“Rodger died in the spree as well.” It’s a common epitaph of mass killers, and one that tells us the final truth about them.
And while we are still learning more details about Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old male whose Santa Barbara murders have shocked and incensed the nation, what we do know so far is more than enough to disgust, outrage and alarm.
His videos, posted to YouTube, show the sensibility of an individual caught up in a warped vision of masculinity and postmodern self-consciousness.
As the grandson of a renowned holocaust journalist, and the son of the assistant director of Hunger Games, he was not ignorant of the ways that terror, death, spectacle, and entertainment overlap in the popular imagination. His vignettes are clearly reminiscent of Patrick Bateman’s creepy, depressing monologues in American Psycho.
It is hard to make much sense of him, too, without the language of psychopathology. According to his family’s attorney, he was being treated by “multiple professionals” for mental health and was a “victim of bullying.” His parents had reported his YouTube videos to authorities weeks ago.
Yet instead of living the life of a stereotypical loser, confined to the invisible margins of society, he was a child of relative privilege—attending movie premieres, flying first class, enjoying private concerts.
And he wrote. In a 141-page autobiographical manifesto of the kind that does not make bestseller lists and is not read as literature, he revealed his “suffering” at the “hands of humanity, particularly women.”
He was, in short, a walking laundry list of the social problems that have seized our social narrative. It is sadly true that “we” know so much more about him than those he murdered. But knowledge often follows in the footsteps of fear.
He was a disgruntled, well-off white boy—so he fuels our arguments about privilege.
He hated women, yet believed he was entitled not only to love but also sex—so he fuels arguments about gender and power.
He was unwilling or unable to accept a safe, bright line between violent fantasy and horrific reality— and thus Rodger will also inevitably further fuel the endless arguments about culture and responsibility.
It would be such a relief if we had a cultural cure-all for these sources of anger and fury. Instead, we face a tangle of troubles long in the making.
It would be a relief if we could blame movies, or pick-up artists, or wealth, or the boomers, or the gun lobby, or gender norms—singly or together. Of course, without guns, violent movies, nihilistic entertainment, sexism, and enclaves of self-entitlement, surely we’d be less likely to face killings like these in the future.
The interim, however, is ours, and here we must tread carefully. Even a searching, unflinching condemnation of postmodern male chauvinism can go badly awry if it labels the culprit as something called “traditional masculinity.” Much like “traditional marriage,” traditional masculinity is a compound of competing, conflicting ideals. It has been for hundreds of years.
Alongside American Psycho and “My Twisted World,” the killer’s autobiography, we could place Hamlet, another story about a hyper-privileged young man whose fury, fear and confusion around sex and manliness sent him into a postmodern spiral of self-obsession and carnage.
In today’s culture, where we sometimes seem to want everyone to be recognized as a hero, we can fail to see that heroism often comes at a great price. Hamlet refused to accept that heroism was his destiny, because of the behavior it required. One tradition of masculinity crashed against another. The result was tragedy.
For too many young men today, something similar seems poised to happen again and again. One tradition of manliness points them toward the worship of wealth, sex, and power—and toward crushing depression if all those things elude their grasp. Another tradition of manliness would point them toward discipline, sacrifice, and self-denial.
The first tradition, in fairy-tale terms, is the villain tradition. The second is for heroes. But in today’s world, the worst of traditionalism is being aggrandized, and the best is being lost in the noise.