Friday, April 20, 2007

"There but for the grace of God...."

I keep looking for a way mostly to avoid talking about this; but this is what I keep coming back to:

The larger point to be garnered from this is that we are very poor at being our brothers keeper. Katrina brought this concept to the fore in one aspect, the community to community level. Cho brings this forward on the individual to individual and individual to community level.

One will never know if this outcome could have been avoided by any measure of intervention, but it is clear that much was not tried. There were certainly sufficient warning signs that could have been used to initiate such actions. But in truth, little in the way of public help is available.

I see the same thing when I work at the homeless shelter, lots of guys who with a little of the right help at the right time might have ended up in another place. But that help, for all the best of our efforts, for the larger part, simply is not there.

As a society, we accept the failure of our neighbors all too willingly.
"There but for the grace of God," we say, and let ourselves off the hook once again. Or we consider it an economic question. There is, some will point out, the cost/benefit ratio to be considered:

"Psychiatric hospitalization is an expensive resource and a scarce one," [Psychiatrist Paul] Appelbaum says. "And to use it merely because we were afraid that he might represent some degree of threat at some point in the future would not be a good use of a hospital bed."
But that is not a context-less question either: cost in consideration of what other expenses? Benefit in consideration of what other costs? We are told the cost of ending the war in Iraq is higher than the cost of continuing it, that the cost of national defense is outweighed by the benefits of keeping the elephants away. Cost/benefit analyses are not, as is usually presumed in this culture, the bottom line of an absolute standard. It is simply the reflection of what is valued, and a way of avoiding the question: "Why?" They are expressions of utilitarianism: "the greatest good for the greatest number." And the clear answer in American culture is that the basis for valuation is not human life, but abstractions: ideas, or money.

Money, of course, is the ultimate abstraction. The paper in your pocket, the metal in your coin purse, is worthless unless someone says otherwise. It is our agreement that gold is valuable that makes it so. Love and compassion are as seemingly rare as gold, yet no market trades in them. Still, two are essential to existence, and the third is so frivolous and unnecessary it should shock us to think how much we value it.

But it doesn't. Because we don't think about it. We are in love with other ideas. We prefer abstractions which distract us from reality.

Is it, for example, "paternalism" to not want to see the video record of the VTech killer played on the nightly news, that the issue is our freedom from "Elite Filters"? Materialist arguments that the killer is dead, he doesn't profit from the exposure, ignores the issue of "copy cat" killers, or the basic fundamental truth of the human psyche: that "my" death is unthinkable. Your death I can well imagine, and in general it stays my hand from striking you (Brutus must turn Caesar into an abstraction in order to murder him; Macbeth kills Duncan only to fulfill the promise of the three witches, and the guilt of what he does haunts him before and after the murder). But my death, my extinction, is literally unimaginable. "My death, is it possible?" Well, is it; can you really think your own non-existence? If you can, you are far better at abstract conceptualizing than I.

Is it a question of my freedom versus your censorship? Is this really a matter of battling abstractions? Or is the issue simple human decency? The photo in this post was taken in a bar in Blacksburg, Virginia. To me, it encapsulates the brutal inhumanity of our culture. The murderer of 32 people is raised up on the altar of American culture, placed high on the shrine of media visibility, the place every reality TV show and "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars" and "Sweet Sixteen" all tell us we should strive to be. That picture wouldn't be possible except that it rests atop 32 bodies. But instead of vomiting over that fact, we quibble over the idea of it. Is it paternalism to point out how sick, how absolutely inhuman, this is? Is it paternalism to ask why we think ideas so much more important than human beings?

Before Atrios thinks I'm dissing him again (we take our positions far too personally in blogistan, left and right), let me say I don't hear or read anybody raising the question, inviting this conversation. We lament the loss of life, we natter about gun control or "politicizing the tragedy" (tell me what, precisely, in America, we don't politicize? Death? Motherhood? Family? Religion? Please, tell me what is so sacred in our public discourse we never think to "polticize" it? Money is the only topic, the only abstraction, I can think of.) We rush anxiously away from the carnage and loss of life and the grief into the comfort of abstractions, and then it's all better, because then we don't have to deal with the horror of how we live and what we are willing to live with, and we can deal with bloodless abstractions. All the better to wield our power, is all that it is.

There have been 47 school shootings since February 2, 1996. Of those 47, 9 did not occur in America. Since the Columbine shooting, there have been 25 school schootings in America. What have we learned in 8 years? That we can tolerate three shootings a year, on average? That shooting fewer than ten people (the Nickel Mines, PA, Amish school shooting) is not enough to even notice anymore? That shit and crazy people just happen, like earthquakes and hurricanes?

We spend huge amounts of money to predict earthquakes and forecast hurricanes. Why do we assume that mentally disturbed people with easy access to guns is simply a cost of doing business?

America is a country which has fallen in love with abstractions. We are the "land of the free and the home of the brave." So brave, we berate the dead at Virginia Tech for not bravely storming the shooter and disarming him, like the heroes do in the movies. So free we refuse to spend the money it might take to provide for mental health care because of the possible "moral hazards" it might cost (another way of measuring how much money we would have to lay out) or the civil rights we might infringe (and yet for criminals? No harshness of conditions is too much for us, apparently, no sentence too long or onerous.). We love mankind, it's people we can't stand. We accept the failure of our neighbors all too willingly. Of course we do; because it isn't our failure. Our ideas will save us. The same ideas: "Freedom, democracy, liberty" which were supposed to save us from the savage violence of the "Old World," of the brutal kings and their centuries old feuds, their blood-soaked history. We are supposed to be cleansed from all that.

Our ideas, our illusions, protect us from facing our awful reality. "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." Indeed. It took an American-born poet that achieve that insight.

So, I write that, mickle in my wroth, begun determined to find some deep insight but finding myself in simply another rant, and then I go to class to lecture on poetry, and find myself reading this, just because I'm talking about sonnets:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 5
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 10
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

("God's Grandeur," by Gerard Manley Hopkins)

And I still think the public discourse is too caught up with bright and glittering abstractions, but I think this is what Niebuhr was getting at: this is unalterably the nature of the public discourse. One might as well rage at the sea for coming in, or the sun for rising on another evil day. It isn't the discourse that's the problem. It's thinking that the discourse is a venue for difference, for change, that is the problem. And there is an alternative: "Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

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