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Why Boys Shoot: Culturally Conservative Scholars Review Our Crisis in Masculinity with Minimal Statistics and a Classically Christian Sense of Human Nature
#1 From All Hell Breaks Loose: Life and Death in the Land of Manly Women and Mansonly Men, by Gianna DiRoberti
As people over forty (especially teachers) and immigrants from less affluent societies know very well, freedom has gone disastrously awry in America over the past thirty years. Our children are not safe at school. Though seldom are several gunned down at once as in Littleton, injury on the playground from a mugging, a knifing, a gang rape, or a stray bullet is a risk they run daily. Perhaps, after all, this is appropriate training for adulthood. Our jobs are occasions of unrelenting tension: though we have never had so many laws to protect us from harassment, the sullen cynicism and ruthless politicking all around the office are keeping psychoanalysts as busy as trial attorneys. More and more of our co-workers are going over the edge—if not with lethal force, then at least in incidents which cost friendships, jobs, and even careers. Our very amusements exhale a poisonous nihilism: though we have never had so many toys to play with, more and more of them come fully equipped to shoot, ravage, mutilate, and eviscerate in the life-like fantasy called "virtual reality". We are an ailing nation whose sickness may well be terminal.
Now that Columbine High School has again focused attention on the disease for a few weeks, angry fingers are pointing at guns, TV, movies, the Internet, drugs, schools, and deadbeat parents. A case can be made that all of these hallmarks of American "culture"—and many others, as well—have contributed to our rising barbarity. One source of infection, however, is scarcely ever named, and never with the weight of condemnation which it deserves: easy sex. Does that sound too harsh, too unfair, or maybe too "backwoodsy"? Take a moment to consider the stages of our progressive collapse. Before the bonanza in day-care centers, semi-automatic weapons, and Internet tutorials in bomb construction (all popular whipping boys) came the sexual revolution of the late sixties. That most romantic of revolutions was itself not quite bloodless. Charles Manson, for instance, initiated the programming of his "girls" by forcing them to couple promiscuously; and it is difficult to imagine that students who honored all of Mom and Dad’s sexual hang-ups would have rioted in the streets, breaking store windows and heaving bricks at cops. The porn culture inspired ever more abusive relationships, the divorce culture gave us court battles and kids with murder in their hearts, the drug culture created vast new purviews for violent crime, and the rock-and-roll culture chimed right in with a mood of alienation ready to burst. Who would deny that changing sexual attitudes were, at the very least, the fuse of this powder keg? The link to drugs is the most tenuous; yet the resort to chemical escape (including heavy alcohol use) almost always ensues upon premature and exploitative sexual experiences rather than the other way around. In cases with which I am personally familiar, I cannot name a single instance of reverse evolution.
I will repeat my arrogant thesis, then: we began falling apart as a society when we became slaves to our sexual appetite. Within ten years of 1968, words like "decency", "dignity", and "discipline" brought to the face either a contemptuous smile or a pained wince. The very notion that human beings had a duty to something not visible or tangible grew ridiculous over those years. The Columbine calamity was an inevitable consequence of that moment in our national history—as will be the next incident of its kind, for there will be many more.
During that same decade of verbal shiftiness, not only were serious words smirked at: words that used to draw a smirk were suddenly received with dead-pan seriousness, if not veneration. In particular, it became possible to interchange "sex" with "love". Even God, whose nature is admittedly best summarized in the one word "love", suffered a touchy-feely sea change in the brave new world that wanted to teach itself to sing and buy itself a Coke. Yes, God is love: He just wants us all to hug and kiss and... whatever. Thanks to such reasoning, we have today arrived at a point where we’ve bought a lot more than a Coke. The secular community considers the acting out of quirky orgasmic fantasies and the engaging in ambitious sexual experiments (including medical procedures to alter gender) to be part of a healthy, fulfilled life. Any resistance to these views is treated as something akin to a "hate crime". As for the various religious denominations, few will hazard a condemnation of extra-marital sex from the pulpit any longer. Even such conservative religious luminaries as Louis Smedes were so filled with the "seventies" spirit that they labeled adultery a mere sub-species of promise-breaking.2 Today, at most, adultery may take a hit for damaging children. Any remaining energy is expended upon abortion and homosexuality—regrettable features of the postmodern landscape, to be sure, which in many cases stem directly from the overindulgence of recreational sex; but the homilist can be fairly confident of not finding any such malefactor among his flock on a given Sunday. If you really must rain hellfire from the pulpit, be sure your trajectory clears the parking lot.
Verily, God is love, and God created sex to serve good purposes—but not necessarily to be what Dr. Ruth would call "good sex". To love is to grow toward God. Sexual love accomplishes this end by producing children, of course, and also by cementing a life-long commitment to a certain person who collaborates in that growth. The commitment is essential to the pleasure, for the pleasure of love is the pleasure of growth. No commitment, no growth; no growth, no love. When nothing is left but sex, its "joys" very often become the opposite of love. Sex as an end in itself—physical gratification—reduces our partners to the status of toilet articles (Camille Paglia has used the repulsive image "sperm spittoon" for the woman’s role). Beyond that, however, the sex-for-sex mentality also diminishes us in our own eyes to unruly animals whose puny allotment of free will is constantly enslaved to hormones. It makes us despise ourselves, which is always the first stage in despising others.
I believe this is just as true of males as females. A man who runs from a crisis may never recover his self-respect (e.g., Conrad’s Lord Jim).3 What if this crisis is sexual—what if it involves a lover screaming silently for commitment rather than a hundred pilgrims screaming for help on a sinking ship? The silent cries can be just as haunting. Notching female conquests is supposed to be a "guy thing" (a feminist myth purveyed to make women renounce chastity and family in a surge of vindictive aggression: "Remove these shackles—we will take no more without dishing out in return!"). Yet a man who devotes his life to seeking carnal pleasure knows deep down that he has no spiritual endurance, no true courage. The "manly man" used to be he who would go without food, water, and rest for days in the execution of something he had set his mind on. He was a warrior, an explorer, a homesteader, or a mystic. Now he is a swaggering, wenching, beer-guzzling lout who needs a football stadium full of "support" just to keep his life’s most solemn promises for another week.
No self-respect, and no respect for others: that’s where the speed, the noise, the drugs, and finally the violence come in. Who can live in the noxious atmosphere of disliking yourself and everyone around you—I mean disliking yourself as a subject, which is very similar to loving yourself as an object? ("Gee," says the bikini-clad twit on your screen, "I love myself with my sexy new silicon implants!") You have to get away somehow, or your resentment becomes overpowering. You have to flee, at the very least, into the alternate or virtual realities offered by electronic technology. If you dare to sally forth into that other reality, you enter a domain well lubricated with various sedatives and hallucinogens. After all, everyone in that jungle wants something from you, just as you want something from them—and not the good of the soul, in either case. They can stuff their souls and yours, too, in their hip pocket as long as both of you "have a good time". Or let me be a little less cynical and rather more tragic. I truly believe that some people, perhaps a great many, are seeking honest companionship. If you are among them, all the more reason to get a few martinis under your belt—because you know that this humane, self-sacrificing impulse renders you highly vulnerable, an easy target for the seasoned hunter.
I admit that I am talking more about women now, although longing for a genuine companion is not unheard-of among men. And I will acknowledge candidly that such misery is not an invention of the sixties. You can’t read very far in Victorian fiction without noticing how lonely women, despite being insulated within a prudish etiquette and free from the car-bar-apartment cycle of seduction, are regularly caught in the predator’s claws. I recently happened upon a disturbing Italian short story called "Giulia" by Luigi Capuana (from Profili di Donne) where a beautiful young woman is almost driven mad by how men treat her.4 First her lover leaves her; then he wheedles an assignation with her, lying that an inheritance has greatly improved his condition; then she discovers too late that the tryst is in the digs of a sadistic foreigner who buys women by the bushel for his bed. She barely escapes this hell-house through the ministrations of a kind stranger (the story’s narrator) only to realize that he, too, wants a toss on the sofa in payment for his beau geste. Some things never change.
But wait a minute. Giulia, though extremely simpatica, has nonetheless committed the initial folly of moving in with her boyfriend. The Victorian audience would have shed a tear for her without, however, overlooking her crucial role in shaping her private nightmare. The narrator, as well, is not unaware that he is a hypocrite and a cad: this is, indeed, the story’s moral reason for being. Had Giulia belonged to a higher social class, a gentleman could have shot dead the scoundrel who abused her (though he would have had to pick from a large pool) with impunity in most European countries. A duel of this sort is fought in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Il Piacere with rapiers, though the lady in question this time has no honor worth wasting a harsh word over.
Guns and swords... indeed, maybe some things never do change. I insist upon a fine but significant distinction, though. Don’t ask, "Did they ever have murders in those days?" and then, in response to the inevitable affirmative, conclude, "They were no better than we are." Ask instead, "Why did men put their lives on the line?" This is a sadly fallen world, and killing is always with us. Yet a society in which gentlemen are willing to die for a lady’s honor has placed respect for others and for oneself (for one’s duty and its central relation to oneself) on a lofty plateau—while we of the twenty-first century, I regret to say, are neck-deep in a swamp. Every woman is a Giulia now: that’s my point. And the reigning concept of a man today fits some slimy predator out of Giulia’s nightmare, not the missing gallant for whom she mistook the narrator: that, too, is my point. The most miserable situation imaginable to a Victorian is business-as-usual on Friday night with us. When some moron who feels wronged finally saws off his shotgun and opens up on an innocent crowd, it is not to defend another’s honor, nor to assert his own in any sane, coherent fashion. It is, on the contrary, because he has utterly no respect for himself or the rest of humanity. He shoots women and children indiscriminately and gives no one a chance to return his fire. His act treads down the last shreds of honor. No jury anywhere in Victorian Europe would have considered him anything other than a depraved animal.
So welcome to our world, where self-despising teenagers graduate into people-despising thugs, and where Littleton slouches toward Oklahoma City. I certainly don’t pine for all the trappings of Victorian life, especially for the ruthless double standard from which the lower classes continued to suffer (though the Victorians were great reformers in that regard, to be truthful). What specifically appalls me about our present state is how it has brought women into equivalence with yesteryear’s lowest of the low. This downward turn of fortune’s wheel has been fueled almost entirely by the sexual revolution, that glorious dawn of a new day for women. What a letdown! Radical feminism—not the "equal pay" movement, but the aspiration to turn society inside-out—has in fact brought upon women just the opposite of what it promised. We are now Giulias with good jobs: three cheers. Consider for a moment where the young women of the sixties and seventies "progressed" to as the millennium toppled down upon them. After a flood of lovers, they entered middle age alone. After escape from the home into a brilliant career, they found that their children didn’t know them or (having handed over their fat paychecks to various fertility doctors) that they couldn’t have a child. And after being flung back into that career by the emptiness of a mate-less, childless, loveless home, they found that the honors and promotions (in the "best case" scenario) were ultimately woven from little more than strands of money, power, and politics. They had once rejected the tiresome vision of a bourgeois household, only to find themselves now, two or three decades later, turned into hard-nosed, money-grubbing pillars of the bourgeoisie at its meanest and most venal. pp. 14-20
#2 From An Honorable Adolescence: Why Some Boys Dream of the Sword, by John R. Harris
But I was not nearly so old in 1967, the year when I deliberately chose to begin this retrospective. I have been guilty of jumping ahead repeatedly since my first paragraph. I couldn’t help myself: to look into the past perfect is always to look slantingly at the past imperfect, that past which was still the future back then—which is still, perhaps, not wholly the past. I should also have felt embarrassed, frankly, to start where I had intended without further explanation. I was only a kid in 1967, true, and (as I have been at pains to show) I enjoyed very little intellectual or spiritual guidance, even though my childhood was suddenly wearing off. Indeed, maybe I should be proud—with the right kind of pride, the satisfaction in a good deed unrecognized as it was performed—of my sophomoric suspicions about the world and my precocious magnetization to honor. Already in 1967, I had divined that those who opposed our war without honor were themselves dishonorable, their reasons self-centered more often than principled, their philosophy of life dominated by a fear of death which would have rejected any war. Perhaps because I was already a misfit—already for some time—I could already see that people protected their precious skin first and adorned the lice-picking with grand words only in afterthought. No thirteen-year-old ever had a more fiercely developed sense of irony.
Picking lice… there, perhaps, is as good a transition to an awkward subject as I am likely to find. If you have ever seen Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, you may remember Toshiro Mifune raking through his scrofulous beard in the opening frame. I won’t pretend that I was watching samurai films at a tender age—that, too, would be proleptic; but in the spring of 1967, I fell thrall to a "spaghetti Western" called For Few Dollars More. Italian director Sergio Leone’s first trespass upon the definitively American genre, Fistful of Dollars, had entirely escaped my notice. I was to discover many years later that it had ruthlessly plundered Kurosawa (as had John Sturges’s Magnificent Seven toward more wholesome ends). For now, all I noticed was a mangy Clint Eastwood squinting into Mexican (i.e., Spanish) sunlight, as unmoved by the carnage around him as Yeats’s sphinx-like Second Coming. This man was dead inside. He walked in death, watched death, and even dispensed death (rather abundantly, by the day’s squeamish standards), yet the pale eye which he cast upon all never widened, never blinked. To my horror, delight, and utter mystification, I discovered that I knew the feeling well.
Reviewers were overtly disgusted at the film until they realized that they were paddling against the popular current. Then they deferred to cultural analysts, who told us that the Eastwood anti-hero was "cool": he was wild, his scraggly stubble advertised a contempt for etiquette, he didn’t give a damn… they treated the character, in short, like another rock star. But Eastwood’s appeal was primarily (and would continue to be—for he remained a Leone convert upon being repatriated to Hollywood) among the blue-collar audience. The Man With No Name (as the ads dubbed him) didn’t whine about bourgeois hypocrisy or anguish over an impending early demise; he didn’t seek an artificial paradise in wine and women; and, most significantly for Eastwood’s later career, he didn’t harbor any twinge of compassion for those whom society had driven to a life of crime. If anything, these films (there were finally three, just as Kurosawa couldn’t resist another with Mifune) repelled the political left. The next generation of critics would decide that, starting with Fistful of Dollars, a bitter parody of the violent protests in our streets—of their incredibly naïve confidence that ends would justify means—was afoot.
Except that it wasn’t—not with Fistful. Going back to Kurosawa (and forward to my years as a scholar), I would point out that post-war Japan was enduring a collapse quite similar (in a crucial respect) to the dissolution of its feudal system throughout the seventeenth century: there was no longer any honor in sacrificing one’s life. David Desser has documented the historical foundations of Kurosawa’s unemployed, roving samurai figure—the ronín—in a marvelous little book.6 The Japanese, it seems, had known such times well before the Bomb: times when highly trained professionals, whose fidelity to their overlord partook of a religious devotion, were suddenly cut adrift in a volatile new order wherein they had no clear part to play. Men of rigorous honor whose bedrock principle had turned absurd, men of peerless courage whose bravery was now irrelevant (when not eminently exploitable), men of extreme discipline in a world which no longer comprehended restraint…. As I read Desser’s book some twenty years after gaping at For a Few Dollars More, I understood far more than post-war Japan’s affinity for an earlier unsettled period of its history. I realized that the thirteen-year-old half-man who still haunted me had some surprising affinities himself with distant times and places. I began to suspect that he—that I—had wanted to find an honorable way of living throughout the spectacularly undignified sixties and seventies. And I liked the half-man for having suffered in silence over a lost value so far superior to his era… but my anger with that era also returned, and grew more concentrated.
During the same research project, I uncovered sources which informed me that Germany had toyed with a Lucanian type of Western even before Sergio Leone (though I have yet actually to see a Karl May film).7 That completed the triad of losers: Japan, Italy, and Germany. All three had been swept up in a nationalistic craze during the twenties and thirties, all three called upon their young men to disdain self-interest and throw away their lives for something higher, all three had incinerated those young lives shamelessly in the power-lust of a cynical few to whom no trace of honor could cling… and now all three had spawned a ronín culture. The habit—the discipline—of honor remained, but no cause or master was anywhere in sight whose service would not have been a prostitution of the faith. One could only apply the discipline to unworthy ends; and one could only express one’s awareness of the unworthiness by maintaining an icy contempt for those ends even as one pursued them. It wasn’t that life was pointless: at best, that was only half of the equation. The point of life was to live with honor (nihil bonum nisi honestum, as the Stoics used to say: only the honorable is good)—and the point about this life was that it could not be lived honorably.
It was a Deadworld, this life: one’s decision to retain the discipline of honor was more real than the world wherein honor made no sense. And so one was dead to the world, in a way, although one held the conviction that the world was infinitely more dead in a more significant way. There was, at last, a sort of honor to be squeezed from such defiant deadness among those who would not acknowledge their death.
Of course, I can’t affirm that the typical Japanese or Italian or German who paid money to share Kurosawa’s or Leone’s or May’s dark vision had any of these thoughts. I only know that I had them all at thirteen, even though I could have enunciated none of them. As a matter of fact, I tried to speak out shortly after my thanatophiliac revelation in the only way that a sane young adolescent can. I wrote a story—a short story for an assignment in English class. It was grotesque. It virtually transcribed a scene from the cold-blooded carnage which had mesmerized me on the big screen. As a fan of Westerns and student of southwestern history from my days in knee-pants, I didn’t find the setting hard to mimic… but thanks to my juvenile readings, I should have known that Leone was no historian. I suppose I did. Nevertheless, I plagiarized his macabre comedy every bit as much as he had plagiarized Kurosawa’s. History had little to do with it, the aesthetics of story-telling even less, and the demands of an English assignment nothing at all. By the age of thirteen, I already loved writing, and I enjoyed a certain renown for my narrative abilities (which, naturally, made me nurture them still more avidly). Yet here I was handing in the most twisted piece of drivel I would ever append my name to, as if I had been enlisted in the performance of some dark ritual.
And so I had. I had freely joined the cult of the ronín. I had announced to the world (or to my English teacher, at least—an adult whose esteem I highly valued) that I regarded the alternatives offered to me by her generation with utter disdain. I didn’t want counselors prying confessions out of me: I wanted philosophers to lift me above my miserable adolescent psychic detritus with glimpses of ultimate purpose. I didn’t want condescending gurus confessing to me, in return, that their generation had betrayed ours by putting a price tag on everything and lying to "the people": I wanted sober, mature thinkers to indicate just how tightly original sin cramped our common nature and compromised any hope of real happiness. I certainly resented all attempts to lavish upon me and my contemporaries, whether in "sex education" class or behind J.D. Salinger’s literary wedge, the dubious benediction that we all go forth and couple joyfully, so only we avoid multiplying. I wanted desperately for someone who had been initiated into the mysteries of the other sex to suggest how a boy might capture a girl in his vision of the future—of marriage and family and children. That particular hope, perhaps, was my last one, and my most tenacious. I must have grasped at some level that none of us, young or old, would make much progress with the great eternal questions in this atmosphere; but with a fellow pilgrim at one’s side, one could wait upon enlightenment. The mere fact of a conjugal pledge would confer a dignity, an honor, upon one’s confusion at the crossroads which might just protect one from evil spirits. Even the most frozen-hearted of Otherworld travelers sometimes braved the night in hopes of retrieving a spellbound princess. Theseus and Peirithoüs tried to carry off the lovely Queen of the Dead, and the Arthurian legends are full of lone knights like the Welsh Culhwch who wander dismal lands for a face seen only in their dreams.
But this fondest of hopes was perhaps the most futile. Could it be that I had longed for my teacher to intuit within my sociopathic horse-opera a kind of trial run—an experimental airing of my extreme yet uncompromising loneliness before a sophisticated pair of female eyes? It wouldn’t have been the first time that a young teenager had tested an oppressively strong, even dangerous emotion on a respected adult in the neutral zone of art. Yet if I had hoped for any sympathy—or if I had hoped, more probably, to be "found out", to be closely questioned about how I came to be walking among such shades—I was rudely disappointed. To this day, I remember her single sentence of response: "You must have seen that awful movie!" Even more, I remember the look of disgust which accompanied it. There would be no pursuing of any issue with that look as an overture. I had thought that I would attract more attention. After so many proper little parables about summer vacations and stream-of-consciousness odysseys told through a lost pet’s eyes, I had thought that my disgusted, disgusting submission would elicit a little curiosity.
Nowadays, of course, they would say that I was "crying out for help". The English teacher might refer the case to a counselor, who would call in the principal, who would contact the police—who would probably arrive in three squad cars and cart me off cuffed, all thirteen mercurial years of me, to the jug for printing and mug shots… but someone, I’ve no doubt, would eventually get around to saying that my loathsome short story had been a cry for help. I admit that I have long been wanting to write this essay out of indignation over our emergent police state, where highly trained professionals lock up toddler mass-murderers for outlining a rifle in a finger-painting. They would have put me behind bars without a second thought!
So here I stand. A cry for help? Well, I didn’t get any… maybe from the Gospel of Matthew and Joseph Conrad and, much later, Immanuel Kant—but never from a teacher, and never from a family pastor. (That’s not entirely true: one teacher finally approached me in high school, and I’m ashamed to say that I cannot remember her full name. She wasn’t around long—they dismissed her after one year because she didn’t fit in.)
I hope I need not declare that I have no criminal record. I shall even bend my pride so far as to confess that I am not the diabolically elusive perpetrator of any unsolved murder, series of murders, or series of botched attempts to murder. I’m squeaky-clean when it comes to crimes of detonation. But that, of course, is not really the pathological penchant concerning which I was supposed to be crying "help". Had I shot up the science lab, it would only have been symptomatic of my deeper insecurity—my desire for attention, my longing for acceptance and love. That, I believe, is the party line. Today someone would visit me in juvenile detention to tell me that.
"You pompous fool!" I would say. "Love has never been so widely available at such cut-rate prices—at least of the kind of love your philosophy offers. If I had wanted cuddles, I could have found them on any Friday night. I wanted dignity—and love, yes, but love with dignity. If I had wanted acceptance, I could have cloned myself to suit my clique of preference: the eggheads, the jocks, the wild things. But I wanted honor, and I saw none in living a caricature. And so I uttered no cry at all. What appalls you most about my sick short story is, in fact—admit it—its silence, the gap where emotions of horror or compassion should be. I stifled my cry, and I wrote a story of stifled cries, because I wanted you to see that I do not trust your world with my raw emotions. My horror, my compassion—you would finesse them out of me to serve your own ends, all of you. As for your help… no, not your help. I won’t deny that I feel myself unequal to the task of living among the dead. That’s why I have chosen to die among the dead."
Some of these not-quite-children, to be sure—these half-men who might have been shipped out to Southeast Asia thirty years ago—have gone so far as to pull the trigger. Kip Kinkel was one of them, a young man whose story was recently presented on a special ninety-minute broadcast of PBS’s Frontline. What made me any different from Kip? Was it my parents? But Kip was the product of a tightly knit family and an unusually supportive community. Indeed, both of his parents were teachers. Was it the escalating rate of graphic violence in society and at the movies? My generation saw the very real carnage of the Vietnam War every night—and I don’t know that Bruce and Mel mow down Hollywood’s melodramatic malefactors with any more panache than Clint used to do. Guns, perhaps? I never collected them as Kip did; but there were fewer laws in my day, and nothing would have stopped me from building an arsenal if I had been inclined to do so.
In my opinion, our culture of indignity and dishonor has simply continued running since the late sixties and early seventies. If parents are more out of touch than ever, movies worse than ever, and guns more accessible than ever, it is only because our Deadworld is more numb than ever. Consider certain other variables. Love is more oversexed and de-romanticized than ever: our schools invest far more energy in the condom-to-cucumber drill than in suggesting how permanent commitment may ennoble a physical attraction to something spiritual. Academic challenge is less visible than ever: Kip’s concerned father was advised by a principal at one point that the lad’s self-esteem might be bolstered if he would try out for football! The notion that kids might find a way out of our culture’s ignominious miasma of thrills by mastering Russian, or learning the piano, or designing a solar cell, seems wholly beyond the reach of many professional educators. Would you rather your son met you at the door shouting, "I made a tackle today!" or "I wrote to my penpal in French today!"; and if the former… well, are you honestly surprised that our children define themselves more through their physique than through their intellect and spirit? Surely you would agree that the former kind of definition diminishes their humanity—our humanity—while the latter elevates it… wouldn’t you?
There is honor in what the body does only when the mind inspires it to oppose its natural cowardice and indolence. Do we really consider an open-field tackle the best delivery system for this self-surpassment? In that case, why not a flirtation with firearms? pp. 57-65
# 3 From Violence as Post-Literate Shorthand: Television, Film, and
the Pulverization of Formula, by Peter T. Singleton
c) the nuclear "climax" and adolescent communication
It is critical to recognize that contemporary electronic entertainments are not deliberately escalating their violent content, and likewise that the most dangerous threat to our young people is not exposure to violence per se. In both cases, the culprit is the tempo of filmed or televised narrative—that is, the alarming fact that portrayed events have less and less grounding in character, social circumstance, and other elements of "real life" context. Things are happening faster and faster on the screen because larger entertainment-gorged audiences are ever more aware of the whole "happening" behind cues and clues. A beautiful young intern or detective joins the ER or the homicide team? Obviously, a few love affairs will ensue: it has all occurred before, so the lingering gaze of Dr. Smith or Lieutenant Jones after the retreating belle is quite enough to tip off every viewer. The producer’s problem now becomes one of fulfilling the obvious without tarrying over it—and, indeed, without fulfilling it in entirely obvious fashion. Skip over the preliminaries which might have consumed most of the hour forty years ago, and stitch in strands of other plots, as well (Dr. Brown’s bout with alcoholism, Detective Adams’s suspension for a doubtful shooting), to distract the audience’s jaundiced eye. Furthermore, in those snatches of air time which keep us abreast of the emerging romance, gesture toward non-amorous plots which throw the viewer a bit off balance. The beautiful novice is just recovering from anorexia, has just buried her murdered husband, has just left an experimental relationship with another woman. Ah, so the plot is going this way rather than that… surprise! The cliché is turning left instead of right… but the corridor to the left, too, must also soon become bogged in clichés.
Like the much-celebrated "free spirit" clicking at whimsy among the options of a hypertext narrative, the story cultivates the illusion of independence and originality by sub-dividing tired formulas at unlikely points and splicing in other tired formulas in a setting where they have seldom been seen. It is essentially a phenomenon of speed, for each round of sub-divisions wears out a new series of surprises and forces even more minute disruptions of the pattern the next time through. Yet it is also a phenomenon of superficiality—literally, of visual surfaces triumphing—for electronic media must deliver novelty primarily through images. The internal life of the human being is both too infected with silence, stillness, and long lapses of uneventful time and too remote from the objective world of the visible to have any other fate in this process but rapid disappearance.
To be sure, this internal life is fed by objective events: otherwise, it impinges upon insanity. The hopes stirred by meeting a delightful, attractive person of our age and the anguish of losing such a person from our life are among the most dynamic catalysts of our thoughts, dreams, nightmares, conversions, and apostasies. But media entertainments are concerned with such events only as events, not as catalysts. The pining, mooning, grieving, praying, singing, and so forth are not visually riveting. The viewer knows that mooning attends love and grieving attends death: he or she may fill in such tedious experiences to taste—which means, naturally, that no such experience is filled in, since the story has lurched forward to the visual cues of its next formula. Most young people, let us remember, have in fact not experienced a great many deaths, or even a great many loves (whatever lofty plateau of sexual conquest they may have achieved). They must look to the narratives supplied to them by their culture before they understand what a normal emotional response to a crisis might be or whether a specific response which has overpowered them is normal. Unfortunately, what they are most likely to see in our culture is an electronic registry of the most extreme crises known to mankind attended by a level of response so quick or casual that it passes unobserved.
Is it any wonder, then, that violence is simmering away in so many of these young hearts, or that it boils over spectacularly in a few? I repeat that the particular events portrayed by TV and the movies are far less relevant to the effect here than the neglect of internal realities which characterizes all portrayals of all events. Wherein does the trauma of violence lie, if not in the violent act’s complete disjuncture from routine, pattern, normality? We have so much trouble absorbing a shooting incident, not just because someone was injured or killed (it is our common destiny to die in the body), but because such incidents have no apparent basis in what went before them and no apparent bearing upon what comes after them. "Senseless acts of violence," our talking heads call them—but by definition, to commit an act of anti-social violence is to defy all rational context. Even when television tries to convey love’s tenderest moments, it tends to translate them into this violent idiom: for most of what leads up to such moments happens internally, and cannot be filmed. As a result, we find the beautiful intern and Dr. Smith in bed together before the third commercial break has arrived, though they only met in the opening scene. These lunges at the next photogenic instant of each formula suggest to young minds that everything in between—all deliberating, all soul-searching, all pacing of the floor late at night—is insignificant and dispensable. Coherence consists in "getting it on" (contemporary slang for getting on with it). Act, act now, and act as the cliché tells you to act. Every moment spent in thinking it over is a moment wasted in the insufferable boredom between instants of real living (i.e., living visibly before a circle of peers).
For the cliché, more properly speaking, is now an icon: the enactment of tired formulas has become accelerated to such relativistic speeds that routines have congealed into stone idols. What a haunting irony! The same electronic story-telling methods which have exiled internal life and external normality from our narratives as too unreachable or too boring have straitjacketed our minds in a system of cues as dictatorial as Pavlov’s bell. Act now or be left behind by your friends, act quickly—act in cues, in code—or be smothered by their yawns… surely the most sinister program of brainwashing could not produce a more robotic participation.
And yes, the cues themselves tend to be violent: their content is objectionable—but its menace is in the power of the cue rather than in the mere presence of lethal instruments. Being persuaded that one’s thoughts and emotions are irrelevant is already dangerous, as I have said. The dangers of being so persuaded, however, tend to be passive: never knowing one’s own heart, never trying to know another’s, looking on as the mob savages one’s neighbors, falling in with its steps and echoing its cries now and then. Such a state is humanly degrading, but it causes little immediate concern to those who worry primarily about shootings. Indeed, some of these "concerned citizens" have so far mistaken the enemy that they look to the cue-card mentality to assist them in re-programming their young zombies. Guns… bad; condoms… good; cigarettes… bad. We might as well store away our children cryogenically and hope that they awaken in a better time.
Yet the deep freeze, if nothing else, is safe, and cues of the sort that work with our electronically savvy children are never so. I wrote above that the electronic narrative lunges toward each formula’s next photogenic moment. What makes a moment photogenic? Its visual interest—its abnormal level of activity. Each of these moments could be (and probably was, in pre-electronic times) an episode’s climax. The strained routine of human events finally ruptures, revealing something usually kept under wraps, if not entirely unheard-of. This would have to be something unmannerly at the very least, maybe even psychotic. Clearly, in a love story it would be the moment of sexual climax, now paraded in all its "intimacy" before the eyes of the world. In the dining room, it would involve eating the dishes, or even cannibalism: I shall not sicken the reader by detailing how common such "climaxes" as these have grown in our narratives. In Christianity (and I mean no offense, but this needs to be said), the Crucifixion is plainly the most anomalous, shocking visual occurrence of Christ’s life. In my opinion, lurid emphasis upon the death agony of the Cross has never run higher. It is frequently allowed to eclipse the good news of ultimate triumph over fleshly weakness with its orgy of very nearly sado-erotic images. Christ’s suffering, of course, is an integral part of his story, and it has always been a favorite subject of icons in the word’s more recognized sense. But decades of research have taught me that our ancestors knew a lot more than we about how this suffering grew from what preceded it and how it influences all that follows it. The Cross was not supposed to be an act of senseless violence, but the most sense-filled act which violent men have ever committed.
And guns? And boys? The worst for the last. We all know that adolescents have a fierce need to exist, to be. Their previous life as children has few meaningful references to their newly mature state, yet they have not occupied this state long enough for it to have generated the landmarks and boundaries which an adult relies on. They have the best chance of turning out well these days, it seems to me, if they are a bit off-beat for some reason—exceptionally intelligent or artistic or shy, or even just physically handicapped—because then they learn to develop the inner resources which our culture works so hard to belittle. It is a measure of how disastrously we have misdiagnosed their crisis that we are now actually stigmatizing loners as potential mass-murderers. I have even heard sane adults endorse the aborting of fetuses with missing fingers lest they grow into maladjusted teenagers.
Since teenagers are pitifully deprived of inner resources, then, and since we adults have most despicably conspired to keep them in that deprivation, they have no other context in which to define themselves—to be—than that of their immediate peers. They become slaves to the group. Now, there are a great many groups or "cliques" on the typical high school campus, some less destructive than others. What may be safely alleged of them all, though, in this electronic age is that they respond to the kind of "climactic shorthand" described above. The climax of dating is the sex act, and today’s teenagers take shortcuts to consummation which leave us oldtimers stupefied. The climax of having a car is driving recklessly, and we seem to accept it as quite normal—even mildly amusing—that our adolescents should squeal tires and pile up speeding tickets. They are signaling to their group in electronic shorthand that they exist: they are cutting through the tedium of the un-spectacular straight through to a scene that the camera would not disdain.
Many teenagers, of course—perhaps most in a given group—are not promiscuous trollops or terrors on wheels. I will acknowledge yet again that the preeminent effect of heavy exposure to TV is the numbness of desensitization. This relatively chastened majority, then, is not so often transmitting sexual diseases far and wide or running down pedestrians as creating an environment for the wild minority to do so by saying nothing and not being "judgmental". They are amused, the passive many, by their group’s spectacular members just as they are amused by the climax-ridden electronic mush which they consume in suffocating quantities.
So we are left with the wild few, the "stars" of the show (if not the leaders of the group: the two almost never overlap, by the way, since a certain inner ballast keeps pulling people—even teenagers—back toward upright decorum, however toxic their level of exposure to entertainment). When these stars are girls, they do as girls do on the screen: they "sleep around". Intercourse is the irreducible moment—the ultimate spectacle—of formulas involving young, desirable females. Everything eventually comes down to sex… so cut the tedious digressions (such as reflection and daydreaming) to the climax.
Need I say that violent behavior (and it might be reckless driving or scoring the winning touchdown rather than shooting) is the boy-star’s shorthand for seizing the climax? Sex for adolescent boys is not sufficiently forbidden to be spectacular: if it ever was, it certainly isn’t today. Male formulas reduce to a dance with death as surely as female formulas reduce to sex. The problem with squealing a car around town is that your classmates can’t see you—not in real life, not more than a few of them; and the problem with the elaborately staged combats of the football field is that only a select few ever get to play in them. To stand before the assembled school with a gun in your hand, however, is iconic. It is an apotheosis. In that instant, you occupy the very apex of reality, the entry to a higher reality, the wellspring and the climax of dozens or hundreds of formulas which have nothing in common but you and your hand-held thunderbolt. After decades of stories pounded into shreds, the diamond sparkling in the dust heap is you.
Pretty heady stuff… but not very cerebral. A real loner, a young man who had chosen to walk a different road—to read the philosophers or write poetry or find the next comet—would have enough internal depth to realize that stories are not reducible to their climaxes. A poetic metaphor is surrounded by bland articles and conjunctions, an approaching comet is nestled within thousands of asteroids and millions of distant stars. A grand gesture is nourished by suffering and sacrifice which the eye cannot see. I never heard that any of the teenaged shooters over the past decade was a poet. Steady readers, even adolescent readers, are capable of understanding hierarchy, subtlety, and intricacy. Steady viewers of electronic imagery’s fireworks are insulated from such truths. And when these young viewers belong to too small a group or cannot draw their group’s attention, they write in electronic shorthand—in the violence of speed and unthinking. But please do not call them loners. A loner is someone who knows how to be alone, and that requires a richness of internal experience.
Among our children, thanks to television, the movies, and now the Internet, we have very few of those any more. We are much the poorer for it, and will remain so even if we can miraculously melt down every firearm ever produced. A person who cannot endure his or her own company is a miserable companion for anyone else. Be ready for these miserably anti-social socialites to continue burgeoning as our worship of the glistering image in explosive activity soaks our culture through and through. pp. 98-101
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