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Men and Guns and Murdered Sleep

UPDATE: A shorter version of this piece, with a somewhat different focus and some extra authority, also appears at the Baha’i Teachings website.

I can’t help myself. I have to say something about Santa Barbara, but what to say that others haven’t about a young “man” – oh, how that word is mutating like attention-deficit cancer cells – who so pathetically, so enragingly, so outrageously, so pitiably, so hatefully, so sadly and so narcissistically wore all his grievances on his electronic sleeve. Then he found, what – not courage, for God’s sake – enough petulance-gone-mad, enough entitlement-gone-toxic, enough Internet-chutzpah-gone-fatally-virulent, to spew the tantrums of a deeply spoiled child with the sick can-do of an adult, and with the cold metal of “equalizers” that would never require him to face his victims as an equal. God help the innocent. God help us all to sleep, and to keep finding hope and goodness.

The numbers are hard to gather, let alone fathom. Just in the USA, some dedicated carnage-counters in the gun-addled States (the on-line magazine Slate, for one) throw out statistics that mainly seem to numb us. “35,000 gun deaths since Sandy Hook”. “A mass shooting every five days.” “90 American gun deaths per day.” And so on. More than half of these are suicides without the murder, it appears, since guns are the American way to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them… So yes, Hamlet, there’s that, but at a certain level of super-hero self-hatred, offing yourself just isn’t cinematic enough anymore.

But there’s more. I read one powerfully sarcastic Tweet, somewhere, which went something like this: Well, at least we can obsess over guns and mental health issues and be sure there’s no wider and underlying societal illness! Now, isn’t that the coldest of ironic “comforts”? Less sarcastic, Baha’u’llah wrote 150 years ago that “the whole human race is encompassed with great, with incalculable afflictions. We see it languishing on its bed of sickness, sore-tried and disillusioned… [and] neither discover[ing] the cause of the disease, nor have they any knowledge of the remedy. They have conceived the straight to be crooked, and have imagined their friend an enemy…” We all pull in different directions. We jump in our safe-house rhetorical bunkers, and we point fearful fingers. We don’t know what’s good for us.

I keep circling around a seemingly unrelated idea. We’re more and more aware of the price we pay for an economic (dis)order that, here in China and also in the West, creates ever-greater extremes of wealth and poverty. And isn’t sex a potent kind of currency? The man-boy in the UC-Santa Barbara headlines – I won’t name him – was tortured by his perception, likely true, that too many others (less deserving!) were getting lots of what he craved (it’s my right!). It used to be said that America was the worst place in the world to be poor. (Brazil and China are giving it a run for its money.) Worst, it is, because of the in your face evidence of conspicuous and obscene wealth that the poor in that society (those societies, many societies) are forced to witness. The pathetic wannabe alpha-male in this sadly less than shocking case saw other men “getting” unconscionably high rates of return on their sexual investments, while he, the self-proclaimed “true gentleman”, went without. The injustice of it! And there is a twisted, bitter kind of logic to it.

Michael Moore made Bowling for Columbine on the absurdities and horror of the American fascination for guns — it’s 12 years old now, if you can believe it — and doesn’t know what to say anymore. (Then says it: “Guns don’t kill people. Americans kill people” and “It will happen again very soon.” Et cetera.) I didn’t think I had anything new or useful to say, either, but better to write at 4 a.m. than lie in the dark pretending to. I’m right where I was in April of 2007, when I wearily wrote about the “self-loathing narcissism” of the Virginia Tech shooter. I sickened myself, back then, by watching his video rant; I didn’t click on the Santa Barbara coward’s manifesto, but I can’t get it out of my head: the image of that smug, damaged little person behind the wheel of his proxy manhood, trying so hard to Be Somebody. So no, no pictures in this post.

While we’re here, if your stomach is strong and you’re inclined to try to understand the worst, this Slate article on the on-line reaction of the “Pick-Up Artist” – ye gods below, can we call it a community? – yes, the PUA collective of dunces and manipulators and moral midgets, well, it’s suitably depressing. It brutally highlights the modern commoditization of sex, and of women, sampling some of the PUA torrent of toxic self-justification and cancerous cynicism. I’ve thought for a long time that men (and the boys that become them) are in desperate trouble, but the Slate piece toured a mindset that made me think, Shit. It’s worse than I thought.

It’s difficult to invoke sexual morality here, and I won’t try too hard, but in an imagined world of traditional, faithful bonding between two people, there’s a kind of sexual democracy at work. Not everybody finds mates, but the majority that do have their degree of intimate consolations, and it’s all an essentially private matter. On a California campus, I daresay, to extend this sexual wealth metaphor just a little farther, the rich get richer – in a flaunted, hugely arrogant and even vaguely bullying way – and the poor feel deprived, insulted, humiliated by the constant evidence of their inadequacy and social uselessness. The jocks and the guitar slingers get “money for nothin’ and chicks for free”, as Mark Knopfler may still have to sing.

One of the sexually impoverished took action, and yes, I sure as hell want to blame him. On the other hand, when society’s moral infrastructure fails, and the sewers back up, and there is a rising tide of cultural waste (and wasted men and sometimes-willingly objectified women), there may not be enough hip waders to go around. Those that are emotionally stunted might just drown in this shit, and some will take down others as they madly flail for something solid to hold on to. One just did, and Moore’s right: we know that more will follow.

Comments (6)

  1. Michael Freeman

    I am having a hard time believing that this act of violence, or any related or similar act of violence, is simply or categorically wrapped up by calling it “misogyny”. Did this guy massacre all those people to get revenge against women? To avenge past ills perceived in his relation to women?

    I believe that he hated himself, and could not reconcile his hatred of self before he decided to find release in such heinous and despicable ways. When hatred directed inward builds to insane levels, perpetrators look for outward release. He doesn’t/didn’t hate women. He wanted to find someone to love, but couldn’t. Yes, his final act looks like that of a misogynist, but his hate of self was the basis of his action. Women were a convenient, and available target, the scapegoats for a coward that could not stand, or did not have the skills, to look deep within himself for answers. Even if he had found some inside of himself, he couldn’t bear to accept them.

    It is easier to blame others than to identify deficiencies in oneself. I just think that this issue is a lot more complicated than labelling the perp with one word: misogynist.

    • I’m a little late in response, but I did want to say something about Mr. Freeman’s comment. As usual, it’s a thoughtful response, and not even distantly related to the reflexively defensive posture that many men adopt to any perceived criticism of the male species — or of gun laws, if they’re NRA loyalists, for only one other example. However, I don’t think Ms. Southey’s article was intended to suggest that the hatred of women was the *only* factor in diagnosing the Santa Barbara killer’s pathology. He had more than misogyny and much more than cowardice or mere narcissism fuelling his deeds. What disturbed Southey, and the thing that hooked me about her essay, was that his blatant resentment towards all women seemed to her (and to me, once I’d read her) to be under-reported and under-emphasized. She was trying to challenge that, though I don’t expect she’d have much disagreement with Freeman’s last sentence.

  2. AD

    It’s like what Tabatha Southey says in her Globe and Mail article, though: it’s not about sexual economies or disparities. It’s about one thing: misogyny. He was a victim of nothing at all. He was instilled with a sense of murderous entitlement that men, white people, and the rich all receive in various ways. The entitlement flavour that consumed him was the lies he had been told about his being entitled to women’s bodies. but there are still thousands of people on that campus with the same or similar entitlement issues who just happen to have enough people around them supporting their entitlement, or unable to stop them from taking what they believe is their right.

    This is a bit ranty, so I’ll return to the reason I’m commenting: I think suggesting that the problem at the heart of these killings is a disparity in a sexual economy is wrong and dangerous. It continues to commodify and economize sex and supports his belief that he had a right to fuck people, which he most certainly did not.

    Mostly I only comment when I have a problem with something you write, which is harsh, but also I read everything and look how rarely I comment!

  3. Stone Star

    This is so difficult to read because you’re not an expert, yet you write as though you were.

    • Michael Freeman

      So is that a good thing or a bad thing? I cannot tell by the comment. Please elaborate.
      How can anyone be an expert on this subject? At best, one can only speculate on the state of mind and motives of the perpetrator. Even with the manifesto, we only know that which he wants us to know. There is so much more behind our psychopathy; more than even the perpetrator himself knows.
      Hard to read? Yes. There is no denying the devastating impact acts of senseless aggression such as this has on families, communities, the nation. But there will always be someone that will make the decision to repeat acts of aggression just like this one.
      What is an expert anyway? They are only experts if many agree that they are. Why not make it so that all must agree? As soon as someone is identified as an expert, there will be someone to contradict their theories/beliefs/actions.
      James sometimes lets his head get in the way of his heart when he writes. At other times, his heart gets in the way of his head, but many times it is worth a read; not because you agree or disagree with his premise, but because it is a beginning point for thinking of our own.

      • If I’m not mistaken, the somewhat cryptic comment Mr. Freeman refers to, one that tickled and confused me, comes from a brave Chinese reader, trying to respond to a deep, dark forest of English prose — and spelling everything right, with impeccable syntax and inscrutable meaning. It’s the Chinese way.

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