Fiction in a World of Fear

by Andrea Scrima

Tragedies like the mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, and most recently (since this panel first aired last month) in Odessa bring everything to a stop. As we read the details and look at the pictures, we all pause, look around, and take stock of our priorities and what we hold dear. Writers are no different, except for the work we do. We’re often in the middle of describing a particular part of the world—when another part is suddenly falling apart.

Jon Roemer and David Winner polled a handful of active writers and asked how public tragedies impact their current and future work—projects that may or may not portray mass shootings. We aimed to gauge how writers deal with such landmark events in practical ways and how, if at all, their writing engages with violence in America.

QUESTION 1

In The New Yorker last year, Masha Gessen described the difficulty of defending the values and institutions currently under attack, because it requires “preserving meanings” and is “the opposite of imagination.” She aspired to “find a way to describe a world in which… imagination is not only operant but prized and nurtured.” On Facebook the Monday after the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, a different writer, Grant Faulkner, simply posted two words—“another killing”—over and over, hundreds of times. Gessen described traditionally crafted work, while the Facebook post is visceral and immediate. Where do you think your next work will land?

ANSWERS:

Jon Roemer: The Facebook post reflects what I was feeling the Monday after the shootings. But the fiction I’m writing now probably won’t be read for a year or more. So I think hard about its relevance, especially if we keep rushing toward more violence. Part of the job is to be forward-thinking. Just wish I could write and publish faster.

Zachary Lazar: I’m writing the most traditional novel of my life right now (though that isn’t saying much).  I simultaneously have no faith in the power of novels and total commitment to the novel as a thing, an art form, something I like. Mass shootings seem to me to be one symptom among many of our culture’s failure to address meaninglessness, to create meaning, and even though I don’t believe there is such a thing as meaning, the active pursuit of it is essential to sanity. I just don’t give a shit about social media. I guess it did good work during the Arab Spring but I think the role it plays in the U.S. right now is more or less comparable to the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s.  It makes TV look nourishing. Read more »

Politicizing Tragedy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Following the gun violence of the last weeks in the US, charges of “politicizing” the tragedies has become a regular staple of political discussion. Indeed, on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott issued a warning against politicizing tragedies: “The first thing I’d say is that we need to take a step back from politicizing every event.” But what is it to politicize an event? What does the charge of “politicizing” a tragedy come to?

Politicizing clearly has a negative connotation – in “politicizing,” one does a wrong. Thus politicizing is what philosophers call a thick term; it both describes and evaluates. In using it, one describes some political advantage inappropriately gotten. Yet, in the case of politicizing, it is not clear where the alleged inappropriateness lies. Why is politicizing problematic?

A brief tour of the usage suggests there are three different conceptions of the wrongness of politicization. These are wrongs of etiquette, deliberation, and personality. We think, though, they all share a similar dialectical function. Read more »

The Republican Party Platform is at least as objectionable as Trump

by Emrys Westacott

With the media choosing to pay so much attention to Donald Trump, relatively little attention has been paid to the 2016 Republican Party platform. This is in line with the tedious and reprehensible reduction of political discourse to horse race punditry. But it is a pity, since the prospect of this platform being enacted is every bit as worrying as the prospect of a narcissistic ignoramus like Trump becoming president. For those who don't have the stomach for reading all–or any–of its 54 pages, here are a few of the more disturbing highlights with brief commentary. Images

1. On prejudice and discrimination

The Platform boldly declares that Republicans “oppose discrimination based on race, sex, religion, creed, disability, or national origin and support statutes to end such discrimination.” Question for 5th graders: What is conspicuous by its absence from this list? That's right: no mention of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. A fair question, then, to ask the authors of the manifesto is: Do you, or do you not, oppose discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation? If you do, why don't you say so? You mention many other kinds of discrimination; so why not this one? If, on the other hand, you don't oppose it, why is this?

A hint of an answer (to the last question, at least) can be found elsewhere. Sexual orientation is mentioned just once in the document, when the authors protest against the attempt by Obama and others “to impose a social and cultural revolution on the American people by wrongly redefining sex discrimination to include sexual orientation and other categories.” This agenda, we are told, “has nothing to do with individual rights.” It seems, then, that freedom from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is not a right that Republicans recognize. And I suppose that's why they don't oppose it.

While we're on the topic of prejudice and discrimination, here's another question for 5th graders. How does the above rejection of discrimination based on religion square with Donald Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the country (a proposal he has not disavowed)?

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The Sandy Hook massacre–one year on

by Emrys Westacott

Here are three sad predictions for the coming new year:

  1. One day during 2014 there will be yet another shooting rampage somewhere in America.
  2. The killer will be a male aged between fifteen and forty.
  3. Although there will be renewed calls for stricter gun control, the political establishment will neither address nor even discuss the fundamental questions raised by these periodic killing sprees.

ScreenHunter_472 Dec. 23 10.00In the wake of the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, when twenty children and six adults were killed by a lone gunman, there was much talk about the need for stricter gun control. President Obama urged Congress to pass laws that would strengthen background checks, ban assault weapons, and limit magazine capacity to ten cartridges; but a bill including these measures was defeated in the Senate. At the state level, over a hundred new gun laws have been enacted in 2013, but two-thirds of these loosen rather than tighten restrictions on the buying and owning of guns.

This is regrettable. Without question, laws that make it harder for potential killers (particularly individuals exhibiting signs of mental instability) to acquire guns (particularly semi-automatic assault weapons) would be a good thing. But we are kidding ourselves if we think the availability of such weapons is the main problem.

We need to ask this question: why is it that every few months somewhere in America a young man goes on a killing spree? The regularity with which this occurs suggests it is a symptom of a cultural malaise. So if we really want to address it meaningfully, we have to identify the underlying causes. That means we must first ask these questions:

  1. Why is our society producing these alienated, depressed, angry and mentally unstable young men?
  2. Why does their anger and alienation express itself in the form that it does—typically, a sudden volley of random violence?

Unless and until our response to these tragedies includes trying to tackle questions like these, it will remain superficial and ineffective. Sure, we can increase security at elementary schools; but the killer can always walk into a college classroom, a hospital, a restaurant, or a shopping mall. We can—and should—ban assault weapons; but a dozen people can still be killed with two revolvers. We can more or less eliminate some hazards: tight airport security reduces almost to zero the chances that someone will smuggle weapons or explosives onto a plane. But we cannot eliminate the possibility that a mentally ill person will get hold of a gun and shoot some strangers. No society can. All we can do is try to reduce the likelihood of such incidents. It's all about probabilities.

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