So did I tell you the one where I was locked in a closet with a school secretary and a delivery boy during an active shooter drill?
It’s actually not the set up for a really awkward, dystopian romcom, and the fact that I haven’t got it in me to write the setup for a romcom of any kind is probably one of the basic problems of my personality. It’s just a thing that actually happened earlier this year, when I was picking up a kid for a dental appointment and had the bad luck and worse timing to arrive at school in time for a lockdown exercise. And they’re thorough about that kind of thing nowadays, so if you’re there, and not (presumably) armed in any obvious way, you, the delivery boy and the staff are all going in the closet together. To address the only question anybody wanted to ask me at the time, no one ended up making out. But more to the point, nothing about it felt particularly exceptional at all. Nor, I suppose, was it. The banality of social disintegration can’t really be overstated.
Point being that lockdown drills, actual lockdowns, perimeter lockdowns, security alerts, delayed release, actual closures under threat and the whole dire apparatus have become the background noise of my children’s lives and, by extension, my own. Like most parents I have to pick up the phone when a call comes in from the school, but I confess that at this point the little thrill of worry that used to greet every call from a 554 prefix is already fading into a twitch of annoyance. I still pick up, but there are a few seconds’ delay when it’s an automated call (as opposed to the nurse, who is human). At that point I hang on only long enough to know whether one of my kid’s schools has been hit, and whether I have to do anything differently around getting them home. Then I get back to my meeting.
That could be read as exaggeration, me being performatively blasé or macabre for effect. But you have to understand that these calls some in almost every week. And those are just the real events, not all shootings by any means, but all the credible threats and weird characters and whatever the hell else goes on. This is not at all counting the drills and practice runs that the kids go through. Which means that the kids are getting the message loud and clear: hunting children has become the go-to gesture of disaffection for our culture, and the grownups aren’t going to do anything about it.
I touched on similar things a few weeks ago in my Blast Radius post, drawing a parallel between the state of mortal anxiety that my own kids are asked to navigate, and the similar state of mortal anxiety that characterized my own childhood in the late years of the Cold War. So I was interested to read Joe Pinsker’s excellent article in the Atlantic this week drawing a similar comparison. I’d been thinking originally of the global threats that my kids have to contemplate, with a broad media consensus that the world will shortly burn, and they with it. But the school shooting phenomenon sits right alongside the promise of a broiled planet, giving the threat of immanent death a more hands-on, intimate aspect. I imagine that for the kids, it’s all part of a continuum.
I say I imagine, because the kids don’t really talk to me about it. Nor do I remember talking about the nuclear threat with my own parents, now that I think of it. I’m certainly available to talk about it, and the kids know that, but they don’t want to. I’m not sure that I want to. Because you’re supposed to have something to say, and there is nothing to say. Colorado is ground zero for school shootings. As of this year, it’s actually become a tourist destination for the well-armed mentally ill. If you want to shoot children, and an awful lot of people do, this is the place. So I’m supposed to say what, exactly? Offer them what?
I have a philosophy, not merely an attitude, of pessimism, and part of that for me is the willingness to call an intractable problem an intractable problem. We haven’t got a path on this right now. Our culture war has become too important, and children are only one entry in the ledger of collateral damage that we’re collectively willing to accept.
I said “we,” not “they.”
Every issue that bears on schools shootings – guns, mental health access, health care, schools themselves – breaks down along political lines, and nothing on that front is going to move right now. The reason (and I understand how crazy this is going to sound, but try to stick with me for a minute) is that our culture is locked in a moment of irrational optimism. Until we, we give that up, we can’t fix this.
It works like this. I live in a purple state. Politically, I have eclectic views. But because of those things I don’t live in a political bubble. I have friends very much on the right and friends very much on the left, and nearly all of them are lost in a fantasy of transformative change. Specifically, they believe that somehow, by means yet to be discovered, the other half of the country can be gotten rid of, or at the very least neutralized. And when this happens, they believe, they can finally have the society that they want. That’s optimism, wild, corrosive, and lethal. And we’ve hung the entire world on it.
It takes optimism to believe in that kind of transformation, because no act of dour reason will ever get you there. You’ve got to have a mystical belief in the eventual rightness of your cause, and in the power of that rightness to move the engines of history. For that matter, you’ve got to believe that history has engines to be moved. And you’ve got to be so fervent in all these beliefs that you’ll risk everything you are and have in its service.
I’m a conscientious objector to the culture war, partly because I love people on both sides, but mostly because I don’t believe in victory for either. The future of Western culture, if there is one, doesn’t lie in the ascendency of the righteous, whoever the fuck they are. It lies in the grimy and profoundly unsatisfying work of learning, somehow, to live together with someone whose views you find abhorrent, but with whom to have to work. It means lots and lots of dull, quotidian compromises and a few really difficult ones. It means a world in which no one is happy and no one necessarily wins, but out of which a few least-bad options can be hammered out. Understand, I’m not trying to offer up an alternative utopia here. I don’t dream of some harmony of man. I dream of endless acrimony, but it’s an acrimony anchored in healthy despair. The necessary despair of ever winning the war, and of ever getting it right. The future I dream of will basically suck. But it’s a future.
Look, I know how badly all this plays. There’s nothing exciting about the idea that we live in a badly fractured and totally bifurcated culture, and that none of this is going to change and that the only hope is give up our ambitions of anything better and start working with what we have. But that’s what we’ve got, and it’s going to take some pretty aggressive Pol Pot shit to make it any other way. The good news is that I don’t think either side has got the grapes, for now. But the reality is that my vision isn’t going to sell. Pessimism never outsells optimism. Resignation never outsells transformative vision. Despair never outsells even if the most destructive forms of hope. I don’t think you can sell despair at all. You just have to get there organically, on your own. If there’s a thread of hope, it’s that eventually most of us do. Whether there’s time for that is another question.
There are no good things about school shootings, but one of the least-bad things is that by and large they haven’t yet taken on an explicitly political cast. They will. But until then we can live still live in harmony in the supply closet. Until the shooter finds us, anyway.