Friday, April 20, 2007


I’ve been missing some blogging, partly because I’m trying to figure out some technical stuff (I finally managed to get a cover on my “Reservation Blackfeet” reference book on and partly because I’m having too many thoughts too quickly to get them organized and posted.

They say that faculty are talking about Cho and the Virginia Tech shooting all over the country. The conversation I’ve been monitoring has been on the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, which includes nature writers but also a great many people enamored of theory, especially the victim-is-blameless post-crit sort of ideas. The comments there have ranged from the out-of-it (“How dare Nikki Giovanni say Cho is evil?” versus “How dare you criticize Nikki Giovanni who is a woman of color, sensitive and insightful?”) to the highly sophisticated.

As a poet who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, who worked for civil rights, who militantly opposed white racism, and who continues to excoriate the oppressions of racism still pervasive in our society, she has an undeniable perspective on evil: its machinations, its embodiments, its transmission. Consider one of her best known poems, "For Saundra" (1968):

i wanted to write
a poem
that rhymes
but revolution doesn't lend
itself to be-bopping

then my neighbor
who thinks i hate
asked--do you ever write
tree poems--i like trees
so i thought
i'll write a beautiful green tree poem
peeked from my window
to check the image
noticed the school yard was covered
with asphalt
no green--no trees grow
in manhattan

then, well, i thought the sky
i'll do a big blue sky poem
but all the clouds have winged
low since no-Dick was elected

so i thought again
and it occurred to me
maybe i shouldn't write
at all
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply
perhaps these are not poetic
at all.


The roots of this narrative go deep, much deeper than American culture. Should anyone wonder about Cho's use of the name Ishmael, be sure to look up Genesis 16:12: "And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man and every man's hand against him." This is why Abraham's maid Haggar gave her child that name. And it fits Cho all too well. This is an ancient narrative indeed.

This murderer, an English major, was no dope. Melville used the name for the same reason. It signifies the loner, the outsider, suicidal and homocidal, the one who is in Melville's term, "wolfish" and against the world. Melville's Ishmael is redeemed by Queequeg, that noble savage and type of the natural romantic man. Too bad Cho never met a Queequeg on his campus. I doubt any of these mental health professionals could have done as well. I suspect he would have run screaming from their psychobabble, even more angry than before.

Some commentators have noted the similarity between Cho's taped statement and those of many Palestinian suicide bombers. THe narrative circle draws tighter. For Ishmael was the son of Abraham cast off into the desert while his brother Isaac got his inheritance. And Ishmael is said to have been the father of the Arabs. So today's Arabs see themselves still as the children of "Ismael." In the Koran, it is Ishmael, not Isaac, whom God tells Abraham to sacrifice. And today in Palestine, the children of Ishmael still battle with the children of Isaac over who is the true son of Abraham, beloved of the Lord, and the rightful inheritor of the land.

Cho too seems to have felt disinherited. He rants against the rich and powerful, clearly himself feeling outside and powerless and propertyless, an Ishmael, like the Arabs, like Abraham's son, like the narrator of MOBY DICK.

He is, unfortunately, not unique, but a type we have had always with us. Solomon was right: THere is nothing new under the sun. The narrative here is our human inheritance; the alienation, our original sin.

Cho is that wolf within us that is indeed evil.

-Preacher Dave

Personally, I think that the cracks in Cho’s psyche happened to line up with the anniversary of Columbine, impending graduation, and a considerable number of our cultural fault lines: love of violence, transgression as retribution, the entitlement of rectitude, gun access, and a lot of other things so that they coincided just right. The experts in the field of mass shooting say to expect several more in the coming weeks, copycats. They say they have averted 12,000 similar incidents through security measures.

I was interested in the counter-Cho, Liviu Librescu, the heroic engineering professor born in 1930 in Romania. He was Jewish and therefore in 1941 he was banished with his family to the equivalent of an Indian Reservation called “Transnistria” where thousands suffered, starved and died. (He was not much older than Cho when Cho's family immigrated.) He survived and his life is posted on Wikipedia. He was rational and math-savvy, knew well the odds when he held the door shut to let his students escape, but he had a strong cultural dedication to resisting danger. He died on the Day of Holocaust Remembrance.

People often think of the reservation here as a place where there might be violence, mass shootings. There are bomb threats every spring, which the administration takes so seriously that they move the students out to sit in school buses while the school is swept. (I always think that a serious bomber would put the bomb under the buses.) We’ve had a series of fatal stabbings, usually in a context of parties, drinking and drugging, sexual competition, class jealousy. High school students of mine have written about beating up, raping, and killing people. (Some of them have actually done it.) Some were startled when they were instantly marched to the counselor. (As was the counselor!) I always got into trouble with the administration for reporting the incidents.

But the most chilling memory comes from the small white high school where I quit after a few months. One boy was fixated on the possibility of an explosion or gunman. He was definitely an oddball who got no respect. The other students said that the administration was always calling him in as a suspect, but in fact he was always innocent. He was brilliant and I tried to assure him that many of his problems would fall away when he got to college.

I had a class that had become notorious for being out of control. They were star athletes, they would tell you, and could do what they wanted. In fact the only reason I was hired was that no one else would take the job. I talked to them, I reviewed all their files, I separated them from the rest of the class and kept them after school, etc. etc. One day I was having lunch with other teachers and asked what they thought I ought to do.

Kill them,” they said. “Murder the bastards.” One of these teachers was an aggressive Christian. Another was a recovering alcoholic. I wouldn’t be very much surprised if they became shooters.


Rebecca Clayton said...

When I started teaching an Adult Basic Ed class and working with expelled students from the local middle school, I began to meet plenty of angry, alienated young men.

There's not much one can do for them--psychiatric treatment is expensive, and distant from here, and they don't seem able to envision themselves changing, or having a better life. I try to treat them decently, and to listen to them. I don't think they notice, and I don't expect it makes any difference.

"Murder the bastards." The trouble with that is collateral damage. Two of my students have killed other people in their suicidal behavior. It's certainly disheartening to hear a teacher say that out loud, at school. It seems like they've given up trying.

Arnold Hur said...

good analysis see

mnuez said...

A most excellent post. Very different from the generic paper-mache posts everyone else is offering. I might caution you against even REPRINTING the poem regarding revolution, if TV newscasters get their way (and there's at least a 1/3 chance that they will) we're about to enter a McCarthyistic timke such as McCarthy could only dream about. Being misanthropic to any degree, sending a non-accepted IM pass to a girl you fancy or calling (even less than halfheartedly) for any form of revolution could see you released from the burden of your rights quite quickly.

I've also just started to travel down the path of some past posts of yours and am appreciating them as well.

God bless,


prairie mary said...

Thanks, folks. I find mnuez' description of Cho's dilemma (on mnuez' blog) to be probably pretty accurate. It also appears that Cho had something organic wrong with him -- his head wasn't wired properly from the beginning. Line up a metabolic or brain glitch, a major family relocation, a society that won't tolerate oddballs, and the pressures of a 23 year old man when all around him were graduating, marrying and finding jobs, tragedy is right there.

Prairie Mary

Richard S. Wheeler said...

This is a most intelligent and perceptive evaluation.

I feared that the country would go into a paroxysm of self-loathing, along the line that our racist/sexist/imperialist/nasty nation drove poor little Cho to do it. But except for the usual few ideologues, people have avoided that nonsense. One wonders how those ideologues explain Booker T. Washington, who achieved what he did when American society was all of the above.

The Genesis story of Abraham and Isaac (and Ishmael) is one of the darkest in the bible, and bespeaks a jealous tribal God, dimly understood, and eons removed from a loving God. It has always troubled me that Muslims have embraced a version of it. You superbly connect Cho to the Muslim world at that common ground.

You have brought genuine ideological, environmental, and psychological factors to bear on all of this, with impressive rigor.