The Perils of Self-Esteem

Imagine a nation’s armies have suffered the most catastrophic and humiliating defeat imaginable. Generals once thought to be geniuses prove themselves dimwitted, gouty time-servers. Troops expected to fight to the death panic and surrender in droves. The nation becomes the punch line in jokes that go, “I’ve got a great special on some _____ rifles: never fired, only dropped once!” The jokes never get old.

Where does the nation go from there?

If history’s any guide, the nation makes a project of falling in love with itself all over again. It backs a new government, one likely headed by a demagogue who demands Strength and Discipline, promising Honor and Power in return. The defense budget explodes, national service becomes mandatory, and increasingly fabulous uniforms sport increasingly gruesome insignia. Perhaps an arcane symbol appears on the national flag. Ancient heroes, historical and mythical, become the objects of a cult of kitsch, turning up everywhere from statues to postcards. Before long, even the architecture starts to swagger.

All this is by way of analogy. For the past few months, since suffering a sort of Caporetto di cuore — in plain English, an instance of being dumped and dive-bombed in a particularly demoralizing way — I’ve been in psychotic right-wing renewal mode. My personal re-armament plan is taking place largely at the local L.A. Fitness. To my astonishment, results so far have exceeded expecations. These days, flexing in the mirror feels like watching my crack regiments pass in review, colors dipped, eyes right. A couple of Friday nights ago, when a fistfight broke out around my apartment complex’s swimming pool, the combatants allowed me to play peacemaker and voice of reason. Since that honor normally falls to someone who looks capable of banging heads together in a pinch, I enjoyed the sense of having forestalled an Anschluss by marching my troops into the Brenner Pass.

But, as any student of history knows, revived-weenie nations are never content to use their powers for good. Only bringing the pain to someone else satisfies them, and that usually ends up being their downfall. I have reason to fear the analogy will extend that far with me. I’ve gone through other fitness kicks, but never when I had so much to prove nor so much shame to displace. Now that I’m in these-boots-are-made-for-marching mode, I feel the pull toward the dark side. Several times over the past few weeks, I’ve shot menacing looks to guys who jostled me on the line at Circle K. I snapped at a guy who barged in after I’d forgotten to lock the door to Subway’s bathroom behind me. It’s just as well I don’t go to bars anymore. There’s a place in my neighborhood called Daisy Duke’s. I’ve never been inside, but in my imagination, I see sawdust on the floor and hear “Harper Valley P.T.A.” coming from the jukebox — the perfect ambience, in other words, for growing a fatal set of beer muscles.

Of course, caving some poor slob’s face in with a pool stick has never been the easiest, or most pleasant, way for a man to de-emasculate himself. Sure enough, I’ve seen some troubling signs that fitness and self-confidence will prove obtacles to living a life of virtuous bachelorhood. The night of the poolside punchup, a woman undertook a lengthy, hands-on (and, I swear, unbidden) inspection of my gluteus maximus. This person was nice enough to look at, at least in pitch darkness, but had an IQ equal to her blood-alcohol content. If she turned out to have the words “DELAY MIDLIFE CRISIS HERE” tattooed somewhere near her bikini line, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

I know: how precious. Come on, sweet prince, now that you’re fast becoming the master mold of whoop-ass, quit ruminating and do what you have to do. Forget about great men and dialectical materialism — senseless brawls and pick-me-up hookups are the real drivers of history, if the truth be known. The Creator must have willed it so, or else he’d never have vouchsafed to Noah the secrets of the vine (nor to others the secrets of hops and barley and grain and the coca leaf). He’d never have cracked the mysteries of the workout for the Greeks. In the fullness of time, man would never have harnessed his genius to these gifts to create barbells and dumbells and Smith machines and muscle milk on the one hand, and bars, taverns and saloons on the other. Certainly, to hasten the reaction that results when the two combine, he wouldn’t have concocted a catalyst called country and western music. Don’t reinvent the wheel, schmuck; just join the party.

A former pastor of mine once named the two distinguishing characteristics of his youthful self as “low self-esteem” and “overweening pride.” Those traits drove him to join an especially rigid sect of Bible Christians. Well, I’ve no doubt pre-Father was a complete pain in the ass, but with the perspective of maturity, he managed to pin down the two reasons why my enduring inner 11th-grader won’t let me live out my high-school dreams at the age of 40. Slurping from the established soup plate of honor is just…boring. Unimaginative.

If I really wanted to give the game away, I’d say conformist. Practicing the self-restraint Jesus preached validates the thing under the muscle tissue: the sulky dork who boycotted both junior and senior proms, and spent spring breaks reading books like Girls in Trouble: Sexuality and Social Control in Rural Scotland, 1660-1780; the one who discovered the sybaritic life only after he was too old to live it with dignity. It answers his need to be cool in a way only another cool person could recognize.

The font in which I received the sacrament of baptism wasn’t a real font at all. It was one of those aluminum tubs you normally see filled with ice, along with bottles of Corona and Rolling Rock, at patio bars throughout the Valley. Some of the handier parishioners had covered the outside with gray papier-mâché and plastic flowers, along with some real palm fronds (a local specialty). Their goal was to transform the beer tub into a rock-encircled pond, presumably one somewhere in the neighborhood of the Jordan River. Never having toured the Holy Land, I can’t speak with authority, but I found the result halfway convincing. This suggests to me that there are worse paths to Christianity than an nsistence on tarting up the ordinary.

Is this a case of grace building on nature? Hell if I know, but I’m compelled to think so when I recall leaving that chick in the lounge chair and bedding down alone. Consciously, I was aping Alan Ladd, not Jesus. But when you think about it, “Noli me tangere” and “Shane, come back!” fit nicely together in sequence, don’t they? Anyway, either role model is a big step up from Mussolini.

Could Loser-Shaming Prevent Future Auroras?

In an episode from South Park’s sixth season, Butters, embittered over his demotion from Kenny’s replacement to supporting character, declares war on humanity. Forging a suit of armor out of tinfoil, he adopts an alter ego, Professor Chaos, and proceeds to bring what he calls “destruction and doom,” to the community. Fortunately for the community (and for him) his idea of destruction and doom involves switching the orders at a local diner. Even the local paper won’t cover it.

Some media self-critics wish they and their fellows could draw a similar veil over Friday’s ghastly Aurora massacre, or at least over its perpetrator, James Holmes. In The National Review Online, Seth Leibsohn writes of Holmes: “He should not be glamorized or given any kind of proper-noun attention at all…[Mass murderers] have alienated themselves from society, almost as if they have alienated themselves from being important enough to have a name like everyone else.”

Understandable, but unrealistic. Evil may prove itself consistently to be banal, but the public has never resisted the pull to stare it in the face. Probably, evil’s very banality is part of the draw. At a level far beneath any civic-mindedness or human sympathy, it’s thrilling to imagine that the boy — or in rare cases like Casey Anthony’s and Susan Smith’s, the girl — next door could be a ticking time bomb. Not to satisfy that demand by witholding a killer’s name and dysfunctional history would take more self-restraint than any private enterprise has ever shown, at any time, anywhere.

In The Atlantic, Brendan McCarthy suggests a very different de-glamorization procedure. “Just employ the qualifier ‘LOSER’ every time [murderers’] names are mentioned,” he writes. “Maybe news media should also include an apology alongside each picture, like, “We are sorry to have to show you this LOSER picture, but …”

At least when it comes to leaving potential copycat maniacs uninspired, this, I believe, could be the ticket. Among other things, it would have the ring of truth. If you take the high-school definition and add bad credit, so many celebrated killers and would-be killers are losers. The spottily employed John Hinckley, Jr. was reduced to inventing his girlfriends. Jared Lee Loughner was a pothead and army reject. Even Holmes, reportedly a neuroscience whiz, played junior varsity soccer.

Highlight these facts — quote weird chatroom exchanges, list embarassing tics in clinical detail — and you’ll fire a warning shot across the bow of loser America. Step outside the line, and all your loser laundry will go on display. It is better to be peaceable and thought a loser than act out and remove all doubt.

I’m attempting to speak here as a slightly senior member of the demographic group that stories like Aurora get people twitching over. You know my type — bright, underachieving male with a regular Library of Congress of social and sexual humiliations clogging his neurons. As the crime reporter’s cliche goes, I’m generally quiet and keep to myself. Though I may wrap myself in the title LOSER as though it were an emotional cilice, it’s about the last thing I could stand for anyone else to call me.

This grim self-knowledge colors how I receive the stories of other losers who gained the spotlight for the wrong reasons. It’s been over a decade since I read The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer’s recounting of Gary Gilmore’s spree-killings and subsequent death by firing squad. Only one scene remains with me: Gilmore, newly released from prison, engages in an arm-wrestle with Vern, the goold old boy he’s living with. Each contestant holds a fistful of toothpicks over the spot on the table where the other’s hand is sure to come crashing in the event of a loss. It’s Gilmore who loses, and badly, with Mailer-as-narrator reporting, “Vern said he didn’t guess Gary was much of a man.” I’m convinced my memories of the book end here because the episode killed my interest in Gary. If he can’t win a simple arm-wrestle, then really, who cares who he kills?

A few weeks ago, in comparing my workout regimen to the agenda of an ultra-nationalist dictator, I chose Mussolini as my model. Since Il Duce, having seen his army driven from Greece and his navy bombed to scrap at Taranto, openly envied Hitler his military might, it was an awkward choice. I insisted on it for the sole reason that Mussolini was a ladies man; the partisans who executed him cemented this image by hanging his body alongside that of his last mistress, the lovely Claretta Petacci. His transalpine partner, on the other hand, never even got it up for the even lovelier Unity Mitford, at least not that anyone’s been able to prove. Not even in darkest jest would I identify with such a pathetic little worm.

Loser-shaming might be a no-sale among the truly delusional, people who see themselves as the sole surviving innocents in, or the saviors of, a corrupt world. In Slate, Daniel Engber suggests that the sword, with all its grandiosity and theatricality, could have special appeal for these lost-beyond-recall types. “The sword,” he writes, “is the weapon of nerds. It’s also the weapon of schizophrenics. And, most of all, it’s the weapon of schizophrenic nerds.” As an example, he offers former Ugly Betty actor Michael Brea who hewed up his mother with a three-foot Masonic blade in order to kill a demon he believed was living in her. There’s no room in that worldview for the agony of self-conscious loserdom.

But invoking the voice of the schoolyard chorus might win some traction among the merely maladjusted, who are also capable of committing antisocial acts. James Ellroy, author of the most sensuously violent crime novels in the English language, began life as a sad, attention-seeking weirdo. He marched through middle school wearing a swastika armband. Throughout high school and beyond, he broke into the houses of the popular girls and stole their lingerie. His writing about this earlier self fairly drips with shame at the silliness, the sheer unmanliness, of it all. The title of one such autobiographical essay, “My Life as A Creep,” tells the story in a nutshell. This is the view of the loser redeemed.

At the very least, the press should stop inflating killers’ CVs. Lacking a diploma from Groton or Exeter, Ted Bundy had no legitimate claim to the title of preppy killer. The fact that he had all his original teeth, no Fu-Manchu, and no middle name of “Lee” just doesn’t cut it. Just yesterday, the L.A.Times carried an interview with John Jacobson, a graduate student who supervised James Holmes when Holmes interned at U.C. San Diego’s Salk Institute. In Jacobson’s account, Holmes was nowhere near as brilliant as the media has been reporting. Instead, he was professionally incompetent and socially withdrawn — basically, your classic office misfit. That’s the face of the killer the public ought to see. If it wants high-rolling evildoers, let it learn to be happy with Jerry Sandusky and Julian Assange.

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