May 01, 2007

Massacre at CNN

On 16 April 2007, on the campus of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, a 23-year-old student, a Korean national by the name of Cho Seung-Hui, shot and killed 32 students and professors, and then shot himself. For the next two weeks, all the major television networks covered the story in detail, and then, as with everything else in the news, it dropped out of sight, in this case being replaced by discussions of profit earnings at Microsoft.

I was traveling through Tabasco and Chiapas (Mexico) during the time, so my only access to information, besides the local newspapers, was CNN. In a weird way, the CNN coverage was as peculiar as the event itself. The focus was entirely on who this person, Cho Seung-Hui, was; the larger context in which the event took place–and there have been quite a few in recent US history–was never even referred to. Of course, if you focus on how aberrant Cho was, then the larger context becomes (supposedly) irrelevant and can be ignored; which is certainly what the media, and the American public, want. So we learned that Cho was Korean, not American; a loner, depressed from an early age; a psychotic, obsessed with death and weaponry (as one sensationalist video, which CNN kept playing over and over, revealed), and so on. CNN also conducted a fatuous interview with Cho's former roommates, trying to probe into his relations with women and his sexual proclivities. Other coverage included the usual handwringing after such incidents, suggestions from some journalists and "experts" that students and professors need to come to classes armed; the appointing of a commission to investigate the event, etc.–the usual suspects, in short, which never amounted to anything in the past and won't this time around either.

CNN did, however, briefly refer to some sort of suicide note left by Cho, in which he apparently talked about the pretensions of the wealthy students at the school, and the "charlatanry" that pervaded the campus. The news network also read an email from someone in Korea, who pointed out that Cho was, green card notwithstanding, an American: he had come to the US with his parents when he was 8 years old, and had thus spent two-thirds of his life in an American context, being exposed to American values. "An incident such as this [massacre]," the writer concluded, "has not occurred in Korea during its 5000-year-long history." This too was passed over by CNN, a topic they obviously preferred not to deal with.

Of course, I never personally saw Cho's suicide note, so I can only guess at what went on in his mind, or what led him to kill 32 innocent people. But the brief reference to the contents of the note, the letter from the Korean writer, and the endless focus on Cho himself as alienated and insane, suggest a few things that were not part of the CNN coverage. To take an extreme analogy, there would seem to be an odd similarity between this coverage and that of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Network news "analysis," if such it can be called, was all about Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta as "evil" and "insane." When Susan Sontag subsequently made a brief comment in the pages of the New Yorker to the effect that US foreign policy might tell us more about the causes of 9/11 than the psyche of Osama bin Laden, a national uproar ensued, in which she was basically branded a traitor. Any serious student of US postwar activity in the Middle East knows that Sontag's comment was totally on target; but the desire of the media, and the American public, to preserve an image of American innocence vs. external evil is too powerful to allow even a hint of an alternative possibility. In the case of the Virginia Tech massacre, I am not (as in the case of 9/11) suggesting that the slaughter of civilians is justified; of course it isn't. But as in the case of Susan Sontag's commentary, I do think that what happened at Virginia Tech might be explicable, and that a deeper understanding of the event beyond "the killer was insane" might be worth having. Consider, then, the following:

1. Cho Seung-Hui, at age 8, left a society that has not had such a civilian incident in its 5000-year history and entered a society in which violence, via movies, television, and basic daily life, is the norm. This was his true socialization as a child, adolescent, and young adult. Just to take one statistical example, a US-Canada survey taken in the year 2000 revealed that while 12% of Canadians said Yes to the question, "Is it acceptable to use violence to get what you want?", 24% of Americans answered in the affirmative. Or if we consider the world data on homicide, the average rate of homicides per 100,000 people in the European Union was 1.7 during 1997-99, while the US rate during the same period was 6.26, or nearly 4 times that number. The homicide rate for American children during that period was 5 times higher than for the children of the next 25 wealthiest nations in the world combined.

2. What Cho also saw around himself, in addition to violence, was "charlatanry," as he apparently put it. This strikes me as about as great a revelation as the fact that the Pope is Catholic. American society is totally opportunistic, epitomized by TV shows such as "Survivor." As Karl Marx put it long ago, the bonds of friendship and community get dissolved in "the icy waters of egotistical calculation." It's all Los Angeles, in the United States: everybody has an agenda, an ulterior motive, which is the core of their individual program of self-promotion, and which they regard as the purpose of life. Someone coming from a society that still, in some ways, has traditional values, can't help but be disgusted at what passes for human relations in the US. As the historian and social critic Paul Fussell once wrote, "everything in the United States is coated with a fine layer of fraud."

3. Of course, there are literally millions of immigrants who come to the United States, absorb the violent messages that exist all around them, see the charlatanry that pervades the American Way of Life, and don't go on a killing rampage. In that sense, individual psychology might indeed be more helpful than mass sociology, but only if your goal is to answer the question, Why this particular individual? But there is, surely, a deeper question, namely: Why aren't a lot more individuals doing something similar? The huge intake of Prozac and other tranquilizers might offer one possible answer, of course, in that these drugs enable the American population to suppress its rage. But the society that generates the rage remains the crucial, and unacknowledged, point. And this is the truth that CNN seeks (consciously or unconsciously) to keep out of the public eye. As a result, the "understanding" it provides is self-serving and skin-deep. How many other societies, Japan excepted (which is a whole other discussion), are plagued by chronic outbursts of seemingly apolitical violence against innocent bystanders? The fact is that these outbursts are political, if "political" is expanded to include the nature of the culture at large, and the way in which it works at its most basic level.

One final example of what I am talking about. During the vapid CNN interview with Cho's former roommates about his sex life, a caption ran at the bottom of the TV screen, telling the viewers that this interview was available only on CNN. And there we have it, in a nutshell: the goal of every American institution is (or supposedly should be) to be Numero Uno. In the midst of a massacre, of the brutal deaths of 32 innocents (including Professor Livriu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor who apparently had to come to an American college campus to finally get himself liquidated), what's important to CNN is that they be first with the scoop. Death makes absolutely no difference to these people; that the charlatanry continue, is what counts for them. Everything is marketing in the United States, everything is promotion, and I submit that this is what managed to push Cho over the edge. That CNN couldn't even see the irony of what they were doing, finally says it all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The event was so horrible that it really did shock everyone into silence. Where are the gun debates? Even the Democrats said, "this is no time for a gun debate." What? What better a time to get rid of guns? "The Murderer Next Door" by David Buss is an excellent book on murder, and he describes how serial killers, and spree killers kill for fame. What better example do we have than this young man who sent this large video and papers to CNN. The most amazing thing is that CNN played it for the whole world in the proudest tradition of sensationalist journalism. The public needs to know...It sure didn't hurt CNN's ratings did it. Our colleges are jokes. The majority of Grad students come from other countries. The Americans stick to Marketing and other fluff to make money. Few venture beyond the basics. They spend their weekends getting drunk, drugged etc..and watching idiotic sports. What a wonderful evolution. David Buss also said that serial killers, spree murderers often come from the middle or lower middle parts of our societies. They want to take something from the rich classes they envy. Cho came from lower middle and resented the hedonistic and rich kid's lifestyles. Ted Bundy said he wanted to take away the rich people's greatest assests: their young, beautiful women. This all corresponds with your illustrating the growing gap between rich and poor. Who can afford Northwestern University at $40,000 + a year. I have talked to these students. They are slightly more intellectual than the average dumb dumb, but there are all rich. More instances of class warfare will appear, rich communitites will have to be walled off from the ignorant masses. It is sad that it is evolving like this. The rich have every advantage, while the poor sink deeper and deeper into nothingness. No wonder there are gang-bangers and aimless youth..My German friend said that it is 100 times easier to be poor in Germany where you get hospital care, public transportation, schools are financed by gas...etc. In America, to be poor is to be in a ghetto surrounded by ignorant people in constant danger.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Diamond Geezer said...

I grew up in England and moved to the States about fifteen years ago. The one thing that I really miss about my home is how easy it was to make friends. Personal relationships here seem to depend on ‘how much you can do for the other person’. The current state of our society doesn’t really seem to allow us to really be there for each other. I think perhaps it’s probably more important to have friends (in America) because it is such a competitive place.

The media did try to portray Cho as a Korean immigrant instead of an American. This definitely didn’t make any sense to me. He spoke with an American accent and was profoundly influenced (in a negative way) by our culture. I found it amazing that a lot of Koreans and Korean Americans felt it necessary to apologize for Cho. I think our society was more responsible for his mental condition.

We have had mass shootings before in the UK. The last one occurred (I believe) in Scotland about ten years ago. A series of laws was passed after this tragedy to make it even more difficult to purchase or own a gun in the UK. I don’t understand why gun control is thought of here as a political issue. In my opinion it is a personal safety issue. Why do we want people who might possibly be mentally ill to own firearms? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

I don’t really see the situation changing here. It seems that the chance to make a profit is more important than saving lives. The media is already onto the next major story and will continue to run with that instead of concentrating on the real issues in this country and around the world.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your analysis holds the implicit observation that false decoupling of the microcosm from the macrocosm (or individual from society) allows us to avoid looking too closely in the mirror and seeing in ourselves (as both individuals and a society) the same awful ingredients as those that sent Cho off the rails. What's the point, really, of pointing to homicide statistics (an objective snapshot of the society in which we live) if we don't truly believe that they reflect something about us as individuals? So it should come as no surprise that the stories (the misfocused half-fictions) the news media and politicians serve us, like so much meaningless pablum, would refuse to suggest that we (as a society) have any responsibility for the violent actions of those who see through the charade, whether they be foreigners, resident aliens, or citizens, and can't think of any better way to respond than to kill and be killed. The solution will continue to elude us while we fail to diagnose the problem properly.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Renaldo:

Your comment, which I appreciated, somehow vanished when I tried to post it. Please re-send it, if you would. Thanx.


1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting read, even if I don't agree with the analysis completely. Some important points.

1. Prozac isn't a tranquilizer. It doesn't suppress rage or mute normal emotion. It is an entirely different chemical compound than tranquilizers, such as valium or xanax, that create artificial states of euphoria. No one can get high on Prozac; no one abuses prescriptions for Prozac, the way they do for Xanax. There's no buzz in it. Most of its therapeutic value lies in it being administered with traditional talk therapy. It is a disservice to those on the drug to suggest that Prozac is a tranquilizer.

2. Cho wrote two short plays the theme of which was a young man (or young people) being victimized sexually by an older man. In one it is a step-father, in the other a teacher. Both feature young men who have been raped and otherwise humiliated by this individual. When looking for the source of Cho's rage, couldn't such abuse be a more likely culprit than the nature of America society itself?

3. Cho's status as an immigrant is important because it was his failure to assimiliate that fed into his isolation. That isolation both served as an incubator for rage and also allowed him to dehumanize those around him. This, in turn, enabled his ability to commit mass murder. That is not a judgment on immigration policy, it is just something that needs to be acknowledged in understanding why he acted the way he did.

4. That said, there are several instances of school officials, fellow students, and others trying to reach out to Cho deliberately and being rebuffed. Americans are not without the ability to reach out to newcomers and outsiders. To suggest otherwiese is just promoting a different set of self-deluding stereotypes.

5. Your analysis of American culture is interesting and may provide some insights into why Cho chose to act the way he did, but I would argue that personal psychological factors, familiy experience, and one or more traumatic events (such as molestation or rape) are more to blame. The shortcomings of American culture may have exacerbated the feelings of rage, humiliation, and isolation that Cho experienced, but they did not create them.

6. Mass murder of innocent bystanders isn't as unique to American society as I think you suggest. Did anyone involved in the Rwandan or Sudanese genocides really have it coming? I could go on and on with examples but the point is that mind-numbingly disturbing violence isn't a purely American phenomenon. There may be a unique American characteristic to the school shooting phenomenon and here your insights are provocative in suggesting a partial explanation. But I think you are undercutting the universal capacity of humans to do horrible things if you blame what happened at VA Tech solely on American society.

7. By trying to shoehorn otherwise worthwhile arguments and comments on where America is today into an explanation of the VA Tech shooting you are 1) overreaching and therefore hurting the receptivity of an otherwise interesting analysis and 2) diminishing the simple fact that Cho -- no matter what he was subjected to personally or culturally -- made a choice to commit heinous acts, kill 32 people, and destroy thousands of lives.

8. The rage and humiliation required to fuel acts of massive violence -- be it 9/11, serial killings, of spree killings -- will likely find a destructive outlet in individuals as far gone as Cho, Bundy, or Bin Laden regardless. Social commentary -- or critiques of US foreign policy -- may provide some insight into *why* particularly acts were chosen to be committed, but they do not explain why individuals seek to commit them entirely. The sources of their rage is more often than not likely to be personal, which is than matched up on societal or cultural issues with which the individual can lionize themselves and their actions.

6:01 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anonymous:

Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent letter. Let me respond point by point.

1. Correct, Prozac is not technically a tranquilizer, but it definitely has the role of removing the background "static" in a person's life, and thus in reducing negative feelings. It greases the wheels, in short. Nor is it typically used with traditional talk therapy--that would be very much the exception. It's typically administered by psychiatrists who don't wish to talk and don't have the time, frequently after a 15-min. consultation, and typically as a substitute for the patient dealing with real-life problems. Check out Peter Kramer's book, "Listening to Prozac," to get the flavor of what I am referring to here.

2. These were plays; we don't know that these things actually happened to Cho. This type of analysis reminds me of that which appeared after Oswald was apprehended for (supposedly) killing JFK: he was impotent, saw Kennedy as virile, etc. etc. That makes the assassination into a kind of accident, or as I say in my article, a matter of individual psychology. Not likely--or at least, not likely as an isolated factor.

3. In terms of immigrant status, and Cho's "failure" to isolate, there is the very real social factor of his schoolmates never allowing him to assimilate. He was apparently ridiculed and bullied for his accent for much of the 15 years he spent in the US school system. Consider how Americans often regard and treat foreigners: we ourselves are usually monolingual; only 12% of the American adult population owns a passport; we are endlessly told the US is #1--etc. This is the context in which immigrants typically move, in the US; this country never *was* a melting pot, as a number of historians have shown.

4. See #3. This is hardly a stereotype (very unfortunately).

5. Again, as I say in my article, this approach answers a very specific, and not very interesting question: why this particular person? The more interesting question, imo, is Why not a whole lot more people? By focusing on the 1st question, the problems of American society can then be shunted aside, and the larger context ignored.

6. I deal with this distinction in my article: there is murder in the narrow political sense, which would include 9/11, Rwanda, and so on, and then there is murder in the supposedly senseless or apolitical sense, which would include Cho and Ted Bundy. These are not the same thing; an individual killer on a rampage is not in the same category as, say, the killing that goes on during war. Hence, pointing to Rwanda and Sudan really doesn't make a lot of sense. What I suggest in my article is that we can get a better understanding of the Cho incident if "political" is expanded to include the nature of the culture that contained the event. Conversely, by continually focusing on individual psychology, we fail to obtain that understanding. (My comparison with bin Laden in my article is not meant to suggest that the two events can be equated, but rather that this is the way the press manages to "protect" us from a look at a American society, by focusing on the individual rather than the context.)

7. The key words here are "simple fact." This event, or Cho's decision, was not a simple fact--that's precisely what my article is about. If you insist on being reductionistic, you finally can't discern the meaning of the event.

8. Already answered, I believe, in 1-7 above. All I can suggest to you is more reading in sociology and cultural history, and less in abnormal psychology.

Thanks again for taking the time and trouble to write; I really appreciate it.


8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As we are coming at this from different perspectives – you from the cultural/sociological side and I from the psychological/behavioral – I’m guessing there may be some things we simply aren’t going to convince each other of. Nevertheless, let me offer a few additional thoughts in reaction to your prompt and thoughtful response to my original posting.

1. On Prozac, I would see your psychiatrist dispensing scripts after fifteen minutes and raise you general practitioners and internists prescribing SSRIs as if they were ant-acids. I honestly don’t think that the problem is too many people seeing actual psychiatrists for these drugs, it is people getting them from non-mental health specialists who believe that depression is something that can be treated solely via medication, simply because there are pills that can *help* with it *under certain circumstances.* I think we would both agree that SSRIs are widely over prescribed in this country but I believe that most of the people on the drugs get no benefits from them (i.e., there is no greasing of the wheels unless via placebo effect). This is why over-prescription is dangerous: clinically depressed people are foisted off with a script rather than getting the thorough treatment they require, which above all else should involve talk therapy. (it wouldn’t surprise me to find out Cho was on an SSRI at the time of his rampage.) If SSRIs worked the way you suggested – dampening down the background noise – we would be a much mellower country given the number of people who are on these drugs (often unnecessarily and/or dangerously without a direct therapeutic relationship to oversee care.) But here I am belaboring a side point that really gets away from the main discussion.

2. The one serious exception I take with your response is the Oswald comment because it seems a bit cheap and easy for someone of your perception. I agree that the old saw about Oswald, JFK, and virility/impotence is a ludicrous explanation of Oswald’s motivation; however, it is ill-suited means of dismissing the idea that the ultimate source of Cho’s rage could have started with sexual abuse, rape, or similar personal trauma. One thing that is evident in the existing literature on serial and spree killers is the role of humiliation at an early age – often of a sexual nature – in fomenting their urge to kill or otherwise act out in antisocial ways as adults and adolescents. Given the subject of Cho’s plays, I think it’s a worthwhile line of inquiry. I agree that there is a pop psychology tendency to overanalyze the sex lives of the perpetrators of atrocious acts – think of some the awful and lurid books penned on Hitler’s alleged peccadilloes – but in the case of spree and serial killers there is a legitimate body of evidence to pursue this line of inquiry in trying to understand Cho’s motivations. I don’t dismiss the important cultural/sociological points you raise, I merely doubt that they were the original source of his rage/anger, though they may well have exacerbated it and perhaps even triggered it.

3. On whether Americans can be welcoming and inclusive…again we probably won’t settle any arguments. I fully concede that Americans can be xenophobic and exclusionary. I am just not convinced that they are necessarily any worse in these areas than any other country. I would ask this basic question by way of example: if you were emigrating from the Middle East, where could you expect the *best* chance of successful assimilation – in China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, or the United States?

4. I am not trying to be stubbornly reductionist. I am, I guess, pre-occupied with the basic question of “Why Cho?” If your sociological/cultural causes were solely to blame, why wouldn’t anyone living in the United States who makes less than $40,000 a year – and certainly less than $20,000 – be saving up their pennies to buy ammo clips on eBay? I submit that the widespread use of tranquilizers – disturbing as it may be – doesn’t quite cut it by way of explanation. I think the answer to Cho’s ultimate motivations therefore has to be found in the personal/psychological, even if cultural/sociological factors influenced (perhaps significantly) the form in which Cho expressed his rage. But what made him capable of shooting over 50 individuals? What drove him to that let level of anger? That, I submit, can not be explained by culture or societal factors alone.

5. Again, I doubt either of us will be entirely convinced of the other’s position, but I enjoyed your ideas – both in the original article and in response to my posting – and appreciate you stimulating my own thinking on these events.

11:30 PM  
Blogger MrSmokestoomuch said...

I absolutely agree with your analysis. My first reaction to the Virginia Tech massacre was "Gee, that could have been me (instead of Cho) when I was 17." I was the youngest of five children and always had a mother and father living in an upper-middle income home. But my family neglected the bee-jezus out of me and, outside of the home, I was treated as damaged goods... that is, there was nothing in it for an outsider to be worth it to offer me any fellowship. I was about as feral as you could get. I was drawn to books that described inhumanity because that is what I was feeling. I read about prison systems and young enlisted Nazis dropping cans of Cyclon B through a rooftop shoots. That was me, I thought. If anybody needed a kid to drop cans of Cyclon B, I knew I could do it with no problem. I felt nothing for everyone. I believe all that isolation made me a little psychotic too.

Believe it or not, University of Kansas humanities courses taught me to, well... have some humanity. I was past the idea of homicide by age 22 but then I recon I'll always be a little touched.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want an expanded perspective of this phenomenon, I would encourage you to read How the Mind Works by Prof. Steven Pinker. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 6, entitled "Hotheads":

"On March 13, 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland carrying two revolvers and two semi-automatic pistols. After wounding staff members who tried to tackle him, he ran into the gymnasium where the kindergarten class was playing. There he shot 28 children, 16 fatally, and killed their teacher before turning the gun on himself ... the report of pointless revenge by an embittered loner is disturbingly familiar ... The Dunblane tragedy was particularly shocking because no one thought it could happen there. Dunblane is an idyllic, close-knit village where serious crime was unknown. It is far from America, land of the wackos ... where murderous rampages by disgruntled postal workers are so common that a slang term for losing one's temper is "going postal." But running amok is not unique to America, to Western nations, or even to modern societies. Amok is the Malay word for the homicidal sprees occasionally undertaken by lonely Indochinese men who have suffered a loss of love, a loss of money, or a loss of face. The syndrome has been described in a culture even more remote from the West: the stone-age foragers of Papua New Guinea.

"The amok man is patently out of his mind, an automation oblivious to his surroundings and unreachable by appeals or threats. But his rampage is preceded by lengthy brooding over failure, and is carefully planned as a means of deliverance from an unbearable situation. The amok state is chillingly cognitive ... The idea is so standard that the following summery of the amok mind-set, composed in 1968 by a psychiatrist who had interviewed seven hospitalized amoks in Papua New Guinea, is an apt description of the thoughts of mass murderers continents and decades away:

"I am not an important or "big man." I posses only my personal sense of dignity. My life has been reduced to nothing by an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing to lose except for my life, which is nothing, so I trade my life for yours, as your life is favoured. The exchange is in my favour, so I shall not only kill you, but I shall kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member, even though I might be killed in the process."

From here Pinker proceeds toward a wider evolutionary-psychological discussion of human emotions, but he returns to anger and its purpose, its accompanying delusional, self-righteous thoughts that often cloud rationality, often to the detriment of the holder of the emotion, progressing at its extreme towards full blown, doomsday-machine type thinking. His point here is that human emotions have evolved to "handcuff" the holder at the extremes (of love or hate) beyond rationality to convey that one is "locked-in" to others at the negotiation table of love or war (some of these are my own clumsily invented summation terms; he's much more articulate in his discussion). This "unfreedom" has its own rationality, like the doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove (which did not do its job because its existence was *not* conveyed); it's the effect of conspicuously (though, here, unconsciously) throwing your steering wheel out of the car, say, in the game of chicken of two people driving right at each other. It conveys commitment. The irrationality of love (romantic in particular) may merely be the flip side of the same coin, a way to convey to your (prospective) partner that you will not withdraw easily without (emotional) cost should another prospective partner cross your path. You convey unconsciously that you are as "helpless" to your "fate" as the "amok" individual. And potential partners have evolved to unconsciously look for and value evidence of this emotional handcuffing, and to weed out opportunistic rational mimics.

Regarding your points:

1) I don't believe that we are more violent now than in the past. In fact, Pinker recently posted an article on the Intenet on this very subject: pinker07/pinker07_index.html (remove the space that I inserted after "culture/ " to get the URL to work).

2) Since "Survivor" is probably in spirit reminiscent of pre-agrarian life, and since we apparently evolved cognitively to be so good at opportunism (even primates mislead each other, divert attention), this behavior probably has a long history in our (nasty, brutish) evolutionary past.

3) I don't think there is such a thing as apolitical violence. All violence at the core is about asserting power, which is a political act, even if the "thought" accompanying it is merely "Me Fred Flintstone on top (of the social hierarchy); you Barney Rubble on bottom." Asserting one's power under some banner of being, oh, say, an "Anarchist reactionary running dog revisionist / Hindu muslim catholic creation-evolutionist / Rational romantic mystic cynical idealist / Minimal expressionist post-modern neo-symbolist / Arm chair rocket scientist / graffiti existentialist / Deconstruction primitive / performance photo realist / Be-bop or a one drop or a hip hop lite pop metallist / Gold adult contemporary urban country capitalist" does not make it more "political" - facades of ideology may merely be forms of window dressing of the same basic base impulse for "polite," "civilized" society. (Very long phrase borrowed from Rush's song "You Bet Your Life")

4. Human being are by nature "propaganda machines." (Another point in this chapter of Pinker's book.) We are designed by nature to deceive ourselves regarding are own willingness and abilities to better fool the rest of the tribe, to keep us socially valuable, esteemed (at least perceived that way). The best liar is the one who believes the lie, and many experiments have shown our capacity for self delusion, such as a demonstrator in a department store (who is really a psychologist) asking ladies to quickly pick out their favorite nylons from, say, under a lifted box, and then to write up why they choose a particular pair. The catch is that the nylons are all identical; nevertheless, the subjects attribute differentiating qualities in their write-ups that don't, in fact, exist. The kicker is that even after being shown this they can't believe that their write-ups were not valid reflections of their own motivations (when in actuality why they grabbed one over another really had to do merely with object proximity, etc). Split brain subjects whose left and right hemispheres have been separated by surgery to minimize seizures of epilepsy often confabulate explanation when one side of their brain is given an action command and the other side is asked "what are you doing?" in experiments. For example, a nude is projected into the left eye and the subject laughs. The subject is asked why she is laughing and she refers to the contraption doing the projection as the reason, not the nude which remains out of her left brain awareness. When commanded to walk and asked why, subjects offer a reason as if it was their own idea.

(Personally I have often thought the denial of addiction (that is, physical dependency to a drug and the persistent denial of one's lack of control over this (subconscious) physical dependency, manifesting in endless confabulations of autonomy) was rooted in the same self-deluding brain phenomenon -- and that admitting to others that you do lack (conscious) control -- as in AA -- may work because it, in effect, short circuits the self delusion of (conscious) autonomy, for if we lie to ourselves to better lie to others undetected then confessing to others may in the end help us end the lie to ourselves).

My point is, if we are evolved to weave self serving rationalizations, to unconsciously spin our own motivations to help promote ourselves and to help grease the social wheels of our daily tribal interactions at such a deep level as to often be beneath our own awareness of doing so, how can we expect our institutions, being manifestations of ourselves, like CNN or the White House to do anything but devolve into propaganda machines themselves. This is the genius of checks and balances, but not all institutions in society have these.

1:17 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Bill,

Steve Pinker knows a lot about language and evolution; very little, as far as I can see, about sociology and cultural history–and it is in these areas, it seems to me, that the real explanation for someone like Cho can be found. I am not surprised at your response, or that of the Anonymous writer on this subject: Americans are effectively trained to explain things away via individual pathology (which can include evolutionary psychology); there seems to be no way to get them to grasp social and cultural factors. In America, genetics rules; and this too has a social and cultural explanation.

Yet even on the level of language and evolution, it is doubtful whether the Chomsky school (which includes Pinker, with his notion of a “language instinct,” similar to Chomsky’s “universal grammar”) really got it right. The theory is rooted in the Enlightenment notion of people being everywhere the same, and beyond that goes back to Descartes, who had no interest in exogenous factors whatever. Slowly, linguists are coming around to the notion that Chomsky’s dogmatism may have had a baleful influence on our understanding of language, and that more can be understood about it by studying the cultures that surround it. Norman Malcolm, for example, in Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View?, mounts a serious critique of the Chomskyan approach (see esp. ch. 4); and recently, John Colapinto, in his New Yorker profile of linguist Dan Everett (“The Interpreter,” issue of 16 April 2007), discusses the latter’s anthropological work, which threatens to debunk the central Chomskyan notion of language. (Everett published his findings in Current Anthropology, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005; Chomsky characteristically replied by dogmatically declaring that “Universal Grammar is the true theory of the genetic component that underlies acquisition and use of language.” End of that discussion!)

Turning to the shootings at Virginia Tech, let me refer you to another New Yorker article, which appeared two weeks after the Colapinto piece, written by Adam Gopnik. The relevant paragraph is as follows:

“Every nation has violent loners, and they tend to have remarkably similar profiles from one country and culture to the next. And every country has known the horror of having a lunatic get his hands on a gun and kill innocent people. But on a recent list of the fourteen worst mass shootings since the nineteen-sixties the United States claimed seven, and, just as important, no other country on the list has had a repeat performance as severe as the first.”

You see, it’s all well and good to cite the Dunblane killings of 1996; the problem is the idiosyncracy of this, versus the chronic regularity of such shootings in the US. No amount of Pinkerism, or evolutionary psychology, can address this in a meaningful way. Whereas the odds of another Dunblane occurring in Scotland during, say, the next three years is probably less than one percent, if that, the likelihood of another Virginia Tech occurring in the US during the next three years is probably over ninety percent. This is due to the differences between the two cultures and their social properties, one of which manufactures killers and the other which, for the most part, does not.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if perhaps insisting that the problem is uniquely American isn't simply falling prey to the same sort of "america is so special/unique" as those who insist america is number 1.

i think community would be better served if we took a moment and removed ideology (either love/hate) regarding america and all that means and implies. instead, perhaps we should take a more dispassionate look, snapshot of our community, without feeling the pull to cast predictions about its future, and instead see ourselves as participants in its present. ultimately, our position/status in the world (or obsession with) seems to have been part of the problem.

humanity is exactly what we need. these huge sweeping declarations are endlessly debatable, but the real question is, "what are we going to do about it?" and "move away," as an answer seems more anti-community and pro individual than the problem.

i don't know. i agree with many of your observations -- there is so much isolation, despair, disconnect between people. and there are many facets of american society that seem to facilitate if not cause that isolation.

but then i am reminded of obligations and connections to other people, reasons why however much i love europe i could never move away from here. and then it hits me... it can't be all lost if there are still some threads that weave people in our dysfunctional community/society together.

perhaps americans would/will be happier when the american empire deflates. for the machine to sustain itself, it has to keep up all of the hype and nationalism and ego. if the machine broke and we were left with a new reality, perhaps it would be an opportunity to return to the ever present moment, to the basics of being human and being human together. perhaps it would be an opportunity to get over ourselves.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Just received this "plug" (on his website) from a prominent Washington DC physician, so I thought I'd share it with you all.---mb

Michael Anchors MD PhD, May 21, 2007

My experience fighting obesity, the news media, pharmacists and other doctors led me to start writing a book to answer the following questions. Why are so many Americans obese and don't seek help? Why are American doctors ill-equipped and lacking curiosity? Why don't newsmedia seek the truth and report honestly? Why are so many Americans who went to school so uninformed? Why do drivers tailgate and block me from changing lanes? Why are so many men's toilets at airports trashed? Why do Americans talk so loud in restaurants, and talk so much on cell phones in public places?

Why are Americans so stressed and unhappy? Why don't Americans save money? Why are managers and CEOs so overpaid? Why do medicines cost so much? Why is the richest developed nation the only one without national health insurance? Why was the voter turnout in the last US election 37% while in the French election 85%? Why aren't there more demonstrations against the war? Whom are we fighting in Iraq? The press doesn't investigate, no one cares, no one asks. What happened to the social ideals of the Sixties generation?

All the answers are related! . . . and related to the subject of obesity, excuse me. It's NOT about politics or religion.

I don't have to finish the book. It's already been written, and written better than I was doing it. The book is called Dark Ages America (2006) by Morris Berman. Everyone should read it. It proves the man's thesis that so few of you will.

7:22 PM  
Blogger mark c. said...

insightful commentary. i think author charles derber may have hit on similar issues in his 1996 book, " the wilding of america ".something systemic in modern culture may be a contributing factor. while extreme incidents like the v tech killings are thankfully rare,what of other cultural indicators like declining civility,road rage, movies like michael douglass's, " falling down ",come to mind. cnn's superficial treatment of the incident is no suprise. aren't we talking about a target audience with collective a.d.d ??

2:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>Steve Pinker knows a lot about language and evolution; very little, as far as I can see, about sociology and cultural history.

Yes, I imagine so, but this is a part of the great nature/nurture division of academia, is it not? Somewhere in the 1970s nature came back in fashion for its (perceived) greater explanatory powers with proponents like Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson (Prof. Wilson famously got doused by a pitcher of water at a lecture when he was "stumping" for sociobiology), and, admittedly, I am more swayed by the nature people. I have to believe that the last 2 million years (depending how far back you want to define humankind) have had a more primary effect for even our current behavior than the last 10,000 years for the secondary cultural effects from our switch to an agrarian lifestyle or the past 400 years from our switch to an industrial lifestyle. Yes, these have had their effect, and this is addressed in the "mismatch" theory of evolutionary psychology (See Robert Wright's article "The Evolution of Despair evol_psych/wrightDespair.html -- Remove the space after the / after "evolution" in the URL).

> Americans are effectively trained to explain things away via individual pathology

Well, individual pathology must play a role here if only because his actions are not at all representative of the typical reaction of others who live in the very same culture. There are probably a significant number of lonely people on any given campus or in any given neighborhood, but they don't react the same way to their social predicament. If a psychologist found seven stone-age foragers of Papua New Guinea exhibiting "amok" behavior, it puts into question whether the phenomenon is purely the expected (mal)reaction of "blank-slate" beings to a (post)industrial cultural context. I don't think we are so "blank-slated," and that the amok reaction is probably hard-wired to go off in extreme social (but not necessarily sociological) contexts, whether that person is a stone-age forager or a post-capitalist "information" worker.

As for the "language instinct," unless you are a dualist, which I am not, something biological must ultimately account for language (some neurological configuration that evolved). There does seem to be some "deep structure" to grammar, because, for example, there are certain grammatical mistakes that children never make (I've forgotten the differences of, say, syntagm and paradigm, etc., right now, so I can't explicate this further, unfortunately.) Are those neurological configuration purely the result of nurture or does nature short-cut by providing genetically-sourced deep-structure to basic grammar? I think the latter seems more plausible. I also think that people *are* basically the same everywhere. There is less genetic variation between any two random humans than any two random chimps. There is less genetic variation between any two random Africans than an African and a non-African, with the implication being we are more alike than superficial traits such as skin color suggest. Again, I think we are basically alike, and something like the book Guns, Germs and Steel explain how accidents in geography account for much of our cultural variation manifestations. (There are those that currently believe that "deep structure" grammar began with ordering communicative (hand) gestures (observed in modern primates), not vocalizations, and that vocalizations "made use" of these neural pathways that had already evolved.)

And running amok does have a long history. For example, one form of amok is the the "berserker" of the Norse.

Wikipedia includes this reference:

"The 1911 Webster Encyclopedia comments:

"Though so intimately associated with the Malay there is some ground for believing the word to have an Indian origin, and the act is certainly far from unknown in Indian history. Some notable cases have occurred among the Rajputs. Thus, in 1634, the eldest son of the raja of Jodhpur ran amok at the court of Shah Jahan, failing in his attack on the emperor, but killing five of his officials. During the 18th century, again, at Hyderabad (Sind), two envoys, sent by the Jodhpur chief in regard to a quarrel between the two states, stabbed the prince and twenty-six of his suite before they themselves fell."

And defines it similarly to Pinker:

"W. W. Skeat wrote in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica:

"A Malay will suddenly and apparently without reason rush into the street armed with a kris or other weapons, and slash and cut at everybody he meets till he is killed. These frenzies were formerly regarded as due to sudden insanity. It is now, however, certain that the typical amok is the result of circumstances, such as domestic jealousy or gambling losses, which render a Malay desperate and weary of his life. It is, in fact, the Malay equivalent of suicide. The act of running amuck is probably due to causes over which the culprit has some amount of control, as the custom has now died out in the British possessions in the peninsula, the offenders probably objecting to being caught and tried in cold blood."


"The explanation which is now most widely accepted is that amok is closely related to male honor (amok by women is virtually unknown). In many cases where the background of the amok-runner is known, there seems to have been some element of deep shame which prevented the man from living honorably, as he saw it, in his own society. Running amok was both a way of escaping the world (since perpetrators were normally killed) and re-establishing one's reputation as a man to be feared and respected. Some observers have related this explanation to Islam's ban on suicide, which, it is suggested, drove Malay men to create circumstances in which others would kill them. Evidence for this explanation is that the incidence of amok seems to be less where amok runners are captured and tried, rather than being beaten to death on the spot."

Again, something like "male honor" can be looked at from a cultural perspective (why some cultures exhibit different manifestations) but the underlying core of the phenomenon can only be understood, I believe, by way of evolutionary psychology: that is, as a type of primate chest thumping exhibited by hierarchal polygamous societies -- which most human societies have been (our current "monogamy" in practice is a type of serial monogamy where the rich and powerful still mate more often) -- wherein the "alpha" males will spread more (aggressive) genes among females by mating more often and by establishing and defending resources/territory from other males. Polygamous versus monogamous primate societies (and the correlating increase in male-violence tendency) tend to evolve based the male's ability to control (food) resources. When food is plentiful or the species is more omnivorous (such as bonobos over chimps), males cannot control the food supply, then females tend to set the rules, fostering egalitarian societies (either monogamous-mating - like orangutans - or practicing wide non-exclusive mating where paternity remains unknown and uncontrollable - like bonobos). When (food) resources are scarce, males attempt to control it, establishing hierarchal polygamous societies of violence - evolving to become increasingly physically dominate - ultimately to control female reproductive resources to spread more genes - like gorillas - or if on the smart/social path - evolving into the ability/tendency to form warring hierarchal coalitions - like chimps/homo sapiens. Those that don't get to mate, their genes don't get past on and they are no longer represented in future generations. It would follow then that male amok-ers would tend to be a pathological subsection of males lower in hierarchal standing -- who perceive themselves to be hopelessly threatened with ending up being the lowest of the low solely by the actions of a perceived Other -- who also exhibit a history of social/sexual dysfunction, and who in reaction to this type of sexual exile (wrongly) rage against females and female sexuality, which is what Cho displayed.

Yes there are historical/cultural reasons for America's institution of its own hierarchal society, where (material) success seems to be the only perceived way to climb from the hierarchal bottom, to rank well in the (imaginary) tribe (people don't feel they belong in America unless they have the McMansion on the hill and 2 SUVs, yet they still don't know their neighbors, so even their satisfied feeling of belonging once the material success is achieved is still something of an an illusion). But the core roots of the amok response ultimately has evolutionary-psychological underpinnings.

12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've worked in the mental health field for about 18 years and, with the exception of schizophenia (a severe cognitive disorder), I can honestly say the pharmaceutical companies would be out of the psychoactive medicine business if the isolation, despair and loneliness people feel in this culture could be reversed. I work in a mental hospital and one day I vividly remember a woman telling me she was anxious and needed an extra Xanax. When I questioned her further, she told me no one (and she'd been in the hospital for over a week) had called to see how she was. It was heartbreaking and, no, she didn't get a gun and shoot anyone. But she was also not a young man absorbing the cultural message to "get even and show everyone he's a force to be reckoned with." Just like certain weather conditions must be present to form tornadoes, the same is probably true for spree killers. But I agree with you----culture is a very important condition and in my years of experience I have seen and experienced it becoming more impersonal, self-absorbed and materialistic.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

Thank you for one of the most heartfelt and accurate messages I've ever received. If there were only some way to awaken Americans to the fact that the price of all those toys they keep accumulating is personal misery and cultural pathology. Not in my lifetime, I fear.

With kind regards,

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The toys Americans accumulate and hold so dear to their happiness could easily be taken away via bankruptcy court. The daughter of a good friend lost everything they owned in six weeks. On the fourth of July they had a backyard party, two weeks later Cliff lost his job and one month later they were meeting with a bankruptcy lawyer. They had signed up for the suburban dream house, two bus-like cars and a house full of Pottery Barn furniture. Fortunately for Kathy and her family, she was blessed with loving, generous parents willing to sacrifice to get them into a rent house, turn on the utilities and put food in the cupboards. It will be interesting to see what direction they choose for their life---this could steel their resolve to work really, really hard to get all their stuff back or it could wake them up to, what I believe, are more authentic and nourishing values. They're smart, good kids so I'm hoping their basic decency will incline them to the latter choice. We'll see.

10:48 PM  
Blogger IanRae said...

As a Canadian, I must agree with the comment that the America-is-to-blame theme is itself a form of American uniqueness.
Strange mass murders occur up here as well: Clifford Olson, Paul Bernardo, and even that chap in 1949 who blew up an airliner full of people just to kill his ex-wife. I can think of Cho-like events in Scotland, England, Belgium, and Germany in recent years.

Your critique of CNN coverage is very true. There is more to it than "evil" and "insanity". Yet that same argument can be turned around -- there is more to it than cultural and environmental factors. The fact that it dominated the news is an indication of its rarity, even in America.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Ian,

It's just not that rare in the US, and it dominates the news because titillation sells papers and boosts Nielsen ratings. (There may even come a time when we are so numb, and massacres so frequent, that these things will only get a passing mention. Huge numbers of civilian deaths in Vietnam and Iraq fell/fall into this category already.) You can point to Canada, Scotland, and other countries, but the stats of violence in the US do make it unique. There hasn't been another Dunblane since Dunblane, whereas just a few days ago we had the Cleveland school killings here in the US. One can count on these things happening here, over and over again, and it's not because of evolutionary psychology or genetics. If we are unique, we are *culturally* unique. One poll of a couple years ago revealed that whereas 12% of Canadians said yes to the question, "Do you think a little violence is OK in the pursuit of your goals?" (or something along those lines; the exact info is given in J. Rifkin's book, "The European Dream"), 24% of Americans did. While Europe regards capital punishment as barbaric, 38 states in the US have made it legal. The practice of torture has now been made legal here as well (the Military Commissions Act of 2006 makes it possible for a suspected terrorist to be scooped up off the street, tortured into making a confession, and then have that confession used as evidence to be sentenced to death by a military court). And so on. Believe me, I wish you were right; this is a uniqueness America can certainly do without.

Thanks for writing-


9:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Berman, As I am typing this I'm watching the Pope on CNN holding a prayer service in the Basilica in DC. True to form, CNN cannot control itself and the "crawl" on the bottom of the screen is all about if the DOW is up or down, the housing market tanking, high fuel prices, some scandal at a chicken processing plant, idenity theft, etc. While running a message of "Repent!!! the hour of judgement is at hand!!" would be pretty nutty, too, this is just too bizarre. No wonder the human race is confused when the conflicting messages are greed and fear on one hand and the call to God on the other. Every religion I've ever heard of wants us to curb materialism and be brave in the face of adversity. Maybe a friend of mine is right after all----if God is dead, He died laughing at our stupidity.

6:39 PM  

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