Those school shooters. What are we going to do about them?
According to Jim Sleeper in a July 4, 2014 Salon article excitedly titled “We, the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on its Independence Day: School shootings, hatred, capitalism run amok: This 4th of July, we are in the midst of a tragic public derangement,” the American spirit is dying in a hail of gunfire from enemies within—“young, white” school shooters.
At the head of his piece, right below his frightening title, Sleeper quotes the Emerson poem on the “embattled farmers” firing the “shot heard ’round the world” in America’s violent Revolutionary War birth for contrast to the recent spate of maniac Americans-on-Americans shootings.
Sleeper, author and lecturer at Yale, has produced one of these reflective yet alarmist pieces that appear every now and then in magazines like The Atlantic, Harper’s or The New Republic, in which a moderate Left Think-Tank-type professor makes a sincere spiritual effort to bring moderate Right and Left elements together in a polite way to “fix” an America which has lost its Founding ideals.
Sleeper quickly reveals his hand as a “Small-is-Beautiful” liberal—first, by invoking Emerson’s “farmers” and second, by writing:
For centuries most Americans have believed that “the shot heard ‘round the world” in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, Edward Gibbon, and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizen was rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy, and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanity’s stride toward horizons radiant with promises…
America was opposed to “divine-right monarchy” and “aristocracy.” There are always exceptions, but sure, yes.
“Theocracy,” too, is something America wanted to avoid. Religious, yes; a state-run religion? No.
But did America’s Revolutionary War oppose “mercantilism?” Sleeper is incorrect here. Every school child knows “no taxation without representation.” The colonists did not like having their mercantile ambitions strangled in the cradle by the Crown, a common practice of the British Empire, an empire whose strategy was to rule as “workshop” in a world of (preferably one crop) “farmers.”
Sleeper, a lecturer at Yale(!) is so wrong that it staggers the imagination: a desire for”mercantilism” was the chief reason for the Revolution—not something the new American republican citizens were opposing. Paul Revere, for instance, was not a “farmer,” but a silversmith and belonged to a secret and highly educated revolutionary society of artists, artisans, and mercantilists.
There is a prominent strain of rural prejudice which can be traced to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who modeled their beliefs on the more radical French Revolution; much of Jefferson’s actual behavior and Emerson’s “English Traits” reveal men who, in spite of their reputations, were actually less patriotic than is commonly thought. But of course every nation and every revolution is going to feature intricate mixtures of motivations, alliances, and beliefs. But to call the American Revolution anti-mercantilist is absurd.
The strategy of an essay like this is to carefully avoid all the hot button Right v. Left issues, and appear to argue from a middle position of anti-commercialism, gun control, and Global Warming “higher” consciousness, so the Moderate Left position rises to the sparkling heights of purity and wisdom. It’s finally a platform-building political strategy. One hates guns, global warming and capitalism not as separately thought-out positions, sorting through the pros and cons of each; rather one thinks and feels in an all-or-nothing manner with the tribe known as Moderate Left. Few have the time to think through all the moral, political, historical issues smartly alluded to in this essay, but no matter: tribe-building is the broad benevolent/cynical goal of the writer. He’s looking to cement agreement among a loose demographic who read the same books, take the same college courses, and shop at the same stores (anti-mercantilist places, of course).
Sleeper does the usual liberal floundering about for spiritual values—without resorting to religion, even as he concedes the Puritan opposition to tyranny was instrumental in America’s birth. He’s looking for that intangible conviction which rests on civility, that republican virtue, that “public candor” as he call it, the elusive community-minded soul at the heart of a working democracy which can bridge the increasingly rancorous Republican/Democrat divide, and his whole rhetorical strategy is to lower the temperature on the feverish divisiveness which characterizes so much political speech today, and find common ground—admirable, of course, in itself. He takes issues which normally create impasses between Left and Right and calls them merely symptomatic:
Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion.
They aren’t. They’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.
Equally symptomatic, not causal, are self-avowedly “deviant” and “transgressive” gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, we’ve been swept up by the swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all that’s a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing “freedoms” for sale.
Even our war-makers’ and -mongers’ grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement that’s rising all around us.
But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle.
I’m not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We’d somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions.
Believing in God can make one fearless in opposing human oppression—and yet even if religious superstition has virtues, intellectuals will still walk in fear of it, so Sleeper quickly assures his Salon audience that he is certainly not advocating a return to Puritanism—even as he all but admits his complaint of America’s moral corruption and vanity is nothing if not a Puritan one.
Not only does Sleeper invoke the virtues of religion, from Founding Puritanism to “Martin Luther King, Jr. and black churchgoers” but old-fashioned patriotism is brought forward, as well, in the person of young Nathan Hale and his famous utterance before his hanging by the British in 1776: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” He adds the story of three Yale seniors defying the Vietnam War draft and the university chaplain who supported them.
But then he observes:
When I tell young millennials these stories, though, many of them listen pretty much as they would to tales about knights in shining armor, long ago and far away. Much closer to them are the school shootings and Internet mayhem that make brave citizenship seem archaic, implausible, and irrelevant to self-discovery and social change.
What is the answer, then? How can we rescue America from cynicism and “mayhem?”
Still, so many Americans are generations removed from any easily recoverable religious or ethno-racial identity or other adhesive that we have to ask: Where are the touchstones or narratives strong enough renew public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor the liberal state do much to nourish or defend?
In the beginning of his piece, Sleeper does a good job of painting a pretty bleak picture of ourselves:
That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. It’s in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers, or we’ve sleepwalked ourselves and others into the cage and have locked ourselves in. We haven’t yet understood the shots fired and heard ’round the world from 74 American schools, colleges and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December 2012.
These shots haven’t been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They haven’t been fired by terrorists who’ve penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they haven’t been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. They’ve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended.
They’ve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises and practices, we’ve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders. And we’ve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”
Yes, we need help. So what are these “touchstones” which can save us? We can’t go back to the old “touchstones:”
In 1775, most American communities still filtered such basic generational and human needs through traditions that encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms. In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine could urge readers to take their recent experiences of monarchy “to the touchstones of nature” and decide whether they would abide the empire’s abuses. Today, those “touchstones of nature” — and with them, republican convictions about selfhood and society — have been torn up by runaway engines and developments in technology, communications and even intimate biology that would terrify Paine, Adam Smith and John Locke, not to mention those who fired the first shot at Concord.
Sleeper is wrestling with two Great Platitudes: 1) America is in the midst of Roman Empire-type collapse and 2) American civilization and democracy, that which makes America historically virtuous and great, and makes us better than all those crummy little countries which always find a way to “reject democracy,” is based on touchstones and wellsprings not quite religious, definitely not mercantile, and which once “encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms” but I’ll-be-damned-if-I-know-what-can-save-us-now. According to Sleeper, the essence of the problem is this: “consumer capitalism displaces the needs that the early republic filtered through nature’s rhythms and kinship traditions.”
Sleeper is quick to make this dubious historical point: in America, the Puritan virtue which stood up to oppression mutated into evil capitalism. For Sleeper, the uncompromising Puritan toughness of Khomeini somehow leads to the techno-modernizing evil of the Shah. But this is the wrong script. Khomeini (who the liberal Carter administration supported) filled the vacuum of the Shah’s overthrow. Khomeini versus the Shah is a manifestation of the divide-and-conquer tactics of imperial oppressors like the British Empire: create a situation in the colony (Iran) of either/or. For here, incredibly, we have Sleeper identifying a “liberal capitalist republic” as lacking in all virtue, and yet somehow brought about by what he identifies as the Puritan “emphasis on individual conscience.”
But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society. A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isn’t supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizen who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone can’t achieve.
Of what can this “greater good” consist, if buying and selling things, which by nature always corrupts and destroys love of the greater good, is at the heart of the “liberal capitalist republic” which America is? For Sleeper, it ends up being a world without all the bad things he dutifully lists: violence, sex without love, capitalism, religion, dishonest sports, mindless entertainment. People need to be kinder and nicer and think less about their own greedy and material wants. Well, of course. But we’ve heard these impotent pleas a thousand times before: “Why can’t we all get along?” And here, typically, the plea consists of playing to a certain ready-made audience (the “concerned” moderate Left), with a selective misreading of history.
Sleeper, the “small-is-beautiful” liberal, denies “mercantilism” or capitalism any place at the American table. And what this typical Moderate Left position does is perpetuate a certain kind of scolding, patronizing sermonizing which identifies one as a member of the Moderate Left: America is great because of all sorts of intangibles: resembling religion, but not really, a little like capitalism, but not really, a bit like patriotism but not really, individualism, but not really. In Sleeper’s world, democracy is this misty ideal—somehow unique to Americans—and has nothing to do with middle class comforts.
But we all know the truth that professors like Sleeper deny: middle class comforts, and the desire for middle class comforts, and the mercantilism which produces middle class comforts, has everything to do with American supremacy: its democracy, its virtue and its happiness.
By ignoring religion’s role in civilizing citizens (we can’t go back to Puritanism, Sleeper says) and only identifying the school shooters (at the rhetorical center of his piece) as “young” and “white” (young blacks killing young blacks are taking a far greater toll, but that’s not really on Sleeper’s radar) Sleeper misses something crucial, beyond even his mercantile bungle.
The school shooters have been, as a rule, “young” and “white,” but they also “have been males,” and acutely “loveless males.”
If we are interested in “touchstones” and causes, we should probably mention the obvious—which goes unmentioned by Sleeper, except indirectly, when he alludes, for instance, to the entertainment industry’s peddling of sex and violence. But these issues are “symptomatic,” according to him, and perhaps they are.
Sleeper never does find a cause in his long essay. He has no answers. All he can say is we need “new narratives.”
May we make a suggestion.
Love, romantic love—romance—is what secretly holds society together and civilizes the world.
Romantic love has been under attack for at least a hundred years, universally disparaged in humanities and art departments as mere Victorian sentimentality; and it’s not even on the radar screen for political analysts like Jim Sleeper.
No one would deny the extent of it, nor even its importance as a certain kind of social glue, but mostly it is looked upon as “archaic and quaint,” or as a “problem” among the breeding lower classes.
But romantic love is really at the heart of all civilization; Plato and Rousseau knew of its importance, and so did Dante and the Romantic poets, but academic Modernism and post-Modernism, which views anything from the past dyspeptically, has largely shut the door on this whole trope.
All other tropes stem from this one.
Religion, for instance, is Romantic love by other means, with Jesus Christ the “bride” for those unable to experience romantic love in the flesh.
It’s okay for religion to be a fiction. What matters is how it makes people behave.
Dante’s blending of religion and love in the person of Beatrice is a perfect example of what we mean.
This is not an insignificant trope; romantic love, when it is idealized by great poets and spread among the people, is that wonderful hybrid of chastity, philosophy, kindness, worship, art, beauty, ardency, reflection, chivalry, loyalty and marriage.
It softens the male, which is crucial.
Here is the “touchstone” that we need.
And, oh yes, let’s not be afraid of mercantilism and middle class comforts, either.
We have these things already. Things are not as bad as they seem. But to make Sleeper feel better, that’s our suggestion.