When people in America say "no man is an island," as Joan Didion once put it, they think they are quoting Ernest Hemingway. But when Hemingway annexed the seductive words from John Donne's Devotions, quoting the whole paragraph on his title page and borrowing from it one of the 20th century's most resonant titles, he did not literally mean to say that all funerals are the same or that all deaths are to be regretted equally. He meant that if the Spanish republic went under to fascism, we should all be the losers. It was a matter both of solidarity and of self-interest: Stand by your friends now, or be shamed (and deserted in your turn) later on.
The grisly events at Virginia Tech involved no struggle, no sacrifice, no great principle. They were random and pointless. Those who died were not soldiers in any cause. They were not murdered by our enemies. They were not martyrs. But—just to take one example from the exhausting national sob fest of the past few days—here is how the bells were tolled for them at another national seat of learning. The president of Cornell University, David J. Skorton, ordered the chimes on his campus to be rung 33 times before addressing a memorial gathering. Thirty-three times? Yes. "We are here," announced the head of an institution of higher learning:
for all of those who are gone, for all 33. We are here for the 32 who have passed from the immediate to another place, not by their own choice. We are also here for the one who has also passed. We are one.
For an academic president to have equated 32 of his fellow humans with their murderer in an orgy of "one-ness" was probably the stupidest thing that happened last week, but not by a very wide margin. Almost everybody in the country seems to have taken this non-event as permission to talk the starkest nonsense. And why not? Since the slaughter raised no real issues, it was a blank slate on which anyone could doodle. Try this, from the eighth straight day of breathless coverage in the New York Times. The person being quoted is the Rev. Susan Verbrugge of Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, addressing her congregation in an attempt, in the silly argotof the day, "to make sense of the senseless":
Ms. Verbrugge recounted breaking through the previous week's numbness as she stopped on a morning walk and found herself yelling at the mountains and at God. Though her shouts were initially met with silence, she said, she soon was reassured by the simplest of things, the chirping of birds.
"God was doing something about the world," she said. "Starting with my own heart, I could see good."
Yes, it's always about you, isn't it? (By the way, I'd watch that habit of yelling at mountains and God in the greater Blacksburg area if I were you. Some idiot might take it for a "warning sign.") When piffle like this gets respectful treatment from the media, we can guess that it's not because of the profundity of the emotion but rather because of its extreme shallowness. Those birds were singing just as loudly and just as sweetly when the bullets were finding their targets.
But the quest for greater "meaning" was unstoppable. Will Korean-Americans be "targeted"? (Thanks for putting the idea into the head of some nutcase, but really, what an insulting question!) Last week, I noticed from my window in Washington, D.C., that the Russian trade mission had lowered its flag. President Putin's commercial envoys, too, want to be a part of it all: surely proof in itself of how utterly painless all this vicarious "pain" really is. (And now, what are they going to do for Boris Yeltsin?)
On Saturday night, I watched disgustedly as the president of the United States declined to give his speech to the White House Correspondents Dinner on the grounds that this was no time to be swapping jokes and satires. (What? No words of courage? No urging us to put on a brave face and go shopping or visit Disneyland?) Everyone in the room knew that this was a dismal cop-out, but then everyone in the room also knew that our own profession was co-responsible. If the president actually had performed his annual duty, there were people in the press corps who would have affected shock and accused him of "insensitivity." So, this was indeed a moment of unity—everyone united in mawkishness and sloppiness and false sentiment. From now on, any president who wants to duck the occasion need only employ a staffer on permanent weepy-watch. In any given week, there is sure to be some maimed orphan, or splattered home, or bus plunge, or bunch of pilgrims put to the sword. Best to be ready in advance to surrender all critical faculties and whip out the national hankie.
It was my friend Adolph Reed who first pointed out this tendency to what he called "vicarious identification." At the time of the murder of Lisa Steinberg in New York in 1987, he was struck by the tendency of crowds to show up for funerals of people they didn't know, often throwing teddy bears over the railings and in other ways showing that (as well as needing to get a life) they in some bizarre way seemed to need to get a death. The hysteria that followed a traffic accident in Paris involving a disco princess—surely the most hyped non-event of all time—seemed to suggest an even wider surrender to the overwhelming need to emote: The less at stake, the greater the grieving.
And surrender may be the keyword here. What, for instance, is this dismal rush to lower the national colors all the damned time? At times of real crisis and genuine emergency, such as the assault on our society that was mounted almost six years ago, some emotion could be pardoned. But even then, the signs of sickliness and foolishness were incipient (as in Billy Graham's disgusting sermon at the National Cathedral where he spoke of the victims being "called into eternity"). If we did this every time, the flag would spend its entire time drooping. One should express a decent sympathy for the families and friends of the murdered, a decent sympathy that ought to be accompanied by a decent reticence. Because Virginia Tech—alas for poor humanity—was a calamity with no implications beyond itself. In the meantime, and in expectation of rather stiffer challenges to our composure, we might practice nailing the colors to the mast rather than engaging in a permanent dress rehearsal for masochism and the lachrymose.