Archives for January 2013

A small Wikipedia discovery

I’ve spent much of the past several days working on my piece on and  (Many thanks to those of you who commented on my last post.)

I’ve been asked to target that article to an Idaho audience, which means I find myself searching Wikipedia and Ancestry for topics related to Idaho history.  Although I have learned quite a bit about Idaho in my two and a half years here, my knowledge is still patchy at best, so my discoveries have been hit and miss.  I find the draft littered with such phrases as “potato magnate” and other keywords I’d rather not share here as they would attract the wrong crowd.

Because I’m more interested in process than product on each of the sites, I’m exploring the sites’ user guides, Ancestry’s message boards, and the “History” and “Talk” pages for individual articles on Wikipedia.  I’m particularly enjoying the parade o’ semiliteracy that is the Aryan Nations talk page.  Especially pleasing is the Aryan Nations guys suggesting the Wikipedians call the FBI to confirm the true leadership of the hate group.  When the Aryan Nations guys are saying you need to use more reputable, government sources, well. . . there’s some kind of lesson in there.  I’m just not sure what it is.

Regardless, I may need to make their discussion required reading in my public history courses.


First thoughts: Wikipedia and

Since I had to take Lucas to school anyway this morning, I decided to stop by the office for some focused time, pneumonia be damned.  Unfortunately, 90 minutes into my productive e-mail session, Fang texted to warn me about the newly falling snow and to suggest I get on the roads sooner rather than later.

Fang clears snow from the car

 Every once in a while, I feel really bad for dragging Fang to Boise.  To be honest, this was not one of those moments.

The result was another day on the couch with the laptop, TV playing in the background.  Despite the distracted recuperation, I made some progress on a piece I promised to write.  It’s another reflection on how the public does history, in line with the chapter I wrote last year, only this time I’m looking at how the historical sausage gets made at Wikipedia and As you might imagine, I’m observing that each site’s process and product is inflected by gender. My research into women’s contributions to Wikipedia has uncovered a trove of misogynistic comments about how more extensive participation by women would ruin Wikipedia.  As much as they unsettle me, such sources also warm the cockles of my dark academic heart.

Mostly, I’m interested in how Wikipedians and Ancestry users (Ancestryans?) collaborate or come to consensus, how they perceive and use primary and secondary sources, and how they view and establish expertise within their respective digital communities.

Have you ever contributed to Wikipedia or Ancestry?  If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on your experience.  If not, I’m curious as to why you haven’t participated on these sites, as they are incredibly popular in the U.S.  (Businessweek reports that “genealogy ranks second only to porn as the most searched topic online.”)

Round 3

WPA Poster reads "Fight Tuberculosis; Obey the Rules of Health"Today I was prescribed a third round of antibiotics for pneumonia.  Anyone want to place bets on how functional I’ll be when classes begin on January 22?  Or when I need to get back to working on some key collaborations on Monday?

Meanwhile, I’m still crossing plenty of items off my sedentary to-do list, and I have lots of time for reading and reflection.  That’s good, since I declared 2013 will be about seeking completion and space.

I also jumped at the chance to participate in Marci Glass’s STARward exercise, a year of reflection (and writing) on a word selected by Marci for commenters and/or parishioners.  The word Marci gave me is “calling.”  (You can go request a word yourself, if you’d like.)  I’m looking forward not only to the opportunity to reflect on calling, which I think is an excellent word for me for this year, but also to stay connected with Marci, whose blog I enjoy.  And, because it’s a small world, it ends up Marci is friends with a friend of mine from college, and the church she leads is a short walk from my house. I think we’re destined to meet in person before long.

I’ve been thinking, too, about renewing my commitment to blogging and to blogging communities. Marci is also one of the RevGalBlogPals, a few of whom frequently commented on the same blogs as I did several years back; in fact, one of them, Rev. Dr. Mom, stopped by the Clutter Museum recently to leave a comment for the first time in a while.  I like seeing these bloggy connections forged again.  I’ve been spending too much time on Facebook and not enough time engaging in conversations across blogs.  So, a small resolution there: more bloggy engagement.

More writing all over, in fact.  I have a light teaching load this spring, and I intend to take advantage of it.


 Image source

The gods of gun violence

Joseph the carpenter depicted in stained glassIt’s no secret that when it comes to religion, I’m a skeptic. That said, I’m not a belligerent atheist; I’m a listener, not a combatant. In fact, several believers have been surprised by my atheism and remarked that despite my lack of Christian faith, I have “a deep soul.”  Most recently, a fundamentalist Christian student told me I have a “secret Jesus” in my heart–and I think I’m OK with that assessment. I dig “red letter” Jesus, but I’m not into the stories of miracles, nor am I interested in drawing guidance for today from lessons and laws written for an entirely different world.  If I had to commit to a Christian or quasi-Christian denomination or practice, depending on how I’m feeling that day, I might choose an unprogrammed Quaker meeting but admit to nontheist or universalist leanings, or, if I wanted something in, say, a modest basilica with organ music, I’d find the most progressive local manifestation of the United Church of Christ.

That said, as a practitioner of American studies, I’m less interested in calibrating my own spiritual compass than I am in how Christian ideas are generated, circulated, and morphed in U.S. culture.  Quite frankly, much of what I find scares me.  Yet I also read a good deal of writing by today’s Progressive Christian thinkers, and I find heartening their insistence on a new Social Gospel centered on social justice issues.  Some Christians have termed it a “Social Justice Gospel,” and the concept has both been praised and damned.  I’m here to recommend it.

A caveat

It’s important to keep this perspective in mind as you read this post–I’m writing about how perceive the reactions of U.S. Christians to the Newtown shootings, and I’m highlighting what I see as thoughtful responses and missed opportunities. I’m not prescribing what Christians ought to believe about the shootings, though certainly I myself see a disconnect (and perhaps even some hypocrisy?) between what some Christians claim to believe and how they are acting.  This post is about that disconnect, and I hope it allows us to open a conversation about the relationship of Christian faith and works to violence in American life.

So take a deep breath and settle those hackles.  Are we good?  OK.

A taxonomy of responses

While certainly there is a good deal of nuance in Christians’ responses to the mass shooting in Newtown, the responses might be classified into three broad categories that I’m calling confident faith (with variations comfort-focused and repentance-focused), questioning faith (with variations why? and who are we?), and the social justice gospel.  Under each heading below, I’ve highlighted some representative reactions to the shooting.

Confident Faith: Comfort-focused

You’ve seen these on Facebook and elsewhere: God needed those children as angels. There are now 26 more stars in the sky.  The children are now with God, and it’s better for them to be in heaven than on such a fallen earth.  Such posts are too personally nauseating for me to link to, so I’m keeping this section brief and link-free.

I don’t want to diminish anyone’s personal coping mechanisms, and if it gives you comfort to imagine Newton’s children in the house of the Lord, that’s fine.  But to suggest publicly that the children are definitively in a better place?  That’s heartless; think of their friends and families.

Confident Faith: Repentance-focused

Bill Berkowitz provides a round-up of this brand of response to the mass shooting.  I find it profoundly troubling for many reasons, but especially its deflection of the actual cause of the shooting—a man with easy access to a gun who barged into a school and killed children and teachers—to what alleged leaders of the Christian Right believe are greater social ills.  It’s the typical Pat Robertson tripe: there are too many abortions, gay marriage, insufficient prayer in schools, violence in entertainment, etc., and God is punishing innocents as a way of warning the rest of us of the error of our ways.  These representatives of the Right see humans as profoundly fallen and believe we will see the end of such massacres only if we repent by installing their particular beliefs in the public square and in national legislation.  These followers of the “Prince of Peace” ignore the obvious (if difficult) solution to the mass killing of children—removal of the weapons of such destruction—in favor of arguing for a narrow American theocracy.

Mike Huckabee, the purveyor of some such remarks, clarified his vitriol:

“It’s far more than just taking prayer or Bible reading out of the schools. It’s that fact that people sue a city so we’re not confronted with a manger scene or a Christmas carol, and lawsuits are filed to remove a cross that’s a memorial to fallen soldiers. Churches and Christian-owned businesses are told to surrender their values under the edict of government orders to provide tax funded abortion pills. We carefully and intentionally stop saying things are ‘sinful’ and we call them ‘disorders.’ Sometimes we even say they are normal. And, to get to where we have to abandon bedrock moral truths, then we are asked, well ‘where was God?’ And I respond that, as I see it, we’ve escorted Him right out of our culture and we’ve marched Him off the public square and then we express our surprise that a culture without Him actually reflects what it has become.”

The irony, of course, is that Huckabee is expressing all of these opinions in real and virtual public squares. As a non-Christian, I can assure you that Christianity permeates the public sphere.  It’s not as if living in Christian culture automatically confers blindness about its influence, however; even many of those inside the faith can see how pervasive Christianity is in American culture.  See, for example, Joshua D. Ambrosius’s post “Sandy Hook and the Tearing Asunder of Evangelical Christianity.” Not only does Ambrosius acknowledge the ways Christianity striates American life, he also remarks that there are two popular versions of Jesus that are at odds with each other: the Jesus who is fine with gun hoarding and the Jesus who asks people to put down their swords.  “If we can’t agree that Jesus and automatic weapons don’t mix,” Ambrosius asks, “how do we agree on anything?  We must serve different Jesuses—that is the only conclusion one can take away.”

Questioning Faith: Why?

Reflecting on the Newtown shooting only three days after the event, Rev. Jennifer D. Crumpton noticed that “those who contemplated the event through some form of religious lens put these unanswerable questions in terms of God: where was God? and why did God let this happen?”  Crumpton was dissatisfied with the answers she was hearing, so she wrote an incisive, beautiful post at Femmevangelical, “The God Who Shows Up When God Disappears.”  Here’s an excerpt:

The divisive, blaming rhetoric took off like a wildfire across the Internet. I read posts on networks that made my stomach churn. My partner, who is Jewish, endured posts of friends and friends of friends who said Jesus wouldn’t show up in schools where he wasn’t welcomed, and therefore we should all expect bad things to happen, as if it were the fault of everyone who was raised in a different tradition that a mentally ill man took his mother’s legal weapons into a school and started shooting. I had to say something. Before we left for dinner Friday night, I quickly pecked out my gut thoughts and posted them onto Facebook:

In my role as a Christian minister, I have to speak up about the lie politicians and others are putting forth, that the CT shooting happened because “God has been removed from our schools.” This is a dangerous, irresponsible, and and theologically immature statement. God is not found in the rules or activities sanctioned by a school, or the doctrines that make that an issue. God is in the hearts of human beings, children included. And praying to God will not in fact avert the tragedies of our world…we’ve all seen/experienced that tragedy happens inexplicably. God does not “allow” things to happen because we do not adhere to human-concocted doctrine and superstition. Where is God? God is grieving with us. But God is not smiting children because of the separation of church and state.

Then she brings it home (emphasis hers):

Asking “why did God let this happen” is an understandable but unhelpful question, one that leads human minds used to static doctrine into a paradox. Especially as we learn many of the children who were killed were Christians who attended church regularly and prayed daily with their families, and futhermore, the shooter attended church at St. Rose in Newtown and even went to school at the church school for a while; to say God allowed this to happen because of lack of prayer in schools forces us to deeply question various beliefs and scriptures that we cite ad nasuem. Not everyone is willing to go there, to let God be the God above theism and doctrine, and so very shameful, hurtful beliefs are enforced and only hurt faith. The helpful question we can address is, why do we human beings keep allowing this to happen? And what is our image of God that we keep pointing fingers at others while never taking a look at ourselves.

Questioning Faith: Who are we?

At Red Letter Christians, Craig M. Watts holds up a mirror to expose what he sees as the failings of his fellow believers.  He posits that it’s not the absence of God in American institutions and culture that’s the problem, but rather “that part of the problem is with the kind of God promoted in American church and culture” (emphasis mine).  He offers these points as evidence of this phenomenon:

  • Developed nations where God is even less officially acknowledged than in the U.S. have much lower rates of violence.
  • The U.S. is one of the most religious nations in the developed world and, far and away, it has the highest murder rate. Even more telling, both church attendance and murder rates are highest in the same region: the Southern U.S.  “In regions where God is less conspicuous in public,” Watts writes, “murder rates are lower.”
  • Self-professed Christians are more likely to be gun owners than are atheists and agnostics.
  • Those on the religious right were most eager to see the U.S. invade Iraq in 2002.  He cites a Gallup Poll: “data suggests that devotion to a religion doesn’t necessarily dictate a commitment to peace.”
  • A later survey on the same topic–sending troops to Iraq–revealed that the non-religious, non-Christian religious people,  and black Christians were most likely to oppose the war in Iraq. Because of my recent consideration of white masculinity and violence, “When only whites were considered fully 50% more Protestants supported the war in comparison to those with no religion. ‘In general,’ the report stated, ‘the more frequently an American attends church, the less likely he or she is to say the war was a mistake.'”
  • Protestants (54%), and especially white evangelicals (62%!) expressed support for torture of suspected terrorists.

Watts concludes,

When American Christians are more supportive of weapons, war and torture than their unbelieving neighbors, something has gone terribly wrong. When the greatest amount of violence is found precisely in the region of the country where church membership and attendance is the highest we might ask what kind of influence Christians are exerting. Complaints about a lack of official prayer in schools or an absence of religious symbols in the public square don’t get even close to identifying the source of the violence problem. But so long as Christians cast their lot with forces of death, they will not be seen as credible witnesses for peace.

In another sign of a crisis of Christian belief and identity, Shane Claiborne asks, “What Would Jesus Say to the NRA?”

So let’s imagine.  What would Jesus say to our nation, where these are things are true:

  • 10,000 people die from gun-related homicides each year, that’s one Sandy Hook massacre a day, every day
  • There are nearly 90 guns for every 100 people
  • There are over 51,000 licensed gunshops (and 30,000 supermarkets)
  • Guns that can shoot 100 rounds a minute, and are only designed to kill, are still legal
  • Other than auto accidents, gun violence is the leading cause of death of young people (under 20)
  • 20,000 dollars a second is spent on war

There is a reason we talk about “Peace on Earth” so much around Christmas.  There is a reason why we talk about Jesus as the “Prince of Peace”.  He consistently taught that we can disarm violence without mirroring it, and that we can rid the world of evil without becoming the evil we abhor.  So let us recommit ourselves to Peace this Christmas season and New Year — in honor of Jesus, and in honor of the holy innocents.

Social Justice Gospel

As I said earlier in this post, I’m a fan of this response to the shootings.  Here are some of my favorite postings in this genre.

Writing at the Friends Committee on National Legislation staff blog, Diane Randall writes,

In our spiritual lives, Quakers talk about being “cracked open” an internal condition that can be both painful and, eventually enlightening, because it profoundly changes us, creating new ways for us to understand, to be, to act in love. My sense is that President Obama, and scores of elected officials in Congress, state legislatures and city councils have been “cracked open” by the grisly reality of this violence in Newtown, CT.

This violence is manifested in the outrageous weapons that the murderer used to slaughter innocent children–weapons that have no place in civilized society. Working for gun control is one essential step that will require determination and courageous leadership of our elected officials who have been consistently maligned by those who want no limits to gun ownership.

At Evangelicals for Social Action, Bill Borror chastises evangelicals for placing doctrine and politics before social justice:

Christians of late have not been distinguishing themselves on the political front.  Too often our theologies,  I believe,  are made to conform to whatever our natural or chosen political leanings are.  I have seen this again and again for example in how various Christian groups and denominational leaders talk about Israeli-Palestinian issues.  Simplistic ideologies transcend all political and theological spectra.  Not only can we do better, we must do better.

I do not believe people of good will in general and people of faith specifically can remain passive.  It is time for “an ordinance of reason for the common good” to be addressed concerning our culture of violence.  It is time to no longer tolerate child sacrifices at the alter of libertarianism. As Christians, we believe that the two great commandments lifted up by Christ to love God and love our neighbor are absolute; not the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution.  My Christianity also makes me realistic and practical.  I do not believe we can ultimately  legislate or medicate ourselves to a perfect society.  But we can legislate safety and we can chose to cultivate different values and appetites.

I agree with all three of Borror’s calls to action to some extent:

  1. “Hand held weapons of mass destruction must be banned.”  I like this legal solution.
  2. “Voluntary boycotting violent entertainment and reassessment of First Amendment protection of the industry.”  I’m not one to tinker with the First Amendment.  But I wholeheartedly agree that people (myself included) should be more conscious about making informed economic decisions that are in line with their core beliefs. (Personally, I tend to see violent entertainment as an effect of the real violence in American life rather than a cause, but that’s a subject for another post.)
  3. “More Christian community support for individuals and families facing issues around mental health.” Yes, yes, and yes—though as I mentioned in my post on whiteness, gun violence isn’t correlated with mental health issues–in fact, only about 4 percent of the violence in the U.S. can be attributed to the mentally ill. Still, Americans need to have a more open conversation about mental illness and mental health care.

American Catholic bishops were even more specific in asking Christians and others to call for extensive gun control.  They expressed condolences for the families of the slain and then reiterated a stance first articulated in 2000:

In their memory and for the sake of our nation, we reiterate our call made in 2000, in our statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, for all Americans, especially legislators, to:

  1. Support measures that control the sale and use of firearms
  2. Support measures that make guns safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner)
  3. Call for sensible regulations of handguns
  4. Support legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons including assault weapons
  5. Make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime.

As we long for the arrival of the Prince of Peace in this Advent and Christmas season, we call on all people of goodwill to help bring about a culture of life and peace.

At Red Letter Christians, Morf Morford invokes Moloch—and in particular Allen Ginsburg’s incarnation of the Old Testament god—to describe American society’s acquiescence in the slaughter of our children by firearms:

Turning swords into plowshares is a sign of God’s kingdom (Isaiah 2:4). Investing our personal, as well as our national budgets – and our national attention to weapons is just another indication of our allegiance to death.

We don’t need an enemy, we are killing ourselves, but the gun apologists would tell us not fast enough.


But if I were the parents, or grandparents, of any of those children killed, I would, for years, feel as if I had been pulled inside-out with an aching seemingly eternal numbness.

And it is out of respect for them, and their 100% preventable pain, that I urge the rest of to stir our petulant Congress to put aside their ideologically driven agendas and legislative inertia and step up in courage, and yes, even sacrifice to do what our nation’s soul cries out for.

[. . .]

We have been captive to fear long enough.

I don’t mean to make the social justice gospel seem an easy thing to implement, particularly when it comes to gun violence in a gun-saturated society.  At the Quaker Universalist Voice, Mike Shell captures the difficulty in articulating exactly how our deeply-held truths might inform our individual actions and public agenda:

We come away from the world’s noise and busyness to a gathering where we need not voice out loud our intimate conversations with that benevolent Wholeness—whatever we name it—which gives us hope, resilience, meaning and joy. Then we stumble, going back out, because we do not know how to speak or write publicly about that heartfelt Truth which transcends language.

There is immense difference between the knowing silence of waiting worship and the awkward silence of unready witness. Friends often understand with great clarity how their private faith and practice guide or even drive their public actions. Even so, at the rise of Meeting we struggle to reduce into words what is boundless and complex in our hearts.

A way forward

Once again, the past two weeks have made clear that the kind of Christianity–evangelical, fundamentalist, politically conservative–that most often gets shouted in the American public square is not going to be of much use to us in stemming the bloodshed caused by gun violence.  We need a response from people of all faith traditions, and in particular we need evangelical Christians to consider that maybe, just maybe, works matter to our individual and national salvation as much as faith.

After all, the Social Gospel, at least as I learned about it years ago in its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century manifestation, is about establishing the kingdom of God on this earth.  And how can we do that—establish some semblance of peace and social justice—without difficult conversations and hard work?  It’s time, in short, to honor the old Quaker saying “Let your life speak.”

Again, this is not me saying to Christians, “We must take the politically liberal path to solve this problem.”  It’s the one I prefer, yes, but one of the tenets of my particular brand of progressivism is a commitment to all kinds of diversity.  I’m willing to sit with anyone who brings a serious solution to the table, and to work toward consensus on how to bring the level of gun violence in the U.S. more in line with that of other developed countries.

What about you?

What responses and conversations to Newton are you encountering in your own faith communities?  What role do you think religious people, and Christians in particular, should be playing in preventing future massacres and protecting all victims of homicide?


Image is a detail from a stained glass photograph by Fr. Lawrence Lew, and is used under a Creative Commons license.

And things just keep getting better

As if antibiotic-resistant pneumonia for me and a nasty chest cold for Fang weren’t enough, the household gods decided to toss in another challenge.  Here’s Lucas’s op-ed from New Year’s Day:

"Today is super bad. Our heater is broken so we have to go to a hotel and nobody likes it at all. So we really don't like it."

An appreciation

I have to admit, when Fang said we should sign the boy up for Taekwondo, I was a skeptic.  My pacifism runs deep, and I was worried Taekwondo involved a lot of fighting.  We had already talked at length about how Lucas was going to be a big kid, and if he happened to inherit Fang’s occasionally short temper, he needed to know how to control himself; was teaching him to fight really going to encourage reflection and nonviolence?

Today, in Taekwondo Lucas has reached the level (and you can imagine how I feel about this belt color) of “Camouflage – decided,” meaning next time he tests he’s eligible to earn his green belt. When he began Taekwondo more than a year ago, he was physically awkward and timid; in fact, just a couple months ago we gave up gymnastics lessons after about a year because he wasn’t progressing at all. He couldn’t hop on one foot without falling over.  He couldn’t even jump and land simultaneously on both feet.

Worse, in school and on playdates, he was being bullied—by much smaller kids–and had no idea how to deal with it.  In both kindergarten and as recently as this fall in first grade, his annual character goal was learning how to tell people how he feels when they treat him poorly.

We’re fairly laid back as parents go, but those details raised some red flags for us, so when the owner of the martial arts school invited Lucas to join the leadership club, where kids get practice interacting with and teaching other kids, we jumped at the opportunity, even though the cost is a bit of a financial stretch for us.  (Ditto for a run of weekly 30-minute private lessons with an instructor who really seems to “get” Lucas, but the ROI on those has been great, too.)  The leadership club membership means Lucas can attend as many classes each week for which he’s qualified, and he has embraced the classes wholeheartedly, typically attending three classes a week.

I haven’t written much here about Lucas, as he’s really becoming his own person, and, as many a blogging parent has noted, after about age four or five, it doesn’t seem as appropriate to blog all the milestones.  But the change we’ve seen in him as a result of a combination of parenting, his very special school, and especially Taekwondo has been tremendous.

As I mentioned, within the past six months or so, we were still working with Lucas on landing on two feet after jumping, and he wasn’t getting much air.  Here he is at tonight’s Taekwondo class.  (Apologies for the blurry photos–I got tired of lugging around the SLR, and I’m still learning to use this point-and-shoot camera.)



He’s showing confidence, strength, and even a bit of agility.  We have conversations about the character themes of each 9- or 10-week session—the most recent was perseverance—and you better believe we’re milking the school’s question “Is that a black-belt attitude?” at home for all it’s worth.

A lot of the boys and girls enrolled in the classes appear to be mainstream, rough-and-tumble, tough little kids, and clearly they’re benefitting from the instruction.  But I just want to highlight how much the classes, and the whole atmosphere of the school, have helped our sensitive and awkward boy develop into a much more confident seven-year-old boy.  If you find yourself in a similar situation with your child, I recommend you find a good Taekwondo school (this is the second one we tried, and it really clicked, while the first one did not) and give it a chance.

We owe a big, and ever-growing, debt of gratitude to Heather Grout Neitzell, who teaches courses and owns the studio with her husband, as well as to the various instructors and junior instructors, but most notably Lucas’s regular instructors and assistant instructors, Ms. Strader, Mr. Garrard, Mr. Putzier, and Mr. Fenello.  Big thanks to all of them for helping our boy make up some lost ground in confidence and athleticism.  We still have a long way to go, but because we’re seeing such great results, we’re committed to continuing with Taekwondo for as long as Lucas wants to participate.


Into the heart of whiteness and gun violence

A couple weeks back, before waves 1 and 2 of the pneumonia hit, I promised to write a series of posts about gun control.  Meanwhile, there has been a ton of insightful writing about gun violence in the United States, so my series here may feel more like a round-up than a new contribution.  That said, I feel moved to collect those links into themed posts for those who might have missed some or all of them.

Here is the first of those posts.

Man firing semiautomatic rifle

Photo by Jonathan Leopard, and used under a Creative Commons license

After Barack Obama was elected to the White House but before he took office, Fang and I went to Tucson to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family.  While there, we reconnoitered with an old friend of Fang’s, a white musician with the long hair, grizzled face, and slender, angular body of a hippie who was almost aging gracefully.  I had only met “Joe” once or twice before, so I was unfamiliar with his politics and worldview.  We had a fairly wide-ranging and, quite frankly, mostly forgettable conversation in our brief visit, but the closing bit of it made quite an impression.  Joe told us that “when the n*****s rise up,” we should join him and his wife in their house because they had both bolt-action and semiautomatic rifles, and their house occupied slightly higher ground that the rest of town.

Because this man used to be one of Fang’s best friends, and because I didn’t want to expose my three-year-old to any more such talk, I confess that instead of confronting Joe about his frankly delusional prediction I performed a rather lame “Oh my! Look at the time!” retreat.

Still, the exchange opened my eyes to a white fantasy of fighting off, with deadly force, darker-skinned trespassers or invaders.  I certainly was no stranger to whites’ skewed views of African Americans’ capacity for violence.  After all, I am white, and even in “polite company,” some white people let certain politically incorrect views slip from their lips. I also had studied racism on a more intellectual level, as while I was a student at UC Davis, I had the good fortune to study with and T.A. for one of the founders of the field of “whiteness studies”–or, as practitioners sometimes prefer to call it, “the critical inquiry of whiteness”–the late Ruth Frankenberg.  And indeed, conversations about white privilege striated my graduate courses in cultural studies and were reinforced in the gender studies seminars I pursued.  (I was the only person in my graduate cohort whom most Americans would consider white, so as you might imagine I was often placed in an interesting subject position, though as I said in the post introducing this series, I actually feel my whiteness most acutely when I’m surrounded by white people rather than when I’m the “only.”)

So when I heard of the Newtown shooting, and it emerged (unsurprisingly) that the perpetrator was a white man, I found myself making sense of the shooting in terms of whiteness and masculinity, and trying to triangulate among race, class, gender, religion, and partisan politics.  There is, of course, a large body of academic research and criminal and social justice work on masculinity and violence, but Newtown prodded me to look at how mainstream Americans, and particularly white Americans, perceive (or fail to perceive) patterns of white masculinity and gun violence.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in my observation and reflection.

At the Huffington Post, Michael Kimmel and Cliff Leek dared to address the white elephant in the room.  I found these two paragraphs from their post especially incisive about the race and gender of victims of mass shootings and their perpetrators:

Newtown is a white, upper and upper-middle-class suburb. Think of the way we are describing those beautiful children — “angels” and “innocent” — which they surely were. Now imagine if the shooting had taken place in an inner city school in Philadelphia, Newark, Compton, or Harlem. Would we be using words like “angels”? We don’t know the answer, but it’s worth asking the question. It is telling though that we do not see a national outcry over the far too frequent deaths of black and brown skinned angels in our nation’s inner cities.

Now let’s talk about the race and class of the shooter. In the last 30 years 90% of shootings at elementary and high schools in the U.S. have been perpetrated by young white men. And, 80% of the 13 mass murders perpetrated by individuals aged 20 or under in the last 30 years have also been committed by white men. There is clearly something happening here that is not only tied to gender, but also to race.

Immediately following the crime in Newtown, the tireless Chauncey DeVega delved deeper into this cultural crisis in a series of thoughtful posts (and now an interview with Historiann as well) interrogating the role of white masculinity in mass shootings in the U.S.

In response to Andrew O’Hehir’s post “How America’s toxic culture breeds mass murder,” in which O’Hehir emphasized that “America has an major angry-man problem,” DeVega elaborated on the fact that the U.S. has an angry white man problem:

Andrew’s oversight is a common one in a society (and among the pundit classes) where whiteness is taken to be a condition of both normality and invisibility. Whiteness has social power precisely because it goes unnamed. To be White in American society, with its long history of white racism and other inequalities that are structured around the colorline, is to be considered “normal.”

Ultimately, whiteness is the ability to be an unmarked individual whose actions do not reflect on your racial group. Consequently, white men who kill are just individuals who kill; black and brown folks who kill and commit other crimes are exhibiting behaviors which reflect on their “race” and “culture.”

To point. American politics and culture are obsessed with narratives that link race and crime.

DeVega then brings it home:

Given the cultural scripts that inexorably relate crime to race, one would think that white people, and white men in particular, would be the focus of similar narratives. White men are the majority of domestic terrorists in the United States. White men commit the most serial murders and child rapes. White men comprise the vast majority of those accused of treason. White men destroyed the country’s economy and financial sector.

And white men have committed 70 percent of the mass shooting murders in the United States as sourced from this piece in Mother Jones. By comparison, white men are approximately 30 percent of the population. They comprise more than twice their percentage among mass shooters. Yet, there is no “national conversation” on the matter. The silence is deafening.

DeVega continued to break the silence on his blog and elsewhere.  At Alternet, he wrote

If Adam Lanza was an Arab American with one of those “Muslim sounding” names, then today’s script would be quite different. Questions of “terrorism” would loom large: it would be the default frame for reading the Connecticut school shooting. In all, the United States has a post 9/11 hangover where a moment of national trauma made one group of Americans a perpetual Other.

A person of color who happens to be of Arab descent, and who is Muslim by chosen faith or birth, is not allowed to be a deranged individual who made a choice to kill dozens of people. His or her identity and personhood is one that is “politicized” by default in the West. As such, all actions, however random or outliers, are taken as representative of some type of collective identity, one where terrorism is an inexorable part of its character.

It’s important to note that despite these observations, DeVega isn’t calling for racial profiling.  Rather, he’s pointing out the hypocrisy of conservative white men calling for continual surveillance and profiling of particular groups of people because someone who happens to fall into a their demographic (Muslim immigrant, in this example) commits a rare but heinous crime.  These conservatives are taken aback by the merest suggestion that there may be a pattern of white male gun violence–and especially of mass shootings–and refuse to believe that there may be fatal flaws in the ways white families raise white boys and men.  God forbid anyone suggest as a nation we must examine the sources of that violence and the ways that white Americans’ easy access to guns amplifies violence.  (DeVega elaborates on some of these pathologies in another post.)

DeVega is more eloquent on the subject:

In all, I am legitimately taken aback by the sincerity of the pain and offense at the idea that white men could be experts at committing singular types of crime in America.

Moreover, in surveying the comments and reactions to my (and other) essays about Adam Lanza, white masculinity, and gun violence, there is a tone of real hurt:

White Masculinity, like Whiteness, imagines itself as normal, innocent, and benign. The very premise that the intersection of those identities could result in socially maladaptive and violent behavior which is evil, and yes I use that term intentionally, is rejected by those deeply invested in a particularly conservative and reactionary type of White Masculinity, as something impossible. To even introduce such an idea is anathema to their universe. The language is verboten. The Other is suspect until proven otherwise; “real Americans” as “good people” are to be judged by precisely the opposite premise.

DeVega ventured into what liberals certainly perceive as one heart of darkness in the large subculture that perpetuates such myths: a forum frequented by owners and fans of the AR-15 assault rifle.  Included among his observations is this one explicitly connecting white nationalism and gun fandom:

These people hate President Obama. Although, he has done nothing to strengthen gun control laws he is evil incarnate. Much of the rage is talking point Right-wing claptrap. Nonetheless, the anger is real. There is also no small amount of white identity politics on display with its obligatory hostility to people of color. At present, conservatism and racism have overlapped in the United States. The survivalist and militia crowd have long been an organ of white nationalism. As such, the overlap of white racial resentment and extreme gun culture is not a surprise. This is especially true given the role of guns in maintaining white power in a country that for centuries was a Constitutionally mandated formal Racial State.

[. . .]

I would not go so far as to say this speech is treasonous or seditious–although it is mighty close–but given the political environment of the United States, and the routine use of eliminationist rhetoric by the Right-wing media against anyone not white, male, heterosexual, Christian, middle class, and conservative, one would have to be a fool to not be concerned about a bunch of heavily armed people that imagine themselves as uber patriots and 21st century guardians of “democracy.”

Some numerical correlations

Frightening indeed.  And if you’re not persuaded by DeVega’s brand of cultural analysis, then let’s go quantitative, shall we?  Writing at The Atlantic, Richard Florida reports on a statistical analysis of gun ownership, politics, and gun violence by state.  His findings suggest common assumptions about the causes of gun violence are incorrect.

We found no statistical association between gun deaths and mental illness or stress levels. We also found no association between gun violence and the proportion of neurotic personalities. . . . We found no association between illegal drug use and death from gun violence at the state level.

[. . .]

What about politics? It’s hard to quantify political rhetoric, but we can distinguish blue from red states. Taking the voting patterns from the 2008 presidential election, we found a striking pattern: Firearm-related deaths were positively associated with states that voted for McCain (.66) and negatively associated with states that voted for Obama (-.66). Though this association is likely to infuriate many people, the statistics are unmistakable. Partisan affiliations alone cannot explain them; most likely they stem from two broader, underlying factors—the economic and employment makeup of the states and their policies toward guns and gun ownership.

[. . .]

And for all the terrifying talk about violence-prone immigrants, states with more immigrants have lower levels of gun-related deaths (the correlation between the two being -.34).

Florida also reports that states that with stricter gun control legislation have fewer firearm deaths. “We find,” he writes, “substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48).”   Definitely click through to see the map highlighting the number of deaths and injuries by firearms per state per 100,000 persons.  I’d love to see the same map on the county level, with racial and ethnic demographics overlaid on it.  After all, a recent Pew Research Center study (PDF) underscored that it is white, politically conservative Protestant men who are most interested in preserving easy access to guns.  (Alas, my GIS skills are not such that I can produce such a map, but if you know of one, kindly leave a link in the comments.)

A caveat

By writing this post, I’m not by any means trying to trace all gun violence somehow to white conservative men, or to pathologize white American men more generally. As a country, we definitely need also to consider the rates of black-on-black violence, as while the rates of African Americans dying by or committing homicide declined in the 1990s, they leveled off shortly before 2000, and they remain significantly higher than rates among whites.  (Though as the statistics at this link sent by my friend Dave show, homicide-by-gun victims are just about as likely to be white as black, and white offenders are more likely than black offenders to kill multiple people.)  And although Richard Florida and others have over the past couple of weeks emphasized that mental illness is not a large factor in gun homicides, we still need to address the intersection of mental illness and gun availability, as it leads too often to suicide.

This is a profoundly complicated issue, and I know that in this series of posts, I’m only going to be bringing small pieces of it to light.  They are pieces, however, that I feel are going largely unremarked upon in mainstream American discourse.

Readers, I’m curious about what you think.

I know some of my readers are gun owners, others are politically conservative, and I suspect many (if not the vast majority) are white. Regardless of your subject position, what are your thoughts?  Are you as persuaded as I am–by DeVega’s posts, your own experiences, crime statistics, or other sources–that we must consider white masculinity as a major factor when we discuss gun violence in the U.S., and in particular when the subject is massacres?  If you don’t see white masculinity as a factor in these kinds of crimes, what cultural or demographic forces do you think are more forcefully at work?

As this is an issue that raises hackles, I encourage us to be especially respectful if a conversation emerges in the comments below.