Sandy Hook, Sandy and the politics of learned helplessness


“We have got to get Michelle to make this her priority.”

It was my friend Judith, a wise woman, a mother and grandmother, on the phone from across the country, the evening of the day of the Newtown massacre, trying to figure out how to enlist the first lady in a campaign against gun violence.

From the email Judith wrote her: “Unless from the top with unyielding outrage we rein in and destroy the gun lobby – unless we stigmatize the NRA as we stigmatized the Ku Klux Klan – we will be robbed of any claim we have to our children's and grandchildren's respect.”

She was calling to get my help to get Michelle Obama's attention. I was appalled by how effortlessly cynical was the response that came out of my mouth.

This one is different, I said. That's what everyone is saying, and it's true. Mowing down first-graders with a ” target=”_hplink”>Associated Press-Gfk poll was released; it found that 4 out of 5 Americans say global warming will be a serious U.S. problem unless action is taken to reduce it. “Belief and worry about climate change,” said the AP, “are inching up among Americans in general, but concern is growing faster among people who don't often trust scientists on the environment. In follow-up interviews, some of those doubters said they believe their own eyes as they've watched thermometers rise, New York City subway tunnels flood, polar ice melt and Midwestern farm fields dry up.”

” target=”_hplink”>350.org will continue to gain traction on college campuses. I have no doubt that the more stories about climate change that Americans hear and see, the more they will demand action from their representatives.

But as things stand, it is virtually inconceivable to me that our lawmakers will rise to the challenge. The petroleum industry swings as big a bat in Washington as the gun lobby. Even if the president has the second-term courage to propose it, our corrupt campaign finance system won't make an enlightened exception for a cap-and-trade bill. The fear of losing a race exceeds the fear of losing a planet.

Are special interests invincible? No, and each counter-example is a ray of hope, something we could all use this season. Last August, in the heat of the campaign, President Obama courageously doubled ” target=”_hplink”>it was called “a blow to the credibility and power of the nation's gun lobby,” proof that the “NRA is no longer bullet proof.” Still, I can't help noting that the CAFE standards were raised by executive action, and didn't require the assent of the Tea Party Congress. Or that the 1994 assault weapons ban was able to pass the House (by a razor-thin margin of 216 votes) because the NRA suffered 38 Republican defections, led by GOP leader Bob Michel of Illinois, who arguably was able to reverse his previous opposition to the ban because he – like several NRA-friendly Democrats who also voted for it – was about to retire from Congress. That fall, when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over the House, the narrative was born, and persists to this day, that bucking the NRA is political suicide.

This time around, I'd love my pessimism to be proven wrong. I'd be thrilled if Michelle Obama were the answer. I'd be grateful to rekindle my confidence in democracy. Learned helplessness is the status quo's most pernicious enabler, and I welcome any ladder out of this pit. But whether it's guns or climate change, poverty or plutocracy, war or water: whatever problem most troubles any of us, I'm convinced that the way forward requires a transformational solution to the power of money and fear to determine our national fate.


Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”> USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.