Madmen and Prophets

As Cho Seung-Hui is relentlessly scrutinized by a barrage of experts, all who seem to agree he was “angry” and “disturbed” and had “severe mental problems,” I am reminded that biblical prophets were frequently described as mad. I use prophet here less in the sense of seer and more in the sense of cultural commentator. If I remember my lessons from bible school, prophet means one who speaks the truth about the present.

In our rush to diagnose, we might miss his valid claims about the nature of American campuses. College can be incredibly isolating and alienating, especially for those who may not revel in their social privilege.

Cho’s video, listened to carefully, is less the ranting of a mad person, and more, well, bad poetry. The poetry itself seems familiar: it articulates a deep sense of wounding turned into rage. It indicts the particular ways wealth is flaunted. But it’s not simply that wealth is flaunted; it is that such flaunting is often accompanied by acts that denigrate less privileged students.

Inarticulate though he might be, and I say again, the poetry is quite bad, Cho describes a campus atmosphere that I know well. Instructors frequently complain about students’ sense of privilege. And, one needs only to spend a few hours on many American campuses to recognize the explicit class dynamics. Students may attend the same classrooms, but once instruction is done, class-based groups reconsolidate.

By no means do I advocate violence as a solution to class-based isolation. But I am extremely wary of discounting his statements as the delusions of an angry and possibly crazy young man. We need to pay attention to the ways American campuses mediate and translate class privilege.

Of course, none of the coverage I am following takes any of his claims seriously. I take this absence as emblematic of the continual way class difference is effaced to maintain a façade of equality.

6 thoughts on “Madmen and Prophets

  1. I do agree his actions are inexcusable but if he could use class issues as his claim, why haven’t we seen black students doing the very same thing?
    As an American-Asian Cho had more chances for upward mobility as compared to many of his black classmates due to the race and class hierarchy that exists in America.
    But I do agree that as much as possible should be done to deal with the problem before another incident like this re-emerges.
    ps: In America it is believed I’m alright, you’re alright, we’re alright until said otherwise.

  2. i’m not sure what disturbs me about your analogy acolyte but i’m still bothered. maybe i didn’t get you right.

    to say that his feelings that privelege was being shoved in his face at every opportunity are not justified because black people haven’t done the same does not mean that the class issues do not exist. people react to different situations in different ways – some get depressed, some commit suicide and so on and so forth. but the issue still remains, and in this case, he felt out of place and he reacted. it was his way with dealing with things. i’m not saying it’s right and what happened was a tragedy but i can bet you anything that the race comparison would not have been made were he white. am i right?

    gukira, i don’t think that people are ready to look at this as a symptom of a larger problem. it may be more comfortable to think of it as a one time time thing instead of having to deal with whatever the real issue is.

  3. I think we need to be very careful about making distinctions between races and their abilities to “advance” in America. Many critics have claimed, and I agree with them, that the heavy focus on white-black relations has meant we know relatively little about the histories of other races in America. In my case, it is only within the last 2 years that I have started reading work on Asian histories (Ronald Takaki would be a good place to start if you’re interested).

    I will repeat again: I have no interest in trying to normalize Cho or trying to rescue him from the experts who are busy diagnosing him. I do think we need to take his class critique, no matter how inarticulate, very seriously.

    Spice, it’s so much easier to ignore “crazy” people. Perhaps this is why I am incredibly interested in listening to them.

  4. @ spicebear
    I am not saying that class issues don’t exist what I am saying is that there are students who are far lower down the rung than he was. That is why any feelings of class exclusion on his part cannot be seen as an excuse at all!
    But you are entitled to your own opinions on the issue.

  5. Cho Seung-Hui is commentary. Social or cultural, I’m not certain yet.

    It’s been interesting to me to be here these past few days and to listen to Americans discuss this.

    I’ve been listening. I’ve been eavesdropping. Ordinary American folk seem determined to cast him as penultimate Freak. I understand why, but I don’t buy it.

  6. The great risk of taking sociopaths seriously is that we might have to admit the “social” is broken. It’s easier to throw people away–a guy on tv had frightening statistics about the number of mentally ill people in jail–than it is to address how our ways of living may endanger some of us, alienate many of us. What’s interesting is that a recent meeting of college presidents discussed the potential problem that colleges are increasingly sites of social darwinism. As far as I know, no one has linked that observation with what happened.

    I don’t want to minimize Cho’s mental problems, and it seems he had many, but I am loathe to disconnect the social from the psychic. That seems way too easy.

    At times, it seems like the social is one overly-loud laughtrack. I am more drawn to examine those moments when the laugh broaches hysteria.

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