Because I don’t have cable television, I didn’t watch the CNN “town hall” on gun violence last night. Following the social media commentary, I am glad I didn’t see it. From the descriptions, it seemed all heat, no light. Several thoughtful conservatives I follow on Twitter said the whole thing played like a dream advertisement for the NRA, in that it played right into the fear among gun owners that the Left despises them and is eager to take away their guns.
Cards on the table: I am in favor of a significantly greater degree of gun regulation than many of my fellow conservatives are, and I get as annoyed with right-wing Second Amendment absolutists who insist that any attempt to control guns will lead to a civil liberties apocalypse as I do with left-wing First Amendment absolutists who hold that any attempt to control access to pornography is welcoming Big Brother. That said, it drives me to despair to see how so many on the left demonize guns so thoroughly that they imagine that guns themselves are the prime source of our mass violence problem.
Here’s what I can’t figure out: I grew up in a rural hunting culture, where guns were, and are, widely available. Nothing like this ever happened. If a troubled kid wanted to shoot up his school, the weaponry and the opportunity was there, in spades. But it didn’t happen. It doesn’t happen.
Look at this:
If conservatives are right that the cause of this country’s large # of gun massacres has nothing to do w the easy availability of heavy firepower, it must be the result of something uniquely terrible about American culture that drives so many to become homicidal maniacs, right?
— Damon Linker (@DamonLinker) February 22, 2018
Well, I believe that this country’s large number of gun massacres does have something to do with gun availability, but I also believe that there is something terrible about American culture. I don’t have a clear theory — does anybody? should anybody claim to? — but I want to offer a few thoughts toward one.
Here’s something Wendell Berry wrote in his short essay “The Joy of Sales Resistance”:
XIV. The main thing is, don’t let education get in the way of being nice to children. Children are our Future. Spend plenty of money on them but don’t stay home with them and get in their way. Don’t give them work to do; they are smart and can think up things to do on their own. Don’t teach them any of that awful, stultifying, repressive, old-fashioned morality. Provide plenty of TV, microwave dinners, day care, computers, computer games, cars. For all this, they will love and respect us and be glad to grow up and pay our debts.
XV. A good school is a big school.
XVI. Disarm the children before you let them in.
Of course, education is for the Future, and the Future is one of our better-packaged items and attracts many buyers. (The past, on the other hand, is hard to sell; it is, after all, past.) The Future is where we’ll all be fulfilled, happy, healthy, and perhaps will live and consume forever. It may have some bad things in it, like storms or floods or earthquakes or plagues or volcanic eruptions or stray meteors, but soon we will learn to predict and prevent such things before they happen. In the Future, many scientists will be employed in figuring out how to prevent the unpredictable consequences of the remaining unpreventable bad things. There will always be work for scientists.
Second, here is a piece from today’s NYT: “When Is My Child Instagram-Ready?” The idea that this is a question parents ask is a sign of our problem.
1. The Size and Model of Mass Schooling Is Alienating
Back in 1929-30, there were about 248,000 public schools in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. How many today? Far less than half. By 2013-14, the number had shrunk to 98,000.
When you consider that the U.S. population nearly tripled in that timeframe, there’s no question this factory model of schooling has grown exponentially. The numbers speak to the intense bureaucratization of a public school system that is becoming more centralized with less local control, packing ever-larger numbers of students in one place.
The natural effect is an emotional malaise that fuels a sense of confusion and detachment. I believe the sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the term “anomie” to describe this sense of isolation. Even the physical architecture of public schools is getting more estranging. They tend to be larger and more looming, almost blade-runner-like in their effect of shrinking and sequestering individuals to irrelevance.
There’s already much to be anxious about in those settings: the intensity of testing, the long days, the labelling, the constant social—and now, political—expectations that students must meet to fit in. The alienation of amassing larger groups of children enhances that.
I don’t agree with everything Morabito says in her column, but I think it is absolutely the case that the form of schooling in our current day ought to be critically examined for its social effects. Homeschoolers are accustomed to people asking us how we can possibly expect our children to be “socialized” if they don’t go to standard schools. There’s a polite answer that most of us use, but the real answer is something like, “Are you out of your mind?! Socialized to that standard?!”
Anthony Esolen, on his Facebook feed, commenting on the Morabito piece:
And this goes under the heading for that ever-bulging file, I Knew It Was Bad; I Had No Idea How Bad It Was.
One thing the author says here jibes with another datum I found some years ago. She says that seventy or eighty years ago — I cannot remember the year she cites — there were twice as many public schools as there are now. That was for one third of the population. The upshot is that each school is now SIX TIMES as large, take it all in all, as the typical school was in the past. We insist on viewing human beings as functionally interchangeable, and as no different en masse than in small and personal groups. That is a profound error, and one that only a post-industrial “culture” would make. A mansion with sixty people in it is not the same as ten homes with six people in each. My college, Princeton, was relatively small for the sort of thing it was, and there were features in it that retained something of the human intimacy of a small school; most notably, the construction of the old dormitories and the large rooms and suites in them brought small groups of people together in ways that high-rise dormitories with single cells for two roommates cannot. But if they multiplied Princeton’s enrollment by SIX, resulting in a mega-school of 25,000 undergraduates, it would be an entirely different kind of place, and would, I think, breed plenty of dysfunctions.
As I said, her datum fits with another: there used to be SEVEN TIMES as many school boards, at roughly the same time that she cites, as there are now. That means that TWENTY ONE times as many ordinary citizens were responsible for the oversight of the public schools. Parents, pillars of the community (businessmen, clergymen, the leaders of all the women’s charitable organizations, college educated persons), and former teachers would be involved, and that must have resulted in a close relationship between the school and the neighborhood. Sure, sometimes it would have grated on a teacher’s nerves, but against that we must place the feeling of belonging, of order, that everyone would have taken for granted.
Grown men and women do not really thrive, I think, in workplaces where no one knows more than a small fraction of his or her fellows. But they are grown up, they can suffer through it; children aren’t, and should not be expected to suffer through it. Break the schools up. Give each one a school board of volunteers from the community. Give them the go-ahead to try things out; maybe one school might be strong for music, another for arts and letters, another for trades. But by all means do not house children in places that must necessarily be impersonal, gigantic, and soul-crushing.
I wonder if the reason nobody ever shot up a school in these small Southern towns where guns are abundantly available, and boys are typically taught how to use them in hunting, has to do with the fact that society is (or has been) more coherent there. Life was far from perfect, but it made sense. Most people internalized a sense of social and moral order, such that they didn’t really think about shooting up schools.
Where is the moral order today? Where is the sense that life coheres, that there are limits, that there is meaning?
In related news, a new online publication for women sponsored by the Washington Post is pushing polyamory (“She had a hard time separating her desire for a primary partner with her interest in various kinks, so she compartmentalized in a way that enabled her to see multiple people”); and a magazine that is not Penthouse or even Cosmopolitan consults a gynecologist for advice about a procedure celebrated in a mainstream film of the sort you would have had to go to a fleabag theater to see 40 years ago:
In the newest — and, tragically, final — installment of the Fifty Shades franchise, Fifty Shades Freed, there’s a darkly memorable scene wherein human pommel horse Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) appears to be seconds away from feeding an entire spoonful of Ben and Jerry’s into Anastasia Steele’s (Dakota Johnson) vagina. After stealing the spoon from Anastasia — who, only minutes earlier, had been melancholically enjoying the midnight pint in the storied tradition of anxious rom-com heroines before her — Christian “playfully” drives the kitchen implement in the direction of her most precious innards. The spoon hovers in midair in the most twisted iteration of “here comes the airplane” imaginable.
Come to think of it, Teen Vogue in the past few months has advised teenage girls on the best way to be sodomized (the magazine’s chief digital content officer accused those objecting to it of “homophobia”), and published a “vibrator gift guide” for Christmas. The most tender, intimate expressions of love between a man and a woman, reduced to bestial gestures. Meanwhile, many schools are forbidding parents even from knowing what kind of indoctrination into this kind of filth their kids will be receiving at public school — and not even Republican legislators in some places resist.
And let’s not even get started on the fetishization of graphic violence in popular culture.
It’s almost as if the dominant culture and its institutions are radically dehumanizing teenagers, and are mystified as to why some of those teenagers don’t see others as human beings worthy of respect and care.
Yes, maybe Stella Morabito is right, and Wendell Berry is right, and the form of our schooling has to do with this dehumanization. I think they are correct, to a great degree. But that’s only part of the story. The other part of the story is the culture itself present in these schools, among the children who have been raised like embourgeoised animals, and utterly failed by their parents and all the rest of us.
Mene, mene, tekel upharsin. Exit this decadent empire, if you can. Our culture has a death wish, and it is receiving what it has prepared.
UPDATE: Reader Matt in VA writes:
I am surprised that you don’t draw out the parallel between school shootings and another common theme on this blog — early-onset transgenderism.
Both are to some degree social contagions and media/extremely-online-culture phenomena.
The most recent school shooting in Florida is depressing but the school shooting itself is not the only thing that is revealing. What is most interesting from a cultural-criticism standpoint is the way the shooting generated a simultaneous parallel media spectacle in the form of the survivors who were already making videos for Youtube while bullets were being fired and who had media handlers and hashtags ready to go before the bodies had a chance to get cold.
I have seen the faces of the *gun control NOW* kids about 1,000 times since the shooting happened less than a week ago. I don’t think I’ve seen any photos of the kids who got murdered at all.
Generation Z will have two big cohorts:
alienated dysfunctional (to a greater or lesser degree) kids who engage in activities ranging from incredibly dedicated online trolling to can’t-get-a-girlfriend PUA forum posting to going crazy and school shooter speedrunning like it’s a videogame
smarmy cold-blooded strivers born on third base whose reaction to traumatic and horrifying experiences is to seek–instantaneously, instinctively, even while bodies are hitting the floor around them– to convert them to clicks, engagement, and fodder to pad college resumes with killer ways to sell themselves as passionate self-starters and change agents, hugely effective at doing exactly what Silicon Valley wants most — generating likes, comments, and shares.
100 years ago, many young people (not too much older than these high school kids) responded to the carnage they witnessed and experienced on the Western Front — how? By carrying around a well-worn volume of Housman and writing poetry (*the* characteristic response of that particular generation to the war.)
Now, kids’ primary response to something like this is to trample over the freshly fallen bodies of their classmates in order to throw themselves in front of as many TV and smartphone cameras as possible. The narcissistic sociopathy (cloaked of course, in repeated hysterical assertions of moral self-righteousness based not on acts but on political positions) is related, in a way, to the murderous nihilism of the school shooters themselves. This is how the winners and the losers of today’s society conduct themselves.