News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: We Can Be Heroes

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

We Can Be Heroes

The following was written many years ago; I offer it as a historical oddity. It's premise is still valid--to my mind--but I'd rework and clarify my definition of the political.

Though nothing
Will keep us together
We could steal time
Just for one day
We can be heroes
For ever and ever
What d'you say

Heroes by David Bowie

Jonesboro, Arkansas. Littleton, Colorado. The pictures of young men strolling school hallways coldly and brutally shooting classmates like targets in a video game makes the blood run cold. The senselessness make the crimes so much more alien. These weren't kids who grew up surrounded by violence and despair--at least the kind we normally associate with killers, people say, as though children who do grow up in such surroundings are somehow allowed to be able to kill.

But the crimes in Colorado, Oregon, Arkansas, Pennsylvania differ from kids killing other kids over drugs, and spring from different causes. These are even more disturbing to contemplate than so-called gang violence, although it seems horrendously callus to think of children killing children as having gradations of terror. The disturbing factor in the school-yard killings is what I will call the political dimension of the crimes. This is a controversial position I hope to maintain in the following paragraphs, as well as the circumstances and repercussions of such a view, if true.

Confession of a Coulda Been Terrorist

I admit that I do not find incomprehensible the actions of the children committing the school yard slayings. I've felt similar anger. I fed on similar scenes of carnage in my adolescence. To say this does not mean I condone what they did--never. But it does mean that I have been in a psychological place and similar circumstances where that kind of violence was a possibility for me. To confess this means I can understand it.

I grew up in a town just north of the Mason-Dixon line surrounded by factories and farmland. I helped my grandparents bring in the hay, wheat and corn every summer. My father worked in an aluminum factory while my mother worked full-time as a hospital admissions clerk.

I spent my pubescence in the throes of the civil rights marches and the anti-Vietnam War protests. For several years, my favorite films were A Clockwork Orange and If. A Clockwork Orange has a perennial aura about it. Its stylized violence and vision of the future, spans generations. My teenage son loves A Clockwork Orange.

I don't think my son's seen IF, less known than Kubrick's classic. In the context of school yard killings, it is a prophetic film. Amazingly so.

IF director Lindsay Anderson's vision of two working class boys living a series of meaningless, desolate acts in an upper class boarding school, echoes the existential nihilism of Sartre and Camus. The emptiness and grainness of the film echo the lack of values that many felt in those days. This is an aspect of the glorious years of the 60s and early 70s that the image of flower power, free love, and peaceful idealism gloss over. There were also those who were drawn down darker paths where emptiness and despair lived.

Anderson's film carries on the British literary tradition of angry young working class males striking out at a society they found empty with hypocritical optimism and the decline of British influence around the world, as reflected in plays and films like Look Back in Anger. Yet, IF is noteworthy for its almost stultifying lack of eloquence. One could watch Richard Burton declaim eloquently John Osborne's words and feel moral outrage and perhaps even sympathy. Yet, Anderson's heroes have no fine moments or climactic scenes raw with emotional power. Emptiness builds on emptiness until the final brutal and bloody scenes, where the two boys lure their schoolmates' parents at graduation ceremonies into a courtyard below and mow them down with machine guns from the rooftops.

My fascination with IF was just that--mesmerized infatuation with the notion of committing a single act that would be unfathomable and seemingly incomprehensible. It would mean nothing except the raw sense of emotion that I felt during that moment of power and liberation. My freedom in that instant would stand as a testament to its power--power beyond words and beyond understanding. The ultimate power, of course, is when we hold the key to a meaning that we believe others cannot reach.

Where's the violence in all this? Well ten years of drug and alcohol abuse, black outs, aimless wandering from job to job, long periods of complete anti-social alienation and seclusion. All this time wracked by sadistic imagery and violent feelings, mainly taken out on myself, but always there below the surface. These experiences make me keenly aware of what these young men must've felt and thought when they entered those schools, ready to kill and be killed.

Beyond Words

President Clinton's words after Jonesboro present a telling testament to today's political discourse. "We don't know now and we may never fully understand what could have driven two youths to deliberately shoot into a crowd of their classmates." The President's words intone a theodicy that only a man whose religion is politics could say. I don't say that disparagingly. I refer to a possible way of understanding religion and politics in the modern world--much as the German philosopher Hegel did.

For the President, the youth of the criminals, as well as the nature of the crimes, questions very deeply held beliefs about human nature and the boundaries that define social cohesion.

These crimes are unthinkable for children. The planning, the premeditation, the predation, all point to a threshold of unthinkability surpassing the cognitive skills or even the moral resources that children are normally expected or understood to possess. Children should not be able to formulate actions that transgress these thresholds. That they could and did formulate these actions is incomprehensible, non-thinkable.

In the President's words, supernatural boundaries are transgressed; boundaries that define a properly functioning and moral society. The president's words are the shadow of a great anxiety. To break the sacred bonds that hold society together threatens to throw us into an abyss of fear and anarchy. His words try to fill in the abyss by ruling out comprehending the boys' actions. That is, by saying the actions are somehow of a supernatural order, we cannot ever hope to lay hold of the reasoning behind their acts, since there was no reasoning.

An important notion in modern America is the idea of a child's natural-born innocence. This innocence, in normal circumstances, should protect them from the possibility of murder. William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies, depicts human nature in a different light. In Golding's novel, left to their own devices children can and will perform greatly savage acts. Golding's book is perhaps as shocking a revelation to commonly accepted notions about children as was Freud's discovery that children are sexual beings. The socially constructed nature of innocence throws us back onto the seemingly terrible vision of having no basis in reality on which to formulate a positive, irrevocably and eternally transparent, basis for moral behavior.

The problem with Golding's depiction and Freud's, however, is that they appear to say that these are permanent features of human nature. But is there such a thing as human nature? Or do we perform certain acts given certain social, political, economic circumstances? What we should realize is that human nature is not solidified, and while in some circumstances children might act like the ones in Lord of the Flies, in other situations they will act differently. As the poet William Blake was keenly aware of, innocence is often a function of social injustice and status quo.

Political Nihilism

Several months after the rampage at Jonesboro, a strange web site appeared on the Internet. Filled with discussion of cannibalism, serial murders, and anarchist diatribes, the site valorized the perpetrators of the school yard killings as revolutionaries.

Of course, it is easy to dismiss this web site as an expression of simple aberrance. The youthful creators of this web site, however misguided, saw the acts at Jonesboro as politically revolutionary. Why or how could someone look at life this way? Is it the confusion of unbalanced young minds, the joking of demented pranksters?

Political acts often involve groups of individuals exhibiting organized behavior to reach recognizable goals. Terrorism is a political act if it has a political goal such as overthrowing a government. The problem with Jonesboro and Littleton is that there is no identifiable goal. This lack of a clearly defined goal comprises what I call the nihilistic or randomness and emptiness of the actions.

Nihilism as political expression acts in direct opposition to political categories simply by opposing no counter-claims of any kind. Often, the nihilist terrorist makes completely absurd statements. It is the seemingly irrational nature that is the essence of nihilism. The violence ann the irrationality testify to the validity of the action. The violent act itself--in whatever form--is a statement of political belief. Indeed, as Albert Camus showed in The Rebel, the ultimate nihilistic act is to commit an act with no goal and no reason--a defiant bloodstained hand thrown in the teeth of what the rebel perceives as an ultimately unjust existence. Nihilistic opposition to the state is an opposition to the injustice of existence as a whole.

Some of this can be seen in the utter inability of the young men at Jonesboro to defend their actions or even to begin to describe how or why they acted the way they did. The most detailed account of the inner workings of their minds was provided by Klebold at Littleton. His rambling pages espouse everything from contradictory hatreds to some form of personal superiority to other human beings, somewhat akin to Nazi eugenics theories. The nagging question that rises from these pages, however, is still Why?

Postnational Identity

I think there's much to Camus' interpretation of political nihilism. Yet, the cultural milieus of the American teenagers and what they did before they committed these acts shows some commonalties that bring into focus sociological factors that Camus does not discuss. These factors provide the possibility of better understanding these acts on a critical and existential plane.

The key similarity is that the perpetrators of these crimes grew up in communities undergoing a clash between modern technological values and older, more traditional communities. The Littleton teenagers lived in a traditionally agrarian and ranching community that had recently become the suburban homes for Denver. The older boy at Jonesboro had lived in the city for most of his life and had moved to the more traditional community. Classmates reported him as idolizing inner city gang behavior.

The term culture war is not new in American political jargon. Beyond the cant of this term, this clash is best characterized as the clash between Christian-based value system and the more fluid, less clearly defined values of modern technological society. While the former stresses stability and rootedness, the latter recognizes fast-paced change and innovation. Instead of views and opinions passed down from generation to generation, you have every value scrutinized and tested under a microscope.

The clash can be seen in the way women's roles have changed and how this change is greeted in rural America. Traditional America sees women who seek non-traditional life-styles as either transgressing sacredly ordained roles, or seeking special rights that give them a unique social or economic status or political advantage. The animosity directed at women in such enclaves of our society can be strong, bitter, and hidden.

The issue of guns is another example of the conflict between different ways of viewing what is the right way to live one's life. In rural communities guns are seen as a rite of passage. To take away a gun is in a way to take a person's identity from them. For urban dwellers, however, there are no such rites of passage. Guns are simply a symbol of violence used in murders and other crimes.

These examples point up the notion that a vacuum exists in American culture. Children exposed to this vacuum, I am arguing, find it difficult to develop a sense of self that sustains them and provides a solid base upon which to develop a strong sense of who they are. Many children are able to make the transition through this vacuum. Yet, others do not. Those who do not fit in or are marginalized in the way that the Littleton teenagers were or even the older Jonesboro boy show how explosive living in that vacuum can be.

This type of reaction is not new. The reaction against Americanism in Islamic countries exhibits is just as violent. And the religious fundamentalist response is also important to see. What we are seeing in America is a reflection of this type of fundamentalism, but with a characteristically American twist. It has many guises--from the self-styled super-men at Littleton to the wannabe gangsta at Jonesboro. We see a form of life emerging that attempts to create self-awareness from a cultural context lacking stable values while seeking some form of coherence and meaning.

In Postnational Identity, Martin Matustik analyzes the political, cultural and psychological underpinnings of modern-day ethnic strife in Eastern Europe. For Matustik, communism was an ideological system that tried to answer all existential and socio-political questions. Its failure caused immense despair individually, since the beliefs and socio-political structures that developed around the ideology were stripped away and people were left little meaning upon which to base their actions.

Seeking a valid meaning in the face of this ideological collapse, countries and individuals moved away from systems that promised universal solutions, supposedly based on certain scientific principles and facts. Nationalistic and racial mythologies took their place. Personal identity became identified with group identity. But what is someone to do? People need a meaning their acts. For many, the collapse of communism proves how the search for certainty and absolute truths in politics cannot be based on science. Instead, they must be found in a set of values that play on differences between peoples. What sets apart is certain, and what is the same as I--culturally, physically, politically--has a psychological appeal.

Matustik proposes that we develop what he calls "open identities." People exhibiting this form of individuality would not accept any social or political institution as final and absolute, realizing, however, the need for socially responsible action. This type of individual would always remain open to the possibility that any previously accepted values are open to critique and change. On the social level this means multiculturalism and democratic socialism.

On the personal identity level, it means non-dogmatic, existentialist attitudes that confront life as a continuing and open possibility for change and redefinition. Such attitudes would enable individuals to accept difference in others, while maintaining a sense of self that did not disintegrate in the face of challenges to accepted norms from various cultural, scientific, and interpersonal encounters. The emphasis is on continued ethical responsibility to the Other--"naked openness of the face to the nakedness of the other."

For Matustik, the political and individual aspects are imperative. One must live an open society that is willing to challenge previous beliefs based on new evidence and democratic debate. But to stabilize this social form, one must have individuals who withstand an ever-changing challenge to personal self-perception. For Matustik, this means accepting the existentialist notion that identity has no pre-given basis in objectivity, but is a continuous exercise of will in the face of ever-new possibilities for meaning and self-awareness.

On the Brink

America has seen the advent of modern nihilistic terrorism not only in its schools. Self-styled militias and white supremacists, acting alone, have committed terrible acts to undermine the legitimacy of the ruling powers. The narrative that underlies the motivation for these acts presents an image of identity that stresses sameness and group solidarity. The political nihilistic response is even less well defined, taking its imagery and motivation from urban culture to video games to so-called goth life-styles to Nazi romanticism.

What these phenomena share is their response to a cultural schism in America wherein traditional values are undermined by rational debate and technological regimentation. The human animal seeks meaning in the face of the failure of traditional values. When these are not found, the potential violence is great. We must foster institutions and personal life-styles that remain open to change and difference among individuals. Without this, we will see continued violence and the eventual destruction of democratic values by fascist/nihilist factions.

1 comment:

Sought and Fought said...

Your observation that only a man "whose religion is politics" strikes me as very astute. The combination of words in itself is profound. The idea of the "open identity" is interesting, but something that would seem to be very difficult and stressful. I think that it is a great concept and have been thinking about it as well, it is very hard. I think it is sad that these boys have sacrificed their lives based on a misunderstanding of what life is.