A few months ago, David Brooks penned a column in which he argued that Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, tells us more about the obsessions of writers and outcasts than it does actual middle-class Americans. Of course, Brooks reduced the complex struggles of the characters in Freedom down to the diminutive size of a morality play, when he determined than the main character, Patty, is “unable to make a moral judgment.” That the world, once filtered through David Brooks’s imagination, can always be whittled down to a juvenile, almost Victorian understanding of virtue as opposed to vice is, of course, to be expected. However, Brooks also went on to make a claim just a little bit more offensive than his usual, almost endearing desire to turn the landscape of humanity into black and white forks in the road. Brooks argued that most of the misery of the American middle-class – depicted by Franzen and other writers as leading lives lacking meaning, emotional fulfillment and community – is merely in the heads of “writers and other dissidents.”
Plenty of people chimed in the comments section to ask, “Really? What country are you living in?” I do believe they effectively responded to Brooks’s desire to sweep the sadness of American life under the rug by merely chalking it up to spider-webs in the minds of Those Who Don’t Quite Belong. So I won’t add to that particular discussion here.
However, that column was on my mind when I was watching Rachel Maddow painfully document this nation’s recent history of gun violence a few days after the tragedy in Arizona. The point Maddow was making was concerned primarily with the how, and not the why, of gun violence in America – frequently, much more frequently than comparable Western nations, Americans and especially young American males decide to kill a lot of people with guns. Whether or not this is a good reason to think more seriously about what kinds of guns and ammunition we need to protect ourselves and fulfill the Second Amendment – and I think it is – the torrent of newspaper headlines Maddow held up prompted another question in my mind: why?
This is of course, a question that is being asked all over the place. Almost never, however, is any theory advanced beyond the theory that there is no theory; these are acts of singular madness, and attempting to answer them, the suggestion seems to be, is unacceptable because almost anything you say will qualify as political. That we ought not to draw conclusions or make suggestions based on national tragedies that seem to speak to larger patterns is a strange, self-defeating ban on discourse for a democratic society to make. It is almost as if, no matter how horrific the tragedy or how high the number killed, what Americans fear even more than another gun massacre is a real reckoning with the question of why – we ask it merely to say we cannot answer it, so then we can continue as before. It is as if the truth would be more terrifying than the meaninglessness which the insanity of a singular American murderer offers us.
So here is a politically loaded reflection, political not because I aim to artificially shame a political party or win an election, but political because it speaks to my larger beliefs about our country and the state it is in: one of the first things that came to my mind, watching Maddow rattle through the list of tragedies caused by gun violence in this country, was that David Brooks review of Freedom. At first glance, these two events would not seem related; Franzen certainly doesn’t have any character that speaks to the type of deranged alienation it appears Jared Lee Loughner fell into, nor could the novel in any way be offered as a clear explanation to why such characters develop. But Brooks’ denial of the underlying problem of American alienation – his desire to use a book which faces that honestly as an opportunity to claim that such arguments are merely the self-absorbed, self-affirming obsessions of a misfit elite – seems all too tragically connected to the media’s response to the horror in Arizona. The ardor we feel for glorifying America as the best of all possible places is completely out of proportion to the amount of mental anguish experienced by so many Americans on a daily basis. Conservatives hear the statistics about America being a land of depressed people and shrug their shoulders – inside, many of them believe it is the very fact that our culture finally has reached some level of openness about the challenges of finding meaning in America that explains the phenomenon of unsatisfied people. Back in the good old days, the inner rant goes, people did not complain so much, people did not expect to feel happy all the time – people merely put that in a box labeled the local bar or the 60 hour work week and left it there. Under much of this denial is a resentment, a resentment that the version of America as a land of contentment should dare be challenged by the likes of Loughner, and yes, even by the likes of Franzen.
I am not denying that individual mental illness exists and much of this existence is separate from or immune to the particular cultural context in which it plays out. But it doesn’t always have to play out this way – it does not even have to develop in this direction, at least not this often. Sociology tells us that a good society is one in which all members of that society feel valued by their community, where each station and status in life is recognized and granted dignity. Individuals frequently deciding to kill others in a crazed rage of alienation, and then just as often, turn the gun on themselves, is only the most obvious manifestation of the failure of a society to provide meaning and dignity to all of its members.