Another High School Massacre

jonathan flanders jon_flanders at
Mon Mar 5 22:13:35 MST 2001

Re the latest school shootup in the US.

Here is a paper from James Howard Kunstler's web site on the subject. I
just finished reading his book "The Geography of Nowhere," which is a
classic critique of our post WW2 suburban car culture. More samples of his
writings are on his web site at

Jon Flanders

Where Evil Dwells
Reflections on the Columbine School Massacre
Paper Delivered at the
Congress for the New Urbanism
by James Howard Kunstler
Milwaukee, June 6, 1999

    When we set aside all the technical considerations and all the familiar
economic arguments and tedious political angles that swirl around this
enormous and momentous field of human ecology, we're left with the question
of how it affects our souls. That this question gets such spectacularly
short shrift in the public discussion is itself a powerful indictment of
our idiot contemporary culture, because what could be of more profound
importance to each and every one of us than how we feel about our literal
place in the world?

    How do we even account for such a fabulous failure of moral

     I believe that there is such a thing as mainstream culture, which
changes, mutates, and readapts itself over time in an organic process akin
to the way other living systems grow and change. I believe that in the past
and up into our time, American culture has admitted a notion of the human
spirit, that such a thing exists and is worthy of our attention. We know
this from reading Emerson, Thoreau, Lincoln, Whitman, Santayana, Mumford,
Flannery O'Conner, Alan Ginsburg, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, and scores
of others who were moved to express themselves on the subject. Is there a
more potent phrase in our national letters than "the better angels of our
nature" invoked by Lincoln.

    I don't think there can be any doubt that the issues of the human
spirit have been embedded in our national habits of thinking and that, at
one time or another, they occupied a broad band in the mainstream. But what
is it about the particular nature of our time that appears to have
suppressed them, tried to vanquish them, or driven them to the margins of
our collective psychology?

    My sense is that American culture has an unfortunate tendency toward
abstraction, and where the idea of the human spirit meets the issues of
place, this tendency becomes very troublesome because this is exactly where
the abstract collides with the concrete. The situation is badly aggravated
by those professional agents of untruth, the corporate advertisers,
marketers, and spin-doctors who bombard the populace with so many
deliberately false messages that language itself loses its vested authority
as the best medium for an honest understanding of the real world.
Professional intellectuals (especially academics) have ceded the moral
ground as defenders of reality by adopting the same despicable tactics as
the advertisers and spin doctors in trying to advance a wishful politically
leveling view of the world that does not comport with organizing principles
of nature, which tend to be hierarchical. Abstraction, therefore, becomes a
refuge for those who fear the actual nature of things. (That it is tragic
when intellectuals surrender this ground is another matter.)

    What we've gotten in America the past several generations is some very
very bad, very untruthful ideas about the nature of reality, among them:
that there may not indeed be any such thing as objective reality, that the
virtual is an adequate substitute for the authentic; that the abstract is
identical to the particular (i.e. that the idea of something counts as much
as the thing itself); that wishing is the same as doing; that nothing is
inherently better than any other thing; that all behaviors, values,
attitudes, undertakings, and aspirations are equally valid (and equally

    But what could be more concrete than a particular spot on the planet,
its specific quality and character in relation to our experience of that
place, including our memories of the past there and our hopes and
expectations about the future there? For most of modern history - that is,
since men gave up a nomadic existence for a settled one - this complex of
ideas and emotions has been bundled into the notion of a place called
home.Of course, in contemporary American culture, where every mass-produced
vinyl box is called a "home" - whether it possesses any of the real
qualities that define the nature of a home - it becomes impossible to endow
any place with meaning, or conduct an intelligible conversation about it.

    The deliberate, relentless perversion of truth and truthfulness in our
culture has prompted us to give ourselves permission to create a human
ecology that is, for practical purposes, the anti-place. It is the dwelling
place of untruth. We call it suburbia. A cartoon of rural life, with none
of the qualities of it. I believe we in the CNU recognize its profound
culturally toxic nature, and yet it has become as commonplace as the fog of
lies and propaganda that envelopes us, and we cannot quite believe that
something so ubiquitous can be so deeply, thoroughly evil.

    The school massacre at Littleton, Colorado, just over a month ago is a
case in point. Notice how the nation went through a highly ritualized act
of national handwringing while evincing a shocking inability to examine the
nature of the place where the deed occurred in relation to the deed itself,
or the relation of the place, the deed, and the spirits of the young people
who lived in the place and carried out the deed. None of this was difficult
to understand, either. We just didn’t want to look.

    I've been to Littleton, and this is what you get there: a place with no
sense of a past, no hope of a future, and a spiritually degrading present.
The common complaint about these brand-new mega-suburbs is that "everything
looks the same." This is only the most superficial symptom of their evil
nature. Not only is everything the same in Littleton as in thousands of
other anti-places created in the name of prosperity and economic expansion,
but the components of this massive sameness have in common their nature as
a massive cultural swindle, resulting in an ecology of lies. The chief lie
concerns our relation to the passage of time.

    There is nothing more fundamental to the nature of reality, and to the
role of humans within it, than the continuity of life through time; that
things, events, and personalities came before us and made way for us, as we
will have to make way for new things, events, and personalities, with the
expectation that across time we will all - the dead, the living, and the
unborn - contribute to a chain of being (as Jefferson’s generation called
it), in a process of dynamic disequilibrium that adds up to more than the
sum of each thing, event, and personality, and supports a unifying quest
toward a state of grace.

    This is exactly what suburbia, the anti-place, lacks. It is easy to see
that there is no past. It might take a little reflection - but not much -
to perceive that it has no future. Its present is a dangerously provisional
collective hallucination, nourished by a sado-masochistic idiot pop
culture, which can fall apart at the slightest provocation. (We have a name
for this collective hallucination, by the way: The American Dream, a sort
of mega-lie stating that this sort of ghastly provisional collective
hallucination is the ultimate state of being worth aspiring to.) I maintain
that the provisional order of the anti-place is continually being subverted
by an array of logical human responses. Most are self-defense mechanisms of
one sort or another. For instance, teen drug use as a social phenomenon
exists because the ecology of the anti-place is so deeply unrewarding,
corrosive, and degrading that the spirit demands analgesia. Teen drug abuse
is really self-medication gone awry. Likewise, teen violence is a logical
response to the deep sense of purposelessness generated by the American
Dream. Just as young adults begin to acquire some inkling of their physical
and mental power as human beings, and lacking any notion as to how these
might be used to construct a purposeful life, the kids squander their
poorly understood personal power to act in a single reckless act intended
to destroy the legitimacy of their everyday environment and everything that
it represents.

    I doubt that there is anything more malign about the anti-place than
its failure to furnish any sense of a future for young people. If anyone
needs the signifiers of a hopeful future it is children and teenagers.
Since the anti-place is the home of untruth, however, it is perfectly
logical that it fails most those young persons which it pretends to serve
best. It is especially shameful that adults and professionals insist
despite all evidence to the contrary that suburbia, the anti-place is "a
great place for kids." Supporting this lie contributes directly to the
slaughter of their own children.

    (By the way, wasn’t it horrifyingly embarrassing when, at the start of
our air war against the Serbians, American children carried out an
effective act of war against their own culture? Fifteen dead, many wounded.
How could we explain this to ourselves. We couldn’t. We failed to. We
stopped trying eventually because the truth was too painful)

    When I say "signifiers," by the way, I mean that combination of
physical artifacts, institutions, and the ideas and feelings invested in
them, that traditionally inform people who and where they are in the world,
where they’ve come from and where they might be going. For instance, the
organic system of authentic village, town, neighborhood, or city contains
the requisite organs for assuring the continuity of human life - the civic
organs, the commercial organs, the cultural organs, the family organs, and
so on. One of the chief characteristics of the anti-place, suburbia, is
that it lacks these organs, and therefore is not a living organism existing
within a hierarchy of other living organisms - the person, the family, the
group, the village, the region, the biosphere, and so on.

    The anti-place fails to signify to young people that such a thing as a
plausible future exists, so that by utilizing one’s powers of personal
sovereignty, one might create a life worth living in a place worth living
in. Clearly, the two young men who shot up Columbine high school came from
circumstances that seemed to furnish all the requisite advantages for a
positive development to adulthood. And what they just as clearly lacked was
enough of a sense of a hopeful future to chose any other path besides their
own deliberate self-destruction following an orgy of wrathful bloodletting.
I don’t think we can over-estimate the depth and degree of anomie breeding
in the thousands of anti-places that are designed to the specifications of
Littleton, Colorado. By anomie, I mean, according to the dictionary:
Social instability caused by steady erosion of standards and values.
Alienation and purposelessness experienced by a person or a class as a
result of a lack of standards and values. Personal disorganization
resulting in unsociable behavior.

    If we were truthful and realistic about the way we were living in
America, we would expect tragic outbursts like the Columbine massacre at
regular intervals, and not be the least bit surprised, nor go through the
disingenuous rituals of shock and disbelief. (And, in fact, we have been
getting school massacres at regular intervals.) Because we know that we
have created a vast and evil setting for American life to take place in.

    I often joke that we are a wicked people who deserve to be punished.
But the joke is, it’s no joke. I believe it with all my heart. I also often
remark in my public utterances that when we succeed in creating enough
places that are not worth caring about, that we will succeed in becoming a
nation that is not worth defending, and a way of life that is not worth
carrying on. We are guilty of foreclosing our own future, and we are evil
because we don’t care.
    If this is seems like a pessimistic view of the current situation than
I congratulate you on your powers of perception.

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