Students gather on the UC Santa Barbara campus for a candlelight vigil on May 24. Photo: Spencer Weiner/Getty Images
Something about all of this is off.
Eliot Rodger's rampage through Isla Vista, California, reads as though it was cut out of a slasher film, and the moment his gunfire stopped echoing, those privileged enough to get paid to say or speak exploded with instant popular punditry.
So much of it is repetitive, derivative nonsense. But the nonsense was especially irritating to me. I'm one of those folks who gets paid to try and sort things out. I had nothing unique to write about the shooting, and so I chose not to. I wanted to wait, and read, and see. I'm not superior to those with instant opinions. I'd like to think I have more sense than some of them. And sensibility after an Isla Vista, I would propose, is an underrated virtue. (Derek Thompson, of The Atlantic, points out that is a unique failing of national figures to not know when they have nothing sensible to contribute to the public dialog.)
So, now to take a step outside of this post. I wrote that paragraph above, and when I read it back, I realized at once what was off.
It's so self-referential. It's about me.
It takes something horrible and cruel and random and makes it about me. I wrote it, and I believed it, because it made me feel better. It filled some need I had to feel something, a need that the tragedy had provoked. See? There goes the writer who has sense.
The pornographic allure of horrible crimes is one reason why Isla Vista rivets us. That's human nature. I'll take a pass on criticizing human nature. But human nurture; well, that's fair game.
Christopher Hitchens complained about the "national orgy of mawkishness" that followed the Virginia Tech School Shootings in April, 2007.
It's kind of harsh, but it's also very true. False sentiment. Fact sloppiness. The surrendering of our critical faculties. Hitchens was discussing the elite reaction to tragedies, and I think his point, generally, is that the people who have discretion to decide, edit, arbitrate, and sort are constantly engaged in a war amongst themselves to defines tragedy downward, to turn it into low culture. Horrible, random, events that rivet our attention but do not pose existential threats to our lives are cheap carnivals of mindless maudlin. They are the new opiate of the masses, in some way.
So something inexplicable and macabre happens. We are understandably fascinated by it, and we want to know more. We personalize it by projecting our own experiences into the narrative. We interrupt the process of fact-gathering to make this about ourselves, because that's how we engage. Then we get angry or sad. Or, we wait until someone writes something, or Fox/MSNBC-bloviates something, that makes us angry, and then we use that bit of writing or bloviating to ventilate.
Here are three examples. John Hinderaker:
It's about Us. It's about exactly that thing I was telling you about before.
On the left, Michael Moore "no longer has anything to say" about such tragedies, except for the following, which apparently isn't anything
It's about Michael Moore's long-standing views on gun control.
Now read this, from Joe The Plumber. That guy!
It's about furthering Joe-the-freaking-Plumber's aspiration to be a political figure of importance, by which I mean someone who gets rewarded for spouting nonsense.
And then, predictably, it's about the OUTRAGE that people who have read Joe's blog post feel. And let's express that outrage by giving Joe exactly what we wants. Which is, of course, our published outrage.
Joe decided to write because someone who actually experienced the tragedy, the father of one of the dead kids, had the temerity to express his grief in public.
I would submit that in the hierarchy of those who deserve to be heard, family members of those involved rank higher than pundits, or avatars of a now defunct political movement, or those who want to start a new one.
But I would be out of sync, apparently, with the moment.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should really take a nap this afternoon, according to science
- Why Israel can no longer let the Palestinian Authority be responsible for security in the West Bank
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- 10 things you need to know today: July 26, 2014
- Why you shouldn't eat dog. Not even once.
- 7 things the world's happiest people do every day
- How to cook a perfect rib eye steak
- How social conservatives became a minority in need of protection
- Grammar quiz: Do you know the passive voice?
- The week's best photojournalism
Subscribe to the Week