The movie Targets from 1968 may be the most prophetic in history
Sunday night I was thinking to myself about mass shootings, and about how we live in a society whose cruelty, lack of community, and worship of empty consumerism make it fertile ground for such things once easy access to firearms is put in place. I was thinking about this specifically in terms of white men. I know so many fellow white men who are middle class and seemingly doing okay for themselves who have his inexplicable nihilism. They seem obsessed with tearing a system down that benefits them, driven by intense resentments that they can't articulate. I sensed this nihilism in some of the folks I know who voted for Trump. "At least he will shake things up!" is easy to say when you're not the one being put in front of the firing squad.
Sunday night I was also thinking about Puerto Rico, and the cruelty of a president and a nation so indifferent to the suffering of fellow Americans. I was remembering my time in Germany, and that as many things I did not like about German society, at least there was a sense of common good. Trump is the avatar of the worst of this country, its crass materialism and solipsistic selfishness. Those values are very powerful, and it is worth noting that they resonate especially with white men.
In any case, I went to bed Sunday night, exhausted but ready to face the week. I woke up Monday and immediately saw a news alert about Las Vegas. It freaked me out a little that I seemed to have had a premonition the night before. This shooting is, of course, the result of America failing to face many of its problems. One of the biggest is the dysfunction of white masculinity. I wrote the following essay in 2012 after Newtown. I am posting it again because every single word is just as relevant now as it was then.
Whenever a horrible event like the massacre in Newtown takes place, we try to find ways to explain it. This is often a futile exercise, because many people merely superimpose their larger beefs with society onto these events, rather than examining them with any real analytical and factual framework. Hence, we have people like Louie Gohmert saying the teacher should have had her own assault weapon, or Mike Huckabee lamenting the loss of God in public schools. We should be very careful of monocausal explanations that oversimplify things. There are a lot of factors at play in the Newtown massacre, from the perpetrator's mental state to the availability of semi-automatic weapons. However, I would like to echo others out there in the blogosphere who want to examine the role of white masculinity in all of this.
Of course, there have been other mass shootings in other countries, and the worst such shooting in this country was perpetrated by a Korean student. That being said, this country has witnessed the lion's share of mass shootings, and disproportionate seventy percent of the shooters have been white men. I hardly think the connection is coincidental. Ever since the Aurora tragedy this summer, I have been contemplating this issue, trying to connect the dots to explain the connection between white masculinity and mass shootings. I finally feel like I have some speculations worth sharing.
Masculinity more generally in this society is defined to a great extent by violence and control, and violence used as a means of maintaining control. I have long been amazed and appalled by how many public figures in this country who have abused their wives and girlfriends have been allowed to stay on the pedestal. That sad fact is to me evidence that masculine control through violence is implicitly accepted as legitimate in America. Action movies predominate at the box office, and the orchestrated violence of the NFL is America's most popular sport.
Furthermore, white men in this country are taught that they are the masters of their own destiny, and are usually not confronted with the same limitations of possibility that men of color are. When white men fail, an experience our society gives them few resources to confront, they often lash out at those they hold responsible, or turn inward and commit suicide. Most mass shooters seem to want to do both, as Adam Lanza did.
The completely atomized nature of white middle class society contributes as well. Shooters are usually described as "loners," men disconnected from others and hence unable to empathize with the human beings they kill. We are an increasingly individualized society, which means that those mentally unstable, frustrated white men with access to deadly weapons are so rarely stopped before they kill. They sit on the margins, alone, without any kind of cohesive social structure to bring them in. Adam Lanza had stopped going to school and interacted with few outside his home, Eric Harris was able to plan his rampage in a home where his parents took evidently little interest in his doings, James Holmes had been expelled from his university and lived alone in a city far from home. While atomization is occurring in all groups of American society today, in middle class, white culture it has probably been the most egregious and damaging.
We have a situation where white men are socialized to be the masters of their fate and able to use violence to maintain control over their lives. These same men lack the tools to handle adversity, and are often left to their individual resources, even if they are mentally disturbed. When some of the most mentally unstable of these men experience soul-shattering setbacks and are given access to semi-automatic weapons, we can only expect the worst. We need to educate young men (especially white men) to not see violence as the answer to their problems, or to phantasize violent solutions. We need to equip them with the tools to withstand failure, and to keep the more troubled of their number from slipping through the cracks. Last, we need to talk seriously and openly about the nature of American white masculinity, and stop pretending that it isn't problematic.