Sense and Sensibility

Thomas J. FlemingThe shootings at Virginia Tech have aroused, once again, a national discussion, not only of campus security and gun control, but of the more fundamental questions of who we think we are as American and who we would like to be. The debate, as much as the killings, gives testimony (though not “eloquent testimony”) to our degeneracy. We should find the grandiloquent statements of public officials particularly disturbing.

The president of the university, fumbling for the right cliché, described this as a tragedy of monumental proportions. Setting aside the misleading metaphorical use of “monumental,” it would be interesting to learn what he thought he was saying other than “This is really bad.” These incidents are inevitably called tragedies, but that is precisely what they are not. In a tragedy like Oedipus or Macbeth, a basically great man, trusting in his own abilities, deludes himself into making self-destructive decisions. Flaws in his character lead him first to arrogance and then down the path of folly and ruin. Tragedies make sense of the human world, while these pointless murders seem to reveal a world that makes no sense. In calling them tragedies, we are essentially saying that human existence is pointless.

This is not just a “semantic point.” It is all too true that most Americans are like most people everywhere in all periods of history: They speak without thinking. But unreflective peasants relied on proverbs and clichés that were deeply rooted in historical experience. Our clichés and mental tics are almost always bits of propaganda invented by liberals ignorant of human nature and human history. In our mythology, children are smarter than adults, racial minorities smarter than whites, women stronger and braver than men. We believe that we really do care about people killing each other in Nigeria, even though we do nothing about the murders taking place on the other side of town, and we insist on calling every pointless misfortune a tragedy. We can only talk this way because we have tossed away our moral compasses.

The President of the United States arrived in Blacksburg with his wife, saying their hearts were “full of sorrow.” I know we have come to expect this sort of talk from politicians, but it cannot be true. The President knew none of these people and had no particular connection to the university. If he had such sorrow in his heart every time a baby was aborted or a drunk driver wiped out a family, he could not get through the day. If shaking your head and saying, those poor kids, constitutes a heart full of sorrow, then I suppose my heart is just as filled as the President’s, but I have managed to eat a good dinner every day, do my job, joke with friends, and rejoice in the birth of a grandchild. When Simon Cowell rolled his eyes in impatience over an American Idol contestant who tried to manipulate the audience by expressing his heartfelt condolences, he was given the Don Imus treatment. I am not a fan of Mr. Cowell or the nauseating music he promotes, but his manifest disgust revealed a residual sense of shame I should have thought he had jettisoned long ago.

Do we make these phony condolences because we are hypocrites or because we do not know what sorrow is? When my mother died, my father went into shock and did not wish to live. Other family members were in a daze. We ate little and could only talk of one subject. That is sorrow. The more we feign sorrow for strangers, the less capable we are of sorrow and compassion for the people we know and for whom we are responsible. The late 18th century was also filled with gross sentimentalism (read Henry MacKenzie’s gushy The Man of Feeling or Voltaire’s stupid and vindictive comments on the Lisbon earthquake). The best antidote is still Jane Austen, especially Sense and Sensibility. Confronted with this phenomenon in its earliest stages, Austen (like Dr. Johnson) recognized it as pernicious cant.

George Bush is President of a country where more than 40 people are murdered on an average day. If the statistics I have seen are accurate, illegal aliens alone account for about a dozen, and they kill a dozen more in drunk driving accidents. Yet, faced with this problem, all the President can talk about is amnesty and guest worker programs. In Iraq, as a direct result of decisions made by George Bush, many more people are murdered every day—perhaps 60-70,000 civilians since we launched our invasion. If he has a heart, it should be brimful of sorrow for his victims, American and Iraqi, in a war that he must have known he could not win. If he entertained dreams of victory, he should not have been elected, and if he still entertains them, he should be removed from office.

It was within hours of the shooting that the professional counselors began arriving, as predictably as ambulance-chasing lawyers at an accident scene. As a people we are grown so dependent on “professionals” we cannot even mourn the death of a friend with grief counselors or, as I heard on NPR, “grievance counselors.” (Someone should start a blog to record the constant gaffes in usage, syntax, and pronunciation on NPR. I would do it here, but the errors of Renee Montaigne alone would probably exhaust our band width.)

Man cannot live without the ceremonials of religion, and since Virginia is still, nominally at least, part of the Christian South, some people turned to their pastors and their churches. More commonly, it seems from the accounts of journalists, VT students and Blacksburg residents showed solidarity by taking part in mass rallies where they wore the school colors and chanted the school’s football cheers. There is nothing wrong per se with any of this, but it strikes me as odd to see mass murders commemorated by pep rallies. What a strange people we have become. I am happy to learn I am not the only crank. Scott Richert sent me a link to Relapsed Catholic Blog on which one “Kathy” declares:

“Please don’t indulge in godless modern paganism and set up homely, self-indulgent makeshift memorials with cheap flowers and teddy bears. Don’t hold hands and sing bad pop songs.

Go to church. That’s what it’s for. For centuries, people smarter than you and with more finely honed aesthetics worked on rituals that actually do what they’re supposed to do.

Those people who hung around outside the Palace after Princess Diana’s death looked like fools and you will too if you cave to the lure of cheap grace and post-modern superficiality. Those British mourners displayed as much cringe-inducing, pan-    generational learned helplessness as Katrina survivors, but their laziness and ignorance was spiritual.

Worse, you will still feel as empty as you did before, maybe more so, and wonder why.

Don’t make America look stupid and shallow to the whole world by Disneyfying your grief.”

Every mass killing is a boost for the gun control movement. In this case, I have to wonder why Virginia allows aliens to purchase firearms. Contrary to the libertarian propaganda being spewed out, gun ownership is not a universal human right; it is a civil right guaranteed by our Constitution. We should pass a federal law stipulating that no alien, unless his security requires it, can legally acquire a gun. Punishment should be expulsion from the US.

There is little doubt that armed young men used to be able to defend themselves. I am not at all sure of what contemporary college students would do with a gun. When I was a college student, a large number of the young men in my dormitory had a gun or guns in the room. I do not know exactly how many. Guns, like alcohol and women, were forbidden, but I do not recall anyone being suspended for infraction of any of these rules. If Cho Seung-Hui had invaded my dorm, he would not have lasted more than a few minutes.

If college professors were not such feebes and foulballs, I would propose arming them. On the other hand, why do we trust such people to form the minds of our children if we cannot trust them to carry guns? Some of us are old enough to remember when a famous classics professor was fired from the University of Illinois for taking a gun to class. Revilo P. Oliver was a founder of the John Birch Society and the only distinguished man the Birchers have ever had in their leadership. After receiving many death threats, he decided to carry a gun. As I recall, the AAUP took up his case and got him reinstated. Those were the days.

In principle I believe, as I have always believed, that an armed citizenry is the only solid basis for political liberty. However, the more I see of my fellow citizens in action, the more I am beginning to see the point of gun control. Few of them seem to have any part of the old American character, and still fewer have any understanding of republican government. Most of us, left and right alike, are consumers and subjects, but not citizens. Would free-minded conservative citizens have allowed their minds to be controlled by the neoconservatives at the Wall Street Journal, much less have voted twice for George W. Bush? Half of them still think Saddam used his weapons of mass destruction to attack the US on September 11.

Americans today are not free nor do they wish to be free. Judging by the average American’s boorish behavior in public, in shopping malls and behind the wheel of their cars, they should not be allowed to own pellet guns, much less a semi-automatic pistol. If we had an effective authoritarian government with a responsible constabulary that kept the hooligans in order, I might be willing to surrender my weapons. Since that day seems a long way off, it is better to be armed.

In the past few days, I have been asked what people can do to protect themselves against random violence. The simple answer is “I do not know.” In high schools and universities, much of the fault lies with boards and administrators, who have almost entirely abrogated their responsibility to act in loco parentis. Coed dorms, open campuses, toleration of drugs, promotion of athletics, and a refusal to maintain a vigilant scrutiny over the students has turned once safe havens into cesspools of violence and vice. Cho had been caught stalking two different coeds and taken in for counseling. The parents of the victims have a right to know why he was still in school.

Naturally, educators always claim that schools only reflect society, but throughout the past 100 years, educationists have claimed they are transforming society by changing the minds of students. None of the changes in school life is an accident; all of them could be reversed. But the administrators would rather promote their leftist agenda than protect the young people who have been entrusted to their care. And, when a conscientious teacher actually does warn the counselors and police about Cho’s violent propensities, she is rebuffed on some theory that students have rights.

So my first piece of advice is never to trust the institutions. Most of them are so big as to be unmanageable. Schools like VT, with student populations that number in the tens of thousands, are anonymous jungles. In a school of 500, Cho would either have learned to fit in or have attracted such hostile attention as to force him out. My second point is to be very careful about whom you associate with. In the old days, young women did not keep company with people her family did not know. It sounds old-fashioned, but one way or the other we have to reproduce some of the old gossipy community spirit that snooped on neighbors and kept tabs on oddballs.

The truth is that very few people in the American middling and upper classes are likely to be the victims of random violence. More important than protection from drive-by shooting or classroom killers is protection from the lethal sentimentality that has infected public discourse. Shun the counselors and avoid the neopagan ceremonials that are occasions for wallowing in unhappiness. And, whether you believe or not, seek solace in the Church, which has been treating the effects of sin and misery for 2000 years.

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