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Passionate views on gun control epitomize America’s underlying cultural divide

What are we to think of America’s agonizing political stalemate? Scratch the surface and you will find a conflict born of the widely divergent cultural experiences that forged the convictions of the different constituencies. It seems that the country is at some great tipping point, a point of massive resistance just before certain elements that dominated the past succumb to the pressure of an emerging new ordering of cultural priorities.

The politically and economically dominant white males of the Baby Boomer mega-generation are ungraciously unwilling to surrender their power to more worldly, multi-ethnic, technology-driven, and environmentally-oriented younger generations. The youngsters’ world-views were shaped by more rainbow-colored influences than the black and white post-World War II culture that set the stage for the young Boomers.

The evolving future colliding with the vestigial past is the cycle of death and rebirth inherent in all natural processes. Competition and conflict are inevitable. Sometimes the rough waters of cultural cataclysms can be navigated with skillful political leadership. Teddy Roosevelt was able to usher the country through the post-industrial upheaval of the early twentieth century, in part because he embodied elements of both the elite and the common man. Lyndon Johnson’s consummate negotiations with Congress enabled him to legislate a new domestic cultural agenda in the turbulent 1960s.

It is appropriate that gun control is emerging as the iconic clash of the Great American Stalemate. Past irresolvable cultural divides in American history have resulted in our two great civil wars.

The American Revolution was the country’s first cultural tipping point. The political system devised by the Founding Fathers was a revolutionary break from the old European monarchy, the birth of a new society that explicitly valued individual freedom.  The new government was a manifestation of the evolving political philosophies of the Enlightenment, including the concept of government as a social contract between the people and their leaders. Religious leaders likewise urged a break from tyranny as part of a religious Awakening that “reached across socioeconomic lines to encompass rich and poor, men and women, frontiersmen and townsmen, farmers and merchants.” The precipitating factors of the military conflict, however, were economic, as the French and Indian War changed the economic dynamics between England and America. Colonial resistance to the autocratic imposition of new taxes to recoup British war costs culminated in the Boston Tea Party and eventually the declaration of independence from King George III.

The American Civil War was America’s second devastating culture war. The southern states’ secession and the ensuing bloody conflict ended slavery and the plantation-based southern economy spawned by colonial economic forces. American colonization had primarily been funded not by European governments, but by individual investors who expected a return on the large sums of money spent in this highly risky endeavor. The lucrative tobacco and cotton trade seduced both Americans and the British to accept a race-based rationale for enslaving the workforce needed to grow these labor-intensive crops. After the Revolutionary War, southern raw cotton was shipped to factories in an increasingly industrial north. The cultural differences between the more urban industrial north and the agrarian rural south heightened unresolved tensions over states’ rights and slavery.

The Confederacy was able to muster an army because of cultural solidarity between yeomen and plantation owners with very different economic interests. The perceived superiority of the white race, the desire for freedom from outside oppressors, and solidarity with the home state were some of the ties that bound a diverse southern coalition.

Our understanding of the underlying causes and motivations behind these great American cultural disruptions have developed and ripened with the passage of time. Our personal stake in the current crisis distorts our ability to discern its true nature. How does history enlighten us?  Economic interests are a primary factor now as in the past. The paradoxical conservative alliance of rural folk and the rich urban business class follows the pattern of revolutionary and rebel coalitions whose shared religious and cultural beliefs trumped divergent economic priorities. And a common insistence on the “right to bear arms” should not be surprising in a country whose most beloved cultural icons include colonial revolutionaries, southern rebels, and frontier pioneers.

President Obama quickly seized upon the gun control issue in the wake of the eerie concurrence of mass shootings that ended with the Newtown tragedy. He may be trying to use the emotional energy surrounding these events as a wedge to break apart the heterogeneous conservative alliance. After all, what more powerful symbol of the threat to the future of our country could there be than the violent deaths of children and their teachers?

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Protest Bank of AmericaReclaiming my idealism in the streets of Charlotte, NC

I’ve been getting a lot of criticism lately for being angry. I realize my anger makes other people uncomfortable. But anger is part of human nature for a reason. Anger is a motivator. When our souls are on fire, we are moved to take action. Anger gets us off our butts watching people on TV do things and causes us to take action ourselves.

Just in case you’ve been wondering, the Occupiers didn’t go away. Like sensible creatures, they holed up for the winter, planning their next move. Their planning has offered me a good outlet for some of my anger–Occupy Wall Street South, a march against Bank of America on Wednesday, May 8, in Charlotte, NC, where I lived for 30 years until July 2011.

I worked for nine years for NCNB, a Bank of America predecessor bank. I had been educated in business, a BA in economics from Duke and an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill. I call those nine years with NCNB “The Period of My Disillusionment.”

I still remember the day in 1981 when the bosses came around and “suggested” I contribute to the NCNB-PAC. I had just finished business school. There, students had presented papers in my “Business and Society” class, the class that was supposed to cover ethics. For some reason, many of these presentations had been about PACs (Political Action Committees). Student presentations are boring so I hadn’t paid any attention. But ever since the Enron scandal I have thought that we should have spent more time in that class talking about ethics. Filling class time with student presentations was a cop-out for that professor, a foreshadowing of the ethical cop-outs MBAs subsequently helped to unleash on a gullible world that had entrusted them with our collective assets.

I am proud to say I had the courage to decline the arm-twisting to contribute to the NCNB-PAC, a bold move for a new employee.  Later I did contribute, when I understood that inter-state banking legislation was needed so that U.S. banks could get large enough to compete in increasingly global markets. I contributed  because I understood the issue, not because of corporate pressure.

In my bank job I managed the budget process for the operations subsidiary, figuring out how to quantify and track cost savings from our mergers with out-of-state banks. This was important stuff, so I worked up close and personal with senior executives and got to see how these people think. Their behavior, what they thought and cared about, is what disillusioned me. These men–and they were all men at the time–cared far more about ego and self-promotion than they did about the business of banking.

People say women are emotional and catty. These men were consummate back-stabbers, slammed doors on the executive floor, pouted and sulked, and were never happier than when they got big fat raises to spend on luxury cars and extravagant houses. Some did their jobs well, some didn’t. If you were a corporate executive, it meant you had played the corporate game well and picked the right coattails to ride on.

My observations are not sour grapes. I didn’t get fired, I quit my bank job in 1990 to focus on raising my children.  So the behavior I witnessed was way back in the 80s, when Ronald Reagan had made greed and excess acceptable again after the idealism of the 60s and 70s. Greed and excess became increasingly out of control until the 2008 financial crisis, which wiped out the financial security of hard-working people all around the world.

I don’t think Americans really understand the pain that our culture of greed has exported to the rest of the world. The recession is deepening in the Eurozone, where unemployment has risen again to almost 10%. In France recently, I was surprised by candidate posters in a primary election railing against the havoc wreaked by Wall Street and demanding retribution. In hard-hit Spain, citizens try to cope with a drink called the Anti-Crisis sold at bars for an affordable single euro.

It makes me angry that the unethical, self-motivated executives and their political accomplices who got us into this mess continue to live lavishly, while ordinary people who trusted these leaders suffer.

I am grateful to the organizers who are giving me a chance to participate in this protest in Charlotte. I did not participate in the protests in the 70s because I knew I did not fully understand the issues. I have always tried to think for myself. Most people don’t. Most people look to others to lead, and they follow.

Our corporate and political leaders led the world into disaster and I am not ashamed to be angry about it. After living in Charlotte for 30 years, I know a lot of people there, and my actions will make a lot of them uncomfortable. But you know, a lot of people all over the world are damned uncomfortable right now.

I am glad to be taking my anger to the streets of the town that trashed my idealism. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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