Crime and Punishment

Nearly one week on from the shootings in Newtown, and a quick review of the public conversation regarding gun laws reveals both the worthily impassioned words of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the thoughtful reasoning of journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. I recommend both (through the magic of Google search, of course).

Religion in the Balance will leave the gun control policy debate to others. Of some interest to us is the fact that a few people (Lindsey Fitzharris in The Guardian, for example), are questioning the reflexive application of the descriptor “mentally ill” to Adam Lanza– questioning, in other words, the thought process that automatically assumes that if a crime is horrific enough, the perpetrator must be insane. Might he have just been evil?

This is where Dostoevsky comes back in.

In Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov murders an old woman intentionally, and then another woman too– a younger woman who, as bad luck would have it, arrives on the scene unexpectedly. Raskolnikov gets away with his crime for several days, although a character named Porfiry Petrovich increasingly suspects that Raskolnikov is the murderer. They confront one another; Porfiry lays out his thoughts about the murders:

“This is an obscure and fantastic case, a contemporary case, something that could only happen in our day, when the heart of man has grown troubled…. [T]here is a resolution evident here, for the first step, but resolution of a special kind– a resolve like that of a man falling from a precipice or flinging himself off a tower; this is the work of a man carried along into a crime, as it were, by some outside force.” (Crime and Punishment, the Coulson Translation, Part Six– Chapter II)

Even if Adam Lanza was “mentally ill,” his crime is “something that could happen only in our day, when the heart of man has grown troubled”: a blind, consuming, raging violence that ends in suicide. This is often– although not always– the pattern of these shootings: the rage that goes indiscriminately outward to innocent victims, ends by being turned inward to the intolerable, shame-saturated self. They end in suicide.

Dostoevsky For These Days

Nearing the end of reading Feodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I had been contemplating the darkness of the human heart for my next RIB post when the news out of Newtown blackened these already sunless days. The great 19th-century Russian novelist has more to say to us about current events, than any pundit.

In a quick search I was gratified to find that both Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Sean Kirst of the Syracuse Post-Standard invoked Dostoevsky in their reflections on the suffering of innocents in Newtown. Both columnists refer to Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov– one of the Karamazov brothers– who recounts, in wrenching detail, brutalities inflicted on children. Douthat is worth quoting at length:

“Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God — a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.”

Douthat concludes his article with wisdom and theological refinement: no intellectual argument for the All-Powerful, All-Loving Deity can be proffered successfully in the face of such suffering; rather, there is only the power of bearing witness, and the slow, sad healing that comes in compassionate solidarity and shared grief. The Biblical story of Christmas, Douthat continues, is not the sentimentality we have repeated to ourselves so much that we think (falsely) that it’s true: to the contrary, Herod killed babies. It is into that kind of brutal world that the God-we-know-in-Jesus comes as a powerless baby, to redeem that world by sharing in its (our) suffering.

I will have more on Dostoevsky and Newtown soon.

Here is the link to Douthat’s article:

Freedom and Discipline According to Brubeck

Dave Brubeck

The great jazz musician Dave Brubeck died yesterday. Here’s the Brubeck gold quote:

“Jazz is about freedom within discipline,” he said in a 2005 interview with The Associated Press. “Usually a dictatorship like in Russia and Germany will prevent jazz from being played because it just seemed to represent freedom, democracy and the United States.

“Many people don’t understand how disciplined you have to be to play jazz. … And that is really the idea of democracy — freedom within the Constitution or discipline. You don’t just get out there and do anything you want.”

Getting out there and doing anything you want is the adolescent definition of freedom– a definition that confuses freedom with license. While slavish rule-following is mechanical and deadening, undisciplined self-expression collapses into its own narcissistic banality. Greatness in any field– art, business, athletics, religion, politics, education, farming– is grounded BOTH in the rules and limitations of that field, AND then improvises in response to the unique needs of the moment.

Greatness knows the rules, and when/how to break them. Jazz is one of America’s great gifts to the world.

via Dave Brubeck, Legend Who Helped Define Jazz, Dies : NPR.

Anxiety in the System and Regression– Murray Bowen

“Dr. Bowen, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, established the Georgetown Family Center in 1975. He was a pioneer in family research who developed a new theory of human behavior and a new method of family therapy based on this new theory.” (From the website “Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.”)

Murray Bowen’s theory regarding anxiety in human systems helps to explain an array of unhealthy behaviors in families, ranging from addiction to chronic conflict to delinquency. (If you don’t know Murray Bowen’s work, google “Bowen Theory” for a menu of information.) Instead of taking the individual as the basic unit of analysis (a la Freud), Bowen starts with relationships. His theory accounts for the relative closeness and distance between people in relationships, and the level of anxiety that is inevitably a part of those relationships.

Some ways of dealing with anxiety are more adaptive and more helpful than others: both at the family level, and– very interestingly, for these times we live in– at the societal level. Bowen’s theory says that as anxiety in a system rises, we are more likely to regress to more primitive “fight or flight or freeze” responses– which explains why, when I am perceiving some kind of threat (real or imagined), I am more likely to yell at the children or kick the cat.

American society is a human system; much anxiety is in the system. Bowen’s theory predicts that the society will regress to acting out of that anxiety in unhelpful and shortsighted ways, in order to relieve the anxiety. (Example: yelling at the children temporarily relieves the parent’s anxiety, but it does not lower the anxiety in the long-run).

Here are the signs of regressive responses to anxiety in our American society:

1. hyper-partisanship, as people seek security in herding together and circling the wagons.

2. scapegoating, as people seek security by blaming others.

3. anti-foreigner sentiment, as people close off from the creative possibilities of engaging differences.

Here is Bowen in his own words:

 “There was growing evidence that the emotional problem in society was similar to the emotional problem in the family…. When a family is subjected to chronic, sustained anxiety, the family begins to lose contact with its intellectually determined principles and to resort more to emotionally determined decisions to allay the anxiety of the moment. The results of this process are symptoms and eventually regression to a lower level of functioning…. The same process is evolving in society.”