Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Merritt on Guns and the American Psyche

Article by Dennis L. Merritt

The issues of gun violence and gun control will not be resolved unless addressed at the most basic level--the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Even the gore of Sandy Hook barely moved the needle towards significant changes in gun control, implying a need for a more archetypal approach to the problem. (1)

The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution to be the mythic foundation of America as a nation of laws. Archetypically the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are in the realm of the Bible: they are like the Ten Commandments for Americans. They strike the collective American psyche as the Word of God in a nation without a religious foundation, an important aspect of our uniqueness during the Age of the Enlightenment when they were written. (2)

The Second Amendment right “to keep and bear arms” is loaded with archetypal imagery in the guns themselves. There is a fierce and frightening beauty in these technological marvels of relative simplicity in design. With soul-frightening noise the bearer can project great and deadly force with these phallicy objects. The Lakota Sioux say such objects have great wakan, great power; archetypal power in a sacred sense. A gun in one's hand engages an ultimate archetype—death. Guns can impart a deadly sense of power to those feeling fearful and disempowered, but a power that moves one towards black-and white, good-and-evil distinctions because of the life-and-death potential guns wield. The power to kill and maim can quickly sweep the bearer into the domain of the god of war, Ares/Mars, the god behind the intoxication of gang warfare. An individual or a group can take justice into their own hands, subverting a society of laws.

The central mythic image for the Second Amendment is the Minuteman—the courageous militiamen who rose up out of farming stock and small villages and without training fired the first shots in our noble revolution. This myth of our country being born out of a rebellion against an oppressive powerful tyranny is part of the David and Goliath archetype. This feeds into the American identity of feeling put upon by others and forced to act in self-defense. We were attacked by savage Indians so we had to kill them off; the communists attached us in the Gulf of Tonkin so we had to exterminate the Viet Cong with body counts; Saddam Hussein had at least a 1% chance of having weapons of mass destruction (according to Cheney and the neocons) so we had a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The stories go on. The victim self-image covers the predatory nature of our actions: ripping off the land and destroying a sacred connection with nature experienced by the Native Americans; stopping the spread of the Evil (communist) Empire and maintaining our hegemony in Southeast Asia; expanding American access to Middle East oil.

Our country is in a profoundly different milieu from which the Founding Fathers crafted the Bill of Rights. (3) We now have a large, standing, heavily funded military as part of a military-industrial-congressional complex (the military has seen to it that every congressional district receives some form of military funding, making it hard for Congress to cut back). It sucks resources out of health care, education, improving infrastructure, addressing problems in our inner cities, etc. The FBI, CIA, and the massive and growing use of surveillance on streets and through monitoring “private” internet, phone and credit card activities are Big Brother moves we are justifiably anxious about. Assault weapons can be purchased at gun shows—one man can do a lot more damage than a lunatic or a self-styled revolutionary with a musket. Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father who created the national bank, fell victim to a gunshot wound in a dual that is part of our quaint historical past.

There is a truly dark side to the Second Amendment which we must confront. It runs contrary to the basic spirit of the Constitution—establishing a society of law and order with equal protection under the law. The Minuteman myth plays out in modern society as a belief that we can have an armed resistance to what is perceived to be a threatening or oppressive power, be it an individual or the government if conditions are not to our liking. Psychologically there are two main problems with this belief. First, it nurtures an extermination mentality towards opponents, moving them more into the domain of deadly enemies. Guns are used to kill people; democracy depends on meaningful dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Any approach that threatens others and makes them defensive is contrary to dialogue and debate, and the ultimate threat is to to kill your opponent. The second psychological problem is the Minuteman myth encourages a vigilante mentality, taking the law into one's own hands. This was epitomized by the fearful judgment executed in a deadly manner by George Zimmerman against Trayvon Martin as Zimmerman enacted Florida's “stand-your-ground law.” Milwaukee recently saw a 76 year old man gun down a 13 year old African American neighbor boy on the sidewalk “to teach him not to steal.” (4)

There is a time bomb ticking in America. It ticks louder as the plutocratic 1% increase their share of the pie and the gap widens between the haves and the have nots; as our health care, educational, and safety nets fall victim to deeper and deeper cuts; as the government becomes dysfunctional when regulatory agencies are underfunded and corporate and wealthy interests continue to write the laws, thereby perverting the law-based society. (5) Anger is building about the violation of the American Dream, and resentment will be taken out against the government and the minorities. Guns add fuel to these smoldering flames.

The bomb is ticking the loudest in our inner cities. Both political parties have given up on the the poor, choosing to focus their attention on the struggling middle class. We have lost our manufacturing base as multinational corporations raced to the bottom for cheap labor in the likes of Bangladesh clothing factories. (6) We acknowledge that these types of jobs are gone forever and emphasize the importance of getting an education while we choose to ignore the basic problems with inner city schools. In the Milwaukee Public School System 60% or more high schoolers cannot read at grade level and half of the students who enter high school do not graduate. (7) The key indicator of America's well being is the plight of the young, inner city, African American male. In Milwaukee in 2010, 1 in 8 working age African American American males were in jail. In Milwaukee County in 2010, half of the African American males in their 30's and early 40's had been incarcerated. (8) A culture of single-parent moms with children from several different fathers promises to preserve the cycle of poverty and dependence. Resentment builds from working class whites juggling several low-paying part time jobs (if they even have a job) without adequate health insurance. They may be too proud to take food stamps and will vote for politicians who promise to make it tough on welfare mothers who have a sense of entitlement to food and health care for their children.

White culture reacts to the plight of the inner cities with fear and retribution. Funding is being cut for many programs and voucher schools are increasing, with no small amount of voucher money going to conservative religious schools. (9) Racism and the unconscious awareness that we are doing nothing to defuse the inner city powder keg is another powerful stimulant for purchasing a gun to be ready for vigilante activity in case all hell breaks loose.

The gun issue is overtly the deadliest in American society but must be seen as part of a bigger picture framed by other mythic images. The Minuteman is close to our founding mythic image—the Puritan Pilgrims we celebrate every Thanksgiving. This sect of religious fanatics saw the Native Americans as Devil-worshipping savages as they began our sorry history of eliminating the Natives as much as possible and eventually converting most of them to Christianity.

Puritans and many others thought it was Divine Providence that this New “Empty” World was given to Christians to manifest God's Shining City on the Hill straight out of the Book of Revelation. This is the mythic root of American exceptionalism which feeds our myopic sense that we are No. 1 and everyone should be like us. The ultimate manifestation of this view was ushered in by Dick Cheney's shadow government attempting to implement the doctrine known as the Project for the New American Century. Cheney, Perles, Rumsfeld, Fife and Wolfowitz promoted the ideology that is the American destiny to achieve military, economic, cultural and political dominance of the world. (10)

The mythic image of the rugged, lonely Marlborough man of a cowboy emerged after the Minuteman image; an image drawn upon by presidents like Reagan and Bush 2. This myth feeds our paranoia about socialism-slash-communism which vested interests prey upon to obstruct any movement towards a viable health care system for all and not just for the very wealthy.

The gun-toting cowboy myth is part of a broader myth which encompasses elements of the preceding myths—the myth of the American West. The West developed into the mythic world of the rugged individualists, heros of almost superhero status, battles against “heathen savages,” conquering a wild domain, lawlessness, and the absence of government. It was a place where one could start over and by the sweat of one's brow create a new life for oneself. This dovetails onto the yeoman farmer image championed by Thomas Jefferson which emphasizes the cultivation phase immediately following the brute force conquering phase. The civilizing force of women and children appear on the scene and vigilantes gradually give way to real law and order.

This is where America is stuck: we have not gone beyond the adolescent mentality of the conquering phase of our myth of the West with its guns to the mature, civilized, law-and-order phase. This conquering mentality supports the most insidious myth now gone planet-wide—the corporation as the vanguard of free market capitalism. This religious belief is conflated with democracy. The corporation, a modern day monster as Jung saw it, now has the rights of a person and the ability to spend endless sums of money on political campaigns whose success is determined by who can buy the slickest TV ads. Corporations have one goal—to make money irregardless of the consequences. There is no concern for children, grandchildren or the environment. (11) The corporate gun lobby together with the NRA and its Rush Limbaugh and Fox New propaganda machines tap into all our American myths to make us fearful of losing our Second Amendment rights. It's time to take a sober look at our myths and change the Second Amendment, but to do so as part of a comprehensive examination of our society and our human relationship to the land. The inevitable consequences of climate change will force all humans in all countries to realize that our species is ultimately part of nature. We must start now to significantly change course and divert resources from guns, conflicts and wars to helping each other and living an ecocentric life. We can't shoot our way out of this one.

Dennis Merritt, Ph.D., is a Jungian psychoanalyst and ecopsychologist in private practice in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is the author of Jung, Hermes, and Ecopsychology: The Dairy Farmer's Guide to the Universe Volumes 1 - 4. Dr. Merritt is a diplomate of the C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich and also holds the following degrees: M.A. Humanistic Psychology-Clinical, Sonoma State University, California, Ph.D. Insect Pathology, University of California-Berkeley, M.S. and B.S. Entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Over twenty-five years of participation in Lakota Sioux ceremonies has strongly influenced his worldview.


1. The Newtown massacres could not have been more symbolic: 20 six-year-old children and 6 adult staff members were gunned down in cold blood in classrooms decorated for Christmas—an archetypal celebration of the birth of the Divine Child.

In America 26 people are killed by gun violence every two days. The Twitter site “GunDeaths” is an interactive site where people can register gun deaths and enable us to get a better sense of what's happening in one of American's darker shadow sides.

2. “Myths are other people's religions.” Myths, a country's or a culture's essential stories about itself, are the base for attitudes, values, morals, perceptions and behaviors. Consider how the mythic story of Adam and Eve has affected Western attitudes and behaviors towards the feminine and female sexuality.

A mythic image encapsulates the mythic story, for example, the image of Eve presenting that irresistible apple to Adam.

Jung said whatever is of highest value in our life or in a society is god. As Bob Dylan sang, “You've got to serve somebody.” Each god and goddess has a particular way of being in the world: Aphrodite/Venus sees everything in terms of relationship, sexuality and sensuality; Ares/Mars, god of war, sees everything as a conflict to win—when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

3. America in 1787 when the Constitution was adopted was still on insecure footing in a world dominated by the British. The War of 1812 revealed just how vulnerable we were: the British invaded and burned down the Capitol. It would have been an undo burden to support a large standing army, so it was an asset to be able to form a militia from the many frontiersmen and small farmers armed to fight Indians and hunt the abundant game.

4. John Spooner was getting paranoid in his old age and thought Darius Simmons or his brother had stolen four of his shotguns two days earlier. He shot Darius Simmons in front of his home and his mother.


The event was captured on a surveillance camera:

Spooner testified at his own trial saying, "I wouldn't call it revenge: I would call it justice."

5. Bill Moyers documented the decline of two working class families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one white and one black. Beginning in 1991 when both families lost good union industrial jobs, Moyers revealed the devastating toll of unemployment and the loss of safety nets in American society.

6. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/5512/as_milwaukees_economy_fails_how_can_public_schools_succeed/

7. http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/38249389.html


8. ww4.uwm.edu/eti/2013/BlackImprisonment.pdf

9. http://expressmilwaukee.com/article-14120-is-this-the-end-of-milwaukee-public-schools-.html

10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_for_the_New_American_Century

11. See links to articles and documentaries on corporations on my blog entry “A Jungian Perspective on the Most Important Issue of Our Time—Climate Change.”

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