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Fatal Eruptions on the American Scene

A black man selling "loosies," un-packaged cigarettes, to the homeless is not only ungentrified but also a plight in the gentrified imagination.

Joseph Natoli

"The most important thing each of us can do is to try even harder to see the world through our neighbors' eyes. To imagine what it is like to walk in their shoes, to share their pain and their hopes and their dreams."

Hillary Clinton, quoted in The New York Times, December 5, 2014

"Americans and Europeans stand out from the rest of the world for our sense of ourselves as individuals. We like to think of ourselves as unique, autonomous, self-motivated, self-made. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed, this is a peculiar idea People in the rest of the world are more likely to understand themselves as interwoven with other people -- as interdependent, not independent."

T.M. Luhrmann, "Wheat People vs. Rice People," The New York Times, December 4, 2014

"He [Eric Garner] was a victim of himself."

Bob McManus, quoted in The New York Times, December 5, 2014

When a patient presents symptoms, the doctor, especially TV's Dr. House, investigates that patient's home, habits and lifestyle. He explores the scene from which the patient has emerged, searching for clues that tie the malady to that scene. Two of the fatal eruptions on our national scene are school massacres and the killing of black men by police. We need, like Dr. House, to explore the scene.

What does the present American scene look like? In the wake of the death of Eric Garner, Hillary Clinton, quoted above, asks us "to try even harder to see the world through our neighbor's eyes." We need to extend a sympathetic imagination into the lives of others. What we discover on the scene, however, is that Americans already have very clear pictures of others. The gentrified imagine what the ungentrified are like; otherwise, they would not know how to distinguish their gentrified difference. For instance, a black man selling "loosies," un-packaged cigarettes, to the homeless is not only ungentrified but also a plight in the gentrified imagination. Not your neighbor.

Winners in the crapshoot of cowboy capitalism can identify the Losers because there is no winning without fully savoring what Winners have and Losers do not. Mitt Romney captured the imagining here: "Moochers." Definitely not your neighbor. The further the rich position themselves from the hard up and the downright impoverished, the greater the chances that distrust, suspicion, and fear rule the imagination rather than a sympathetic empathy. Of course, mouthing a sympathetic empathy, a "compassionate" conservatism, may be required when so many of your "neighbors" are hard up and downright impoverished.

The Winners do not live in gated compounds with private security because they love their neighbor as themselves, or imagine "The Others" lovingly and compassionately. When we look closely at the American scene we see a harsh divisive reality, a war of all against all, and a contemptuous, arrogant yet defensive and fearful imaginary already existing among the Winners. Winners may be fearful and defensive because their way of life is coming to look more and more like that of the medieval baron in a moated castle encircled by a multitude of unwashed serfs. However, the feudalism we see on the American scene is without any bonds between serf and lord.

Winners fear of Losers is angering to the Winners because it an essential part of winning not to fear, to be triumphant and not intimated. Nevertheless, the wealthy imagine that the more stupefying the wealth gap becomes on the American scene, the more resentment will grow upon the hard pressed, thus increasing the threat level. As it is part and parcel of the psyche of the Winner not to fear threats but to turn them into opportunities for yet another win, we are more likely heading for a Louis XVI/Bastille storming clash than a neighborly agreement to dismantle a plutocracy in full bloom.

All whites, not just the wealthy, on the American scene are soon to be a minority, imagining in no heartwarming way the "browning" of America. And within this imaginary, blacks have a special place because they have "probable cause" for not only resentment and protest but also retaliation and retribution. The Winners easily dismiss those who lose in the competitive arena, but white relations with blacks are twisted timelessly in a magnetic coil of conscience, hate, and repression. The way whites on the American scene imagine blacks is tinged with suspicion, mistrust and fear that is in no way dissolved by the creation of a greater divide between rich and poor than any time in American history.

Distance is the defense that plutocracy provides and curates, a distance between rich and poor, black and white, gentrified and ungentrified, working class and professional class, elite flyers and economy class. As this can only intensify fear and mistrust, whites have moved further from imagining some absolution of the nation's congenital sin of black African enslavement. Though no American feels personally responsible for that inherited crime, the black presence on the American scene is filled with a haunting resonance that afflicts the white conscience, urging it to repress and not confront, to outrageous acts of racism and not a sharing of pain, to seek to destroy what is so painful a reminder. We are not post-racist just as an AAA alcoholic knows he will never be post-alcoholic. We are in a circle here around an issue that draws us toward it while at the same time our robust plutocratic realities pull us away, moving us to safe distances where blacks, especially black men, fuel our imagination with suspicion, fear and distrust.

The American scene we observe is not one of interrelationship and interdependence as Clifford Geertz observed but one of individual autonomy and independence. The dog fight in the capitalist arena brings forth a few winners and a multitude of losers. And that in turn leads to a transformation of middle class democracy into plutocracy. So, like Dr. House investigating the surround of a patient and locating a toxic source, we search the American scene and find an economic system that has become toxic that may not have been previously so toxic. Our fatal eruptions come from here so what is next is to connect this plutocratic rule with our fatal eruptions, namely, school massacres and the killing of black men by police.

Think of society and its instruments--government and law--as our best defense against the worst in us and you are probably a Liberal. Think of these as a defense protecting winners from losers but one with the potential of threatening the individual will-to-power and you are probably a Neoliberal. The worst in us in the Liberal view can be mollified and transformed if societal inequities and injustices can be abolished by governmental power. We are always recuperable and redeemable in the Liberal view and this moral aspect is part of a reputed Liberal "softness." The "hardness" of the Neoliberal view emerges from the "hardball" Winner/Loser, Nietzschean-like creed of market rule whereby the worst is weakness preventing us from entering the competitive arena and playing to win.

Democrats of course support individualism, self-reliance and self-realization and do not relinquish moral judgment to the state or society. And Republicans do not attract the Christian Right and the Evangelicals by promoting Nietzschean ethics. Nevertheless, what is in play in American culture is a Liberal/Democratic support of State and society as moral determinants, and a Neoliberal/Republican support of market rule as the only moral determinant. Put blankly, this is the operative split in American culture out of which traumatic horrors emerge that rack our conscience and understanding. These fatal eruptions on the surface of American society detour us from our preferred focus on our own personal space, now very much tied to our on-line, cyberspace lives. Regardless of whether we link headline events to our own self-interest, it seems that private space can still be violated by the actions of others, by what happens in the real, "offline world."

The kind and intensity of fatal eruptions that materialize are significant in the same way that police study the behavioral patterns of serial killers, doctors trace the intensity and occurrences of symptoms to disease, or economists trace stock market crashes to root causes. We have now in American society two major types of fatal eruptions: school massacres and controversial police shootings of black men. We remain in fear of another homeland terrorist attack which we have an entire governmental entity, Homeland Security, to attend, but we have very little beyond our first responses to the school shootings that have followed in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, the bloodiest being 2005 Redlake, 2006 Amish school, 2007 Virginia Tech, 2008 Northern Illinois University, 2012 Oikos University, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school, 2013 Santa Monica, 2014 Isla Vista, 2014. If you look at Timeline of Worldwide School and Mass Shootings, you will note that the U.S. is the location for about 99% of the shootings.

These are sometimes referred to as killings, shootings, massacres. The atrocity here is beyond any society to grasp but especially a society that cannot connect the same to its dominating ethos of "grow the economy" and "let markets rule." In other words, in a transnational corporate culture of minute contingency planning, our dark eruptions remain uncharted, terra incognita.

USA Today reports that "[n]early two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide reported to the FBI" and that the "numbers appear to show that the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo.last Saturday was not an isolated event in American policing." Mother Jones's article "Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?" reports a pattern in the shooting and killing of unarmed African- American men.

Within a cultural imaginary inclined to view all events as happening for reasons connected to the individuals involved, victims are always victims of their own choices, their own fatal decisions. One must choose one's fate otherwise our faith in our autonomy and freedom to choose is undermined. This is meant as an explanation but is in truth a clue as to the conditions nurturing our fatal eruptions.

What we clearly have is a no-win/no-win situation for black males. They are urged to compete and to assume responsibility for failure when they are already not positioned economically and educationally to compete and win. If they were in the same middle class democracy with an active economic mobility, one that was fertile ground for both civil rights and women's lib, a case of personal will-to-power could be made. Black men have advanced in significant numbers in the U.S. but the collapse of a mobile, functioning democracy, the entrenchment of a plutocratic elite and the consequent distancing of that ruling class from the poor and ungentrified has frozen blacks and Hispanics at an unmoving bottom.

In our plutocratic society where wealth is inherited or financial or IT sector wealth, middle class jobs have disappeared and the need is only for a serving minimum wage class. Those who entered this plutocratic world already in the bottom 40% of earners are burdensome excrescence. Burdensome to whom? I would say those who feel threatened by a presence that has in the course of "growing the economy" and so on been "creatively destroyed." Black men are more threatening to the rising gentrified class and their neighborhoods and to all the Winners in gated compounds than are white men, perhaps, as I have mentioned, because the Losers who began as slaves are thereby known to have more right to anger, protest and rebellion.

Crime is a weapon against a ruling class just as a gun is. You cannot really kill those whom society has already scheduled for extinction. And on this prereflective level of understanding, this level of tacit grasp of the situation, the police respond. Their job is to serve the status quo, not to amend it or challenge it, but to do the will of a society prepared to accept its losses as a price to be paid for its enormous successes, successes which about 20% of the population share, that 20% which runs politics and the media.

And education as well. The dark eruptions of school shootings are more circuitously routed than the shooting of black men because education is further removed from plutocratic rule than the plight of the poor, white or black. But the trail can be traced nonetheless.

Consider that the path to wealth in the U.S., or at least economic mobility, is through education. But then consider that "start up" IT innovation as well as financial sector success creates a very difficult curriculum problem. Beyond a hi-tech curriculum, which does not make you a Larry Page starting Google, and a business curriculum, which does not make you a hedge fund manager, we have professional curricula, namely, law and medicine. Both the LSAT and the MCAT exams will quickly settle qualifications for a professional career. You cannot follow your ancestors into a union job in manufacturing, or live off the small family farm. You are free to free lance, to start a business, to invent an app.

Meanwhile, you know that information is more accessible and in greater quantity than ever before. It is on your Smart Phone. The onus of success is totally in your hands because the technology to know everything is in your hands. But what happens when the capacity to interpret and understand lags way behind the fragments of information you Google? What if you think your Smart Phone has made you smart? What happens in both cases I think is confusion, disappointment, bewilderment. Retreat to a video game, which some argue is the new form of education.

When you limit the access roads to what young people can see leading them to a secure well-being, you increase frustration, anxiety and a rising sense of failure or inadequacy before one's competencies and gifts are developed. And when those few roads are more than mysterious and opaque to outsiders, seem to be loaded like dice, connections and money already possessed, anxieties turn to confusion, confusion to anger. When you confound an educational goal of reading, interpreting and understanding with an accelerated delivery of Google responses, you package a consumer rather than mentoring a mind.

In some haunting fatal eruptions, all this turns back on itself, kills what cannot be reached, cannot be reached because it cannot be understood, and implodes. Within this dark imaginary, the young schoolmate killing his schoolmates along with himself is no more than taking them with him in an escape from a future they have no way of imagining. There have been no black male school shooters, perhaps because the terror the young feel when they can make no connection between education and money is not a terror to blacks who believe the street and not the school connects with money.

That is yet another matter that should haunt us on the present American scene.

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