This book is an attempt to dig up Reagan’s remains, hang them upside down from the nearest palm tree, and subject him, at last, to a proper trial.
Of all crimes, murder is the most difficult to explain. While we can pretty much assume that greed motivates insider trading, desperation petty theft, and misogyny and sadism rape, murder tends to resemble Tolstoy’s conception of the unhappy family. No two are alike. While certain kinds of murder, especially mass murder, often follow a sociological pattern – drive by shootings in the United States, for example, are almost always connected to gang violence – the suicidal rampage killer is by this time such a familiar part of the American cultural landscape that it would be foolish to generalize, wouldn’t it?
Mark Ames doesn’t think so. Ames, who’s part of the brilliant and acerbic group of American writers centered around the Moscow based alternative magazine The eXile, has written a book that attempts to explain not only why social misfits go on rampage killings, but how they fit into American culture as a whole and what they tell us about ourselves. But be warned. “Going Postal” is not for people who are easily offended. It’s designed to outrage. It’s a 242-page fuck you to conservative Americans. More importantly, it takes the conventional wisdom about rampage killers and turns it completely on its head.
Dylan Klebald, Eric Harris and Seung-Hui Cho, Ames argues, are not villains. They’re freedom fighters.
Contrary to the way most Americans like to think of themselves, the United States is not a free society. Just the opposite. The American ruling class taken the art of repression to such dizzying heights that the idea of class conflict and political rebellion have become almost unimaginable. Unlike the British with their rowdy soccer clubs or the French with their labor unions and tendency to riot over government decisions not to their liking, there’s no social arena that allows Americans to take out their anti-establishment rage. There’s never been an American Lenin or Marx framing economic repression in starkly political terms. Even the most liberal Americans tend to blame themselves for their position in the socioeconomic hierarchy.
Not surprisingly, this very American combination of authoritarianism and individualism takes a particularly hard toll on the non-alpha male (and it’s almost always men), the kind of person most of us would call a “geek”. And forget all of the updated Horatio Alger myths, Ames argues. Being a loser who doesn’t get laid when you’re 15 by no means guarantees you’re going on to front an alternative rock band by the time you’re 20 or found Microsoft by the age of 30. More likely you’ll slip through the cracks and wind up as a loser who doesn’t get laid in college. You’ll go on to graduate to become a loser who doesn’t get laid at your shitty temp data processing job, and wind up as a 35 year old loser who gets downsized and pushed out into the great mass of unemployable middle aged losers living in their parents basement tapping out angry rants about Islamofascism on FreeRepublic in between episodes of 24.
So why not bring a sawed off shotgun into the office and preface your suicide by blowing away half your coworkers?
Indeed, Ames isn’t curious about why disturbed young men like Seung-Hui Cho commit mass murder. He’s curious about why there aren’t more of them, about what makes so many office drones, students at repressive suburban high schools and dreary public colleges like Virginia Tech, and low-level government bureaucrats so passively accept their horrible lives without going completely bonkers. The media asks the wrong questions, he argues. It’s not about the disturbed young man, his childhood or whatever chemical imbalances he has in his brain. It’s not about evil. It’s about the drab cubicles, the fluorescent lights, the bullying in gym class, the abusive supervisors, the threat of layoffs, the stress jamming and downsizing, the hundreds of little humiliations low level white collar office workers, college and high school students have to experience in their everyday lives. It’s not about the individual. It’s about the environment.
But Ames isn’t calling for compassion or understanding for the Dylan Klebolds, Eric Harrises and Seung-Hui Chos of the world. He’s not a liberal trying to push us into figuring out a way to better assimilate these poor souls into the rest of society. On the contrary, he’s arguing that in a culture as perfectly authoritarian and as perfectly repressed as the United States, it’s not the Eugene Debs, Emma Goldmans or Martin Luther Kings who genuinely strike fear into the heart of the ruling class, the bullies, the corporate media, and the politicians. It’s the violent and insane, the premature revolutionaries who lash out without a voice and without a well articulated philosophy of rebellion, the John Browns, Nat Turners, the thousands of African Americans who burned down inner city America in the wake of the King assassination. These are the people who make leaders like King, Malcolm X and Frederick Douglas possible at all, who provide the real social energy necessary for radical change.
As I said, this is bound to outrage a lot of people and, of course, it’s purposefully designed to outrage. But Ames isn’t a teenage flag burner or an aging Gen X punk longing for the glory days of the Dead Kennedys and Suicidal Tendencies. And he’s not just glorifying violence. He’s making a very specific argument about a very specific type of criminal and locating him within a specific point and time in history. As Ames describes it himself, “this book is an attempt to dig up Reagan’s remains, hang them upside down from the nearest palm tree, and subject him, at last, to a proper trial”.
If rampage killings, suicidal spree shooters and mass murders in the public square seem new, it’s because they are, the direct result of the squeeze Ronald Reagan and the victory of the New Right in 1980 put on the American working class, the breaking of the Patco air-controllers union, the freeze on hikes in the minimum wage, the increasingly authoritarian quality of the work place, and the unprecedented transfer of wealth from the working and middle classes to the wealthy. While terrorism and mass murder, even school massacres are nothing very new in American history (think only of the mass murder in Bath Maine or the bombing of the Morgan Building on Wall Street or the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa Oklahoma), the lone gunman showing up one day at work with a duffle bag full of sawed off shotguns and a murderous vendetta has a clearly identifiable beginning, 1986, when Patrick Sheryl shot up the Post Office in Edmond Oklahoma and killed 14 people. Before that very few people had ever heard of rampage shootings at the workplace. After that, it spread to post offices all over the United States, then to private industry, then to high school and finally now, it seems, to the university.
And it has clear economic causes. The Postal Service was the first government agency to be restructured by the new right. Nixon answered the disruptive postal strike of 1971 with “reforms” designed to jack up the stress levels, decrease the protection workers had under their unions, and to squeeze out as much work as possible for as little money. Not surprisingly, postal workers, who had been accustomed to the relatively easy going, low stress environment of the traditional civil service felt particularly squeezed and not surprisingly, some of their less stable individuals blew a gasket. Private industry was subjected to a similarly ruthless kind of reorganization. Labor regulations were loosened, owners brought in abusive management techniques, used temp agencies to undermine permanent employees, slashed health benefits, vacation days and Christmas bonuses, and ditched private offices for cubicle farms. High school students, while not subject to the kind of economic squeeze as government and low level office workers, were nevertheless subject to the winner take all, screw the weak and up with the rich and popular ethic that Ronald Reagan’s presidency had made respectable. Long gone was the easygoing hippie culture of the 60s and 70s. By the late 1990s, high schools were authoritarian hellholes where the weak and vulnerable were terrorized by cliques of bullies and jocks who made their lives a living hell. In the absence of strong labor unions, a resurgent anti-war movement or a libertarian culture, suicidal spree shooting became the only game in town. Conform or die, literally.
And what would Ames make of the latest rampage massacre at Virginia Tech?
“Going Postal” was written in 2005 before the Virginia Tech massacre but Ames has already written an article for Alternet, attempting to fit it into the pattern he discusses in the book. In fact, he reproduces long sections from the book in his post.
But the one sized fits all argument isn’t entirely convincing. Where he makes a very good case that the stress levels in post Reagan era cubicle farms and the authoritarian bullying present in Clinton era high schools can, in fact, become so unbearable that it would send an unstable person over the edge, it’s hard to see how this applies to a university, even a dreary, overgrown bureaucratic diploma mill like Virginia Tech. Colleges, especially public colleges, especially liberal arts departments at most public colleges are shelters from the grinding anxiety of the workplace, that brief space in between getting tormented by the football team and getting tormented by your supervisor where you get to drink, sleep around, go to political demonstrations, and where people may actually listen to what you have to say. The idea of class war simply doesn’t fit. Cho didn’t shoot up the American Enterprise Institute or Fox News, but, rather, a classroom full of strangers who were guilty, at worst, of ignoring him or of being too wrapped up in their own post adolescent angst to notice him. And an English major at a state school like Virginia Tech would be under nowhere near the level of stress that a science or engineering major at a more rigorous school would be. So while the media should, of course, take a good hard look at Virginia Tech and see what they find, it seems unlikely that it will turn out to be another Columbine high school or Edmond Oklahoma Post Office.
And while Ames’ uncompromisingly dark take on American history and swaggering I don’t give a fuck sneer is often exhilarating, it’s not entirely accurate. Indeed, while Ames does in fact get underneath the skin of the primitive rebels, the insane, the ordinary people pushed so far over the edge by class war and authoritarianism they just snap, he simply ignores the many times in American history where people have rebelled in a coherent, organized, and entirely non-violent manner, the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, the sit down strikes and the gigantic protests against the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003. What’s more, Ames also ignores how, even during the Reagan years, there was a flourishing anti-war and Central American solidarity movement. While he quite accurately points out that sometimes a mind not attuned to the rhythms of conventional, structured thought is more likely to rebel, he pays far too much attention to the violent oddballs like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and entirely too little attention to the non-violent oddballs like the redwood tree sitters, the yippies, the Merry pranksters or the beats.
But in spite of these caveats, Going Postal is well worth reading, not in spite of but especially because of the massacre at Virginia Tech. It’s an original and provocative take on a social problem that quite unfortunately will repeat itself and far more insightful than any one of 100 talking heads in the corporate media.