It's been one hell of a couple of weeks, hasn't it? I scarcely know where to begin.
Kurt Vonnegut died not yet two weeks ago, and I believe I'm still spinning. Not because he died, but because of the way his death was bookended with breathtaking ferocity. And part of me wonders what his words would have been about it all.
The first thing that happened, a week before Mr. Vonnegut shambled along, was that an old white man, undoubtedly the product of his generation and its deeply buried but frequently emergent prejudices, went and got uppity. He was joshing with his buddies, the way old fools are given to do, and as they grew more and more intoxicated on the liquor of their self-perceived hilarity, he went and impugned the reputation of some tremendously talented Black women. This he did on a nationwide radio broadcast.
For his crime, he was lynched (professionally) by a furious mob that had been goaded to a frenzy by two men who claim (professionally) the title of "Reverend," though I admit I have never seen much reverence from either one. Their wont is to play the race card, not the God card, but they too, are old men and products of this same generation, one in which the title of Reverend held respect and authority in the eyes of young, impressionable Black youth. But years ago, their focus shifted from Reverend King to Reverend Run, and I would imagine it's long since shifted to someone new, whose closest association with God might come during an acceptance speech at the Grammys.
But I'm a middle aged white man, and have no intention of getting uppity myself; enough damage has been done. If you have a question about the perspective of today's Black youth, or the changing attitudes of rap and hip-hop, or how a Black man can see our muddy society with equanimity, then please take a dose of my colleague Jason Gilmore. He's a better writer and musician than I am; I don't understand why he doesn't own this website yet.
Kurt Vonnegut gleefully described himself as a humanist and a Luddite. According to the Oxford American Dictionary, humanists "stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems." A Luddite is a person who is "opposed to increased industrialization and new technology."
I am not a Luddite. I enjoy technology. Technology, of its own accord, does nothing to hurt people. People, on the other hand, do plenty to hurt other people, which is why I am not a humanist.
Less than a week after exeunt Vonnegut, another fellow, undoubtedly the product of his generation and its consuming need for self-aggrandizement, took a decidedly irrational solution to his all-too-human problems. Thirty-two other people, who were preoccupied with thoughts of boyfriends and waffles and engineering and the potential value and goodness of human beings, were stripped of their lives in the course of it.
This young man, Cho Seung-Hui, was what (in the old, pre-PC days) they would've called a nutcase. Now he's troubled. Maybe he was molested. Certainly he was bullied. There must be an excuse, a rational way of explaining away this human problem. Some way to shift the blame, so the lawyers can be fed. Never mind that Cho put the last bullet in his own head; the mob howls to the media from slavering jaws eager for a scapegoat or two, starting with the school president and the head of campus security. The quest starts before the bodies are cold.
Now what will it give you howlers to break these men? To ride them out of Blacksburg on a rail? It will not bring these sons and daughters back; if it did, believe me, I'd be howling right with you. You are angry and powerless and must somehow deny this part of you that desperately wants a rational way to solve this human problem because you will never get an answer to WHY.
If Cho tried to explain why in his media-branded manifesto, I'll never hear it. I have no use for the rantings of a madman. Why doesn't matter. Call it irrational. Call it insane. Call HIM insane, while you're at it.
Speaking of, I recall the first court case I came close to hearing as a juror. It turned out to be a competency hearing, or something like it; we would have been deciding whether or not a patient at the state mental hospital was in any condition to be released. We took a short recess during jury selection and ambled out to the hallway and there was our subject, strapped to a gurney.
Why? Doesn't matter. It's a fait accompli. Perception is everything.
Cho, anything but a Luddite, knew this well and utilized all the technology at his disposal to build up his self-perception. He was a dark, vengeful killer. He was Jesus Christ, ready to die for the disenfranchised poor. He was Oh Dae-Su. And so he raged into his video camera until he was intoxicated on the liquor of his self-perceived power. Did he believe everything he said? Doesn't matter.
Fifty years ago, someone like Cho would've been tossed into a padded cell, or at least strapped to a gurney for a good long while. Nowadays we pump 'em full of chemicals like we're Gene Wilder playing Doc Frankenstein, thinking we can magically balance the fluids somehow. That's ironic, I think, given that the government has a habit of ruling mind-altering chemicals to be illegal and a threat to the stability of our society.
No one ever speaks up and says, "Hey, this guy's crazy in the coconut. Perhaps he's a threat to the stability of our society. Let's get him away from the public, toot sweet!"
Unless the guy in question is a cantankerous old fool who has spattered the airwaves with nonsense for years and been handsomely paid for it.
Don Imus killed no one, publicly apologized, and was forgiven by the women he had insulted. That should have been the end of it, but people demanded their lump of flesh, and he was fired. Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 people and then killed himself. That should have been the end of it, but it was just last week, and so people are still demanding their lump of flesh.
That's the kind of rot that's eating up our world. Not Imus and his tub of stupid. Not Cho and his lethal insanity. It's the persistence of it. The inescapable, timeless scorekeeping of all the bad things that happen every day, whipped into stiff peaks by the press and repurposed as Wikipedia entries and MySpace pages so that we, like Billy Pilgrim, have lost all concept of when. It's already happened, but it's still happening. We can't move on. We can't forget, and we can't forgive.
We're Americans, and we have two ways of dealing with crises: we litigate and we build monuments.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut repeats the line "and so it goes" at instances involving death. It's numbing in its repetition. I'm amazed the networks haven't picked up on it. Thirty-three dead in Blacksburg. And so it goes. One hundred and ninety-eight killed in one day in Baghdad -- funny how desensitized we're getting to that. And so it goes. Five young girls are shot to death in an Amish schoolhouse in Paradise, PA. And so...
Do you remember this story? From just over six months ago? It's vague now, isn't it? Another crazed gunman walks into a schoolroom, lines up the students and begins killing them. So much like now.
But within hours, Amish neighbors of the shooter were comforting his family. "We must not think evil of this man (the shooter)," the grandfather of one of the murdered students told the media that same day. And ten days later, workmen pulled down the simple schoolhouse, and the site was graded into pasture.
Graded into pasture. Now there's a loaded phrase. "Graded" means smoothed over, made level. "Pasture," of course, is a place where you graze animals, where they find sustenance. We also talk of putting things "out to pasture" -- taking them out of the everyday routine once they're past their usefulness.
The Amish didn't look for scapegoats after the fact. They didn't sue anyone, or force the schoolteacher to resign. They smoothed things over. They put grief and blame out to pasture, and from a place of sorrow they built a place of sustenance.
The Amish are as Luddite as they come. They are not, however, humanists, despite their emphasis on common human needs and their willingness to stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, even that of a human being who killed their children. If they say, "And so it goes," it isn't out of numbness to their situation, it's because they're saying "Why doesn't matter." They accept that irrational things happen, that people often are stupid or wicked. They don't look for excuses or explanations. They move on. They forgive.
If you're still with me this far, I appreciate your perseverance. We're getting very near the end.
In a essay not unlike this one (in that it, too, rambled much) Kurt Vonnegut explained how he had succeeded the late Isaac Asimov as the honorary president of the American Humanist Association. Addressing the group, he garnered laughs by zinging, "Isaac is in heaven, now." (Humanists, in principle, shy away from such abstract, irrational concepts.) Vonnegut laughed, too, and hoped someone would make the same joke about himself one day. Rest assured, many have.
I suppose he might have found "Kurt is in hell, now" just as funny. That's a tough call. Maybe he's there. That's a tougher call.
Maybe hell is a small room with an uncomfortable metal folding chair and a tin speaker scratching out old Don Imus broadcasts. Maybe Cho Seung-Hui is there, too. Who knows? Not I. Contemplating his fate is as pointless a task as contemplating his motive.
And, ultimately, it doesn't matter.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
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4.23.07 @ 1:04a
There is nothing that annoys me more than people who drone on and on asking "WHY?" when the answer just doesn't matter. I usually associate the thoughtless and repetitive question of "why?" with a child whose parents have asked him to stop playing with his food... and much like my answer would be to that child, my answer to an adult with a presumably fully developed mind, would be a simple "Just because. Deal with it." Shit happens. People snap, and sometimes people die. None of it is necessary, but it happens, and asking why and even finding the answer isn't going to bring people back from the dead. The thousands of people who die violent deaths around the globe don't deserve to die any more than those at Virginia Tech... and they're not missed any less. It's as George Carlin once put it: "Not in my backyard". America suffers from this distorted view of itself and the world.
4.23.07 @ 1:22a
I have to disagree to an extent. The why of a situation does matter. It doesn't ease the pain inflicted, but knowing why might prevent the same thing from happening in the future.
Being bullied or molested or both is only part of it. Maybe a chemical imbalance was at play?
Granted none of this will comfort the families of those murdered, but if something can be learned from the actions of the shooter that will prevent someone else from doing the same thing then knowing why is very important.
Life goes on no matter what. You can't comfort everyone. It may not be a popular viewpoint, but in the last month 35 people around the same ages as those students killed were murdered in Iraq, some because they either couldn't afford college, weren't bright enough for college, or were planning on college after serving in the military. We should feel just as much outrage and sadness over those victims.
If Imus hadn't been fired last week, after this weeks events he wouldn't have been. He would've faded from the media. Personally he's kind of irrelvant. I haven't listened to him since 1980.
4.23.07 @ 3:14a
Ultimately, I believe the question of why doesn't matter. Though it lingers when the ugly and shocking things happen outside of our control, I think we can afford to take a point from the Amish (or for that matter, Taoism or Buddhism) and just take it for granted that ugliness is inevitable. There will be another Imus who says something shockingly tasteless. There will be another like Cho Seung-Hui. It sucks to live knowing this is part of it. But there it is.
However, though we don't have any control over why tragic and stupid things happen, we do have power over how we conduct ourselves. We can't prevent killings. Nor can we always clap a hand over someone's mouth. But we are able to help someone who's suffered. If the victim happens to be us, we have the power to be anything that isn't vindictive, sensationalizing, or hateful for no reason- we have the choice not to become the very ugly thing that caused our pain. If anything, we have it in us to know that shit happens, forgive others, forgive ourselves, and as time passes and suffering subsides- we have it in us to move on and know better. Maybe if we focused on the "how" instead of screaming "why" demanding for blood, we wouldn't have as much distortion in our lives. Who knows- life might even be a little easier.
4.23.07 @ 3:53a
knowing why might prevent the same thing from happening in the future
"And knowing is half the battle," right?
Take a minute to read this, excerpts of which follow:
in 2005 Cho was declared mentally ill by a Virginia special justice, who declared he was "an imminent danger" to himself, a court document states.
A temporary detention order from General District Court in the commonwealth of Virginia said Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness."
A box indicating that the subject "Presents an imminent danger to others as a result of mental illness" was not checked.
In another part of the form, Cho was described as "mentally ill and in need of hospitalization, and presents an imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness, or is so seriously mentally ill as to be substantially unable to care for self, and is incapable of volunteering or unwilling to volunteer for treatment."
Knowing all of this — as long ago as 2005 — and yet that wasn't enough to trigger red flags? No, I don't believe for an instant that retroactively analyzing Cho is going to produce a "Field Guide to Homicidal Youth," to be distributed to campuses all over the world. The Columbine shooters got their 15 minutes under the microscope EIGHT YEARS ago. Didn't seem to help Cho...or in the 30 other significant school shootings that have happened between then and now.
I suppose there probably have been SOME interventions. We don't hear about the crazies who are taken off the streets, only the ones who shoot up the town. So maybe we've been spared dozens more shootings. But Cho Seung-Hui was practically wearing a T-shirt that said "I'm going to break at some point, and when I do, I'm taking people with me."
We've had plenty of opportunities to learn. Each new shooting reveals we haven't learned a thing.
4.23.07 @ 8:41a
It seems to be written in human DNA the ability to be wonderfully kind, caring and loving and the ability to be vile, mean and hateful --- good or evil, if you will. Most of us manifest a combination of these opposing categories, and we're often heard to say, "There but for the grace of (something) go I." As a humanist and a behaviourist I used to think that education and proper early conditioning could prevail over all the bad DNA. As I've grown old and cantankerous I'm not so sure. At 9:46 a.m., on Saturday, April 14th, I quit smoking, and I haven't killed anybody yet. That in itself is a minor triumph of "humanism." Mine or somebody's, who knows, who cares? I've wept for the victims at VT, just as I weep each night Lehrer shows those pictures of our dead military people. They are all so young and so beautiful and had their whole lives before them. Death is sad. I grieve for the Iraqi people who are hurt or killed or thrust from their homes by these violent times in their country. I weep for the people of Darfur. Weeping helps me cope with it all. When those of us who are sane and relatively intact can weep no more we'll be in real trouble. It doesn't help the victims, since nothing can help them, but it helps us to deal better with horrible things, and perhaps improve it all somehow, sometime.... If not now, when? If not we, who?
4.23.07 @ 10:33a
"Why" does matter, and here's (excuse me) why. In the face of loss, victims' loved ones want to come to an understanding of what happened, including that "why." Now, the understanding that they settle on might be 180 degrees wrong, but correctness is not as important as having that understanding.
Humans seem to have a need to believe that things don't happen at random. They invent gods and goddesses and conspiracy theories and aliens and elaborate paranoid fantasies just to avoid randomness.
I'm sure the Amish families had their own understanding of why, and their own means of finding it. What's different for them situation was how gracefully the community moved on.
4.23.07 @ 10:37a
I think we have a responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another.
Yet we don't take responsibility for one another.
My point is that it really isn't hard to teach children not to point at or pick on others that are different. It's not really hard to reign in your finger flipping at the car in front of you going too slow. It really isn't hard to smile at a stranger.
When I did mental health research, I was amazed at the people who would open up and tell me things that they, admittedly, had never told anyone. They didn't need to tell me this to make me feel better - they always had the right to refuse to answer anything I asked them.
They -wanted- a confessional. They -wanted- kindness from a stranger. For most of these people, I was in their lives for 3 hours at the most. Then, gone.
But in that time, they didn't feel alone with their thoughts or feelings. They were not judged, or persecuted.
I think that when we drive down a country road, and a farmer we don't know waves at us, the philosophy of how we should treat everyone is really as simple as that. Pass, friend, in safety and goodwill, though I may never see you again.
4.23.07 @ 2:22p
This is what I'm talking about. The absurdity.
4.23.07 @ 11:04p
The world is full of crazy people. The shooter was failed by society long before he was even in high school. He didn't crack, he shattered, and the result of society ignoring it was mass murder. I'm not saying had he even gotten help, real help, long term help, that at some point he wouldn't have gone on a shooting spree. I just thing people need to be aware of every fact so they can make their own determinations and protect themselves.
I don't think arming the entire student body is the answer either. Violence begats violence. People need to watch out for each other, and help each other, and pull together instead of dividing over every issue.
I don't know if the professor in Boston was right, or went about teaching in an appropriate manner, but his was one interpretation of the situation. I came from a background and time when these things didn't happen. Columbine stunned me, and since then there have been many such instances of shock and awe.
As I'm writing this CNN is showing the first day back to classes at VT. They launched 1000 balloons at a ceremony this morning, and my first thought was surprise that environmentalists aren't already complaining because letting balloons go that way is environmentally unfriendly. In NJ they never would've been allowed to do such a thing.
Life does go on. I'm sorry the world is such a terrible place, but it does go on.
4.24.07 @ 9:28p
'Why' doesn't matter. Vonnegut proved that in Rosewater.
How is all that matters. That poor sorry asshole at Virginia Tech had all the "why's" in the world but none of the "how's" and look what he did.
That's why he did what he did. If it only had to do with being crazy, we should all be executed tomorrow because we ALL have that in us.
There's a better way to deal with rage and hate and Vonnegut was one of the few willing to eschew his own best interest by illustrating some of those delicious conundrums we find ourselves in.
Thanks for writing this Russ. You're right about Vonnegut, and Jason Gilmore, and a lot of other things bro.