Horrorshow: when the school of the real invades. Special Sunday edition, July 22nd 2012

Dear friends of Magically Real —

Hyperbolic verbiage abounds regarding the shooting of audience members at the latest Bat Man premiere in Colorado this past week.  The shooter has been compared to the Joker in an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, and our president has talked about “sensless evil.”

The movie theater is not far from Columbine where another set of white, cis male shooters killed assorted classmates and faculty in 1999.

The theater is, however a long way from the University of Alabama where a white cis female Assistant Professor of Biology shot her chairman and colleagues at a departmental meeting after she’d been denied tenure in 2010.

These all seem and probably are clinically crazy acts.  And of course these acts continue to raise doubts about our current gun control laws and how well they work (aka they don’t).

But they have something else in common.  And it’s the something we never talk about.

I teach at the campus where the shooter was an undergrad.  I did now know him.  But I certainly know white, cis Caucasian science majors like him.  The ones I have met are not happy.  In the graduate humanities program that I work for, I only know one white cis male student well.  He is a convicted felon and is therefore already marginalized in terms of his hireability, and he has plenty to say about how unpleasant graduate school is.  He says that grad school is deeply alienating, competitive in strange, surreptitious ways, politically repressive, and that the university administration is watching him carefully.  I believe it.

Now, here’s an interesting fact. The New York Times tells us that — brilliant science student that he was – the Bat Man shooter was virtually flunking after winning a prestigious fellowship.  He was in the process of withdrawing from the graduate program (whatever that means, and in a graduate program that can mean a lot of different things), when he came to the theater last week.

I wonder when the shooter realized that his graduate program “wasn’t working out?”  April?  May?  Why was he leaving?

I do not know the details, and more will be forthcoming, but I want to inquire as to why the school — in all its incarnations as k-12, college, grad school, and academy — is the purloined letter in these 3 stories that I have mentioned.  The School keeps on showing up as the ground zero where these desperate gestures are concocted and —  in 2 cases  — carried out.

By the way – Administrators at The University of Colorado immediately shut down the campus buildings where the shooter worked.  Did they suspect that — on some level — what happened in the movie theater was really  about the university?  That the univeristy may have been the (original or intended or eventual) target?

But, what do the Bat Man movies have to do with any of this?

On the surface, absolutely nothing.

It’s interesting, though, isn’t it that education — other than the ninja school in Bhutan — is disappeared from the Bat Man films?  Except for one odd detail.  We’re told briefly in movie #1 that Bruce Wayne has flunked out of Princeton, but he’s white cis, and rich so it doesn’t matter.  But for other white men and women, who long for glory and middle class acceptance, and perhaps even a glimpse of 1% level prosperity —  school does matter.  It’s the only thing – in the middle class white imaginary — separating “us” from the others.

Which brings us back to the question of who the shooter resembles in the film that he came to upend, and steal the limelight from.

If you think about it at all, it becomes clear that the Joker has nothing to do with this shooter.

But Bruce Wayne does.

Bruce Wayne — the symbol of the agonized 1% — the drop out who has everything, much like another rich drop- out, Christian Grey of 50 Shades.

But think about it:  who would Wayne be if he DIDN’T have his fortune?

He’d be a weird white boy with no friends, and no sex life — a traumatized angry boy in love with weapons.  A literally parentless adult with no direction other than making himself into a “legend.”


Whether or not the Bat Man shooter is “mad” and even if all of the shooters I’ve mentioned are “crazy” we are obliged to look at the space where their madness took shape.  And that gaze returns us unwillingly to the traumatized and traumatizing, raced/gendered/classed, policed, over-tested, under-funded, at once fetishized/romanticized and dismissed/abjected space of education.

(Copyright, Stephanie Barbe Hammer, 07/22/2012)

11 thoughts on “Horrorshow: when the school of the real invades. Special Sunday edition, July 22nd 2012

  1. We live in an anti-intellectual society that marginalizes and fears knowledge. When James Van Wilkins shot up a bar on Jully 17 in Tuscaloosa, AL, injuring 17 people there, one person at their home and set three fires at his former employer (an oil and gas company), his past employment did not come under scrutiny. When George Sodini killed 3 women and injured nine more at an LA Fitness in Pennsylvania in 2009, no one questioned if fitness or exercising had anything to do with his anger. In this country each day 84 people die of gun violence, over 100,000 are injured by guns with over 30,000 people dying. Focusing on higher education is just another way we Americans can change the topic from the poliferation of guns in this country and our cultural propensity toward violence. It’s a huge red herring and it’s very dangerous.

    1. FeLicia– thanks for this passionately articulated comment.

      Just to clarify, I did not mean in any way to suggest that Gun Control is not the central issue here. I tried to indicate this understanding by citing Adam Gopnik’s wonderful article about Gun Control for the NEW YORKER.

      I regret that my unconditional support of Gun Control did not come through more clearly.

      The task I gave myself in this blog post was to ask some questions about how “school” may fit into the picture of these shooting sprees. I think it does, at least in the cases I mentioned. Your own examples suggest that these sorts of acts seem to be connected to whiteness, and particularly to white masculinity — with the biology assistant professor providing an interesting exception (although, apparently, her husband helped her plan the attack). I think also of the Army microbiologist guy who was almost certainly the “brains” behind the anthrax letters. The matter of race and gender (and probably class) is another, very crucial area to explore, it seems to me, and it is one that reconnects us to the Bat Man mythology and to its own obsession with uber-wealthy white masculinity. Anthony Cristofani has written about the Bat Man films and fascism and I think there’s an important connection there.

      Thanks again for reminding us, that in the end, the practical matter does indeed come down to fire arms. White, female folks like me involved in education, wonder though, to what extent and how school might combat violent attitudes and create models of thought other than the ones we’ve seen on display in this country.

  2. I think your support for gun control came through quite well. As a non-white person, I hesitate to discuss white masculinity because I feel I could go on for days. My point was that in most cases, when these types of crimes happen, the perpetrator’s employment and intellect do not get the scrutiny that school or educaton get. Great post!

    1. Thanks so much. Appreciate the clarification and your thoughts which made me think some more about the institutional backdrop for all of these. The fitness club for example, and the military, in the case of the Anthrax man. I also was wondering about _where these crimes take place_ because the locations are interesting: the south and the west, with some rust belt thrown in. Thanks again!

  3. I heard a fascinating statistic on NPR’s “Here and Now.” In 1990, 80% of Americans surveyed believed in stricter gun control. In 2010, only 44% were in favor. This despite the fact that only 30% of Americans own guns. The analyst who discussed this said it was probably due to people feeling less at risk from gun violence, and he predicted nothing would change following this incident. He was right about the second part, at least. I think the first part is due to a lack of education on the subject. All one has to do is consider the murder rate in countries with gun control, compared to ours, to make a case for control.

    I agree with FeLicia, regarding the devaluing of education in this country. Sure, the top levels are still the best in the world, but they are only available to 2% of the population.

    I was, I admit, disappointed at the undertone of both your essay and FeLicia’s comment that this violence is largely a white man’s issue. May I remind you of the DC Freeway shooter, who was black; the Virginia Tech shooter, who was Korean; and the Fort Hood shooter, who was Muslim. True, race is still a huge issue in America, but disillusionment and violence run across all lines now, as the other 98% is continually squeezed into an ill-educated, misinformed mass of complaining underachievers who are quick to point the finger of blame at almost anyone except the real culprits–that 2% who decide how the country is run. Those elites, including the corporate controlled media, have cleverly manipulated much of the population into opposing camps of ideologues whose philosophies are based on myth instead of fact (and I’m talking both sides here). And because race is such a visual marker, they exploit it in our visual media, playing up divisions among the races far more than working to break them down. It’s so much easier than drawing class distinctions.

    When you think about it, this is really a logical outcome of an economically polarized society. The have nots (which now includes a large percentage of the formerly middle class), disdain the haves. It’s natural for them to deny whatever the haves believe in, whether it’s higher education, global warming or gun control. Such people are ripe for misinformation, even when it runs counter to their best interests. I still believe education is the answer, but with the prevailing attitude of much of the population, I don’t hold much hope for a quick turnaround.

    1. Thank you Joe. I understand your disappointment. I feel disappointment in my own inability — as an upper class white woman — to adequately articulate the imaginary (in the sense of unconscious symbolism) that circulates around the issues of race, class, and gender in this country, and that comes out very clearly in our stories of the unreal and the fantastic.

      I think you are absolutely right to suggest that — if I understand you correctly — class is the hidden piece in these national conversations. US citizens are often extremely unwilling to talk about class, because it sounds marxist, and leftist. It’s really important that the Bat Man shooter was asked to leave the university where he had a shot at a really well-paying scientific career, and the the other examples that have been mentioned — many of them — have a $ aspect to them. The Virginia Tech shooter was, if I recall correctly, a struggling student.

      But, I still think, that there really is such a thing as white privilege and masculine privilege and that these matter., just as class matters — it’s a kind of triad. I am relying on the work of Tim Wise on this question and I recommend his book WHITE LIKE ME highly, if you haven’t read it.

      I have to say that I feel very strange talking about this issue, because I have white privilege as well as class privilege. Yet, as a female, I have had the experience of not being listened to, as well as physically threatened. I’m treated better when I’m with my white husband.

      Finally, the point I was trying to open up with the Bat Man shooter is asking/wondering to what extent he, and the Columbine boys, and the assistant professor were all trying to capture a kind of social/economic validation that is raced, gendered, and classed. I don’t think I said it very well, but I think it’s important to try to say and ask about things even/especially if/when they are hard to say/think.

      Thank you very much for your response. I’ll try to do better in the way of being clearer next time.

  4. I’ll be the first cis white guy to admit that white male privilege is alive and well in our society, and that the subcultures that embrace this antiquated and counterproductive philosophy should be dismantled as soon as possible. That being said, the question becomes, how do we do it? A portion of the blame lies on that large segment of the population that claims to abhor white male values and cronyism, yet appears to have the same material goals, and resorts to the same tactics to belittle the white male as a group that those people have used to keep women and minorities at bay. The vast majority of our population has bought into the myth of materialism as practiced by the white male elite, and in order to break down the ruling cabal, they’re going to have to abandon those cravings. (I hope I don’t sound socialist, because that’s not what I’m preaching. I’m really talking individuality and personal responsibility.)

    What I’d hoped to communicate in my last comment was a hope that we don’t resort to the linguistic politics that the white male establishment has perfected in order to attack it. I felt there was a touch of that in the comments. Maybe it’s because I’m a member of the class that is held up as the “problem,” but I can’t help thinking it would be more productive to engage people like me in dialogue than to throw me into the evil white male pot along with the Wall Street fat cats.

    I have to mention, it took me a while to uncover the meaning of “cis.” That’s a new one on me, and as the website where I finally found the answer said, most cis white men don’t even realize they are one of them. The site noted that the term was not meant to be derogatory, but I can’t help feeling that the urge to label me and other non-non-traditional white men (you know me, I ain’t exactly traditional) is derogatory in itself. Why do it if not to belittle? Gary Shteyngart just commented the other day that Wikipedia identified him as an American (Semitic) novelist. I kid you not. Why can’t he be just a writer? Why can’t I be just a man? (I know, I know, black and Hispanic men have been asking that for centuries. It is the right question to ask.)

    Just as an aside, and to vacate this difficult topic, you and Gabe over at the Circular Runner, and a few other people I’ve read recently have all commented on the Joker in the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” as senseless evil. I happened to watch it again a couple of days ago and think otherwise. Next time you watch it, listen carefully to what he says when Joker and Batman are together, or when he speaks to Harvey Dent. The scriptwriters use him to indict the regimentation and restrictive nature of society. They created the Joker as the ultra-violent symbol of a mindset that exists in America that sees itself as completely disenfranchised and therefore entitled to use whatever tactics they see fit to use against the mainstream. Instead of a purple suit and heavy makeup, picture him with a shaved head and jack boots. Joker’s actions may be insane, but he is not senseless.

    BTW, Tim Wise’s book is on the way.

    1. I think you will find the Wise book interesting. As for the Joker, I was only quoting other folks. I find the Heath Ledger Joker very compelling, and wrote in a facebook conversation with Anthony Cristofani that I thought his politics were important, actually and I admired the refusal of the cliched trauma story (he tells at least 2, if I recall correctly), as well.

    2. PS I neglected to respond to your very important point, that we all regardless of our various raced, gendered, and classed affiliations need to think outside of the white patriarchal elitist box. And you’re absolutely right, that is our responsibility to do. And how we speak really does matter. And I want to name that in writing and in speech, Joe, you are all about thinking outside of those parameters and I really admire and appreciate that.

      On Tuesday, July 24, 2012, Stephanie Barb Hammer wrote:

      > I think you will find the Wise book interesting. As for the Joker, I was > only quoting other folks. I find the Heath Ledger Joker very compelling, > and wrote in a facebook conversation with Anthony Cristofani that I thought > his politics were important, actually and I admired the refusal of the > cliched trauma story (he tells at least 2, if I recall correctly), as well. > > On Tuesday, July 24, 2012,

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful post and conversation. I’d say you are definitely on to something regarding the role of the educational system (no need to tell you where it originated, so let’s just say it wasn’t the brainchild of minorities or women, and if there’s a causal relationship there I didn’t invent it). The stress inducing environment of a university graduate program (and medical science to boot) is just the sort of thing that can trigger worsening symptoms of mental illness. And, not to stereotype anymore than I already have, but if you look at students pursuing higher levels of education, you might find more vulnerabilities to mental stress than the average bear. The idea that brilliance and mental illness are familiar bedfellows is not new and not unfounded. We have to start addressing mental illness, not as a moral failing or lack of will power, but as a real condition that requires as much environmental support as other types of therapy or treatment. The university system cannot ignore its role as a trigger, if not (in some cases) the cause. My heart goes out to everyone in this tragedy.

    1. Thank you for commenting! Great point that the very ‘gifted’ are often vulnerable to emotional problems and mental illness. And yes, we all and perhaps the uni especially tend to regard mental illness as weakness. Me too on my sympathy for all involved in the terribleness of what happened at the movie theater. Thank you again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s