Belated final comment on Virginia Tech

The news cycle is over; the tumult and the shouting dies; the vultures and the Faux depart. Orac has, naturally, found the ultimate worst comments on the shootings; you don't want to follow the link he provides; remember, he's a cancer surgeon and has a stronger stomach than mere mortals.

But within the range of what passes for normal commentary, there's stuff too stupid and malicious to deserve comment, but still needing it.

A friend saw a piece by one James Lewis in which the corruption of Cho by evil professors was documented, and asked people on his mailing list for comments on it. Being lazy and intolerant, I replied by merely listing a places where reasonable comment might be found. But Mauri Laitinen, an old friend and business associate, put the time into taking it apart in detail.

I think it's a particularly good job, and deserves to be on record in a place more public than a few people's e-mail archives. So, with his permission, here is the entire post.

At first, I thought it was just an example of using some sensational
event as a pretext for attacking some group or institution through
guilt by association. A tired, old technique. But as I looked at
it more, it appears to be also a deliberate and unjustified smear.

James Lewis, in the inappropriately named "American Thinker" blog,
answers his own question in the first paragraph. College does not
drive you crazy, at least in the literal sense. Of the thousands of
English majors who move through American universities, most do not
commit mass murder. They are not the people one sees living on the
streets; they aren't the people who go back after getting poor job
reviews to kill their bosses; and for the most part, they don't look
forward to careers wearing paper hats and asking customers if they
want fries. Many English majors, I've heard, go on to become
productive members of society.

Cho Seung-hui was violently psychotic. Apparently he had displayed
problems for some time. While Cho might have shared all the
confusion about identity, gender roles, morality, and the fairness
of social institutions that most students feel when they are first
exposed to university, it wasn't the cause of his psychosis; it
probably wasn't even the trigger.

It is disingenuous of Lewis to portray Cho as an intellectually
defenseless "resident alien." He'd been in the country since he was
eight and had probably gone through a pretty-good suburban Virginia
school system. It is likely that Cho had gotten into VT based on
merit rather than legacy or affirmative action. He had to be pretty
Americanized by the time he hit college. So much for "massive
culture shock." (OK, so I don't know for sure that Cho's parents
didn't keep him locked in his room until, inexplicably, they decided
to ship him off to university. I just doubt it.)

But surely Lewis doesn't believe any more than we do that Cho's
college classes caused him to become homicidal. It's merely an
excuse to launch off on a catalog of academic outrages. And it's
here that I have my biggest objection to the article. His examples
don't stand up to scrutiny.

Take Nikki Giovanni, a nationally known and much honored poet. What
Lewis calls her "self glorifying book" is actually a set of
collected autobiographical essays. Considering that the 64 year-old
writer participated in the civil rights movement in the South, she
might have something interesting to say. If you hopped down to
Barnes & Noble you could most likely find at least one of her poetry
books in which she deals with such radical subjects as summer,
growing older, and love of family. Yes, she also deals with racism
and the black experience, and the stuff she wrote in the sixties was
pretty aggressive, but her message for many years now has been one
of hope and optimism.

Lewis leads you to believe that Shoshana Knapp approves of
self-justifying criminals, but that is like saying a course on
mystery novels is equivalent to an endorsement of crime. And most
of her work seems to be analyses of 19th century literature.

Bernice Hausman is a feminist. Writing and researching about sex
change operations and gender identity is an issue in the news and
popular culture, so it strikes me as a legitimate area of
study. There's no evidence whatsoever that Hausman was encouraging
students to doubt their own sexual orientation or dress up like Milton Berle.

Yes, indeed, Paul Heilker wrote "Textual Androgyny, the Rhetoric of
the Essay, and the Politics of Identity in Composition (or The
Struggle to Be a Girly-Man in a World of Gladiator Pumpitude)" in
1992. I don't have access to the journal in which it was published,
but I note from his CV that virtually everything he's written before
or since had to do with teaching composition. If I can remember
that far back I think it was actually a current reference to the
"Saturday Night Live" Hans and Franz skits. I think it's probably
an essay with a humorous title about teaching composition. In other
words, Lewis has served up another helping of red herring.

I especially like the reference to Lisa Norris' Toy Guns, and Lewis'
assertion that he doesn't know any Americans who are in love with
war. Well maybe he's right; I'll check with Dick Cheney right after
I get back from the matinee of "Grindhouse." Seriously, a professor
who writes fiction about guns and violence is somehow
suspect? Looked at the paperbacks they sell in any US supermarket
lately, rented any videos, watched any TV?

And Sheila Carter-Tod? If you look at her unremarkable website, you
find that she teaches composition, especially graduate dissertation
composition. As a side issue, which she clearly labeled
non-academic publications, she examined cases of backlash against
Muslims after 9/11 for the US Civil Rights Commission. This is radical?

Probably the most deceptive of Lewis' descriptions is that of Susan
C. Allender-Hagedorn. This fiery revolutionary perverts her
students' minds by teaching technical writing. She also has a
couple of external links on her web page to comics and to feminist
science fiction.

Then there was a Marxist, ho hum, and Professor Collier, who writes
about metacognition as applied to scientific thought. We must
differentiate between inducements to rage and inducements to
sleeping through class.

So what I'm saying is that James Lewis dug through the VT English
faculty websites, found--or in some cases manufactured--sensational
non-representative tidbits, speculated wildly that Cho had been
force-fed the most extreme social ideas, and used these
misrepresentations to smear VT and liberal arts education in
general. I had assumed that Lewis' examples might at least be real,
the sort of silly, offensive, or incomprehensible stuff you find in
obscure, refereed literary journals. There is no shortage of
them. But Lewis doesn't bother finding such examples; he just
misrepresents the facts.

It's worth noting that undergraduate students don't pore over their
professors' web sites or read their professors' esoteric papers on
disturbing social topics. (It's hard enough to get them to log on
long enough to find the next assignment's due date.) In fact, most
academic papers in most academic fields, both in the sciences and
the arts, go largely unread because they are too specialized or too
boring. The typical undergraduate English Lit curriculum is still
largely Beowulf, Shakespeare, 19th century novels, poetry, and one
or two courses on 20th century lit. At most, an undergraduate might
have to take one or two criticism classes where he or she might be
exposed to more extreme ideas, but somehow, such exposure just fails
to radicalize.

Finally, I think his interpretation--and elisions--of Nikki
Giovanni's poem, "We do not understand this tragedy" suggest
deliberate misrepresentation. I don't think it's a great poem (of
course it was written less than a day after the shootings) but it's
not a rant against capitalism or a paean to "adolescent rage" or an
attempt to deny responsibility. Lewis hopes that you won't bother
to read the poem yourself or read the condolences also on the web
page. If you do, you get a very different sense of what she and the
English Department are saying.

Lewis badly misrepresents the faculty and the English curriculum at
the school. It's just not this hotbed of Marxist, feminist,
anti-American rage that James Lewis has invented in order to
criticize. I've already spent more time than the article
deserves. It just bothers me that such cheap caricatures and
specious causality pass these days for thoughtful analysis.

[The piece was sent as two messages; the second part follows here.]

I've been more sensitive recently to what I consider deliberately
deceitful arguments by bloggers & newspaper columnists. Victor
Davis Hanson, who appears regularly in the SF Chronicle, is a master
of the false premise. Many bloggers seem happy to insinuate or
attack using made-up data. Or they just attack for fun. Before
blogging there were newsgroups. I stopped reading them because most
of the posts were so petty. Blogs, if anything, are
worse. Bloggers seem to feel no obligation to write truly
thoughtful articles, and readers rarely respond with thoughtful
critiques. Maybe it's a consequence of getting older, but I find it
dispiriting that thoughtful dialog seems so little valued. What's
wrong with all those stupid, ugly, perverted bastards anyway?

There's lots of Political Correctness in universities. There are
refereed papers, public utterances, conferences and whatnot that are
indistinguishable from parody. A while back you sent out a link to
that joke paper by the physicist Alan Sokal, which was accepted by
"Social Texts." What's even more amazing is that after he revealed
his own hoax, there were literary critics defending his article as
valid social commentary! As you may remember, I went back &
finished my degree a few years back. One of the essays I had to
read and comment on in a lit crit class discussed the threat of
Barbie dolls to a girl's self-image. As the father of 4 daughters,
I never noticed that they compared themselves to the dolls. To
kids, dolls are something to dress, move around, and play with. My
girls never even thought about whether they lived up to Barbie's
impossible physical standards. It's why I don't worry about Molly,
who used to pull the heads off her dolls, or Eileen who claims she
will get us back for giving her Malibu Barbie instead of Ballerina
Barbie. You can hear college students complain about all sorts of
PC things. For example, I remember a radio interviewee describing
herself as a "potential survivor" of harassment. If you think about
it, that means she hasn't been harassed, but she believes she will
survive a non-life-threatening situation. This would be really
disturbing if it weren't for the fact that most of us were just as
silly at that age, and we more or less grew out of it.

I'm not trying to be contrary, really, but I'm not entirely sure
there's an easy solution to murderous rampages. While I agree that
hunters and sportsmen do not need semi-automatic assault rifles,
that's not what Cho used apparently. From the reports I heard, he
had two handguns and a whole shitload of bullet clips. By
"automatic" they mean the same type of gun that the police carry as
standard-issue sidearms. The typical hunting and recreational
target rifles are semi-automatic, meaning that you can pull the
trigger repeatedly, firing a single shot with each pull. Banning
them would mean banning every handgun that wasn't a six-shooter and
every rifle that wasn't a single-shot; that's almost all the guns
made. As a practical political matter, it's a non-starter.

I agree that the gun death statistics are frightening, and something
must be done. But I think that the overwhelming majority of gun
deaths in the US are "accidents." Everybody made jokes about Dick
Cheney shooting his companion in the face, but few people pointed
out that he was an inexperienced hunter and drunk at the
time. Anybody who hunts (and I don't; I find no pleasure in it)
knows that the woods are filled with drunk hunters; it's an accepted
form of behavior. Imagine if the NRA had enough moral courage to
come out and condemn Cheney's reckless behavior and started a "If
you drink, don't shoot" campaign. And just like drunk driving, if
we started prosecuting hunters who were found drunk, we could cut
hunting accidents. We've largely eliminated the "boys will be boys"
excuse for drunk driving; we could do it for hunting. Another large
portion of gun deaths comes from domestic accidents. Again, if the
NRA spent less time justifying the civilian use of body-armor
piercing bullets, and more time running training courses (like the
used to in the fifties & sixties) and hammering home the idea of gun
safety, it would significantly cut the gun death rate. I know most
people don't agree with me, but I still think that we don't focus
enough public disapproval on people who are careless with guns. We
focus instead on the gun or on the tragedy. Not enough time to talk
about gun crime, so I won't. OK, so I'm a raging
conservative-liberal who believes that while most people have the
right to own guns, they mostly shouldn't because they are
stupid. This way I can offend both sides.

But back to Cho. The news media seems to want a simple cause &
solution. I heard one senator say it was a bureaucratic problem
because colleges cannot expel troublesome people. Had Cho been
expelled, it would have given him more freedom to plan his
rampage. As you know, most universities do not control access to
their campuses, which are so large that they cannot be physically
protected. So whether he had been expelled or not, he could have
walked on any time. Others rightly complained about the fact that he
had been referred for psychological evaluation but that he was
released as an out-patient. He was so seriously disturbed that
teachers in the English dept.referred him to a psych eval. Either
the psych eval failed to accurately assess him, or maybe he got
worse. What appears to be true is that his violent tendencies had
been noted and yet he wasn't put into the state database that
prevents the mentally infirm from buying guns. Since we've done
everything we could to gut national handgun registration laws, Cho
was able to buy all the ammo he wanted over the Internet. What
could have been done was with proper registration laws not only
could he have been prevented from buying guns, but the police and
his doctors could have been warned that he was trying to buy
weapons. That might have allowed some sort of intervention and
perhaps commitment to a mental lock-up. Would banning handguns have
prevented this tragedy? Well, no. He could have hidden a machete
and Molotov cocktails in his backpack. It wouldn't have been the
same tragedy, but it still would have been bad. So while we can and
should work to identify dangerous psychotics before they explode, I
don't know whether we could dramatically improve our percentage.

No comments: