Cho overload

[Posted 7:15 AM by Roger Kimball]

I admit to being something of a novice when it comes to the mainstream--what some of my friends have taken to calling "the legacy"--media. I do not own a television. I cancelled my subscription to The New York Times one bright Spring day a few years ago.

Of course, the insulation is imperfect. Various items from the Times obtrude upon my attention through the kind offices of various email correspondents who send me fresh stupidities and outrages. And there are always a few new postings from the paper on some of the web sites I look at.

As for television, I am slightly better informed now than in years past because I have lately been going to a local gymnasium in an effort to live up to the second part of Juvenal’s injunction: mens sana in corpore sano. There are precious few spots in this maze of machinery where one is not confronted by at least half a dozen television monitors. (There is nowhere I have found that is free from the pulverizing cacophony of pop "music.") The television fare is curious. All around are men and women of various ages pushing, peddling, grunting, and sweating in order to stay or become trim and fit. Two out of five television screens (by my casual reckoning) are tuned to "food shows," wherein a cheerful cook chops, mixes, and sautés some delectable-looking veal au champignons or whatever. There’s Molly chugging away on the exercycle in a desperate effort to distinguish waist from midriff all the while colluding with this week’s Julia Child on the next caloric binge. Odd.

But I digress. For food is not the only thing on offer. There are also fifteen varieties of court drama--Judge Judy, Judge Bob, Judge Hank, Judge Jehosavet--as well as a stunning array of soap operas in which Julie is married to Jeff who is sleeping with Joan who is . . . well, you know.

And then of course there are the news shows. The last week, regardless of whether the set was tuned into Fox or CNN, there was only one topic: the Virginia Tech loony tune Cho Seung-Hui. It was all Cho all the time. Now, I’ve had my say on the subject. Predictably, Cho’s murderous rampage had the gun-control lobby palpitating with abolition fever; the Europeans, for their part, were busy turning Cho into a victim of American nastiness and nominating Charlton Heston as the real villain. My own feeling is that if, as in days of yore, more people had guns and knew how to use them, fewer people would get shot.

But that’s as may be. Whenever anything really bad happens, you can be sure that "the media" will instantly become more emetic than ever, bombarding you round-the-clock with pseudo stories that endlessly repeat the some two-and-one-half facts and skein of groundless conjecture they first broadcast 36 hours ago. The banner "New Developments" regularly flits across the bottom of the television screen, but there are almost never any new developments, only those nauseating talking heads emanating concern and sincerity while milking the story of every last drop of sentimental indulgence. Particularly grating was the endless speculation about Cho’s motives. He had no motives. As David von Drehle noted in an excellent essay in Time, what Cho had was a mirror, not a motive:

I’ve lost interest in the cracks, chips, holes and broken places in the lives of men like Cho Seung-Hui, the mass murderer of Virginia Tech. The pain, grievances and self-pity of mass killers are only symptoms of the real explanation. Those who do these things share one common trait. They are raging narcissists.
Exactly right. And the endless search--or pretended search--for a "motive" is primarily an indulgence of our narcissistic fascination with catastrophe. Von Drehle continues:
A generation ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch diagnosed narcissism as the signal disorder of contemporary American culture. The cult of celebrity, the marketing of instant gratification, skepticism toward moral codes and the politics of victimhood were signs of a society regressing toward the infant stage. You don’t have to buy Freud’s explanation or Lasch’s indictment, however, to see an immediate danger in the way we examine the lives of mass killers. Earnestly and honestly, detectives and journalists dig up apparent clues and weave them into a sort of explanation. In the days after Columbine, for example, Harris and Klebold emerged as alienated misfits in the jock culture of their suburban high school. We learned about their morbid taste in music and their violent video games. Largely missing, though, was the proper frame around the picture: the extreme narcissism that licensed these boys, in their minds, to murder their teachers and classmates.

Something similar is now going on with Cho, whose florid writings and videos were an almanac of gripes. "I’m so lonely," he moped to a teacher, failing to mention that he often refused to answer even when people said hello. Of course he was lonely.

So was Hitler. Big deal. That explains nothing. It illuminates nothing. What we have to get a handle on is not Cho’s motive but his mirror.

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