The root causes of mass shootings

After each of our increasingly routine mass shootings, there is a predictable exchange: liberals advocate gun control laws, while conservatives say we shouldn’t do that. I have to say that at a practical level, I’m with the liberals on this one. No matter what some dangling participle in the Constitution seems to imply, one of the primary goals of forming any human society is increased safety from unpredictable interpersonal violence. No law can stop people from getting angry and lashing out, but those people will do a lot less damage if they don’t have access to military-grade weaponry, for instance.

That being said, it cannot be the case that access to firearms is the root cause of nihilistic violence in American society. It is a symptom — an incredibly urgent one that must be treated immediately, but still a symptom. The deeper problem is the profound alienation and callousness that American social formation produces. That is to say, even if all our guns were raptured today, leaving us behind to fend for ourselves, American society would still be producing the kind of person who wants to randomly murder as many strangers as practically possible. More than that, it is not just producing the kind of person who fleetingly thinks that — presumably the thought has crossed the mind of many people who have been on a crowded subway car or in a long line — but someone who stays with that bitterness and rage in a way that allows them to carry out practical plans for making it happen. If that person didn’t have guns, he [sic] would be less dangerous, but on another level he would still be deeply frightening.

And I would even suggest that it’s the very same alienation and callousness that makes gun control — literally the most commonsensical measure possible — into such a hopeless cause. In other words, our empty, futile ritual of mourning follows so reliably after mass shootings because both stem from the same deep pathologies in American society.

New Book Review: Two Books on the Devil

I have a piece up at Marginalia Review of Books on two recent books about the devil.

Ask me anything!

Earlier today, I participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything. Thank you to the moderators of /r/RadicalChristianity for the invitation and everyone for the questions — and if there are any stragglers, I may still be able to squeeze out an answer or two.

A few scattered thoughts after reading Agamben’s Stasis

I’m beginning to think that at the end of the day, Agamben’s Homo Sacer series isn’t “about” sovereignty at all. If there’s a single core problem in this overlapping and yet heterogeneous collection of studies, it might be the threshold between the household and the political. Both Homo Sacer and State of Exception spend considerable time on that issue, though it’s rarely highlighted in discussions I’ve seen (or discussions I’ve participated in). In the first half of Stasis, it’s absolutely front and center.

The second half of Stasis deals primarily with political theology, through a reading of Hobbes — but in The Kingdom and the Glory (whose former place in the ordering Stasis is now taking), we learn (or kind of get hints?) that the root of the political theology problem is precisely the “economization” of the political, or in other words, the breakdown of the threshold between the household and the political. And — spoiler alert, sorry! — The Use of Bodies studies the place of the slave in the Greek household extensively.

I don’t want to sound more definitive than I am — obviously there is stuff that is hard to fit into this scheme. But I think that a reading of the Homo Sacer project from this starting point could at least be interesting and productive.

Down with departments

One of the great tragedies of American higher education is that essentially every school bought into the organization of the modern research university. In that model, professors are distributed into departments that are defined by a given discipline or group of disciplines. They teach students that discipline, which means that they teach students how to do research within that discipline or, effectively, how to go to grad school in that discipline. There are transferable skills conveyed, of course, but the “job” that it prepares you for — or prepares you to train for — is academia. And as much as the idea of an “oversupply” of professors is abused, I think we can all agree that even absent adjunctification, there are not and never will be enough professor jobs for literally every English major, for instance.

This is where the liberal arts ideal comes in. Students should get a breadth of knowledge, unconstrained by any narrow field. And how they do this is, for the most part, by taking an incoherent smorgasbord of introductory courses to various disciplines. Students generally resent being forced to take these courses, and academics don’t like teaching them — meaning that adjuncts do. Lately departments are figuring out that this hurts them in the quest for majors, which brings me to my next complaints: majors.

Oh my God, majors! I wish the system of majors could be abolished altogether. It misleads students (and their parents), who generally hold some fetishistic belief in the power of a major to lead directly to a job, as though the job market is the next level of college applications. This is obviously not the case, and it is not even the case that you need to go to grad school in the field you majored in! The whole major thing is literally a lie. And it’s a lie that serves the worst trends in higher ed. It creates interdepartmental competition for “majors,” in order to maintain the department’s status, its hiring clout, and in the last resort, its very existence. It encourages a naive belief that you’re getting some set chunk of knowledge from college, which feeds directly into the naive belief that majors are direct paths to jobs. And it also creates a ton of administrative overhead, as a four-person department still needs a chair, and these departments must all be corralled into a school (or college), overseen by a dean who in turn answers to a provost, etc., etc.

What is the basis for this entire architecture of departments and majors? Expertise. That’s the basis for the university’s legitimacy and for its internal prestige economy. But here’s a dirty little secret: first- and second-year students cannot remotely handle “expertise” as traditionally conceived. Indeed, learning from a hardcore expert can be pedagogically problematic, because if someone knows something really really well, they have a harder time getting into the mindset of someone who knows something not at all. Departments tacitly admit this by having graduate students — aspiring but not-yet experts — teach many of the lower-level courses.

I think we can go further, though. This is based on personal experience. I have taught all manner of materials at Shimer. Teaching something within my expertise, narrowly conceived, is the exception rather than the rule. When I try to teach within my expertise, in fact, it generally doesn’t go as well as when I’m learning along with the students. I have taught visual arts, music, sociology, anthropology, economics, world religions, and now even some primatology and evolutionary theory. If they let me, I’ll teach chemistry and biology.

I am able to teach all these subjects because I can read and because I’m naturally curious. It’s not because I’m a polymathic genius with unparalleled reach. It’s just that people with more expertise than me have collaborated in putting together a good set of materials, and I’m able to keep ahead of the students to a sufficient degree to give them some value-add. At the very least, I model a certain enthusiasm and curiosity, I let them know that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes, and I provide them with the requisite superegoic pressure to keep working through stuff. I learn along with the students, and I can tell they’re learning too. Course evaluations seem to bear this out — because Shimer is one of those weird places where we actually have a consciously articulated pedagogical model and hence don’t throw students back onto the worst form of consumerism when we ask them to assess what happened in class.

My experience also tells me that developing a curriculum like Shimer’s is difficult and contentious. One fight that the division into discipline-centered departments spares an academic community is the fight over what it is that we do here. Each little fiefdom can say that they transmit a discipline, which we know is worthwhile because it just is. As for the school as a whole? I don’t know, maybe we inculcate leadership or excellence or … whatever. Social justice? Yeah, sure. We create citizens, maybe, just to make sure we don’t alienate conservatives too much.

I think there are probably possible models between Shimer’s extreme core curriculum (two-thirds of the typical student’s credits) and the prevalent model of “getting your gen-eds out of the way so that you can focus on your major.” It may even be the case that Shimer itself needs to loosen up a smidge! But some day people are going to realize that paying 100-grand for leadership and excellence is bullshit, and it would be nice if before that day came, we actually created a curriculum that was halfway cohesive and persuasive.

Car culture will kill us all

This afternoon, I dropped The Girlfriend off at the airport. For the first time in close to ten years for either of us, we now own a car — the last leftover of her brief move to Minneapolis, the land of 10,000 expressways. Neither of us wants it, but getting rid of it would require taking a significant financial loss after a year with a lot of unexpected expenses (the dog’s surgery, moving to Minneapolis, then having to break leases and move back, etc.). And so we keep it around, taking day trips to state parks and out-of-the-way brewpubs to justify it.

I’ve always had a strange relationship to car culture, because I grew up in a genuine small town where one really could meet most basic needs by walking. My mom, aunt, and grandma owned a furniture store that was initially located across the main road and then literally on the same block as our house. We were used to walking around the little downtown, walking over to the convenience store, the ice cream shop, the comic book shop. I walked to school up through 8th grade, during more or less any weather.

The experience of being dependent on a car was the experience of being trapped. Reportedly the Holy Spirit prompted my parents to spurn the church within walking distance and opt for another one a thirty minute drive away — it must have been part of God’s plan for me to wile away endless hours wandering around the church during choir practice or the seemingly unlimited number of other activities that occupied our family there. Obviously as a teenager I wanted to have my own car, just to gain some kind of control over my fate: when I could see my friends, when I could have time to myself at home instead of waiting around indefinitely….

Once I got the lay of the land in Chicago, though, getting rid of my car became a positive goal. This despite the fact that it was objectively pretty inconvenient for me to commute at all hours from Hyde Park all the way to the north side. For me, access to reliable public transit was true freedom, while owning a car seemed burdensome and unnecessary. I even grew to hate getting rides from people — the endless waiting around for them to actually leave, the “let me move the stuff out of the back seat” (how the hell did you accumulate so much stuff in the back seat?!)…. If I had to wait either way, much better to wait for the bus so that I could at least read rather than make inane small talk.

And now, whenever I drive anywhere, there’s this voice in the back of my mind saying that none of this should have happened. All these expressways should be thriving neighborhoods, all these four-lane highways should be train lines, and every suburban-style development with its detached houses and stripmalls should be an open field. All of it, all of it is wrong. We need to tear out and start new to have any hope.

That’s not going to happen, though, is it? Not only because the obscene wealth inequalities in our society mean that the rich can endlessly bid up the price of the few rationally planned communities in the United States, but because car culture — like gun culture, like the carceral state — has popular legitimacy. Places like Russia and China were able to tear out and start new in the 20th century because people there desperately wanted and needed a change. They were profoundly aware of the inadequacies of their present systems and were, at the end of the day, game for a hugely risky totalitarian project.

In the end, of course, Russia wound up with something not unlike what we in the United States currently enjoy: a declining empire with a rudderless and hugely costly foreign policy, an overactive repressive apparatus, a chronic overinvestment in unsustainable economic infrastructure, and a reliance on imports to meet basic consumer demand. And up to the very end, it enjoyed popular legitimacy. It might have collapsed under its own weight eventually, but in point of fact it collapsed because the elites who had been formed by the cynicism and brutality of their system decided it was time to cash out. That collapse may have been more graceful than the other realistic alternatives — the counterexample of Yugoslavia leaps to mind — but the result was that things got much worse for most people and largely stayed worse.

Meanwhile, the greatest minds of our generation are making billions by making it easier to call a cab — or, more to the point, desperately trying to make ends meet by driving those cabs. And hardly a day goes by without an exciting new pipe dream about driverless cars. Because that’s the answer: more and better cars. Oh, and maybe a light-rail development to help attract tourists to the gentrified part of town.

The purpose of the pope

Aside from his various theological and administrative roles, the pope serves as the public face of the Roman Catholic Church. In that connection, his job is to shore up the loyalty of his members and burnish the reputation of the Church in the broader world. After Benedict, both were in question, particularly outside conservative circles. I have no doubt that Francis’s liberal statements and gestures are sincere, but there is a reason the College of Cardinals elected a man who was sincerely inclined to do such things — they needed to get liberal Catholics back on board and forcefully reassert the Catholic Church’s relevance to the contemporary world.

In this regard, the pope’s job is political, and that means that there is going to be a certain level of apparent incoherence and opportunism. A gesture like going along with the sainthood of a brutal colonial figure is likely a sop to right-wing elements in the Church that are increasingly alienated by the Nice Pope routine. And right-wing elements need coddling because they are much more likely to turn schismatic rather than (like liberals) just tune out.

I’ve written before that the same kind of pressures produced Catholic Social Teaching. I think it’s telling that people are made uncomfortable by the fact that Francis’s views are so much more consistently left-wing than previous popes’ — that kind of coherence threatens the ability of the Church’s random grab-bag of political statements to appeal to as broad and incoherent a range of Catholics and sympathizers as possible. In no case should such statements be read as policy recommendations, because Francis is not a politician in that sense. But they are political statements in another sense, insofar as they are a bid to increase loyalty to and esteem for the Church in previously alienated populations.

Personally, if Pope Francis emboldens policy-makers to do more left-wing things, I’m all for it. No, he’s not a perfect left-wing exemplar, and yes, he has said some Bad Things from the left-wing perspective, particularly related to sexuality. But maybe the left can take a cue from the papacy and be a little more opportunistic in forging political alliances.


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