But wait … there’s more!

August 8, 2009

Bob Herbert has a way of writing columns that pretty much sum up all the commentary I could possibly want to make about a given current event. His piece on murderer George Sodini was no exception:

I was reminded of the Virginia Tech gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people in a rampage at the university in 2007. While Cho shot males as well as females, he was reported to have previously stalked female classmates and to have leaned under tables to take inappropriate photos of women. A former roommate said Cho once claimed to have seen “promiscuity” when he looked into the eyes of a woman on campus.

Soon after the Virginia Tech slayings, I interviewed Dr. James Gilligan, who spent many years studying violence as a prison psychiatrist in Massachusetts and as a professor at Harvard and N.Y.U. “What I’ve concluded from decades of working with murderers and rapists and every kind of violent criminal,” he said, “is that an underlying factor that is virtually always present to one degree or another is a feeling that one has to prove one’s manhood, and that the way to do that, to gain the respect that has been lost, is to commit a violent act.”

Comparison to the Tech murders? Check. Acknowledgment that America is steeped in a culture of violence? Check. Condemnation of Sodini’s infantile but all-too-common strain of misogyny? Check. Focusing on power as a key concept in contextualizing this horrific crime? … Nope.

Herbert follows the lead of feminist bloggers in framing Sodini’s murders exclusively as a matter of destructive misogyny. (Is there any other kind?) His conclusion reads:

We would become much more sane, much healthier, as a society if we could bring ourselves to acknowledge that misogyny is a serious and pervasive problem, and that the twisted way so many men feel about women, combined with the absurdly easy availability of guns, is a toxic mix of the most tragic proportions.

For comparison, here’s Jill at Feministe:

Sodini was clearly an unbalanced and aggressive man who fixated on women and blamed them for his problems. The same cultural misogyny that enabled Sodini to blame women for his own social ineptitude and aggression also underwrites “The Game,” and informs people like Roissey’s interactions with women. It glorifies male dominance and relies on male entitlement.

On one level, it is painfully obvious that Sodini’s acts were a manifestation of a violent hatred of women. But something doesn’t quite add up here: was misogyny all that caused Sodini’s rampage? As Jill Tubman notes, such accounts tend to ignore that Sodini’s racism seemed as powerful as his misogyny, and that his targets were just as likely to have been black men:

Clearly [Sodini] was deeply troubled. But I’m not sure that insane really covers it this time. He knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to kill himself and take his ex-girlfriend and a bunch of young white “bruthr”-banging “hoez” with him (in his sick mind). … This is the part of the dark secret lurking in surburbia/disturbia and should be the stuff of all our nightmares: the intense racial anxiety, confusion, fear and rage some whites are feeling & how they plan to express it.

The point is not to discount the role Sodini’s misogyny played in spurring his acts, or to sweep under the rug the acuteness of violence against women. Rather, it is to see Sodini and his ilk in full: men who are disgruntled not only against women, but also against minorities, immigrants, people of different religions, and on and on. And what seems to stand at the origin of this hateful cascade is power, or more precisely the lack thereof.

How could have something as nebulous as “lack of power” precipitated mass murder? Certainly, Sodini fulfilled all the requirements for privilege: white, male, heterosexual, middle-class, etc. However, judging by his blog, Sodini didn’t feel very privileged. In fact, right up until pulling the guns out of his gym bag, he more or less had been letting the world roll right over him:

No matter how many changes I try to make, things stay the same. …

I predict I won’t survive the next layoff. That is when there is no point to continue. RIght now, life is bearable and I can get by indefinitely. Something bad must happen. The paycheck is all I have left. The future holds nothing for me. …

It is difficult to live almost continuously feeling an undercurrent of fear, worry, discontentment and helplessness. I can talk and joke around and sound happy but under it all is something different that seems unchangable and a permanent part of my being. I need to realize the details of what I never accomplished in life and to be convinced the future is merely a continuation of the past – WHICH IT ALWAYS has been. (emphasis added)

From this text, it appears that what was eating George Sodini, above all, was his perceived lack of power. He couldn’t get what he wanted – one of “30 million desirable women” – and, moreover, saw no way towards getting what he wanted. How his mind ran with that thought to the conclusion of murdering innocent people is chilling and tragic, but it doesn’t tell us about the roots of this social dysfunction.

I think – and this is where this post moves into the territory of unsubstantiated opinion – that the democratization of power in society has had the unfortunate side-effect of creating a class of people who feel entitled to power, but for whatever reason are unable to claim it. A graduation speech by Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind:

Free Enterprise is much too hard on the old and the sick and the shy and the poor and the stupid, and on people nobody likes. They just can’t cut the mustard under Free Enterprise.

This isn’t quite genuine “Free Enterprise” we’re dealing with here, but the idea is similar. Some men, mostly white, but sometimes not, can’t get what they feel they deserve. They might be anti-social, emotionally stunted, undateable or unemployable, but in their minds all they see is society’s unfair rejection of their claim to power, and power’s fruit – success. They might seek escape in weird subcultures, but, shamefully often, they reach for violence as a desperate means to attain fleeting power.

The difference between this perspective on Sodini’s crime and its interpretation as “strictly” misogynistic is subtle, but I think it matters. By the latter account, if somehow someone could have re-educated Sodini out of his misogyny, he might have never gone in for mass murder. But as I see it, if it’s not one thing, it’s going to be another for his type: Sodini would have channeled his perceived powerlessness into hating, and possibly killing, someone else. Steve Albini, who started his career impersonating psychopaths with shocking accuracy, captures this sentiment best:

I started out hating myself and when I’m through
I’ve gotta have something to hate, and I guess it’s you
Man’s gotta have something to hate, guess I’ll do
And when I’m through with myself, I’ll start on you.

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