Jeff Yang considers the repulsive “manifesto” left behind by Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista mass murderer. He says Rodger’s rage against women (for denying him the sex he thought he was entitled to) and against blacks, Hispanics, and Asians (who got attention from white women, despite, in Rodger’s view, being inferior to his half-European, half-Asian self) tells us something about popular culture today. Excerpt:
Nothing can excuse Rodger’s repulsive beliefs and actions, but digging deeper to understand them exposes the ways in which we, too, are complicit in them—as enablers of a culture where material wealth is a marker for success, whiteness is a badge of prestige, and sexual “conquest” a measure of masculinity.
And the ugly truth is that these are not rare phenomena in our American society—or in rapidly rising societies elsewhere in the world: After all, Chinese consumers now purchase 30% of the world’s luxury goods. Skin-whitening products make up 30% of China’s cosmetics sales. And despite it being officially illegal within its boundaries, China now has the biggest pornography market in the world, with over $27 billion a year in sales (more than double that of the United States, where porn is legal.)
So it’s easy to dismiss Rodger, this alleged murderer and child of privilege, as a product of derelict parenting, of negligent gun laws, of untreated mental illness. It’s harder to explore the degree to which he represents a terrible, twisted mirror of our global culture.
But maybe that’s what makes it so essential that we do just that.
First off, I think we ought to have learned by now not to interpret these horrible incidents as confirmation of whatever theory we previously believed. This just goes to show it’s all the NRA’s fault, or See, violent pop culture drove the killer to do it. Etc. Of course that doesn’t mean that people who say these things are altogether wrong, only that we should be careful about accepting a total explanation, especially one that confirms our own pre-existing opinion.
That said, it’s worth thinking about Yang’s point. I think the fundamental issue here, the one connecting Rodger’s particular psychopathologies, is a craving for status. All of us want to feel a sense of purpose in our lives, and want to be respected and loved by others. Rodger believed that without sex, his life had no meaning. What undid him was the belief that he was entitled to sex, the ultimate status marker (in his world) because he possessed all the status markers that in his reckoning entitled him to sexual attention.
One can understand his confusion. After all, he wasn’t bad looking. He was rich. He drove a fancy car. His family was in the film business. He was raised in a hedonistic culture that prized acquiring sex, fame, and money as the ultimate goal in life. He had the fame, relatively speaking (e.g., his easy access to the world of celebrity), and he certainly had the money. So why didn’t he have the sex? It never seems to have occurred to this rotten little troll that the problem was with him. Indeed, given how decent-looking he was, and how rich, he must have been a pretty horrible person not to be able to find someone in Kardashianland, where those corrupt sex-fame-wealth values reign, to sleep with him.
Rodger racialized his resentment, but I think the resentment would have been there even if he hadn’t. It is tempting to say, “If only he had been raised by parents, and by a culture, that taught him what love, and self-worth, really is, things might have been different.” Maybe so. But tens of millions of young people have their consciences formed by this corrupt culture, and they don’t turn into racist mass murderers.
Still, it is worthwhile to consider the role the sin of Envy plays in this evil deed. Envy, for Dante and his medieval world, is not really wanting what others have; it’s wanting them not to have it if one cannot have it oneself. Rodger was envious in both the medieval sense and in the more modern sense. We have created a popular culture in which the worth of people and the meaning of life is measured by hedonistic values, which are constantly celebrated by the culture. What’s more, we have created a popular culture in which young people are acculturated into believing that it is their right to have these things, and if these things aren’t readily available, it is a cosmic injustice wrought by someone else against their innocent person.
I’ve written before about the missionary in inner-city Dallas who told me that perhaps the greatest obstacle to the black and Hispanic kids he worked with escaping the ghetto was their commonly-held belief that the people on the other side of the Trinity River who were relatively well-off and successful had achieved that ease of life by virtue of their whiteness. He said these kids had no real sense of their own agency, how they could study and work and start on the straight path out of the ghetto. Many of them looked across the river and merely envied, a reaction that, ironically, created mind forg’d manacles that made it harder for them to get what they wanted.
But you can understand how a poor ghetto kid would believe that poison. But a rich, half-white child of Hollywood privilege? He looked out at the world and saw nothing but injustice, because he wasn’t having sex. I think of Piccarda, the nun in Dante’s Paradiso, who teaches against Envy:
“Brother, the power of love subdues our will
so that we long for only what we have
and thirst for nothing else.”
I wonder if anybody in that twisted kid’s life had ever shown him love, or what it means to love anyone other than oneself.
UPDATE: Sorry, but I’ve been gone all day long, and just getting back to this. I’m learning from you readers that this Rodger kid had been psychiatrically ill for a long time, and his parents tried to get him help. That’s a huge factor, obviously, and one I wasn’t aware of when I posted the article this morning.