Friday, April 27, 2007


Shortly after my house-hunting trip to San Diego in 1984, James Huberty slaughtered 21 men, women, and children at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro. Though I had often read about such incidents, this one brought with it a new stomach-churning sensation—as pit stops at the golden arches had been frequent for a penny-pinching family with two young daughters. “It could have happened where we were” was the thought that accompanied the nauseating gastric whirl.

Today the McDonald’s in San Ysidro has been razed and a memorial with 21 pillars commemorates the victims, but the mass violence that started in 1966 with James Whitman’s deadly sniping from the University of Texas tower, continues.

Last Friday was the eighth anniversary of the Columbine murders—an event cited with admiration by Cho Seung-Hui, the killer who now holds not only America’s single-day mass-murder record but also (thanks to NBC and follow-the-leader news outlets) the record for post-mortem media exposure.

In the wake of Monday’s massacre, many copycat threats were issued—and numerous hyper-precautionary measures taken. Locally, an Internet message promising a disaster greater than Virginia Tech frayed nerves at SDSU until authorities tracked down the demented sender.

SDSU, of course, is no stranger to violence. Witness the 1996 murder of three professors by a graduate student. And at area high schools, the much-publicized Santee killings in March of 2001 were followed less than three weeks later by the non-lethal Granite Hills shooting spree. Obviously, what happened in Blacksburg, Virginia, has also happened here—most destructively in San Ysidro.

Significantly, both Huberty and the Virginia Tech killer expressed anger toward society in general at the time of their acts. Cho’s rambling diatribes were mostly directed at amorphous targets—rich hedonists who drink vodka and cognac—not at anyone in particular. “They” were the ones who, in Cho’s paranoid mind, made him do it. Similarly, before his deadly rampage in San Ysidro, Huberty announced that, “society had its chance.” Unfortunately, Huberty and Cho had only glancing or irregular (and obviously inadequate) contact with mental health professionals.

One could speculate that the free-floating rage expressed by deranged minds will exist regardless of societal models. But I think it’s safe to assume that the venom and violence regularly marketed in our culture at least reinforce the imaginary grievances of mentally disturbed individuals.

By contrast, imagine a culture in which civility is prized—where slasher films and the f-word are denounced like the n-word, where victimhood is eyed with suspicion, where political opponents are discussed with linguistic restraint, not vilified as sub-human monsters.

Most importantly, imagine a culture where gratitude is expressed as frequently as, in today’s society, rights are invoked. Such an environment would provide those on the edge a portrait of benevolence that doesn’t foster delusions.

Unfortunately it’s hard in our media-shaped world (where gratitude is as unpopular as temperance) to distinguish homicidal maniacs from your typical bloviating narcissist.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Darwin, David Brooks, and Mass Murder

David Brooks’ column on the status of Darwinism in Western culture appeared in my local paper the day after Cho Seung-Hui murdered thirty-two human beings in Blacksburg, Virginia—a record for campus slaughter that surpassed the mark set by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966. In his piece Brooks touts the prevailing biological orthodoxy that “human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code” and that we “are driven primarily by a desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.”

Brooks then says that the “logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival.”

Like many columnists (including secular soulmate, George Will) Brooks occasionally dabbles in academic topics. But the above remarks illustrate his philosophical naiveté. A committed evolutionist and Academic Dean at a prominent La Jolla prep school once gratuitously announced at a faculty meeting, “Evolution is ateleological”—a statement that means the process has “no purpose.” (The Dean proceeded to suggest, incomprehensibly, that evolution’s lack of direction should serve as an educational model.)

In addition to lacking “purpose,” nature, for evolution professionals, is constantly expending energy on things that don’t “enhance the chance of survival.” When, however, its random products don’t survive, evolutionary theory declares them “unfit.” Dinosaurs, for example, were “fit” for a while; then nature “selected” against them. Put otherwise, the species died out. Strictly speaking, “fitness” and “currently existing” are virtual synonyms for real, as opposed to romantic, evolutionists.

The “purpose” that Brooks mentions in his column is really a product of theoretical hindsight—not of intention. One must slip a personifying image of Mother Nature through an intellectual back door to make the term mean what Brooks implies in his paean-of-sorts to Richard Dawkins’ “Blind Watchmaker.”

These analytical comments bring me back to Virginia Tech and mass murder. I don’t think Brooks would be willing to employ even his prettified Darwinism to explain the “purpose” of that slaughter. (Keep in mind that all “benefits” of “trait(s), like emotion,” that “can cause big problems” must refer to the propagation of genes.) Certainly, the cosmic purposelessness espoused by Dawkins would be a word untimely spoken at last Tuesday’s memorial convocation.

On the topic of emotion I add my own quizzical lines to those of the Hokies’ poet in residence:

How understand sweet love
beneath this meta-Physical model?
A means of species propagation?
A lucky hit?
Are tears to be reduced to adaptations
in the pointless quest for life?

In short, the language of sociobiology doesn’t comprehend what humans consider most important—like the heroism of Holocaust survivor and Professor Liviu Librescu, who gave his life that others might live. To reduce the poignant irony of Librescu’s sacrificial act to a function of genetic compulsion is to embrace a blindness as great as the blindness that confuses being alive with the purpose of living.

Brooks declares that Darwin has replaced Freud, Marx, and earlier, the Bible, as a unifying Western cosmology. Like Marx and Freud, however, Darwin has no language that takes seriously individual acts of good and evil. Instead, good and evil become epiphenomena generated by impersonal forces that lie beyond good and evil. This fatal flaw trivializes, and continues to spawn, acts of horror in Brooks’ “postmodern” West.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Comedian Bill Engvall’s most famous routine focuses on folks who should be wearing “Stupid” signs—like those dim bulbs who take blow dryers into the shower. “Here’s your sign.” Last week while filling out my California Form 540, it occurred to me that ordinary taxpayers who sweat compliance with line 49, the Use Tax, might qualify for a Engvall placard.

The Use Tax, line 37 on Form 540A, applies to out-of-state purchases that were made, for example, “by telephone, over the Internet, by mail, or in person.” Its purpose is to recoup sales tax revenue that individuals avoid when buying out of state.

This statute, as we are solemnly informed on page 6 of the tax booklet, has been around since 1935 and was presumably instituted to level the playing field for California businesses. Since 2003, a specific line has been included on income tax forms to make it “easier for consumers to report and pay use tax on their purchases.” (How thoughtful of our legislators!)

Folks who purchased cars, boats, or airplanes in other states have good reason to comply with this statute since records of these purchases are often available to California’s Board of Equalization. What can’t be verified, absent an enormously extensive and invasive snooping apparatus, are the electronic, mail, or out-of-state purchases offered as illustrations on the BOE’s use tax Internet pages. Here’s a sample:

“Last week while visiting relatives in Maine I purchased $200 in stereo equipment for use with my system at home in Sacramento. When I purchased the equipment I was charged 5% Maine sales tax. Do I owe California use tax on this purchase?”

Answer: “Yes, however, Revenue and Taxation Code section 6406 allows you to take a credit for sales or use tax paid to another state. Therefore, a portion of the California use tax you owe on the purchase is offset by the sales tax you paid to the retailer in Maine. Since the sales and use tax rate in Sacramento is 7.75%, use tax of $15.50 would be due on your purchase. However, after deducting the $10 in Maine sales tax you paid when you purchased the equipment, you would only owe $5.50 in California use tax on the purchase.”

Wow! And people complain about the Patriot Act. (For North County readers, I note that the tax rate for Oceanside, Escondido, and San Marcos is 7.75%, while the amount for Vista is 8.25%. I should also mention that these BOE net-pages have a shadowy notation, attached to nothing in particular, that says: Data Last Updated 12/31/1969.)

A six-letter sign is reserved for anyone sending a check to Sacramento for the difference between the sales tax paid in Maine and the tax that would have been paid in Vista for a $200 purchase. The good news is that the use tax law has a large exception for goods purchased abroad—for example, from Mexico. State taxpayers will also be glad to learn that información para el votante is included in their tax booklets.