Guns and the Pain Economy


James Livingston in Jacobin:

Why do these young white male people whom we routinely characterize as crazy—as exceptions to the rules of civilized comportment and moral choice—always rehearse and recite the same script? If each killer is so deviant, so inexplicable, so exceptional, why does the apocalyptic ending never vary?

The answer is equally obvious. Because American culture makes this script—as against suicide, exile, incarceration, or oblivion—not just available but plausible, actionable, and pleasurable. Semiautomatic, you might say.

But mainly to young white male people who want to kill many other white people with sophisticated weapons. Their apocalyptic endings make their deeply private states of mental anguish and illness very public. These gunmen don’t understand their mission in these terms, but they do tell us that they represent something beyond their own lives and families when they take innocents with them rather than just killing themselves—when they behave like terrorists without a political cause. They’re mute symptoms in search of a social disease, a cultural diagnosis, and a political cure.

Adam Lanza dressed the part for his first and final shootout as a man without a calling: all black, all military. He wore a Kevlar vest, he taped extra magazines to his weapons, he moved and he killed systematically; he was ready for anything in his theater of war, an elementary school. He knew how he would die that day—he knew the SWAT team would arrive soon after he started shooting—but not exactly when. He was armed against his own fear, and he was desperate to make it known.

William James saw him coming in 1910. In a Protestant culture that had defined manhood and character as the result of real work—a calling—what would happen, he asked, when such work became elusive if not altogether unavailable? Would manhood survive? Or would war then become the principal means of rehabilitating the “masculine virtues”?

Update: Lindsay Beyerstein responds [h/t: es]:

You can't read Columbine and come away with the idea that the shooters are beyond moral judgement. They knew exactly what they were doing. Cullen sees degrees of responsibility. Harris was the leader and Klebold was the follower. Harris was a malevolent young man who was bent on violence for its own sake. Klebold was a disturbed young man who might have chosen a better path if he'd gotten help for his depression. Reading Columbine, you feel sad that Klebold made such a terrible choice, but there's no doubt that it was a choice, however badly depression may have clouded his judgement.

Livingston is trying to answer the perennial question: What are so many mass shooters young white men?

Livingston argues that mass shootings are a symptom of what he calls “the crisis of American masculinity.” He thinks that young men are turning to hypermasculine, militarized displays of violence because they can no longer aspire to the traditional macho role of breadwinner in an industrial economy.

Livingston doesn't provide any evidence to support the creeping emasculation theory. He notes that William James might have predicted this particular malaise, but that doesn't count as evidence. William James said a lot of things.