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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

August 6, 2013: Back to Virginia: Virginia Tech in Contexts

[Two years ago, when the boys and I last traveled to Virginia, I wrote a series of blog posts about some of the state’s AmericanStudies connections. We’re headed back to my home turf in a week, so here’s another series on Virginia histories and stories. Add your Virginian takes for a weekend post that’s for AmericanStudies lovers, y’all!]
On two ways in which AmericanStudies can provide contexts for one of our most devastating recent tragedies.
It’s very difficult for me to write a post about the Virginia Tech massacre. Partly that’s for personal reasons, on two different levels: my best friend is an alum of the engineering program at VT, the community in which many of those students and faculty killed worked (and many of my other high school friends and classmates likewise attended the university); and the shooting took place on April 16th, 2007, the birthday of my younger son Kyle. And partly it’s because the event and memories are still raw enough that I worry about offending or hurting those particularly affected and still grieving. But part of public AmericanStudies scholarship is engaging with all our histories, distant and recent, inspiring and horrific—and, when we can, finding ways to provide contexts through which we can better understand any individual event.
One set of particularly complex such contexts relates to immigration and identity. I’ve written before about the grotesque and bigoted way in which Pat Buchanan used the Virginia Tech shooter’s Korean American identity to attack diversity, and won’t rehash my objections. But while I entirely disagree with Buchanan’s use of the term “alien” to describe Cho Seung-Hui, that doesn’t mean that Cho’s own sense of alienation—which came through so palpably in his various statements and documents—isn’t complicatedly connected to his struggles with assimilation, acculturation, and education in America. Leon Czolgosz, the Michigan-born son of Eastern European immigrants who assassinated President McKinley in September 1901, had suffered at least one significant mental breakdown in the years prior to that shooting. In his own statements he connected those struggles, and his attraction to anarchism, to a sense of alienation from America; and he described the president as a representation of that nation’s official structures and systems.
In Czolgosz’s era, there was no significant attempt to understand those breakdowns as symptoms of any sort of mental illness—and even if there had been, he likely would have been only stigmatized further as a result. When I see the way in which clearly (to my mind) mentally ill criminals such as Cho, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and others are described in media coverage, I wonder whether we have progressed far (if at all) in our communal narratives of mental illness. That is not to say that our resources or treatments are the same as they were in Dorothea Dix’s era—but I’m not at all sure that our conversations about mental illness have caught up to those medical shifts. Indeed, an engagement with Dix’s own efforts might reveal just how closely many of our narratives of criminals like Cho mirror the ways in which we have described the mentally ill for centuries—which, while it does not have to lessen in any way our outrage at what Cho did, might help us move toward a society that can respond to such illnesses more successfully and perhaps prevent future such outrages.
Next Virginia post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Virginia connections you’d share for the weekend post?

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