Mass Shootings, Young Men, and What Can Be Done

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Monday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What do you think about guns, the right to bear arms, gun deaths, and gun policy?

Conversations of Note

Yesterday an 18-year-old gunman killed at least 19 elementary-school children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, a city of roughly 15,000 residents about 80 miles west of San Antonio. The mass shooting reignited America’s long-running debate about gun policy. Here’s President Joe Biden:

These kinds of mass shootings rarely happen elsewhere in the world. Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with it? It’s time to turn this pain into action.

And former President Barack Obama:

Across the country, parents are putting their children to bed, reading stories, singing lullabies—and in the back of their minds, they’re worried about what might happen tomorrow after they drop their kids off at school, or take them to a grocery store or any other public space.

Michelle and I grieve with the families in Uvalde, who are experiencing pain no one should have to bear.

We’re also angry for them. Nearly ten years after Sandy Hook—and ten days after Buffalo—our country is paralyzed, not by fear, but by a gun lobby and a political party that have shown no willingness to act in any way that might help prevent these tragedies.

It’s long past time for action, any kind of action. And it’s another tragedy—a quieter but no less tragic one—for families to wait another day.

May God bless the memory of the victims, and in the words of Scripture, heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.

Matt Yglesias puts the mass shooting in context:

There were 16,669 people murdered in the United States in 2019—a staggeringly high number compared to other rich countries. In 2020 that shot up to 21,570 people—over 13 extra murders per day. And in the 2021 preliminary data the number went up again albeit more modestly.

For more information on child deaths from firearms see here.

David Frum calls on America to get in line with other wealthy democracies:

We will learn more about the 18-year-old killer of elementary-school children: his personality, his ideology, whatever confection of hate and cruelty drove him to his horrible crime. But we already know the answer to one question: Who put the weapon of mass murder into his hand? The answer to that question is that the public policy of this country armed him.

Every other democracy makes some considerable effort to keep guns away from dangerous people, and dangerous people away from guns. For many years—and especially since the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School almost a decade ago—the United States has put more and more guns into more and more hands: 120 guns per 100 people in this country. The years of the pandemic have been the years of the greatest gun sales in U.S. history: almost 20 million guns sold in 2020; another 18.5 million sold in 2021. No surprise, those two years also witnessed a surge in gun violence: the spectacular human butchery of our recurring mass slaughters; the surge of one-on-one lethal criminality; the unceasing tragic toll of carelessness as American gun owners hurt and kill their loved ones and themselves.

Most of us are appalled. But not enough of us are sufficiently appalled to cast our votes to halt it.

David French points to a Washington Post fact-check that casts doubt on whether some types of gun restrictions would prevent mass shootings. He advocates for the passage of “red flag” laws instead:

The idea is simple—if a person exhibits behavior indicating that they might be a threat to themselves or others (such as suicidal ideation or violent fantasies), a member of his family, a school official, or a police officer can go to court to secure an order that permits police to seize his weapons and prohibit him from purchasing any additional weapons … A well-drafted red flag law should contain abundant procedural safeguards, including imposing a burden of proof on the petitioner, hearing requirements, and a default expiration date unless the order is renewed … But its potential effectiveness … is crystal clear.

In 2018—after the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey proposed a comprehensive safe schools program that incorporated a series of measures that were based on careful analysis of each and every significant school shooting since Columbine. I’d urge you to read the entire document. Ducey proposed enhanced background checks, an increased security presence at schools, and increased mental health resources. He also proposed a red flag law, and to support that proposal he included this chart … Note that in every one of the deadliest school shootings, the shooter exhibited behavior before the shooting that could have triggered a well-drafted red flag law. But it’s not enough just to pass a red flag law. We have to educate citizens and police about their existence and scope. Laws don’t enforce themselves.

The conservative podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey argues that the United States is failing its young men:

That’s the one commonality in the vast majority of mass shootings. It’s not race or ideology. They’re young males. We are doing absolutely everything wrong when it comes to promoting healthy masculinity, purpose, & goodness for these boys and men. If we really cared, we would be doing EVERYTHING we can to promote fatherhood, hard work, & honor. We’d be getting these boys off the internet and into hobbies and jobs and communities where they can channel their strength. We’d be desperately pushing them toward meaning.

Our denial of innate gender differences, coupled with the demonizing of masculine strength, don’t help. There is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to do and no one to live for. There is also nothing more beneficial to a community than a man with purpose and love. It’s much easier to offer meaningless political talking points than it is to reckon with the societal, spiritual ROT that’s eroded our foundations and connections. And most people don’t see it, because they are contributors to the moral deficit our country faces.

Maybe we should all ask—what are our churches, schools, organizations, neighborhoods doing to address this problem? How are we helping fatherless, purposeless boys? Many are already doing good work. We can all do more. There truly has to be a moral revolution—a radical recalibration of our values—a great awakening—for anything to change. Impossible without the grace of God and a whole lot of effort on our part.

Jeffrey Goldberg mulled the gun-policy debate in this 2012 feature in The Atlantic.

A Tenured Dissenter’s Termination

Academia is abuzz over Princeton University’s decision to fire Joshua Katz, a tenured professor of classics and an outspoken critic of attempts by the social-justice left to transform the institution, in part by implementing changes that critics argue would constrain free speech and academic freedom. The Academic Freedom Alliance has complained that Princeton retaliated against him as a result.

Katz has been embroiled in controversy since publishing a 2020 article in Quillette objecting that an open letter signed by scores of his colleagues included dozens of proposals that “would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.” The piece also characterized a student activist group that employed aggressive tactics as “a small local terrorist organization,” a locution many Katz critics denounced. Katz’s defenders tend to believe that he would not have been terminated but for his dissenting speech. Princeton’s statement on the firing attributed it to a “detailed written complaint from an alumna who had a consensual relationship with Dr. Katz while she was an undergraduate under his academic supervision,” alluding to a relationship that ended in 2007. Katz was later investigated and given a one-year unpaid suspension as punishment for his behavior. The case was reopened this year after Princeton’s student newspaper reported on it and the alumna filed a complaint with the university.

Here’s how Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed reported the story:

The unnamed alumna did not participate in or cooperate with the 2018 disciplinary proceeding, according to Princeton. But when she came forward in 2021, she provided what Princeton called “new information,” triggering a new investigation. The second inquiry did not revisit the policy violations for which Katz was previously punished, according to Princeton: “It only considered new issues that came to light because of new information provided by the former student.”

“The 2021 investigation established multiple instances in which Dr. Katz misrepresented facts or failed to be straightforward during the 2018 proceeding, including a successful effort to discourage the alumna from participating and cooperating after she expressed the intent to do so,” the university said. “It also found that Dr. Katz exposed the alumna to harm while she was an undergraduate by discouraging her from seeking mental health care although he knew her to be in distress, all in an effort to conceal a relationship he knew was prohibited by university rules. These actions were not only egregious violations of university policy, but also entirely inconsistent with his obligations as a member of the faculty.”

Katz has previously denied that he engaged in any conduct beyond that for which he was suspended in 2018.

Katz told his side of the story in The Wall Street Journal:

Nearly two years ago, I wrote in these pages, “I survived cancellation at Princeton.” I was wrong. The university where I taught for nearly a quarter of a century, and which promoted me to the tenured ranks in 2006, has revoked my tenure and dismissed me. Whoever you are and whatever your beliefs, this should terrify you.

The issues around my termination aren’t easy to summarize. What is nearly impossible to deny (though Princeton does deny it) is that I have been subjected to “cultural double jeopardy,” with the university relitigating a long-past offense—I had a consensual relationship with a 21-year-old student—for which I was already suspended for a year without pay well over a decade after my offense. This was, I emphasize, a violation of an internal university rule, not a Title IX matter or any other crime.

Why would one of the country’s leading educational institutions do this to a successful faculty member who once made a grave mistake, admitted to this mistake as soon as he was investigated for it and served his time without complaint? Unfortunately, the current environment makes the question all too easy to answer: In the summer of George Floyd, certain opinions about the state of America that would have been considered normal only a few months earlier suddenly became anathema. For better or worse, I was the first on campus to articulate some of these opinions, publicly criticizing a number of “antiracist” demands, some of them clearly racist and illegal, that hundreds of my colleagues had signed on to in an open letter to the administration in early July 2020.

While I stand by my words to this day, even in the immediate aftermath of the faculty letter, few of my colleagues gave signs of standing by theirs. But as they go about their merry destructive way, I live with the tremendous backlash against me, which has never ceased.

Pamela Paresky opines:

The effort to fire Katz seems to me to be an effective way to warn other professors that if they’ve made any past mistakes, they forever live under a Sword of Damocles—even tenure cannot protect them if they say or write the wrong thing.

National Review questions Princeton’s actions in an editorial:

What Princeton is preparing to do gives off a revolting odor of using a long-settled matter as a pretext to punish one of its most distinguished professors because he dared to challenge race orthodoxy. The impression Princeton is creating is that elite institutions are now moving into punishing dissent from the leftist catechism by veering off into character assassination. The potential for a catastrophic chilling effect on academic freedom of thought is obvious.

John K. Wilson makes a similar argument at the Academe blog:

It is clear that Katz would never have been subjected to a second investigation if not for the outrage over his offensive comments. I’m not alleging that Princeton administrators are punishing Katz because of those comments. But the attention on Katz’s sexual relationship with his student, which led to this second investigation, only resulted from the debate over Katz’s political opinions and excellent journalism by the Daily Princetonian that led to Katz’s former student finally coming forward to reveal what she knew to the administration.

While professors should not be immune from punishment for misconduct merely because they are controversial, we should be worried whenever a professor is being fired indirectly as a consequence of extramural statements because it has a chilling effect on free speech. Colleges need to be concerned about this impact, and only punish professors in such circumstances when the evidence of misconduct is overwhelming. That’s not the case here.

Provocations of the Week

In a lengthy essay hypothesizing that the COVID-19 pandemic “brought liberalism’s deeper contradictions into plain view,” Matthew Crawford includes this assessment of social distancing:

Social distancing might be regarded as a heightened version of the late-liberal social condition, in which intermediary institutions that situate the individual in associations with others have badly eroded, as Robert Putnam documented in his book Bowling Alone. Hannah Arendt found social atomisation to be among the conditions that give rise to totalitarian movements. In the absence of a shared world, we latch on to ersatz sources of solidarity, and the Party offers just this. Disconnected individuals coalesce into a mass, which is very different from a community. Her analysis suggests liberal individualism has latent in it a tendency to totalitarianism, as a kind of overcorrection. This is one way to make sense of the cultish vibe of hygiene maximalists—as spiritual soldiers of the nascent hygiene state.

Lockdowns kicked our social atomisation to a level we’ve never seen before. Loneliness profoundly damages our ability to orient in the world and distinguish what is real from what is in one’s head, as the work of Ian Marcus Corbin shows. With little shared material existence to provide an intersubjective anchor, we found what solace we could in disembodied interaction on social media. Screen time rose dramatically for all demographics. But such interaction tends toward the feedback loops and brittleness of merely verbally constituted tribes who have no skin in the game because they lack the shared, pragmatic interests of those who inhabit a real world together.

The good invoked by our hygiene maximalists was that of health. But not health considered broadly, which would require an accounting of the health costs of lockdowns. There is a lively empirical debate about this in the back channels of the Internet, as well as about the efficacy of lockdowns in controlling the course of the pandemic, quite apart from any rise in non-Covid mortality they may have caused.

My point here isn’t to litigate these factual questions, which are contested. But I do want to register the lack of curiosity about them in officialdom, and note that among those who identify as liberals, there seems to be little interest in such an accounting, though it would seem to be crucial. The real attachment seems to be, not to actual health, but to a source of collective meaning that floats free of the empirical: the Covid emergency itself.

In an essay revisiting the subject of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, its author, William Deresiewicz, notices that “the authority, parental as well as institutional, that the young are now facing” is authority “that does not believe in authority, that does not believe in itself.” He writes:

Children can’t be children if adults are not adults, but children also can’t become adults. They need something solid: to lean on when they’re young, to define themselves against as they grow older. Children become adults—autonomous individuals—by separating from their parents: by rebelling, by rejecting, by, at the very least, asserting. But how do you rebel against parents who regard themselves as rebels? How do you reject them when they accept your rejection, understand it, sympathize with it, join it?

The 1960s broke authority, and it has never been repaired. It discredited adulthood, and adulthood has never recovered. The attributes of adulthood—responsibility, maturity, self-sacrifice, self-control—are no longer valued, and frequently no longer modeled. So children are stuck: they want to be adults, but they don’t know how. They want to be adults, but it’s easier to remain children. Like children, they can only play at being adults.

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