The Specter of Mass Shootings on Campus

Yesterday, around the time my second class was ending, a man with a handgun entered the building. Three hours later, long after I had returned home, a vague campus-wide email arrived in my inbox, informing me of the event.

I infer from its sketchy details that this would-be gunman is disturbed. Neither a student or even a local resident, it appears that he may have been targeting a specific individual. According to the email, the campus police were able to apprehend him within 90 seconds. I am thankful that this potentially explosive situation turned out to be a non-event, but I am also left shaken and unsure how to process it.

Having grown up in a time of mass shootings, I find their naked tragedy primarily inspires empty rhetoric. In the aftermath, pundits and concerned citizens alike, across the political spectrum, repeat their stock responses. This rhetoric no longer resonates with me, if it ever did.

Rationally, I know that I am more likely to be killed driving to campus than I am by a gun. Nevertheless, the horror of mass shootings overrides my rational thoughts. An unending gallery of nightmarish scenarios all too often come unbidden into my consciousness, perhaps not unlike the compulsive, obsessive thoughts described by OCD sufferers. I have thought of campus shooters while walking from the parking garage to my office building, while walking to my classroom, while on my way to the library, and even while teaching.

Campus shootings seem particularly heinous, from Charles Whitman’s deadly rifle fire from the University of Texas tower in 1966 to Seung-Hui Cho’s murderous spree through Norris Hall at Virginia Tech a mere ten years ago. While there have been deadlier shootings, most recently in Las Vegas, the perversity of campus massacres – or even school shootings like Columbine and Newtown – stands out because of their violation of the spirit of education.

We speak often of safe spaces in higher ed, and though the term is often maligned and misused, the basic principle articulated by the concept of safe spaces converges with my idea of what the college classroom should be. Campus shootings are an existential threat to the university; they render the space that should be dedicated to free, fair, open, and compassionate inquiry into spaces of hostility and death. The specter of campus shootings haunts all of us who work and study in these environments.

Mass shootings run up against the limits of my own ability to analyze. I am at a loss – for the proper words, for a solution, for even the moral bearings to categorize these events properly. In the past, when these unbidden visions of mayhem would come, I would try to chase them away with the rationalization that it likely won’t happen to me. I am thankful that the events of yesterday bore out my feeble rationalizations. But this non-event, as I have already said, shakes me. Yesterday, the spectral possibility of gun violence on my campus became manifest. The surreality I have subsequently felt might have something to do with the lag between the event and my awareness of it: as I left the building in which I teach to return to my office, I noticed no police presence, no sign at all that something was wrong. Forty-five minutes later, as I walked past that building again on my way to the parking garage, nothing seemed amiss. How unnerving it was then to hear of the incident three hours after it happened, casting my quotidian comings and goings in a garish new light.

Perhaps what boggles is the retrospective glimpse at what could have been so long after the after the potential for sudden violence was past. I am glad beyond words that no one was hurt or killed. At the same time, this non-event forces me to wonder how many times in a day death passes closely without our knowing. Even by that existential measure, a campus shooting seems distinctly horrific. Because of the media attention given to these shootings, we perceive them as commonplace events. Nevertheless, we are statistically unlikely to experience one. This is the paradox of campus shootings: even as they are final and irreversible in their horror and violence, they are unlikely; yet they are uncomfortably close, even in the moment we are unaware of their potential.

Simply put, to be on campus now is to live with the possibility of a mass shooting.

Fancy Ham with David Brooks

This post isn’t really about the David Brooks op-ed, which you can read for yourself if you haven’t already seen it eviscerated over Twitter. Just below the pilloried graf on obscure cold cuts is a sentence that spoke to me:

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class.

Now, David Brooks is clearly an idiot and deserves all the criticism he’s getting for acting like capicola is the meat of the elite when I can call Jimmy John’s and have a #9, loaded with capicola, delivered to my door “freaky fast.” But Brooks is a special kind of idiot: the kind who thinks he’s wise and intelligent. He’s neither, but as the old saw goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. I loathe admitting this, but occasionally David Brooks is a damn stopped clock if ever I saw one.

Much like a stopped clock, however, he’s right in spite of himself. David Brooks views the world as only a NYT columnist who is compensated six-figures can. My view of the world is a bit more idiosyncratic. As I was reading Brooks’ column, I was reminded of stories my father used to tell me.

My father is nobody special in David Brooks’ world. He’s a tradesman who never went to college, son of a truck driving preacher who never graduated high school. Despite these social markers, my father is smart as a whip. From what he’s told me, on the job site, he’s respected. In Bible studies, however, he’s largely been discredited. A few souls, realizing how smart he is, have apologized for not taking him seriously. He nurses grudges over this. I don’t blame him.

He’s never been a member of churches that are full of social-climbing members; he and his people are solidly working or middle-class. Yet even in these contexts he’s denied the respect his intelligence deserves because of his profession.

A lifetime of listening to my father tell stories has made me realize that David Brooks is right: upwardly-mobile folks pepper their discourse with terms and phrases designed to keep out the underclass.

At the same time, those stories have made me realize that David Brooks is wrong: this isn’t recent. “American middle-class culture” is not NOW “laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you have happen to grown up in this class.” They always have been, David.

Also, you’re not a great writer.

On Tobi Haslett’s review of the new biography of Diana Trilling in the 29 March edition of The New Yorker

While struggling late into the night to put the final touches on a book review, I decided to peruse the latest New Yorker in hopes that it would prove a more intellectually nutritious break from writing than my usual impulse to scroll Twitter looking for the controversy du jour. I stumbled upon Tobi Haslett’s remarkable essay on Diana Trilling, “A Woman Under the Influence.” Coincidentally, I have been reading this week Lionel Trilling’s most famous book, The Liberal Imagination, for an essay I am writing. (I’m not done with the book yet, but for what it’s worth I found his Sincerity and Authenticity a better read.) When I was getting my MA, we read a Lionel Trilling essay in my literary theory seminar, and my esteemed professor stated that Trilling had fallen somewhat out of favor. That was seven years ago, and I’ve noticed in the past few months a slow uptick in essays on the New York Intellectuals, particularly Hannah Arendt. (I will leave my embryonic suspicions as to why that is unstated.) An essay on Diana Trilling is overdue, and Haslett fills that space admirably. What most astonished me, but probably shouldn’t have, is how much Diana downplayed her own career to support Lionel’s.

To be clear, I was not astonished by the bald fact of midcentury sexual politics couched in their relationship; I was already vaguely aware that Diana was in Lionel’s shadow for reasons that were likely not due to his (or her) merit. Rather, what surprised is how greatly she contributed to his success. Haslett quotes Diana: “Lionel taught me to think; I taught him to write.” Her second clause is quite literal: Diana would edit and revise Lionel’s prose with ruthlessness, and his thank you was to acknowledge her work in the preface to his first book and then destroy the pages she had edited.

Haslett’s essay is putatively a review of Natalie Robins’ new biography, The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling, but as with most New Yorker reviews, the occasion of reviewing a book becomes an opportunity for the reviewer to offer their own consideration of the subject. (That is not a bad thing – I rather like it and am perhaps even envious.) In this instance, Haslett gives us a compact but withering portrait of Diana Trilling – withering not because of her conflicted thoughts on politics and feminism, but  because Haslett’s account of Diana’s backseat position to her illustrious husband pinches our sensibilities as it must have suffocated her. Diana Trilling was one of the first women, perhaps, to understand that the personal is political: “Politics, for her, was more than a test of principles; political questions drilled deep into her intimate life, smashing alliances and releasing caustic resentments.” (Incidentally, I’ve always rather appreciated how brutal Diana and Mary McCarthy were to Lillian Hellman.) Yet she was skeptic, even dismissive of second-wave feminism and women’s liberation: “She spent much of her adult life swatting down the claims of women’s liberation with such haughty, willful intolerance that one discerns a note of fear: fear of her own discontent, of her own unconsciousness, of the wrathful righteousness of a new movement that tilted against and exposed all that the patriarchy was happy to leave unsaid.” If we see her sometimes troubled marriage to Lionel behind all this, Haslett is quick to let us know we are right: “It’s easy, perhaps even just, to muster compassion for a woman placed so squarely in the shadow of her husband that she refuses to dwell on her humiliations.”

Part of the reason that I am reading The Liberal Imagination right now, apart from my belief that one should occasionally pick up a once-celebrated book from time to time in order to learn and even perhaps appreciate, is that I am working on an essay that explores the limits of liberal politics and discourse. Lionel Trilling’s defense of liberalism may have seemed triumphant in 1950 when the book was published; as he famously wrote, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” It is easy, perhaps, to mock Lionel’s assertion from our vantage point: we know, of course, that William F. Buckley, Jr.’s first book was a year away, and he would roll out the National Review in 1955. Yes, Lionel Trilling incorrectly predicted liberalism’s dominance, but it would take thirty years for Buckley’s movement to bear fruit with the election of Ronald Reagan, and even until recently it was still possible for a certain class of elites to hold a comfortable faith in liberalism not all that distant from Lionel’s thought. Yet my suspicion is that liberalism already had a canker in the rosebush even as Lionel Trilling was penning those triumphant words. Haslett’s consideration of how Diana Trilling was eclipsed by her husband is not only a specific indication of the limits of Lionel’s liberal perspective, but a pause-giving reminder of the personal cost paid by so many remarkable women under the banner of purported egalitarian thought.