Stuff Happens


“There’s been another mass shooting in America.” So begins President Obama’s passionate and angry speech after the killing spree at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Nine victims and the shooter dead; others wounded; a community in shock and grief.

I almost wrote “a community and nation in shock and grief,” but decided not to include “nation” because I’m not sure what kind of shock, if any, the nation at large feels. As Jeb! and other Republicans have said in response to this shooting and to Obama’s strong reaction, “stuff happens.” Oh, well. Whatever.

Well, yes, stuff does happen. This sentiment has been around for a long time now, dating from a once popular bumper sticker, and it expresses an essentially fatalistic view of life. Because if stuff just happens, then there isn’t much anyone can do about it. It is actually kind of nihilistic, which makes it a rather odd thing for a man who professes to be a devout Catholic to say. Catholicism, and Christianity in general, is not a stuff-happens kind of religion; quite the contrary, it is a religion which believes that “stuff” happens for a reason, not of the pure cause-and-effect variety of pure atheistic materialism, but for thought out reasons, for motivations, i.e., there is a mind behind the stuff.

In Christianity, the Mind behind all Stuff is God, and human beings, being made in the image of God, are the minds behind human actions. Thus, the shooter is not a zombie or the host of some parasite that has taken over his brain and is operating him like a robot. He has intended and acted out his intention according to a grand plan of his own, one that, in his own mind, will finalize his frustrations and resentments and install him in a pantheon of famous killers. He has a goal, he executes a plan, and he achieves his objective. He will be welcomed in Hell. He would be insulted to know that people dismiss his achievement as nothing more than “stuff happens.”

Perhaps this illuminates an essential difference between today’s right-wing Republicans and liberal Democrats, between Republicans and Democrats in general, and the potential for imbalance between them. There’s a strand in right wing thought that seems to believe that human nature is unalterable, that people are who they are as a matter of genes, so that the poor are poor not because of actions taken by others (the not-poor, the movers and shakers, the exploiters, etc.) but because of their inherent laziness, stupidity, dependence, and lasciviousness, whereas the rich are rich because, well, they’re just simply better people: ambitious, smart, creative, hard working, well deserving of their status and privileges. There is therefore no reason to indulge in government programs, for example, aimed at doing the impossible, lifting the defective out of their defective state. They will waste government benefits on drugs and making more babies, and perhaps overwhelm the better sort with their millions. This is a kind of social Darwinism.

Among liberals, the opposite tends to be the case: The world is as it is because of human choices, not because of genetic or any other kind of fate. People can change. People can be lifted out of poverty by wise policy and by reining in the power of those who are already rich and powerful. All individuals have the potential to be successful and to lead fulfilling lives. It is the role of government to guarantee that everyone has equal opportunities. We can change things for the better because humans can change for the better. This is a kind of social gospel.

Thus it is that President Obama can call for a political solution to the problem of gun violence in the United States, and thus it is that the Republicans reply by asserting that stuff happens and that more laws won’t prevent future mass shootings. This seems like a political disagreement, but it is a fundamental difference in world views which lack common ground, and is therefore something much more intractable than can be solved by legislative compromise.

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