First Vice. Second Vice. Third Vice.
No, this isn't a plot synopsis from the movie Se7en. It's a recounting of some of the offices that were up for grabs in the organization my parents belonged to, the Catholic War Veterans. The CWV was a big part of the social fabric of my home growing up, as well as of the parish we belonged to. The CWV (and for the ladies, the CWV Auxiliary) was a parish-based vets group -- a Catholic version of the American Legion and the DAV (Disabled American Veterans). They had their own uniforms -- powder blue military-style jackets and pants, topped by blue or white garrison caps with yellow piping. The auxiliary ladies was similarly accoutered, with white dresses and shoes and a smart cape as well. They marched in all the military parades and held "communion breakfasts" in which they would attend Mass in uniform, followed by breakfast in the church basement. They had monthly meetings where they discussed upcoming events and fundraisers for charity. They held oratorical contests (to give students a way to participate) and ran the bingo. They had chaplains (usually, one of the parish priests) and a patron saint--Sebastian, the arrow-riven Roman soldier martyred for his conversion to Christianity.
And they had officers.
Each post (parish unit) had a commander and several vice-commander posts. There was a historian and treasurer. And installations -- meetings where these officers were formally imbued with authority to hold their position. They had state meetings, where representatives from all the local posts met to elect state commanders and other officials. There was even a national level, with its own officers. Same for the CWVA -- the ladies' arm of the organization.
By day, these men and women were ordinary clerks, nurses, workers and housewives. But on meeting nights, they transmogrified into commanders and titled officers with rituals and salutes and a place in the community. They even got the local paper to cover their events. Though their impact on the wider world might have been small, they felt important. Part of the warp and weft of the local scene.
Fast forward fifty years.
Organizations like the CWV are fairly rare nowadays. Manufacturing, with its ability to elect shop foremen and union officers, has largely gone overseas. Church attendance is way down. As described in Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, there has been a collapse in the number of ways in which ordinary people gather. And that means a collapse in the ways in which ordinary people can find minor leadership roles.
And that is a problem.
Leadership is a powerful means for gaining status. Anyone who has ever led a condo association or run a church knitting ministry understands the thrill and sometimes oversized sense of prestige that goes with holding even a very minor office. But when opportunities for leadership diminish by the day, where do ordinary people go to feel prestige? When the small pond dries up, where do the big fish go?
It's curious to me that at the same time that small organizations are losing membership, nationalism, xenophobia and gun-ownership are on the rise. Is it possible that people (and I mean men for the most part), deprived of the status lent by leadership in small organizations like the CWV, are reaching for the instant prestige that comes from spouting hatred toward foreign ideas and from owning guns? It's an interesting question to which I have no answers.
In Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, right between love/family below and self-actualization above, comes esteem. As Wikipedia tells us, we "need to feel respected; this includes the need to have self-esteem and self-respect. Esteem presents the typical human desire to be accepted and valued by others." For the educated, esteem can come from earning degrees or getting promotions. But what about the mass of ordinary people without access to higher education or the corporate ladder? Might esteem then come from being a self-styled community "guardian" with a few pairs of camo pants, a firearm, and a big truck festooned with an NRA sticker?
If my theory is right, then it has interesting implications for those wishing to wean Americans from their love affair with guns. It means that gun ownership is driven not only by a media that thrives on scaring its viewers, nor by politicians pandering to nationalist sentiments, but to deeply-rooted and hard-to-eradicate psychological needs.
A country that ships good jobs overseas (depriving people of the prestige of having a job and a good salary), shifts money to its wealthy (threatening the ability of ordinary folks to gain status by owning nice things) and pushed up the cost of post-secondary education (making esteem-building upward mobility less and less possible) is cramming powder into a keg of inexpressible self-respect that is sure to have serious consequences. Whether that means increased violence or support for interventionist wars abroad or the election of demagogues to powerful offices is impossible to guess.
We would do well to think of ways to defuse this ticking time bomb of this intolerable psychic pressure. It might be time to revisit the "vices"--to reverse the trends that divide us into smaller and smaller units, until we all stand alone and afraid. With our guns by our sides and our hatreds burning brightly.