It took the New Zealand Prime Minister all of six days after a mass shooting incident to announce a ban on certain weapons of mass destruction. We’re talking about semi-automatic rifles, bump stocks, even high-capacity magazines. The Cabinet has already agreed to rid the country of those scourges. As soon as the Kiwi Parliament reconvenes in April, their absolute prohibition will be the law of the land.
New Zealand has endured only a single mass shooting in the last 20 years, but that one was enough to bring lawmakers together on behalf of common sense and the sanctity of human life. By contrast, in the past 20 years, we in America have seen 18 shooting sprees resulting in ten or more deaths and eight such sprees in the past four years. Yet here, except for the soon-to-be-implemented ban on bump stocks, the federal government doesn’t dare touch our guns. Semi-automatic weapons flood the landscape. High-capacity magazines rack up corpses in droves. Meanwhile, mentally-fragile residents can buy these insane killing tools without even needing to submit to a background check. And the leaders of our government? They duck and cover – much like the children at our schools during one of our increasingly common active shooter situations.
In the United States, whenever there is a mass shooting, the face of the event quickly becomes the head of the National Rifle Association – tough, macho, uncompromising, callous ... and victorious on Capitol Hill. In New Zealand, we are greeted instead by the face of a woman – equally tough, but also open-minded, empathetic, and transparent. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a mere 38 years old. Had she sought to be head of state in America, we surely would have heard a million reasons why she is unqualified. Too young. Weak. Wimpy. Unpresidential. Just imagine her grieving in public as she has done so often in the week after the recent massacre. The opposition party would mock her relentlessly for being someone foreign adversaries would never fully respect or take seriously. Instead, Americans would pine for the days of George W Bush, who after 9/11, expressed the desire to “find out who did this and kick their ass.” Ardern isn’t talking about kicking anyone’s ass. She’s simply mourning. And changing laws for the better.
What is it about America and its obsession with machismo? Is that why we love guns so much? Is that why we insist on permitting every Tom, Dick and Harry to own weapons that can take out scores of innocent people in a single spree? Why can’t we appreciate the strength behind feminine figures like Jacinda Ardern? Why can’t we appreciate that a lady who is publicly mourning is far more dignified than a cowboy bent on revenge?
I know I sound jealous of people from places like New Zealand or Scandinavia, where the values of femininity seem to be given more respect. The truth is, though, that I’m a loyal American, one who takes tremendous pride in so many aspects of American history and culture. And yet I’m also not deluded. Sometimes, you have to recognize your own flaws, or those of your country. And when you contemplate what it means to live in a place that has never elected a woman as head of state, has become the murder capital of the developed world, inures itself to hateful rhetoric from the highest levels of Government, and is so fundamentally partisan that it has trouble coming together even on common sense legislation, you find yourself saying that Houston, we have a problem.
It understates the point to say that we haven’t been electing women as President. Lately, we haven’t even been electing short men. Jimmy Carter was the last President who was 5’11” or shorter. He was elected 43 years ago, before Ronald Reagan touted the cowboy ethos and set the country on an economic path of haves and have nots. Four years after Reagan was first elected, he ran again – and this time, for the first time in history, there was a woman on the ticket (albeit in the #2 slot). That ticket came to be known, unaffectionately, as “Fritz and Tits.” They won only a single state.
In some respects, we’ve clearly made progress since 1984. In 2016, a woman ran for President and won the popular vote. Then again, when it came to the all-important Electoral College, she lost to a political novice who ran largely on a platform of tribalism and machismo, and who was caught on tape boasting that as a celebrity, he can grab women “by the pussy.” In some respects, he was perceived as the lout at the end of the bar. But his opponent was perceived as an intense, uppity woman – and in much of America, that’s the greater deal breaker.
Today in America, we have more women in political office than ever before. Many are in Congress. Some are even given a chance to win the Presidency. It’s true that none who seek the Democratic nomination is polling in the double digits (unlike two men who would become octogenarians by the end of their first term), yet I suspect that most of us believe that with the right personality, intelligence, experience, and policy chops, a woman might actually win the prize. But I also suspect that most of us believe that the lane to victory is far, far wider for a man. Stated differently, many a male American political candidate has been made of Teflon when it comes to surviving scandals, mistakes and limitations, whereas with a woman, it almost goes without saying that they’re made of Velcro.
That’s the situation here. Perhaps it is different in New Zealand. Perhaps the experience of seeing Jacinda Ardern unify her country with sympathy, rather than hatred, may remind her fellow citizens of what a wonderful choice they have made in a Prime Minister. Fortunately, the world is becoming a small place. Ardern’s compassion and courage are nearly as visible here as they are there. We might want to take note of what real leadership looks like. Now is not the time to get jealous. But it might be the time to emulate greatness when we see it.