Saturday, December 22, 2012

The NBA Dreams of Deranged Shooters

Why is the NBA dominated by black people? Why are all the best sprinters from Jamaica? How did Jews develop a reputation in medieval European as money lenders? Why have women been thought of as natural-born cooks? Why are so many cops Irish?

Is it that black people are genetically faster and more agile? And that Jews are innately greedy? Do women have baking in their blood, and are Irish naturally officious? Many people think such things. But, no, that's not it.

In each case, a minority found a way up and out through one of the few channels open to them. If you're a kid living in a Jamaican slum, you don't dream of launching a Silicon Valley biotech firm or attending law school. Such options aren't available to you. The only established route out of your situation, established by those who came before you, is running. Running like crazy. Thousands of hours of training to the point of nausea - a level of dedication others, with wider options, can never match. And so Jamaicans usually dominate.

In the Middle Ages, Jews weren't allowed to do much other than loan money (which for most of history was considered lowly work). Women were kept at home baking brownies - unwillingly fostering a stereotype as brownie-bakers. Irish-Americans were barely tolerated a century ago, but police work, low-paid at the time, was an area where they had entrée. And in America's inner cities, hordes of kids dreamed of becoming the next Michael Jordan because, until recently, there were no Obama dreams. So they practiced relentlessly, and a few went on to stardom, crushing competitors who lacked their live-or-die motivation. Never underestimate the fevered effort a certain type of person, cornered by circumstance into stagnation, will devote to a pursuit which might transform him from desperate nobody into glorious somebody.

Smart, motivated nobodies fervidly climb the ladders available to them. But there are countless people in this world who see no clear route to potential glory. And, for some of them, that fervid pull may fester into horrific forms. If the Devil finds work for idle hands, you can imagine what he does with idle fervidity.

For some of those people (few of whom, thank goodness, act on the impulse), the prospect of becoming a jihadi martyr, or shooting up a school, or assassinating a president or a Beatle, is their NBA dream. It's their only shot to glory. Some take that route consciously for the glory. Others are drawn by a murkier, more unconscious drive toward general empowerment, or personal expression writ large ("I was here!"), and/or the devotion to a larger cause (read Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer" for a classic explanation of the latter).

And the media is in the habit of turning the John Hinckleys, the Sons of Sam, and the Adam Lanzas into celebrities - anti-Michael Jordans, if you will. But don't blame the media; they're accommodating the public's thirsty demand for anti-celebrity news. If we cared more about victims than perps, the channel would close and there'd be far much less glory to be reaped by committing horrific acts.

Conscientious media types are trying to kick this back. CNN's Anderson Cooper made a valiant stand last week in refusing to name the killer, or to delve into his motivation or history. Kudos, Mr. Cooper, but....good luck with that.

It has dawned on me, sickeningly, that the mighty vortex I was pulled into last week wasn't due to my knowing a tragic victim, but because I knew the mother of a major celebrity. In fact, I experienced a brief moment of celebrity myself merely by my association with the association - to the point where a respected media outlet deemed it appropriate to run - as breaking news - an article connecting my comments about the tragedy to my background as founder of Chowhound (the previous mountain of press had only described me as a musician). Another piece of the puzzle revealed by a hard-hitting journalist (the anti-Anderson Cooper?).

The notion that mental illness incites violence is as misguided as the notion that blackness makes you speedy, or Jewishness makes you greedy, or being Irish makes you want to direct traffic, or being Moslem makes you terroristic, or that a woman's just gotta bake. No, it's that there's a clear system of reward in place, and human beings always clutch at rewards.

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