“And all the time–such is the tragi-comedy of our situation–we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
-C.S. Lewis,The Abolition of Man
One of the first words I read about Newtown came in a Facebook post from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, which read: “Reports suggest that some have been killed in this latest Connecticut school shooting, with heartbreaking photos of kids fleeing the school. How many school and mall shootings before we regulate guns as seriously as cars?”
Kristof’s question hurt because the problem is so much deeper than a question that implies that with the “right” law, this tragedy wouldn’t have happened (never mind that criminals always find a way to exist one step in front of the laws). Simple problem, simple solution. But it’s not a simple problem or solution, and I have a feeling it implicates more areas of our lives—basic assumptions we so enjoy trusting—than we’d care to admit. And a way forward might look a lot more like a way backwards than we’d be comfortable with, lovers of “progress” that we are.
This dilemma illustrates well why I have so little hope for top-down policies to solve our real problems, the ones that make us tremble and fear and cry at night. Our legislation so often medicates effects and pretends we are solving the causes. Kristof’s question, and any new law we could write, would do nothing to acknowledge, let alone confront, that we are a society of depressed people, grasping for every numbing device in sight. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to shoot people; lives and schools and communities and churches and jobs and rejections and illnesses lead people there.
Our policies–and our technology and culture–so often operate under the lie that we will legislate and technologize ourselves to perfection one day. We try to relieve ourselves from the very things we need: the vulnerability of intimacy, commitment to a real and tangible locality, a respect for limits, and a practice of gratitude. In his thoughtful essay, “The Politics of the Clothesline,”Skyler Reidy describes these two visions as a clash of industrial versus agrarian ideals. The industrial perspective, which is our default mode today, is encapsulated in the biblical story of Babel–one of the truest stories ever told– and we’re losing so many of our children, friends, and family members en route to that mythical perfect world, where we can say with finality, “I am the God of my existence.”Why does it surprise us when the machine technology we so worship can also be used to kill us?