Changing the Subject after Newtown

by G. Murphy Donovan (February 2013)

“You cannot escape the responsibility for tomorrow by evading it today”

                                                             – Abraham Lincoln

For most people, life is not about truth. Truth is what we choose to believe; but, little of what we believe is true. And faculties like reason do not help much either. Logic, for the urbane, is mostly a school project; a theoretical exercise unleavened by experience. This alone might explain the hubris of politics, science, and the academy today.

Indeed, schools and what they teach, beyond basic skills, are probably the worst possible preparation for a long, no less successful, life. Unfortunately, formal schools have failed, in too many cases, the basic skills test also. Half of Black and Hispanic kids in America do not reach the twelfth grade in one of the worst public school systems in the developed world. Thus, even the best vicarious public instruction, like prisons, may have little to do with social skills or useful training.

Between mandatory schooling, indulgent parenting, and federal busybodies

And observation, or witness, doesn’t help much either. What we think we know influences what we think we see, and thus another layer of oxidized ignorance accumulates. Experience is the wire brush that removes that rust; reveals the base metal, if you will. Yet reality, for a cloistered, pampered youngster, is a vicious child-abuser. Many a custodial kid, accustomed to instant gratification, never acquires the restraint and skills necessary for adult, say nothing of, civic behavior.

Indeed, the soul itself requires the sandpaper of reality to really shine. Experience is the ultimate abrasive. Many youngsters do not survive the friction; especially when they test themselves alone. Maturity, long life, and success are, if nothing else, team sports.

Two incidents that made recent headlines might be instructive. The first is the story of Christopher McCandless who struck off into the Alaskan wilderness alone shortly after graduation from Emory College. It’s still not clear whether McCandless died from ignorance or immaturity; but in any case, the immediate cause of death was starvation, a horrific end to a young life.

The second case is more recent, the sad tale of twenty-year-old Adam Lanza who returned to his alma mater, Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, and gunned down 20 students and six adults, and then took his own life.

The parallels for both youngsters are remarkable; age, gender, race, class, bizarre behavior, and early death at their own hands. The difference between suicide and homicide is usually quantitative not qualitative; both are essentially selfish acts. Dying is easy; living requires courage and character.

Ironies in both cases abound too.

Before walking into the Alaskan woods, McCandless donated his graduate school nest egg, $25,000, to OXFAM, an organization dedicated to ending starvation. Lanza’s mother gave her troubled son shooting lessons and access to an arsenal of weapons! Mrs. Lanza was killed by her son with one of those guns.

With both, a reasonable observer might ask what the affluent parents of these kids were thinking. What were the adults doing for the first, and last, twenty years of their children’s lives? If maturity and civility are the expected outcomes of parenting, the McCandless and Lanza family adults might be guilty of mal-practice.

Unfortunately, parents, especially single parents, have a kind of civic immunity when it comes to their aberrant offspring. For the politically correct, parents are literal and figurative victims too. Yet, arrested development may not be limited to children or parents. Some observers argue that that extended infantilism is now a cultural phenomenon. The nanny state is not just a metaphor.

The McCandless drama has already crossed the cultural threshold with a book and film. The Lanza story is sure to be grist for the same mill. Unfortunately, popular literature and cinema often spin the facts to create romance not history. Romance is interesting; history (or truth) as Catherine Dunn might put it, has no concern for anyone’s comfort. Schindler’s List is a classic example.

The Holocaust yarn, as told by Thomas Kennealy’s book, Schindler’s Ark (1982), and Steven Speilberg’s film (1993), is airbrushed history. Schindler was no matinee idol and the Holocaust was not a story of righteous gentiles. We can understand the gratitude of Schindlerjuden, but their tale is a small footnote to volumes of European horror. The artistic flaw in the Schindler fictions is that, first a writer, and then a director, managed to change the subject – by popularizing a romantic exception at the expense of an ugly rule.

The McCandless story suffered a similar fate with Jon Krakauer and Sean Penn, auteurs of a book and film, respectively, of the same name; Into the Wild. Krakauer is a writer who specializes in stories about extreme sports, mountain climbing in particular. Sean Penn is an actor/director who specializes in Hollywood.

In their visions, McCandless becomes something of a mystic, a Thoreau reading, sensitive hero in search of truth midst bourgeois parents and a callous, material world. Here again, art attempts to change the subject. McCandless might be alive today if sensitivity was common sense.

More than one Alaska native, including professional park rangers, concluded that Chris McCandless was naïve, immature, and fatally ill-equipped to test Mother Nature on her own terms. The frozen tundra of Alaska is not Walden Pond.

Thoreau once argued; “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” McCandless purchased a simple truth with his life: Mother Nature is never as indulgent as your birth mother.

Rewriting the unpleasant reality of life seems to be a modern cultural defense mechanism; and a reflexive public reaction to regional carnage. Families are seldom called to account for the behavior of their children. Press post-mortems on the Adam Lanza shootings are illustrative. Moral outrage is directed against the inanimate; lobbies and technology.

When a child turns on himself or society, we are led to believe that the National Rifle Association (NRA), a gun safety advocate, is the culprit. Or that lowering the capacity of rifle and pistol magazines or rates of fire will make the world safer! Never mind that McCandless carried a .22 caliber rifle into grizzly bear country. Now there’s a child who could have used a gun expert.

Unfortunately, in the real world, there are no technical remedies for common sense deficits – or technical solutions for child or parental moral vacuums.

The best weapons for mass murder are not handguns or rifles in any case. The most lethal technical weapons for angry young men are; cars, trucks, or aircraft – or a case of cheap alcohol from Canada. If there were technical solutions, Seagram’s and Johnny Walker might be stopped at the border. Or semi-automatic cars, trucks, and aircraft from GM or Boeing could be outlawed too. And if small arms are taken from ordinary law-abiding citizens, couldn’t SWAT teams and Secret Service agents get by with nightsticks?

And what about all those metal detectors, book bag searches, pat downs, and armed guards in majority Black schools? Are we to leave all those yuppie kids in majority white schools defenseless? Official racism and gun “control” are now joined as inner-city policy! Is the goal of gun control in New York City and Baltimore to get semi-automatics off the street – and onto the hips of ghetto school cops?

That witless debate in the public square is obscured too when the media puts the cross hairs on the NRA. Take Michael Bloomberg; most noted for banning liquid sweets and blaming the state of Virginia for Times Square homicides.  

Bloomberg must know that mostly single-party, urban centers nationwide are the petri dishes for violent crime, with or without guns. New York made Kitty Genovese a national icon. Thirty-seven New Yorkers watched the murder of Genovese, a 105 pound waif who died from seventeen stab wounds. No one needed a gun for that atrocity and none of the bystanders thought to call for assistance. In cities like New York, “wilding” is summer fun – where police are often spectators. The “no-go” neighborhoods of London and Paris are laws unto themselves.

Kitty Genovese

And when the subject is gratuitous violence, how do the Press, Hollywood, and the video game industry get a pass?

“If it bleeds, it leads” is the dominant Media ethic. Diane, George, and Chris are free to exploit the Sandy Hook survivors and broadcast another template for copy cats. Or consider David Gregory, a Media exemplar. Gregory, waved a high capacity gun clip under a guest’s nose to score TV debating points. Unfortunately, mere possession of such gun magazines is illegal in the nation’s capital, a bit of research that seemed to elude NBC and Meet the Press gun “experts.” Gregory’s ill-considered stunt, and similar pandering from the likes of Piers Morgan, stimulated record gun sales in 2012. Blowback indeed!

And tactical naiveté is not restricted to municipal politicians. You might recall that the New York Times was the paper of record for an earlier generation of Holocaust deniers. That journal is again host to the likes of Thomas Friedman, an urban naif who thinks democracy can survive Islamism, a polite term for contemporary theo-fascism. Changing the Islamic trope requires strange bedfellows; to wit, American Jews in the vanguard of another quisling campaign. In the slack water of New York City politics, where Anthony Weiner swims, poseurs like Friedman are frequently confused with moral philosophers.

Somehow, any restraint on the gratuitous violence of Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill), and like-minded Hollywood thrill shills, is off the table too. Tarantino snuff flicks are targeted on an audience of 14 year olds.

And the children’s game industry has unconditional immunity. Consider some of the titles of the most popular electronic games purchased by and for kids: Rage, Bullet Storm, Body Count (sic), and Modern Warfare are just a few examples. Advertising such kiddie porn as “first person shooters” is not a marketing accident either.

Withal, we are assured by “science,” mainly sociology and psychology, that these media influences are marginally relevant, providing little or no conclusive links to behavior. This is the same psycho-babble industry that prescribes pills as behavioral prophylactics. Indeed, alcohol and drug addictions have been reclassified as illness, not character flaws or behavior problems. Drunks and junkies are now sick, not selfish and irresponsible.

And who takes a fall for all those drifty medicated kids with some kind of “deficit disorder?” Don’t we all have deficits? If we can’t source the ailment, how do we know chemistry is the answer? We do know that drugs are the quickest way to neutralize conscience! All of which seems to be a very good argument for replacing preachers, physicians, lawyers, courts, and jails with better pharmaceuticals.

Diagnosing bad behavior as illness is a high water mark of personal, parental, and civic irresponsibility. Poor choice has been reduced to a kind of body lice, something caught at the public toilet. If everyone is a victim, patient, or a hopeless romantic; then no one is responsible for anything.

And moral vacuity isn’t limited to creepy Hollywood directors and venal city mayors. The White House has become a font of excuses for ecumenical mass murder. Reagan gave Hezb’allah a pass after the Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon (1983) and every president since has sought to rationalize every subsequent Islamic atrocity – body bags be damned. Bill Clinton gets the cadaver prize for ignoring the million-plus Rwanda tribal genocide (1994) and the Obama/Clinton team gets a more recent creativity award for Benghazi. A plane load of tourists over Scotland is just another surcharge when petroleum becomes a cultural value. Excusing international mayhem is now a bi-partisan, Oval Office pastime.

So why lament the sorry fate of McCandless or Lanza’s grade school victims?  Such events are logical outcomes of an American culture that celebrates violence at home, excuses similar mayhem abroad, and then changes the subject.  American violence, like pornography, is merely another form of toxic home entertainment – and often an international spectator sport.

Arrested development is not limited to selfish youngsters or their clueless parents. Individual “victims’ might be symptoms of a cultural sea change; custodial has replaced entrepreneurial as a national standard. Dependent is the new independent. When angry, selfish children do not get their way, Kevlar becomes more than just a fashion statement. Suicide and homicide are legal distinctions without a cultural difference.

What happened with McCandless and Lanza is regrettable, not tragic. A tragedy is a great man, or woman, felled by character faults, flaws like hubris. Neither McCandless nor Lanza were great men; and their deaths had more to do with selfishness than pride. The Sandy Hook children, regrettably, were victims of fate; in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their deaths will have no transcendent meaning in literature or film; except to the extent that those innocents might be exploited to alter ugly truth. We allow fact to morph into fiction because truth is so uncomfortable. Alas, we can change the subject, but not the consequences.

Hannah Arendt might have seen all of this simply as the “banality of evil.” Since Hitler, accepting the worst among us as victims, as a tolerable minority, has become an international cultural norm. Yet like doves, those selfish vultures of violence come home to roost too.

G. Murphy Donovan writes frequently about military affairs, Intelligence, national security, and politics. He was raised in the east and south Bronx.

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