Friday, July 03, 2015

Is This Racism Crazier?

I can't remember how Ben phrased the question, but he had read Dylann Roof's writings, which struck him as pretty much the same scattered paranoia as all these other mass shooters. He wondered if mental illness pretty much had to be part of such a person these days.  I had not thought about it in quite that way, but it only took a little while to decide that that yes, it must. Context matters.

In 1915 Dylann Roof could have found at least a few other people willing to shoot up a black church.  Even then, it would have taken some context of recent incidents that were getting the local populace worked up - but you likely could get some people worked up pretty quickly over small or untrue things. Going further, in a time of open black-white conflict, as happened several times in Caribbean nations, he could likely have found a lot of people to shoot up a church.  It would be less crazy to do that.  It might be just as evil; some of the participants might be ill; but insanity would not be required. There would be an element of some cultural support in the 1915 case, and a fair bit in the Caribbean case.

These days you pretty much have to be ill to be a mass shooter in America.  You can't be a mere "hothead" or "loner."

One doesn't have to get lost in a relativity maze where no idea can be considered crazy outside its context, as an excuse to indict "society," for its refusal to recognise creativity or genius. That rubber band can be stretched too far. (Science fiction writers used to have a lot of fun with this.) But context does matter, because being that far off from your surroundings suggests that other things are broken. We are social beings, and take our explanatory and moral cues largely from our surroundings.  Perhaps too largely. If you are going to believe something different from your peer group, you seek a new peer group.  If you can't find one, that should tell you something. If it doesn't tell you something, your problems are deeper. It is possible to go back over the turf and legitimately decide "no, they are all mostly wrong, and I've got it right," but the sane person who reaches that conclusion knows she has a hard road ahead and will have to provide significant evidence to convince others.

This leads me to a surprising place. The one fact that was considered obvious about the Charleston shooting was that it was racist.  His writings and statements could hardly be more clear that he believed his motives were racial. Yet on reflection I think that is much less true. This was not some standard racist person who was a little stranger than most, this was a mentally ill person whose illness expressed itself in racism. The difference is significant because it switches which is the dominant characteristic. (Yes, this is entirely quixotic of me, because the national narrative is in place now and unlikely to move much.)

I mean, Rhodesia? We all thought that was weird, but it should have hit us even harder than that.  This was not a rubber band stretched too far, but an elastic that had snapped long ago. Remember, he was frustrated that he couldn't find people nearby who understood the problem and were willing to do something about it.  He could only find them on obscure internet sites.

I don't want to flip this entirely.  Dylann Roof did not conclude that emanations from Io or poisons in the asparagus were creating the problems of the world. He picked a set of ideas that actually is present in some small percentage of society around him, to run with and become his Universal Explanation for Why My Life Is Bad. Yet I don't think racism is the right emphasis.

So, good riddance to the Confederate Battle Flag, though it had come to symbolise yahooness more than oppression. Yet I wish it had come down for better reasons, rather than as an innocent bystander seized and blamed for being present and unpopular near a tragedy. The focus on the flag allowed us to miss the point.


Grim said...

But context does matter, because being that far off from your surroundings suggests that other things are broken. We are social beings, and take our explanatory and moral cues largely from our surroundings. Perhaps too largely.

Read that paragraph in coordination with Mark Steyn's latest article on culture, and you get a pretty good natural selection theory for why guys like this turn up sometimes. As he points out, "Four years later... Arnoud van Doorn, the producer of Wilders's anti-Islamic film Fitna, converted to Islam."

Sam L. said...

" The focus on the flag allowed us to miss the point. " Not "allowed", Mr. AVI, "directed". Another slice off the salami they are stealing from us slice by slice by slice by slice.

Dubbahdee said...

I think the the confederate flag symbolized "yahooness" to many outside of the southern states. Within those states, however, I think it was taken quite seriously by many. Not a matter of nostalgia, but an excuse to flaunt their racism under the literal banner of states rights, heritage, and a nostalgia of malice. Not taken seriously in a way that would cause them to say it out loud to outsiders from up north. But a kind of secret (yet public) that was a kind of secret handshake, a nod to those in the know.

Like a vestigial organ that harbors a virus.

Grim said...

I don't know what your experience with Southerners is, but speaking as one who grew up in the mountain South, I don't think that's accurate to the current generations. It may -- surely was -- true for those who were 40 years old in 1956. They would be 99 years old today. If you're 40 today, the flag to you meant The Dukes of Hazzard. The boys I grew up with didn't mean anything by it except the rebel spirit -- the same thing that caused other boys of the same era in other places to wear mohawks and punk rock clothes, or join metal bands, or smoke weed and ride surfboards all day.

Dubbahdee said...

Grim, I bow to your larger experience.

As lame as it will sound, I had a fairly brief, but intense experience living and working in the south. My summer job in college was selling books door to door in Georgia and South Carolina. I came into conversation with hundreds of people each week across a wide spectrum of class, status, and race. Over 13 weeks each summer, for 80 hours a week, I observed closely (my living depended on it) the signals sent by speech, dress, choice of cars, home decor, association, and a whole lot more. Including their reaction to my northern intrusion. This was in the mid 1980s.

I would not claim that makes me an expert of the same level as someone who grew up there. And I don't doubt that what you say is likely even generally true. Yet I have to say, I ran across a whole lot of people for whom the confederate battle flag seemed to me more than just and expression "rebel spirit" in the sense of youthful exuberance.

I suspect that even the "callowest" of youth at some level are very aware (even unconciously) of the larger meaning of mohawks, punk fashion, and flags.

Grim said...

Perhaps so. I wonder about the bikers who wore swastikas in the '60s. I suspect they were partly inherited war trophies, and partly just about sticking it to the squares. Maybe a bit more was about saying, "I reserve the right to do the most offensive things you can imagine, and screw you if you don't like it."

Was anything left for true racism or anti-Semitism? Maybe, sometimes. Some of them might have meant that too. But I don't know. These days I meet young men, currently in their 20s and 30s, who are absolutely committed to anti-racism and progressivism. They still sometimes tell me racist jokes, assuming (unfairly) that a Southerner will be game for it. I think the thrill of violating the social norms is really important at times. I don't even doubt their sincerity of commitment, politically, to anti-racism or gay rights or whatever. They just need to show that they aren't zombies, in an age when most all the time they're afraid to say anything out of line.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The swastikas are an excellent example. I would go a step farther. It was an invitation to fight. Knock this chip off my shoulder, puke. I/we do what we want.

I had forgotten that years ago, much of the outrage at Bike Week in Laconia was precisely about this. Swastikas, German helmets with spikes, satanic names. All of it was "I dare ya to say anything about it."

Grim said...

I was never for any of those symbolic methods of provocation, but I'll tell you honestly: at twenty, I loved a man who'd fight me better than a brother. And I'd ever despise any man who slunk away.

So maybe there's something else going on. Maybe it's something about natural selection, or evolution. Maybe it's just that young bucks need to fight, and this is the flag they'll fight for. Today it's the swastika, tomorrow the rebel flag, the day after that the University of Cowtown or Yale.