[Marxism] In sync with Jeff Sparrow

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 16 15:02:38 MST 2012

Rage against the American Dream

Mark Ames's Going Postal gives a postmodern perspective on the workplace 
murder, says Ed Vulliamy

         Ed Vulliamy	
         The Observer, Saturday 20 January 2007	

Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion in America
by Mark Ames
Snowbooks £7.99, pp327

It came as a shock, but then seemed suddenly inevitable: another news 
bulletin, another school massacre. Almost exactly a year before, I had 
been in Jonesboro, Arkansas, to report the gunning down of four girls at 
Westside Middle School. Now, in April 1999, it was a town called 
Littleton, Colorado, and a school called Columbine High: hardened SWAT 
officers wiping away tears; bereaved parents, their faces crippled with 
sorrow; another little town with its soul torn out by yet another 'rage 
killing'. 'Where's your God now?' the teenaged killer Eric Harris had 
jibed - with what one girl I spoke to called a 'dumb giggle' - before 
opening fire and killing her friend Cassie Bernall.

Then came the excavation into the world of Columbine's 'Trenchcoat 
Mafia', its immersion in guns, rap music, Marilyn Manson and violent 
computer games, and the acclaimed film Bowling for Columbine (2002) by 
Michael Moore. Now comes a book about the history of 'rage killing' in 
America that takes its title not from the school massacres that inspired 
it, but from an expression every American knows. 'Going postal' entered 
the language after a spate of shootings in the US Postal Service 
facilities that began in 1986 with a murderous spree by Patrick Sherrill 
in Edmond, Oklahoma. Ames explains how the shootings coincided with 
'semi-privatisation' under Ronald Reagan that turned working for the 
USPS into a corporate experience like many others in postmodern, 
post-industrial America. But Ames goes further.

There followed many more workplace massacres, the histories of which he 
traces meticulously, and which he posits as acts of enraged rebellion 
against a new system of stress, layoffs and impossible expectations 
which are 'making the world a crueller place' in the new American 
factory - the office - and at places of supposed study. It is an 
apolitical insurgency by people who are, he insists, 'sane'.

In the education system, the stress endured by pupils' parents 'doesn't 
so much trickle down, it rains down from parent to child, like acid 
rain'. Ames draws a direct line between slave rebellions and rage 
killing, arguing that 'the modern American work culture derives from the 
same sources that defined slavery's official work culture'.

But the idea that developing forms of modernity and postmodernity 
devour, reduce and alienate their pawns to the point of violence is as 
old as modern social analysis. And other problems arise in Ames's 
argument, among them the fact that there have not, so far as I know, 
been many, if any, cases of 'rage massacre' in the sweatshops of Asia or 
indeed along the chain of Mexican export assembly plants, or 
maquiladoras, on the United States's southern frontier, where conditions 
are far worse than those in the US itself.

What Ames is writing about is a largely American phenomenon, and mostly 
a white one - with black ghetto gun killing another, though related, 
matter. Ames scorns the way 'Americans wanted to blame everything but 
Columbine High for the massacre' - citing 'a violent culture, Marilyn 
Manson, the internet' and the gun lobby. He wants the mainstream to be 
responsible, not its bogeymen.

Of course he has a point when it comes to the alienation, stress, 
pressure, bullying and loneliness endemic in modern America - imitated 
all over the world, markedly in Britain and Asia - and the violence they 
detonate. But what could be more quintessential to establishment 
America's perversion of its own culture than the factors Ames dismisses: 
violence in the media, on the internet, in mass music, all of it highly 

Is there really such a distance between the hardcore rap lyrics that 
incite violence and the entertainment industry that nurtures them? Or 
between Hollywood violence and extreme violence on the web and in 
computer games designed along Silicon Valley? What if rage killing were 
actually an affirmation of - not a 'rebellion' against - American culture?

The mediocre genius of postmodern mass culture is that it creates what 
appears to be dissent, in order to absorb it at a profit. A more 
interesting volume would collate these outrages, as Ames has done, and 
demonstrate how they were actually inspired by creatures of that same, 
highly established, mass and new digital media, that same postmodern, 
post-industrial culture against which Ames thinks they were directed.

This was pointed out to me, a year before Going Postal was conceived, by 
David Grossman, a former army psychologist who had tutored soldiers in 
the psychological art of killing in Vietnam, and had come to live in 
Jonesboro. By the time of the massacre there, he was a college tutor in 
'killology', and he told me how what he called the 'continued stimulus 
and conditioned response' to ensure that a soldier would kill were 
'manifest all over mainstream American civilian society, on television, 
in the rap music, in computer games'. During his experiments, children 
accomplished at cyber-killing became eager and skilful marksmen on a 
clay-pigeon shoot.

But how far do we want to go in 'understanding' rage killers, and 
defining their rampages in terms of 'rebellion'? We in Britain tend to 
regard American rage killing as something of a video game in itself - a 
passage in that fantasy mental screen narrative we call 'Americana'. But 
what if we bring it home? Covering Jonesboro and Columbine were coloured 
for me by the unforgettable honour of having previously met an 
extraordinary man called Mick North, whose daughter was killed, along 
with 15 other children, at Dunblane primary school in 1996 by Thomas 
Hamilton, who had a grudge against the local scouts, against parents of 
children at the school and against the local police, all two of them. Do 
we really want to 'understand' what Hamilton did in terms of 
'alienation' from our admittedly rotten and 'postal' society? And if we 
don't, does that make us 'Outraged of Tunbridge Wells?' No, it doesn't. 
Closing Ames's book and trying to think of Hamilton as any kind of 
revolutionary or victim ... sorry, it just doesn't work.

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