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Monday, December 17, 2012

Sandy Oh Sandy: Rorschach Vulgarity (And A Critique)

Superstorm Sandy

Whenever something really, really bad happens, it is nearly unavoidable that it be vulgarized into a national Rorschach test onto which our pet concerns are projected. Our two recent Sandys - Hurricane & Hook - serve to illustrate this somewhat lamentable fact.

With Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy, we have the context of global climate change, in which human-caused global warming proponents and deniers alike find nuggets of talking points to advance their respective world-views. Some of us see it as an important signifier - if not outright proof - of the ongoing damage, others seize on the fact that it is indeed not "proof," and so proceed somewhat illogically that it is somehow "proof" of the opposite.

This is a matter for natural science, and for all of the ambiguity that human psychology can and does assign to its manifestation, it is remarkably sparse terrain compared with the tangled forest we are presented with when dealing with a sociological "superstorm" like Sandy Hook.

Stumping for God, for guns, for mental health services, or for economic justice (I readily confess to leaning towards the latter), the cacophony of the "peoples' punditry" of social media and the blogosphere are alit with the fire of Rorschachian vulgarity, much of it on point but, still, too much of it a naked projection of the various self- and special-interests involved.

A lone person cannot cut through all of this, it is the ultimate collective effort, so the noisy ugliness and vulgarity cannot be circumvented. Even if Wisdom Herself descended to articulate the essential truths surrounding these unfortunate events, Her voice would be lost on us, we who have axes to grind and bulls to be gored. So we must slog through our septic psyches and slosh and weave, one by one, within our individually alloted times here, towards the truth or towards our perditions.

All efforts to the contrary, it's a democratic world, and democracy is messy.


Whether for reasons of cowardice or intellectual vigor, some of us have waited before weighing in on Sandy Hook. Probably a little bit of both (for myself, I certainly feel that way.) Cowardice is too strong a word - let's go with "caution."

Not to project my own tendencies on another, I am going to do just that and use this post by Jon Talton as an example of such "caution." The essay is so chock-filled with points addressing the myriad points-of-view being reactively catapulted back at the tragedy, it is hard to avoid assuming that Jon has been absorbing the Rorschachian Vulgarity and, like myself, has been hanging back until all votes are in and a credible and patronizing assessment of the landscape can be finally made*.

For it is a comprehensive piece, touching on God, guns, mental health and economic injustice - the major food groups of the deconstruction of modern massacre - along with the rather dizzying inclusion of other satellite concerns, like traditionalism and media decadence thrown in as well.

It is quite a salad, with lots of nutrition to be found, but garnished with a such an array of spices and condiments to render it somewhat hard to digest, at least for my delicate constitution.


I summarize my overall reaction: The thoughtful points raised in the post are so peppered with what are, too me, bizarre invocations of traditionalism and "civil" nostalgia as to render the thoughtful... yes, "liberal"... observations to be merely an obligatory cant, seemingly supplied only to retain liberal credentials. In all fairness, it also seems to be written from a place of pain, so such contusions can be forgiven. That said, here's the savage breakdown (not in the order of the original piece - Empire of Violence - which should of course be read in as intended by the author):
  • God:
    My agnostic and atheist friends can stop reading here. Mike Huckabee and the other religious hucksters have claimed that lack of God in the classroom or whatever other supposed transgressions from fundamentalism led to these shootings. Yet all of the savagery in creating this empire of violence was done in God's name. If they really read their Bibles, they would find that when the Israelites worshiped idols, allowed human sacrifice, spilled the blood of innocents and did not care for the poor, the anger of the Lord was kindled. From the very founding of the nation, most Americans saw us as the new Israel. Considering our recent behavior, I am afraid.
    No criticism from me here. I'm assuming that the caveat of the first sentence is justified by the admission of existential fear in the last, as I find nothing (as the putative agnostic/athiest) objectionable in the body of the paragraph. At the least, the Bible is rich with useful metaphors and morality tales, and I'm not above referencing these illustrations myself.

  • Guns: While firearms are unavoidably germane to the discussion, I agree with those who "bigger-picture" the issue insofar as to acknowledge that firearms usage, not the existence of firearms, is more a more relevant topic. That said, there is no way that the ubiquity and worship of guns in America is not a serious and abiding sign of collective mental illness.
    I was raised in Western gun culture, so I had a different perspective from the liberal hysteria after the Connecticut school shooting. That can be boiled down to: Ban guns and our problems will be solved.
    "Boiled down" or no - this "hysterical" perspective is held by the marginal cadre of "thoughtless" liberalism. Liberalism is no stranger to nuance, and I expect this sort of straw-man reductionism from the thoughtless wing of reactionary conservatism. Cheap, credential-gathering shot.
    "Don't point a gun at someone unless you intend to shoot them," my mother said. In addition to being a concert pianist, she was an expert shot and would not have hesitated had we been at risk. She did not like handguns. To her mind, a handgun could be too accessible while one was still angry. Through all this was a thread of deep seriousness: A firearm was deadly, had to be treated with respect and care, and its watchful possesion was a sign of adult maturity...
    This "gun owner maturity" business goes on, and forgive me if I am a bit tired with the "responsible" vs. "irresponsible" gun owner rant. More "good guy/bad guy" talk, identification of the "other" and the washing of one's own hands. It's an infinite quest, with long historical purview, a stain on the credentials of humanity, and it's a bloody quest as well.

    You people who are "trained" to handle your guns are still caressing them with a love that sickens me. And while I find the abomination of prohibition - that of humans deciding for other humans what is permissible - a deeper evil than the sins it purports to prevent, there is no hiding the narcissism, materialism, and odious triumphalism that is inextricably bound up with this gun-love.

    For all of that, be assured that I consider it a natural right for each of us to be profoundly wrong, in our own time, so that we all have the blessed opportunity to finally discern for ourselves what is profoundly right. There are no shortcuts to this, and that is my ultimate "up-yours" to organized religion and other appeals to genteel tradition.

    The fact that innocents suffer the consequences of such quests is not a matter to be ignored, but it is important to keep in mind that that is the ultimate nature of sin. The pain keeps coming unless and until we see, and learn. For ourself. Not for our neighbor. One does not, and cannot, "train" the sin out of anyone.
    As for gun control, my Second Amendment stance will not please progressive readers. The amendment is unfortunately worded ambiguously, but all of the Bill of Rights pertained to individual rights and limitations on the government. If the framers had intended the Second Amendment to apply to the militia, it would have been inserted elsewhere in the Constitution. That said, no right is absolute, trumping all others. The Constitution was written before we became an urbanized society with 312 million people and before assault weapons. So limitations on assault rifles and magazine size, requiring registration and eliminating the gun-show loophole all sound reasonable to me.
    Some good points here, and for an excellent and interesting take on the evolution of the Second Amendment, I recommend checking out Ezra Klein's post, A history of the Second Amendment in two paintings, and to click through to Akhil Reed Amar's expansion on the subject at Slate: Putting the Second Amendment Second

  • Mental Health/Economic Justice: The heart of the matter, as far as I'm concerned, and they are correctly entwined Mr. Talton's - again, in my opinion - but here is where the discordant references to traditionalism and civic-nostalgia appear. I am annoyed by this.
    In the 1960s, liberal sociologists explained rising crime as the outgrowth of "the sick society." Then it included racism and lack of economic opportunity for minorities and many lower-class Americans...
    Okay, I'm listening...
    ...But that society was healthy compared with today's.
    Wait, what?
    Young men, full of testosterone and primal urges, are always especially dangerous. This makes them good soldiers, after the Army and Marines break down their individuality and turn them into trained killers, but ones who follow orders, and, at their best, abide by the rules of combat. In the old days, a stint in the service did much to turn dangerous young men into responsible adults. Or they were channeled into other grown-up endeavors such as my ambulance days, which, again, taught dependability, trustworthiness and maturity. That world is gone.

    Most mediating institutions are gone, ailing or have lost their legitimacy: Unions, church, the Boy Scouts, close families, secure jobs with future advancement, etc. Real community. The commons. Women, whether mothers or girlfriends, who taught young men civilizing behavior. Fathers and uncles who were genuine role models. To be a man meant many things, including dressing like an adult and reading books, thinking critically and shouldering responsibility. Sorry, classes in "impulse control" and armies of psychologists won't substitute in an America so broken and decadent.
    OK, full stop. The offensiveness of this rant is only bearable due to the fact that it is in ultimate contradiction.

    Before I get to that, I want to make clear that the pain expressed in these paragraphs is palpable and undeniable. When a careful thinker like Jon Talton evokes the nostalgia of the "old days" and a world "gone," it comes from a place of pain. I honor that pain, and I even honor to some degree the wistfulness it conjures. But we must emerge from the sweat lodge sooner or later, and get back to a deadly-serious business.

    This brings us to the contradiction. Keeping in mind my earlier point regarding our natural born right to be wrong, in our own time, I take specific exception to romanticizing "mediating institutions" or the "civilizing" ministrations of mothers and girlfriends**. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Jon's denigration of "classes in impulse control" and "armies of psychologists" apply as well to any behavioral-based approach to solving society's ills. It matters not whether these attempts emanate from psychologists, teachers, girlfriends or "mediating institutions."

    While these sources can be useful for those who are actively participating in their own edification (girlfriends/mothers are arguably more useful than appeals to tradition like "institutions" and wearing a suit - see below - but my point remains), all of these arguments about behavioral education rely on a wisdom-from-above mindset that is an enduring and lamentable fantasy of human psychology that has frankly done its share of damage in the world and needs to be put down once and for all, and put down with no mercy.

    I can't decide if the thumb-sucking thesis of trickle-down wisdom is more repulsive when it is advanced and romanced by those who think they have it to give, or from those who seek to receive it from others. It's all of an ugly, two-sides-of-a-coin, piece, I suppose.

    Which brings me to...

  • Video Games, Dress Codes, and Manners (Oh my!): I'm being selective here, and shamelessly pulling out the bad stuff so, again, go read the whole thing if you want justice, heh...
    Men don't read. An entire society has become infantilized. Young men who can't get girlfriends no longer read and write poetry. They play murderous video games, listen to violent hip-hop, have their brains fried by constant electronic distractions. Our malls and streets are full of nominal adults covered with tattoos, dressed like adolescents, calling each other "motherfucker"...

    Nobody seems to know what is appropriate, nor is this expected by grown ups, even the small things. A gentleman holding the door for a woman is not taking away her vote. Wearing a suit to work, a funeral or the symphony is not being "uptight." These are among of the scores of things that once civilized potentially dangerous young men. We call our children "kids." A kid is a young goat...
    I don't know about anyone else, but whenever I feel the urge to tell the kids to get off of my lawn, I step back and take a closer look at my passion. If necessary, I'll go back to a little George Will bluejean action to remind myself.

    I don't know what else to say about this, other than to remind everyone that the '50's wasn't really like "Happy Days". That would be television.

    And I like blue jeans, and I think that neckties are the uniform of the cowardly enablers of privilege, thirty pieces of silver jangling in their pockets. But that's just me.

OK, I'm done being mean. As I've said, there is much in an otherwise thoughtful (and pain-riddled) piece, not the least of which catalog markers of America's decline, be it bowling-alone isolationism, the debilitating fantasy of suburbia, and/or the capitalism-fueled decadence of modern media. All of these things, in their own diabolical feed-back-loop ways, contribute to our problems.

We must keep firmly in mind, however, that these are largely symptoms, not causes. Regardless of how narcotizing television is, for example, we cannot lose sight of the fact that it is being perverted and exploited because of other forces and incentives. Tossing your television in the dumpster will not solve these problems (though I heartily recommend it!), unless we come to terms with an overall paradigm that gives homage to materialism and greed, to the incessant, arrogant, and impotent efforts to turn the world into a habitat suited solely for our personal appetites and pleasures.

And, finally, to be fair, here are some quotes from the piece in which Jon Talton is right-fucking-on (not comprehensive, but some highlights):
  • Most of today's America is marked by amorphous suburbia, everything car-dependent and separated. Our isolation breeds dysfunction. It's telling how these horrific events happen there, not in downtowns or ghettos.
  • Much of the modern built environment is brutal and dehumanizing. Our society is hyper-stimulated by electronics. Television spews an endless firehose of the national freakshow...TV also leads a nationwide campaign against seriousness and intelligence. Indeed, one of our two great political parties is actively anti-intellectual.
  • In place of being citizens, with all the weighty duty this implies, we are "consumers." We consume from corporations that steal from the public, send jobs to Asia, cut wages, game the government for their bidding and have no sense of obligation to the society that enabled them to flourish.
  • America has been coarsened by more than a decade of ill-advised and failed wars. Those conflicts mired us in situations where combatants and civilians were often indistinguishable... Torture became enshrined as national policy and a shocking percentage of Americans thought it was just fine.
  • The society as a whole has become paranoid and allowed our liberties to be subsumed by "homeland" security (can you imagine the reaction if the Newtown shooting had been carried out by a Muslim?)
  • Much of this is not new [ed. No, it's not - one could almost call it "traditional"]. America created its continental empire through violence, especially Indian removal, white supremacy, slavery and Jim Crow, whose lynchings were so popular that they spawned a postcard industry depicting this racial brutality.
  • Indeed, I wonder how much worse we've made things by putting children on psychotropic drugs and turning being a little boy into a mental illness.
  • We do need more mercy, less vengeance.
  • The National Rifle Association, of which I was once a member, has become a disease on the body politic. Along with the corporate-backed ALEC, which writes bills to be passed without question by extremist Republican legislatures around the country, the NRA has enabled and encouraged shootings and the opportunities for using a gun instead of a harsh word or a fist.

*I was not planning on writing a single word on the shootings, but Talton's tour de force moved me to change my mind. Also, I respect and welcome any pushback that Jon might have in reclaiming his dignity against the despicable generalizations I make here regarding his motives and intent.

But alas, there are ideas here, and they are to be savaged.

**I do not wish to minimize a good point made by Jon about the civilizing effect that healthy inter-gender relationships can foster. There is a great deal to be said about how the behavior of males - especially the hormonally charged young - is governed by the approval of women. The weird feedback loops between the sexes that result in desireable, or dysfunctional, behaviors is well-studied. I am only objecting to the context in which this subject is raised.


  1. Well that was really good Petro.

    But can you explain this "Rorschach Vulgarity"
    and you said
    "I don't know what else to say about this, other than to remind everyone that the '50's wasn't really like "Happy Days". That would be television."

    I got to tell you the 50's were the best part of my life with out a doubt. Nothing before or since has equaled the great 50's I enjoyed.

  2. Thank you, cal! Between you and Reb I'm going to have to stock up on more salve for my swelled head.

    "Rorschach Vulgarity" is just a coinage to represent the tendency we have to project our own interests on events that should be, say, treated with a little more respect and consideration. Like a hive of adults hawking their opinions about gun control before the little ones have even been properly mourned. But now I'm getting sanctimonious.

    As for the '50's... yes, I imagine there are a lot of white males who got a real bang out of the '50's, cal. Civil rights put the kibosh on some of that levity, and I'm still pissed off about the car and consumer culture that took serious root in that decade. No harm in fond reminiscence, though...

  3. Ah yes the cars, the girls in their skirts and cashmere sweaters, the back seat trysts at the drive-in or overlooking the city on top of a mountain.

    The sweet sound of the hollow glass pack type mufflers as you down shifted while criusing on Central Avenue.

    The number of cars I owned was absolutely sinful. Please forgive me, Earth.


  4. You people who are "trained" to handle your guns are still caressing them with a love that sickens me.

    Interesting observation Petro.

    Evan Selinger at the Atlantic wrote,
    What the NRA position fails to convey, therefore, are the perceptual affordances offered by gun possession and the transformative consequences of yielding to these affordances. To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape…
    French philosopher Bruno Latour goes far as to depict the experience of possessing a gun as one that produces a diffrent subject: “You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it.

  5. Suzanne - Thanks for that link. What a fascinating quote!

    In my last marriage, we were friends with a couple and the husband was an ex-cop private investigator. Needless to say, he was all about the pistols (he was also all about ripping off drugs when doing undercover work, but lets not get into the smears). Anyway, he was always showing off his precious little shinies, and after a few toke-sessions with his illicit booty I was near-convinced that I should get a cute little set of his 'n hers PPKs... for "self defense," of course.

    We went off to make the purchase, and there must have been some of that "perceptual affordance" at work, because I was overcome with a sense of revulsion when holding the gun for ownership (never quite hit me when I went target-shooting with him). On top of it, I could see no positive end-game in having such a thing in my possession.

    So I walked away.

    Off to read the body of that article...


I welcome all reactions and points of view, so comments here are not moderated. Cheerfully "colorful" language is great. I'll even tolerate some ad hominem directed against me... each other, not so much. Racist or excessively abusive comments (or spam) will be deleted at my discretion.