Is it possible that we Americans only pretend not to notice the conditions that produce an epidemic of school shootings, or is the public just too dumbed-down to connect the dots?
Look at the schools themselves. We called them “facilities” because they hardly qualify as buildings: sprawling, one-story, tilt-up, flat-roofed boxes isolated among the parking lagoons out on the six-lane highway strip, disconnected from anything civic, isolated archipelagoes where inchoate teenage emotion festers and rules while the few adults on the scene are regarded as impotent clowns representing a bewildering clown culture wrapped in a Potemkin economy that has nothing to offer young people except a lifetime of debt and “bullshit jobs” — to borrow a phrase from David Graeber.
The world of teens has been exquisitely engineered to steal every opportunity for colonizing the chemical reward centers of their brains to provoke endorphin hits, especially the cell-phone realm of social media, which is almost entirely about status competition, much of which revolves around the wild hormonal promptings of teen sexual development — at the same time they are bombarded with commercial messages designed to prey on their fantasies, longings, and perceived inadequacies. All of this produces immersive and incessant melodrama along with untold grievance, envy, frustration, confusion, contempt and rage. And, of course, where the cell-phone universe leaves off, the world of video games begins, so that boys (especially) get to act-out in “play” the extermination of their competitors and foes.
I will venture to say — against the tide of current sexual politics — that adolescence is much tougher for boys these days than it is for girls. Every boy in one way or another faces his archetypal hero’s journey, the hard-wired seeking to become powerful in one way or another, to accomplish something, to prevail over adversaries, to win the goodies of life. This country used to be a place where young men had many useful and practical paths to follow in enacting that eternal script.
That has changed utterly in a couple of generations. Young men are being out-competed by young women who enjoy the advantage of being hard-wired to cooperate with others in the hive-like corporate workplaces that require tractable drones who will just follow instructions. The smart ones can easily avoid pregnancy, too, and still enjoy sex and all the exciting social games it entails.
For young men, beyond the repellent corporate world of work are only fantasies about triumphing in pro sports, show business, or the drug trade, with pornography and masturbation in place of the tension-filled process of mate-seeking. There is also plenty of opportunity these days for archetypal acting-out in warfare, but our wars lately are devoid of valorous story-lines, and instead of dying nobly for a cause, our soldiers are more likely to come home with shattered brains and bodies from campaigns of no discernable meaning.
And so high school is the launching pad for all that, though in this era of protracted adolescence, mass murders also take place on college campuses. The part of the forebrain that regulates judgment generally doesn’t complete its development in young men until sometime in their early twenties. And college is swiftly becoming as meaningless as high school, given the economic landscape, and the debt racketeering now deeply associated with higher education.
It’s all part-and-parcel with an American way-of-life that is not what it advertises itself to be. It’s become a cruel hologram of a distant memory of a land that sold its soul for a few decades of comfort and convenience, and ended up in a wilderness of addiction to cheap hits of pleasure. Pleasure is not happiness and the constant seeking to satisfy pleasures is not a journey to meaning. The catch is that this toxic way of life has poor prospects for continuing as a practical matter. History is catching up with our foolishness and history will prove to be even more wrathful than a lonely, confused, seventeen-year-old boy with a pistol and shotgun.
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