Reading Elliot Rodger, Part I: Why “Manifesto”?

Hey, all you fickle readers out there!  Remember how I joined in the outrage posse against Seth Abramson, the poet who tried to re-form Elliot Rodger’s hate-filled words into art?  Well, now I have an uncomfortable confession to make: I read Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto.”  All 137 pages, single spaced in tiny font.  And I discovered Rodger’s words, ugly and disgusting and batshit crazy as they are, might have a little bit of worth behind them after all.

They’re not good, mind you.  Not enjoyable, either.  After an hour of absorbing his little fable, I found myself wanting to reach simultaneously back in time and into one of his now-ubiquitous selfies and rip the preening smile off his face with my fingernails.  Still, the overall document is worth reading, if only for the fact that we need to start staring down our violent bogeymen, these first-world children who become rage-addled killers.  Last time, we had Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook; his self-imposed silence turned discussion into speculation and brought out voices always scrambling to fill an information gap with conspiracy theories.  This time, though, we have a wellspring of data, practically an oil derrick: documents and posts and videos from a man who couldn’t or wouldn’t stop himself from hurling bilious diatribes into the public sphere.  I can understand that many don’t want to give this guy one iota of extra publicity, much less a platform on which other crazy assholes can climb.  Still, I think it’s important to investigate the Rodger material for any useful hints it might yield on anything–mental illness, violent tendencies, susceptibility to prejudice, whatever’s there to add to our knowledge base.  Elliot Rodger lived his final days as a 22-year-old unemployed college student who barely attended classes, had no ambitions or skills, and regularly picked fights with people who triggered his pathological rage.  Leaving behind a trail of documentation might be the best thing that could have come out of such an appalling, wasteful life.  And I’m afraid, at the very least, we’re already getting the “manifesto” wrong.

First of all, I should say that I’ve decided not to provide links to any of the sites where Rodger’s full document appears.  Call me hypocritical, but I have serious reservations about the fact that this manuscript was uploaded, even by reputable outlets like the New York Times, without any attempt to protect the privacy of or even pixillate the names of Rodger’s schoolmates, friends, crushes, acquaintances, or “enemies.”  This has already resulted in pictures, particularly of the young women Rodger mentions, popping up all over the Internet and articles implying that one woman was the root of Rodger’s misogyny–all because she supposedly teased him when she was ten years old.

I should also say that I absolutely believe we, as a country, should be having the discussions that Rodger’s actions ignited.  We should have started talking about racism, elitism, misogyny and violence against women long before Rodger went on his rampage. I’m a little concerned, though, that we’re letting our initial horror at his snarl of toxic beliefs drive us away from the bigger picture that’s buried in the tamer sections, or indeed in the overarching structure, of Rodger’s long narrative.  News outlets and commentators have been so intent on emphasizing the ugly and sensationalistic that now a small portion of Rodger’s statement has been ripped out of context and is roaming freely on the Internet, to be regurgitated and reconfigured in as many ways as we like.  That, plus the fact that we now live in a “Too Long; Didn’t Read” culture could lead to misreadings and misuses of Rodger’s language, where the subtler evils of his message may slip by while audiences are busy reacting to the more obvious malignancies of his hate speech.

For instance, the term “manifesto”: why are we calling Rodger’s long written statement that?  Manifestos are philosophical treatises, outward-focused documents that pick apart the status quo in society in order to promote new systems of thought or public policy.  What Rodger wrote and subsequently emailed (by varying reports) to about one or two dozen people, including his parents, does not fall into this category.  By my count (and yes, I went through the file and counted up paragraphs that contained generalized statements, universalized concepts, or rabble-rousing rhetoric), Rodger spends only about 4 pages, or 3% of his piece, laying out any sort of broad statement about his pet cause, the immorality of women and of human sexuality.  (Most of this material shows up in the final 2 and half pages, which he dubs the “Epilogue.”)  The other 97% follows the basic format of a narrative or chronicle, dividing his life up into eras (complete with melodramatic headings like “A Blissful Beginning,” “The Last Period of Contentment,” and “Stuck in the Void”) and subdividing it into individual years from age 6 on.  (His earlier years, “0 to 5,” appear in a mercifully abbreviated lump.)  Not surprisingly, this narrative structure supports narrative content–his “proof” of why he did what he did is told in reminiscences dripping with nostalgia.  Nowhere does the term “manifesto” even appear in the text.  The official title of his piece is “My Twisted World The Story of Elliot Rodger by Elliot Rodger.”  Story is the word he uses, not declaration or argument.

So why should we care that CNN is putting on its usual hyperbolic show in which Wolf Blitzer et. al. refer to Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto”?  Because words matter, and names and terms matter even more.  The relentless barrage of media figures hammering away at the existence of a “manifesto” written by Rodger associates him with an otherness, intellectualism, and political dogmatism that seem both threatening and immutable.  He’s in the ranks of Karl Marx and Ted Kaczynski now, the media seem to be saying.  Rodger’s a ruthless, godless force of nature, just like he was in real life.  Never mind that the causes of Rodger’s maliciousness were far more mundane.  (More on this later.)  Never mind that conservatives have already started using Rodger as an example of why we should simply give up on trying to prevent mass shootings, presumably so that no debate can begin on the possibility of gun control legislation.  No, the manifesto writer fits tidily into our familiar concept of the lunatic who destroys on a large scale, and so the media use it, regardless of the fact that Rodger himself wanted people to view him this way.  We owe it to ourselves not to accept this manipulation of the public mind.

To be continued…

 

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