to bear arms. Not only can Washington not stop citizens buying a gun, it doesn’t have the right to know who owns one.

Why is there no gun control?

The disproportionate power for the NRA, which plays on an old and ingrained distrust of the government, has turned Second Amendment absolutism into a test of identity. You cannot be a true Republican, a true conservative, a true constitutionalist, or a true American and countenance gun control, so they argue. Backed by the gun manufacturers, the NRA has money to bully politicians, funding those who display Second Amendment fidelity, while financing the opponents of politicians that pose a threat.

And there is plenty of money to go around. In the past seven years, the share price of most major gun manufacturers has increased; Sturm Ruger’s share price has gone up 700 percent since 2009.

The upsurge in sales is tied to the election of Barack Obama; gun enthusiasts, anxious that the commander-in-chief would enact gun control, responded by stockpiling weapons.

However, the gun lobby didn’t cause this anxiety. The election of the country’s first African-American president churned up a raft of ugly sentiment — racial, religious and social — allied to a shifting national demographic that led many citizens to feel America was changing and not for the better. The gun lobby feed off this anxiety while stoking the flames.

Despite the increase in sales, crime rates have still fallen. Yet the US retains a deserved reputation for gun violence. This is because although the overall trend is downward, the numbers of mass shootings, the type that capture national and international attention such as Oregon, are rising.

Would gun control work in the United States?

It is unlikely that implementing controls, such as background checks for buyers, would stop the type of mass shooting that increasingly plagues the national body.

Neither would banning guns, at least in the short term. There are an estimated 300 million weapons in circulation in the US; restricting access to guns, as enforced in the UK and Australia, would not hinder a determined buyer. The time for that has long passed.

And despite a succession of mass shootings (11 during Obama’s tenure alone), there remains little public appetite for gun prohibition. A 2011 poll showed that only 26 percent of US citizens want to ban handguns.

What onlookers can fail to appreciate is the depth of feeling towards concepts of liberty and individual freedom that burns in the national consciousness. Even if it were proven that gun controls would prevent mass shootings, some Americans would still resist.

The loathing for government restrictions is so deeply entrenched that there is almost no price for which many Americans would hand over their firearms. And for Second Amendment absolutists, the NRA included, liberty is so sacrosanct that they would be willing to endure any atrocity to retain the right — even if that means scraping 10 children off the wall every six months.

It’s a Faustian pact, but it’s also a choice. If there were a genuine demand for legal restrictions, candidates would emerge in regional and national elections campaigning on that plank — “vote for me, I’ll ban the guns.” Citizens would vote for those candidates en masse and the country would change. That they do not is down to crony capitalism and the influence of the NRA, but it’s also because Americans choose not to.

Here’s the real question: does a lack of gun control make mass shootings inevitable? This is where fact gives way to conjecture and politics. The NRA skillfully diverts attention away from guns after every massacre, framing the problem as a mental health issue.

But it’s a far broader cultural problem. So what is it about American culture that drives young men to take an automatic weapon to a school, church or cinema and start shooting?

Guns are part of the problem, but guns alone don’t turn sane people into mass murderers. Then again, there is something perverse and fetishistic in the way guns are revered in the US that is individual the country.

Opponents of the Second Amendment point to the success of banning weapons in the UK and Australia after the Dunblane and Port Arthur massacres. Would those countries have suffered further atrocities had guns not been banned? Possibly, but with the multitude of guns in circulation in the US (unlike in the UK and Australia) comparisons are problematic. The best you could say for a blanket ban is that it may eventually cause a cultural shift away from firearms, but probably not for generations.

It’s an ‘American’ problem.

Guns have become a tribal issue in a country increasingly separated by two opposing identities. Speaking about this article to an otherwise dispassionate and rational ally in the Midwest triggered a visceral response in which gun control was instantaneously dismissed. Likewise, speaking to colleagues in New York sparks an opposing but equally primal reaction.

This plays out on a national level with massacres met by entrenchment on both sides — those who believe guns make individuals safer and those who believe they make the country as a whole more dangerous. The makeup of these opposing groups falls along political, ethnic, social and geographic lines, as revealed by Pew polling.

Speaking after the shooting last Thursday, Obama scolded the nation for becoming “numb” to the problem. He is right; it has become “routine.” But the detachment is not because Americans don’t care… it’s because they don’t know what to do. Half the country advocates measures that wouldn’t stop mass shootings while the other half refuses to acknowledge the gun’s role in creating a destructive culture. And that, to answer the original question, is what is wrong with America.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Healthy bodies for a sick world…

“Physical culture is in the air just now,” reflected P. G. Wodehouse in an article forVanity Fair published a year before the “gentleman’s gentleman” entered the literary canon.

The essay described how the “average man” of post-Edwardian England “now postpones his onslaught on the boiled egg for a matter of fifteen minutes,” time devoted to a “series of bendings and stretchings which in the course of time are guaranteed to turn him into a demi-god.”

A century later and physical culture once again pervades. Earlier this week, a colleague in London penned an article highlighting the growth in female sports as symbolic of a wider trend towards health and fitness in the U.K.

The U.S. is similarly bending and stretching under the spell, with traditional gyms augmented by boutique fitness centers and juice shops in the country’s great metropolises.

My colleague cited figures on the mushrooming market for women’s sporting clothes to emphasize the refocus towards personal wellbeing, while noting the community aspect of modern fitness fueled by the carbs of “celebrity and media.”

She is certainly right on the community aspect, with a strong argument that gatherings around fitness have superseded the church and synagogue — brick victims of secularism’s powerful strides. As such, health could simply be the latest expression of the human need to experience transcendental emotion beyond the individual.

The fitness center is, after all, the modern incarnation of a religious cult, one that leans back beyond Wodehouse, even beyond the “muscular Christianity” of the Victorians and into antiquity with the Romans and ancient Greeks using exercise as a preparation for war.

Yet the current flowering may have more immediate psychological drivers too. Wodehouse wrote about the push towards “physical culture” in 1914, a year bandaged by the tumult of war wrought on both citizenry and soldiery.

Likewise, the 2008 financial crash (and its economic and political aftermath) blanketed the hitherto comfortable West in doubt, insecurity and a profound sense of unease.

Whereas Europe and America’s portly middle classes once relied on a career delivering sufficient recompense to raise a family, buy a house, enjoy vacations, and save for a comfortable retirement, the 2008 meltdown broke the illusion.

Banks crumbled, interest rates plummeted, employment fell and wages stagnated. Meanwhile, restrictions on lending created a generation for whom homeownership — the most basic emblem of long-term security — was denied.

Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State abroad was paralleled by anti-immigrant sentiment at home, the rats of the far-right resurfacing from the pipes and sewers to once again spread the bacilli of intolerance and hate.

For a generation, the system’s upheaval highlighted a lack of control in the world, a psychological blow that led many to turn inwards, attempting to regain control via dominance over their own bodies.

In a society unrestrained and a future unknown, perhaps exercise regimes, healthy eating and mindfulness offered a return to the illusion or at least a way to cope with the stress therein.

Writing the year the Great War was unleashed, Wodehouse scoffed at how “the advertisement pages of the magazines are congested with portraits of stern-looking, semi-nude individuals with bulging muscles and fifty-inch chests.”

The author lived to be 93, having practiced his own daily exercise regime for more than 50 years. Were he alive today, he may well have noted the plates of healthy food, yoga poses and shirtless pull-ups similarly congesting Instagram.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Pews give way to the saddle

The congregation stands at the door of the chapel, hands clenched around bottles of water, feet balancing on horseshoe clips soon to mount pedals.

“Is it like spinning?” a woman behind me asks her uninitiated companion. “No,” she replies. “This is Soul Cycle.”

The priest, a young man with a tailored beard and a defined physique, beckons the worshippers in. The pews are freshly wiped; white towels decorate the handlebars. Each bike is occupied; hopefuls on the waiting list are turned away.

The priest sits by the altar choosing a hymnal from a computer perched on a table protruding from the wall. Under the music, the noise of locking machinery vies with chatter.

Riders select their bike before the class ensuring a demarcation of devotion — skeptics at the rear, fanatics at the front. The bikes immediately facing the priest are reserved by the most loyal — booked in the hope of receiving a look of favor or a nod of recognition from the leader. Some congregants attend church daily, some more than once a day.

It’s a ’90s nightclub, an ’80s aerobics video, a self-help convention and a liturgy. It’s a mass of steam pipe-sweaty believers all moving in primal groupishness — forward, back, left, right, always on the beat, always on the beat, always on the beat.

The riders mirror the movements of the priest at the altar, each motion choreographed immaculately with the music.

Across the notes, the priest shouts mantras of mindfulness, mutterings shorn from self-help cards and as opaque as the horoscope: “We ride, we struggle, we change, we grow, we conquer.”

The message condensed is that fitness means confidence and confidence means happiness, all delivered in fortune cookie prose: “Ride from the soul and find the happiest, fittest, most confident you in every aspect of your life.”

Through moving as one, individuals experience “self-transcendent emotions,” feelings of something greater than themselves; tribal and uplifting, the same euphoria derived from amphetamines and EDM or singing in a choir.

The priest finally reveals why we are all there: “Together we will escape the difficulties of our lives and become a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

It’s an easy sell. In a world in which corporations reduce individuals to a daily function, the church provides more. It says you are greater than your role, more than a number on a spreadsheet vying for a few additional dollars at the end of the year, more than a hungry dog snarling over scraps at the corporate feeding bowl.

You are more than a reluctant psychopath, forced to compete for approval from above whilst treading on those below lest they move ahead at your expense. You are a human. You are more.

Candles surround the priest like Anglican evensong while scripture ornaments the wall — “Athlete, Legend, Warrior, Renegade, Rockstar.”

Throughout the service God is praised, praised by the priest in branded shorts, the human God, you, the rider, all the riders, the congregation and the collective endeavor it submits — all praised by the priest in branded shorts.

The service ends and the pews empty. The congregants leave weary, fitter and closer to happiness. “Tough class” a man says to a woman removing her shoes. “Yes, he really pushed us today,” she replies. “It was like a different world in there.”

The hope is that conviction bleeds from ritual into the real world. Riders just have to keep coming back. Founding a church, it seems, is as easy as riding a bike.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Why some American politicians deny basic science

NEW YORK — During a foreign policy think tank discussion in London on Wednesday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a likely presidential candidate for 2016, was asked whether he believed in evolution.

To a British audience, it might seem an odd question to pose to a sitting governor of a US state – akin to asking whether the Earth was round, or if he believed apples fall to the ground because of gravity.

Yet the Republican demurred, unable to answer – much to the delight of the journalists in the room, who not only had a story but one that could be duly soaked in a dye of cultural snobbery.

In his defence, it was not that the governor didn’t have the correct answer. Like everyone in the room, he knew full well that evolution is a watertight scientific theory. However, it is precisely because Walker has presidential ambitions that he found himself unwilling to answer, forced to look preposterous in front of the mocking crowd.

But what witchcraft is at work that requires a man bent on becoming leader of one of the most scientifically advanced nations in the world to deny a theory so universally accepted?

Put simply, politics.

A Pew poll in 2009 found a majority (54%) of Republican voters believed in evolution.Similar polling in 2013 found far fewer Republicans (43%) believed in evolution. In just four years, disbelieving Republican voters had switched from a minority to a majority.

That’s not to say more Americans had come to question evolution. The overall percentage of disbelievers remained that same – a still staggering 40%. It was that more people that reject evolution had come to identify with the Republican brand.

But why? Pew found that older Americans are far more likely to reject Darwin’s teachings, as are white evangelicals. In recent years the Republican Party has increasingly come to rely on these twin demographics – older voters and evangelical Christians.

Most Americans still believe in evolution. It’s likely most Republican politicians believe in evolution, albeit quietly. But increasingly the party’s base, those that turn out to vote in presidential and midterm elections, do not. To remain in power, some politicians must pander to this base, regardless of how discordant it makes them look to the rest of America or indeed the Western world.

The increasing polarisation of American politics is also at play. A general mistrust of science has come to represent the default position of many Republican voters, hence similar obfuscation on matters of climate change. The longer this persists, the more entrenched these views become.

Which leads us back to Walker, forced to sit on a London stage and embarrassingly “punt” on a question, knowing that delivering an honest answer would alienate him with the very supporters he needs to corral for a White House bid.

Walker’s party has compromised on truth to retain power. It won’t last; relying on an ageing vote is unsustainable. Yet until the party itself evolves, Republican politicians will continue to be laughed at around the world.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Muslim Congressman Andre Carson on the Bible Belt, equal marriage, madrassas and an LGBT President

Representing Indiana’s 7th district, Andre Carson is only the second Muslim to be elected to serve in the United States Congress following Minnesotan Keith Ellison, who was elected in 2006.

Carson won a special election in early 2008 to succeed his late grandmother, Congresswoman Julia Carson. He then retained his seat at the general election later that year, and won re-election in 2010 against Republican candidate Marvin Scott, a man roundly criticised during the campaign for, as the Indianapolis Star put it, “resorting to attacks on Carson’s Muslim religion“. Carson was again re-elected in the recent midterm elections, beating Republican and libertarian candidates.

Born to a Baptist family in 1974, Carson converted to Islam when he was “16 or 17-years-old “having been “greatly impacted” by the Muslims in his community who were “pushing back on crime and protecting the neighborhood”. He also found within the Quran and the teachings of the faith answers to theological questions that had been “stirring his intellectual curiosity”during his teenage years.

His childhood was initially difficult, with his mother suffering from mental illness, a condition that led her and her young son to be briefly homeless. His grandmother, a “liberal woman” who benefited from an “appreciation and fondness for Islam”, raised Carson, providing him “space to grow and study”.

Having graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University with a Master in business management, Carson became a police officer, transferring to a counter terrorism unit in Homeland Security after nine years working the beat, a posting that taught him the futility of trying to “fight the threat of global terror without Muslims”.

Before his election to Congress, Carson served in local politics on a Democratic Party Committee in Indianapolis. After winning the special election, he continued his work on the national stage, becoming a vocal advocate for improving education and health care reform. He has been critical of the US role in Iraq but supportive of US military efforts in Afghanistan.

In 2011, Carson courted controversy by suggesting US public schools should be modeled after Madrassas, or Islamic schools that are built on the foundations of the Quran, words he said were “taken out of context.”

HuffPost UK spoke to the 40-year-old Congressman about his faith, the role it plays in his politics and the wider role of religion in American society.

How did your difficult childhood shape your life and politics?

My mother suffered from schizophrenia so my grandmother raised me. My mother was a brilliant woman – she had a doctorate degree and was a devout Christian – but of course the illness impacted her judgment. But going through that difficult experience deepened my sensitivity to the less fortunate, to those who don’t have home or shelter. Later on this complimented my Islamic belief in relation to almsgiving and helping the poor. That kind of experience should only shape a person to become a better humanitarian. It made me want to give back and make the world a better place.

Was there any kind of pushback from your Baptist family after you revealed you were converting to Islam?

Absolutely. There were some relatives who were told not to associate with me. However, my grandmother had a fondness and an appreciation for the religion, and she was wise enough to give me the space to grow and study, even though I was living under her roof. It’s easy to be revolutionary when you don’t have a mortgage.

Your grandmother encouraged your move towards the faith?

She definitely encouraged me because she knew for me as a young African American male that as long as I was in the faith I was not getting in trouble, the kind of trouble that would have left me incarcerated.

Still, some relatives were deeply disappointed. We laugh about it now but at the time where they were spiritually did not compliment my spiritual journey. It was good preparation though; rejection from loved ones hurts, especially as a teenager but I fell in love with the faith; it just answered questions for me.

Who inspired you to go into public office?

My grandmother again was a cheerleader but the late Congressman Andy Jacobs [a Democrat from Indiana who served in the House of Representatives for more than 30 years] also influenced me. He was like a dad to me, my Obi-wan-Kenobi. He was very liberally minded and encouraged my religious exploration. Judge David Shaheed, who is now my father-in-law and was the first elected Muslim judge in the United States, also influenced me.

Islam is often associated with helping the oppressed or giving to the poor. How do these religious tenets carry over into your support for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), or your work trying to improve standards of education?

It was the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, who stated explicitly in the Hadith that a man who educates his daughters is granted paradise. I think that has figurative implications and political implications. In the prophet’s last sermon he said there is no superiority – white over black, Arab over non-Arab – words that were quite visionary and also applicable to our times today.

On the Affordable Care Act, one of the Islamic tenets is charity and giving to the less fortunate. The United States is arguably the wealthiest nation in recorded history, a country whose healthcare is a large part its GDP. Solving the problem of healthcare relieves a lot of those budgetary issues, but also sees the less fortunate in my community get help. Though it was complicated, people now – Republicans and Democrats – are appreciating the fact we were bold enough to take on the issue in 2010.

Do American Muslims need to become more entrenched in American society, particularly civil society and law enforcement? How do you encourage that?

It was a challenge for me. At 17, after I had started studying the religion, I was arrested because police officers tried to go into a mosque without probable cause. That arrest fuelled me into wanting to become a police officer, which I did. I managed to do that and I was assigned to homeland security, terrorism and counter-intelligence. What I learned is that in the US, as in the UK, it is impossible to fight the threat of global terror without help from Muslims.

But there is a problem with institutional bigotry. We have a tradition of COINTELPRO [an acronym for the controversial counter intelligence program started in the 1950s by the FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover that targeted civil rights groups, black nationalists and equality movements], which had a horrible impact, sowing deep levels of suspicion that have solidified over the years.

Also, xenophobia has become exacerbated because of extremist elements [within Islam], but I still say that Muslims have to take control of our own destiny and to reclaim our destiny we have to engage in a political process. Is it corrupt? Yes, in many aspects. Can we help remedy some of the corruption that’s pervasive, or correct some of the misconceptions about Muslims locally and internationally? Yes.

The question becomes how do we leverage our voting blocks to become precinct committee persons, become ward chairs, members of school boards, or members of zoning boards? Every time we try and build a school or a mosque there are impediments because of local zoning boards [these provide planning permission for buildings, similar to local planning authorities in the UK]. If we increase our presence we can change that.

There are numerous Muslim men and women who are not only starting businesses but they are running successful businesses. They are putting Americans back to work. We should have that same type of management in the governmental space in governor’s offices and in mayoral races. It’s time to have Muslim mayors of major cities.

Are you seeing more engagement from Muslims in local politics, where all the decision tends to get made?

Yes, and not only in my own state. As I travel the country I’m speaking to large Muslim groups telling them we can no longer have a mistress relationship with politicians.

They [politicians] come to our communities under the cover of darkness because they don’t want to be seen with us in public. That is unacceptable for a community that is highly educated, and has a large amount of capital that can be leveraged to create our own super PACs [these are organisations that pool campaign contributions and donate those funds to candidates]. But unless we see our own value we will not see significant changes in regards to the treatment we are receiving.

You and Keith Ellison are both from the Midwest. Observers would have probably predicted the first elected Muslims would have come from the more cosmopolitan areas, cities such as New York or LA?

I’m in the Bible Belt but what you’ll find about Midwesterners is that they’re less concerned about what religion a person is and more concerned with their value system and whether they’ll deliver. What you are seeing from Representative Ellison and myself are Muslims that come from the African American experience. we are more concerned with civil and human rights, with education, with the global economy, creating jobs and how to repair broken infrastructure. These are issues Midwesterners relate to.

So Indiana constituents in 2008 didn’t see a Muslim man, or they did but first they saw a former police officer, and then a man that had served in local government?

During the campaign there were a number of YouTube videos posted that tried to discredit me because of my religion. But the polling data we received stated that most people only really cared that I was a police officer and a former city councilor. It speaks to Midwestern sensibilities that folks are not be so wrapped up in a person’s faith. They just want someone they can trust to represent them well in the halls of Congress.

Do you think it would be harder for an American Muslim to win a seat in Congress with a more Middle Eastern name?

This is a debate I often have with my Arab friends, and a very serious one. This is why it’s important to get involved in local races and local communities. It’s about Muslims becoming entrenched in the community over time, then people will see that their local councilor happens to be Muslim and realise it’s not so bad.

But we can take cues from our friends in the Irish community, the Jewish community and the Italian community. Just looks at the years of investment they have made. Many Americans from the Middle East have been focused on becoming doctors or lawyers and that’s fantastic, but if we see significant investment in our local communities we’ll see change within a decade.

Is religion still important in American politics?

We are seeing that people are no longer wedded to organised religion, the kind of religiosity that is burdensome, that is guilt obsessed, that is ritual obsessed. Folks are concerned with a personal relationship with God, a relationship with their family and a relationship with their community, and an intermediary cannot regulate that.

When we remove intermediaries from our connection with God, it frees us from the burden of serving a human being and allows us to serve the Creator. People are becoming more entrenched in faith because it gives us a sense of comfort in our tumultuous times, but folks don’t want to become affiliated with organised religion.

Some Republicans, backed by campaign groups, are sincerely pushing for the US to adopt a more “Christian” worldview. Is this a concern?

I always respect a person’s religion. I had a lot of support from the Christian community when I ran. There was a small group of Christian ministers that didn’t want me to speak in their churches because they thought I was unfit due to my religion, but overwhelmingly more Christian pastors welcomed me into their pulpits and they still do.

The founders [of the United States] were very visionary when they said there should be no religious test to hold public office because there can be a danger when politicians use their public office to proselytise, and to ostracise people who don’t feel the same way as them.

In 2011, you said the American school system should be more like Islamic madrassas. What did you mean by that?

My words were taken out of context. I was speaking to a group of Muslims and talking about pride. Some of the children from our [religious] schools were leaving multi-lingual and going to Ivy League universities. I said we needed to tell that story more, and be proud of our successes.

I used the word madrassas and folks took that out of context. What I was saying is that some traditional American public schools are graduating students that are functionally illiterate. So we should look at different models, not the religious aspect because I believe in the separation of church and state, but extract some of their methodology. What can we learn from some of our religious schools, from our Jewish schools, out Christian-based schools – and take that and put it into the public school setting?

As a Muslim, do you have to watch what you say knowing the far right are ready to pounce?

Sure, but I’m a very passionate person, I get very pumped. Knowing that I’m always being watched, I have to be careful but I also have to be authentic.

You’re a vocal advocate of equal-marriage, an area most traditional religions have a problem with. Does you faith ever clash with your politics?

For me equal marriage is an issue of civil rights. If we believe we are all part of God’s creation we should be careful about making these calls. The LGBT community is making great strides and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a future president coming from that community.

But how can I as an elected official just represent one constituency? We represent all people. Muslims should be mindful that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We should have equality on all fronts.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.