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February 16, 2009

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Third Year Option: Violence in America

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The United States of America is a violent country. On any average day in the U.S. there are 81 gun-related deaths. The murder rate for American men aged between 15 and 24 is 37 per 100,000 — 60 times that of England and Wales. In 25 years of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland, 3,000 people died. However, even this horrendous death toll pales in comparison to the murder rate of just one large American city. In New York, over 2,000 people were murdered every year from 1987 to 1994. The response of American law enforcement is to fight violence with violence: according to Amnesty International, in 2002 a total of 71 prisoners were executed in the United States — more than in Syria, North Korea Saudi Arabia and Libya combined.

The United States also exports violence abroad. Even in peacetime, it spends more on its defence budget than the next dozen countries combined. From the Berlin Blockade until just prior the World Trade Center attacks, there were over 200 American military incursions in other countries. No wonder that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Noam Chomsky reminded Americans that they should “recognize that in much of the world the U.S. is regarded as a leading terrorist state”.

Using examples from American literature, television, cinema, comic books, and popular music, the students on Brian Ireland's second-year module, Violence in America, are investigating America’s culture of violence. Why is the United States so violent? Some argue that the entertainment industry is to blame. Through watching contact sports, Hollywood movies, music videos, computer games and television shows, Americans unarguably are exposed to many violence images. For example, one survey has estimated that the average American child sees 200,000 violent acts on television by age 18, and witnesses 16,000 murders. Yet American culture is exported around the world, with no corresponding increase in levels of violence in those countries that are the most eager consumers of violent American entertainment. Some argue that America’s brutal past acts as a paradigm for today’s violent society. Perhaps the seeds of violence sown during the frontier wars against Native Americans, or during the African slave trade, are now being reaped? The United States is, however, not exceptional in having a violent history. Germany and Japan were responsible for two world wars, yet now have much lower levels of violent crime than the United States. Maybe it is the high level of gun ownership that leads to violence? The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that citizens have the “right to bear arms”, and this is one right that Americans are not slow to exercise: the FBI estimates, for example, that there are over 200 million privately-owned firearms in the United States. Nevertheless, gun owners claim that their weapons make them safer: the influential National Rifle Association promotes firearm ownership, claiming that citizens need to be armed to safeguard their political liberties. Indeed, they might argue, if it were not for well-armed citizen militias, the U.S. might still be part of the British Empire!

October 20, 2008

History Division News
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» News from the classroom ... Into the Victorian slum: in search of the real-life Fagin

Students taking Andy Croll’s History foundation module ‘Crime, Vice and Lowlife in the 19th century’ have spent the last two weeks thinking about the so-called ‘criminal’ classes. Many Victorians were convinced that the slums and rookeries of their great cities and towns were inhabited by a class of ne’er-do-wells who lived on the proceeds of crime and vice. One of the most notorious of these ‘little hells’ was the ‘China’ district of the South Wales iron town of Merthyr Tydfil. The inhabitants of China were supposed to have their own Emperor and Empress who headed-up an organised criminal network comprised of ‘rodnies’ (juvenile thieves), pimps, bullies and ‘nymphs of the pave’ (prostitutes). Marxist historians and writers of popular history were often happy to accept contemporary reports of an underclass of Robin Hood figures who lived outside the norms of bourgeois society. But recently scholars have cast doubt on the reliability of sources that were invariably penned by middle-class observers (like Henry Mayhew). Were the slums really populated by real-life Fagins, sharpers, mudlarks, magsmen and till-friskers or are such figures the products of the fevered imagination of waves of bourgeous social explorers who, too often, confused crushing poverty with immorality and viciousness? Can we, as historians, ever know?

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