Shooting for Significance

I have been busy this week, and therefore I did not have time to watch the latest mass shooting unfold as a media event on my screen. I find that I am unable to summon any genuine emotion about it besides vague anger and frustration. Tim Kreider did a good job articulating this anger in The Week. His article was written in May 2014, but I had to read for a while to realize that because these events blend into one another and the same articles tend to work for any of them.

It seems that the perpetrator of the latest mass shooting was seeking fame. “This is the only time I’ll ever be in the news I’m so insignificant,” he allegedly wrote.

As I noted here in 2014, Ethan Watters, In his book Crazy Like Us, describes the work of the Canadian scholar Edward Shorter.  “Shorter believes that psychosomatic illnesses (such as leg paralysis at the turn of the twentieth century or multiple personality disorder at the turn of the twenty-first) are examples of the unconscious mind attempting to speak in a language of emotional distress that will be understood in its time. People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from— a ‘symptom pool,’ as he calls it. When someone unconsciously latches onto a behavior in the symptom pool, he or she is doing so for a very specific reason: the person is taking troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behavior that is a culturally recognized signal of suffering.”

Mass shootings are now part of the American “symptom pool.”  Of course there have always been isolated cases of people going mad and acting out in extreme violence. The difference is that now, we have a well-established blueprint for how young men full of pain and impotent rage can express their psychological suffering. Unlike leg paralysis or anorexia, it is destructive to innocent strangers.

Saying that killers want to be featured on the news is not really enough. A deeper question is why they want to be on the news. Assuming that the shooter did write the social media post attributed to him, it is interesting how being in the news is equated with being significant. Being known means that you matter.

David M. Friedman credits Oscar Wilde with ushering in our modern celebrity culture, which he describes in Wilde in America: “It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.”

Fame isn’t the end product, it is the beginning.

We are not, for the most part, a nation that manufactures things. We are a nation that sells things. We are not a nation of companies that train and raise up talent, we expect workers to have “portable skills” and to market themselves. Becoming known is a survival skill– a first step in a career not the result of achievement. From there it is but a small step to believing that only people who are known to many people are significant. It doesn’t matter how one becomes famous. It matters that one is famous. The most reviled reality TV star can probably launch a perfume line and have a career, or so it seems.

This is the part of the article where a writer is expected to close with a call to action– here is what to do about it. I don’t have one. None of the ingredients in the mass shooting soup are going to change easily. Gun culture and politics don’t seem to be on the verge of any sort of change. The TV news networks will continue to answer our curiosity about perpetrators of violence and in the process will unintentionally be giving the next mass shooter a blueprint for action. People will continue to suffer from mental illness, and it will always be hard to act before the event. Our cultural assumptions about the value of known-ness and of masculinity and power will not change overnight. But we can’t be entirely powerless to stop this, can we?

An Odd but Charming Little Bio that I’d Like to Share

So generally I experience myself as dully and impatiently waiting to achieve anything. I spent a lot of time contrasting my life with better versions of it.

Occasionally, though, someone does a feature on me on a blog somewhere– like this one for Made in Michigan and I read my own biography and I stop and think– huh, I actually sound kind of interesting. So thank you to Tracy Gardner for the rather bouncy version of my life to date.

If you’d like to hear about the hazards of being a celebrity judge at country karaoke, the joys of being an intern at an alternative rock station, being vaguely connected to both Madonna and The Lone Ranger and being stopped on the street in London by a purported psychic who needed to deliver an urgent message from the spiritual realm click the link above.

Identity and Poetry

This poetry performance won the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.  In “Lost Voices” Scout Bostley and Darius Simpson change places and speak in the voice of the other.

Michigan Radio reported:

The main message of their performance, Simpson says, is to show the audience that “this is what you look like when you’re speaking for someone.”

…putting this piece together taught them a lot about how to be supportive of people struggling through situations different from their own and that there is inherently a limit to the depth of their own understanding.

…Simpson explains that the two aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t speak out for one another, but that in doing so there is the danger of losing sight of an individual’s experiences.

Puzzle of Identity

Collage by Claire Pestaille

In the book Lewis & Lewis, John Juxon describes the solicitor Sir George Lewis’s approach to legal cases. He saw them as a puzzle, Juxon writes, but unlike a jigsaw puzzle they are puzzles in which the pieces can form different images.

This is equally true of writing a biography. The events of a person’s life can be arranged and contextualized in a way that makes her a hero or a villain, selfish or caring, powerful or powerless. In fact, we all have moments that could be used to tell the story of a saint or a sinner, a wise person or an idiot. We play all of these roles at different times.

It is not just lawsuits or biographies but our identities themselves that are puzzles with pieces that can be arranged to create different faces.

On Issuing Marriage Licenses

I was watching The Nightly Show this morning, (I time shift) and Larry Wilmore had a segment on conservative it-girl Kim Davis. For those without cable news Davis is the Democratic county clerk in Kentucky (yes, she is a Democrat) who went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

There was something so surreal and vaguely disturbing in her victory lap along side presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. When I saw the crowd waving crosses I had a similar feeling to Wilmore who called it “a little bit lynchy.” But then there was the Rocky vs. Mr. T music. (Eye of the Tiger had been a staple at my junior high school dances.) Was Davis a champion? Did she win something? What was her victory? Her court issued licenses without her and she was released on the condition that she not interfere with the process. That hardly seems like an Olympic level accomplishment. Well, she did get attention and we do admire people who manage to do that.

I found myself googling Survivor “Eye of the Tiger” and Kim Davis figuring that the band probably had something to say about its use as a “don’t marry the gays” anthem. I found the answer on a site called Consequence of Sound. And no, Survivor wasn’t thrilled with the unauthorized use of their song. But it was a snarky little aside that caught my attention.

“Eye of the Tiger” blasted from the speakers while Davis, her (fourth) husband, her lawyer, and Huckabee took the stage.


So I want use this moment to point out, once again, one of my pet peeve Biblical arguments against homosexuality. When it comes to Biblical arguments against same sex romantic or sexual relations there are only a handful of passages and there are various, more or less technical reasons why a lot of them are problematic. I won’t go into that except to say that a lot of Christians who want to make a Biblical argument against homosexuality try to steer away from the two least ambiguous condemnations of sexual activity between those of the same sex. They are both in Leviticus and both refer specifically to men (so maybe lesbians are OK after all). “Man shall not lie with man” says one verse. The other says that the penalty is death by stoning. Modern people are squeemish about the death by stoning part and try to draw attention elsewhere. There is also the whole problem inherent to Leviticus– even the most ardent fundamentalists do not follow a lot of it and do not consider this contradictory with Christianity. In this very blog some time back I quoted from a fundamentalist blog that made the argument that there was nothing wrong with tattoos even though Leviticus condemns it. “If someone chose to consider a tattoo sinful, then they would have to toss all their cotton/polyester clothing too!”

But if you don’t want to give burnt offerings of animals as dictated in Leviticus, and you’re fine with eating lobster, then you open yourself up to the logical conclusion that maybe the men lying with men thing falls into that same category.

This, of course, leads to a strong desire for Jesus to have repeated the commandment. Jesus offered very few commandments, and when he was asked direct questions about law he tended to take a “context matters” approach. You weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, for example, unless someone needed a healing, and then the goodness of the action overrode the law. He was much more of a parable guy than a law giving guy.

Just the same, the desire to have Jesus re-enforce the parts of Leviticus some of us like is so strong that people get creative as when they cite Matthew 19.5 on billboards in opposition to same sex marriage.

In Matthew 19 Jesus is asked whether couples should be allowed to divorce. In his reply he mentions “man” and “woman” coming together in marriage. To read it as an anti-gay passage you have to ignore the actual subject of the text, which is not ambiguous. Jesus is asked if a man should be able to divorce (it is entirely the man’s prerogative, of course). He says, no. “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”

So the question is should divorce be legal and the answer is only in the case of adultery (on behalf of the wife). Any other reason is illegitimate. Not only that, but anyone who marries a divorced person is committing adultery.

So let’s review, Kim Davis, who was married four times and divorced three does not want to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples because:

“To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience,” Davis said in a statement published on the website of her lawyers, the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel. “It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s word.”

Now, as a matter of journalistic fairness, I will note here that Davis only became a Christian four years ago. So her serial adultery (as Matthew 19 labels it) was in her pre-Christian past.

But here’s the thing, how many marriage licenses has Kim Davis issued in the past four years to divorced people? I did a quick search to try to figure out how many marriage licenses the Rowan County Clerk’s office issues in a year, and I couldn’t immediately find it.

The number of licenses Davis may have unwittingly (and probably without any twinges of conscience) issued to divorced people is not even the real issue.

Suppose Davis, or someone like her, who divorced in the past and now has been born again, wants to make a fresh start in Christian marriage. Does it matter that she is now Christian and has asked for forgiveness of her sins past, or should it be up to the clerk to decide whether her conversion is sincere? If the person issuing the license agrees that Davis has given up her sinful ways, can the clerk still refuse to give her a license because doing so would mean that she would marry after having been divorced– which would make her an adulterer? Would Davis be thankful that the clerk took that position to save her soul and relieved her of the responsibility of her own religious choices? I suggest she would not.

The First Amendment is to protect individuals from government interference in their religious practices, observance and belief. It is not to protect the government from individuals religious choices. In this instance, Kim Davis, as the county clerk is cast in the role of the government. She represents the government agency. She cannot, as a representative of the government, tell people that they are sinners. That’s how the First Amendment works.

Living up to Specifications

“Life imitates Art fare more than Art imitates Life.”-Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

When my father passed away, a little more than a decade ago now, I went through his papers– articles, correspondence, drafts– and compiled a book of quotations for friends and family. I had cause to revisit that collection again recently, and I came across this observation from a letter he wrote in 1990:

You know, for all my book learnin’, I have to say I’ve learned more about life from ordinary folks trying to muddle through. From a guy who specializes in military procurement, that means he develops tanks and airplanes and such to Army specifications, comes what I think is a truly insightful thought.  He said, “an old rule of thumb is if a weapon can’t do its job, find out what it can do and make that its job.”

In other words, let the thing — or the person — define what its job is. As simplistic as this sounds, it rarely happens. The norm is for “them” to define what’s important, and for the individual to attempt to live up to those mandated “specifications.”

This is certainly true. Rather than allow people’s talents and skills to present themselves and making use of them, we go looking for people to match job descriptions we create in advance.

But I would go further and say that it is not only in employment but in life that this is so. We start with stories about what life is supposed to be like, what goals we ought to have, what love is and friendship. There are stories about how you’re supposed to feel when you get an award of suffer a loss. We go along always comparing ourselves to these stories and seeing how we match up. Very few of us start with what we are and make that our life.

Context and Civil Disobedience


These are a couple of posts that came across my social media feed today. As someone who supports the right of gay people to marry if they want (and of people, gay or straight, to choose not to marry without being shamed), I will be happy when there are no more clerks refusing to accept social change.

That said, we are at an interesting moment when people who admire Rosa Parks are saying, “It is the law of the land, you have to follow it.”

The memes above are viscerally satisfying, but the problem with them is that they open up the people who posted them to exactly the same charges of hypocrisy and contradiction. If the underlying question is “Should people engage in civil disobedience?” or “Should people always obey the law?” These are nonsense questions. Anyone who answers the question as posed is made into a hypocrite. The only reasonable answer to such a question is, “I don’t know. What law are we talking about?”

The real question is not “should you follow laws?” It is “which laws must be followed and which should be resisted?” It is not “Should people engage in civil disobedience?” It is “when is it necessary to stand with society and when should you stand against it?”

There is a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.

When I watch a Kentucky clerk going to jail to avoid issuing a marriage license to a couple of guys I think, “Really? That’s the thing? With all of the problems in the world– a couple of middle-aged guys wanting to have their status as a couple legally recognized– this is the one you’re willing to go to the mat for?”

The fundamentalist Christian county clerk and her supporters certainly would take a different view of an “activist” who refused to give gun licenses. (That one is much easier to get around, though. You can buy a gun at a gun show or on the internet without a license. Getting married is more regulated.) They would also be appalled by a clerk who chose what services to provide based on fundamentalist Muslim belief.  They may have cheered Donald Trump when he had Univision reporter Jorge Ramos escorted out of his press conference for asking questions without being called on. You have to follow the rules.

People will always feel differently about those who follow and those who resist laws and social conventions based on how they feel about those laws and social conventions. That’s not hypocrisy and contradiction.  Context matters.