A Dylan Roof Over Our Heads


Editorial and social media responses to South Carolina shooting are pretending a disconnected distance from the event. Commenters are looking out from an academic office, a news desk, or the armchair equivalents. Even activists, while closer to “life on the streets”, are still on an institutional perch.

The background to the issuance from these perches is the same recurring statement: “I am not Dylan Roof. I could never be Dylan Roof. No one in my group is Dylan Roof.”

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Stephen King’s The Shining for the first time, but I don’t believe we can assume this psychological immunity to the urge to kill, that darkest of humanity’s impulses, no more than we can assume a distance from the dehumanizing exploitation/marginalization of our fellow living beings.

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“Cui Bono?” (Who benefits?) asked Cicero, a wordsmith from an ancient land comparable in terms of infrastructure, social services, etc. to any of the “advanced countries” President Obama had in mind during his public response to the Charleston shooting.

And like Rome, the USA has a troubling relationship with “exploitative labor”.

The gains and costs are unequally distributed, but all contemporary Americans have benefited from the subjugation of American Indians and Black slavery as practiced from before the American Revolution to the end of the 19th century. Southern mercantilism enriched the New England trading and shipping companies and the Northern industries that built America’s way across the continent swept clear of the Kiowa, Comanche, Sioux and Cheyenne. (See: Complicity)

If you’re in the USA and benefiting from the American lifestyle, you are also benefiting from that past.

Nowadays the U.S. states that we consider the most politically liberal — like Rhode Island, New York, Minnesota or Massachusetts — are driven by industries that some would consider at the heart of everything that’s environmentally and socially disruptive about today’s global economy: agribusiness, finance, arms manufacturing, etc.

This means it’s taxed revenue from those Big Bad Businesses from the Blue States that bankrolls the nation’s largest public benefit programs, depending on how you interpret the numbers. (Red states might still receive the most federal assistance from programs like Food Stamps).

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Despite this complexity most us pretend we don’t belong to any club that would have Dylan Roof as a member (apologies to Groucho Marx).

We instead confine Dylan Roof to a conceptual Guantanamo over which waves a Confederate flag, with right-wing news playing out of every prison loudspeaker, vending machines dispensing firearms to the unmedicated mentally ill, and anti-homosexual science-denying fundamentalist Christian preachers dispensing Communion every Sunday.

At least one article is looking at the “anti-intellectual” roots of the Charleston homicides and the surrounding media coverage, though the author David Niose puts too much emphasis on Rationality and Reason.

“Intellect” is a living process of connections and patterns in the brain. We are always exposed to new data and sensory input. “Anti-intellectualism” is a process of actively disrupting those connections, among both existing data/senses and the new ones.

These phenomena (intellectualism updating connections and the antithesis) are part of the complex human brain, and as such I don’t think can be attributed to antagonists: not to the Gun Lobby nor climate change-denying Big Oil and Gas.

It’s true that corporations and political parties seek to manipulate public understanding (or awareness) of issues. But the ultimate success of corporations and political parties — at least in democracy and capitalism — depends on a successful collective intellect.

Put that another (perhaps optimistic) way: everyone needs more people to connect in better ways, i.e. in more creation and exchange of ideas, goods and services.

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Here’s another kicker: you can be rational and still be anti-intellectual. Consider the executioners-by-pen of French Revolution and Nazi Germany. These were rational beings and not idiots, for whom “anti-intellectualism” meant the ruthless persecution of all challengers to the State’s absolute authority (over your own body and property).

It isn’t only the Right that has such embarrassing “Authoritarians in the Attic”, because this isn’t a Left/Right issue. Labor unions have an uneasy relationship with race- and immigrant-relations, while the Left’s history with the USSR and North Vietnam is similar to their sympathy for the PLO and Hamas. (By the way, Google those last two for a reminder what real “terrorism” looks like).

On a personal level we all benefit from the exploitation of someone else, even if we’re also being exploited. Most of us find a way to rationalize our place in this Rat King. There’s apathy (who cares?) and determinism (I can’t do anything about it), not to mention the Invisible Hand, Survival of the Fittest and God’s Will. My favorite rationalization is Ursine Velocity: you don’t have to outrun the bear, just the slowest person.

Those of us who try to fight it are up against an immense challenge. Where to start? If we’re supposed to fight someone, who? If we’re supposed to change something, what?

Gun access? Health care? Entitled Whites? The Police? Rebellious Non-Whites? Too much or too little religion? Big government? The 1% Rich?

A person can get lost going down those roads. Dylan Roof did.

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