“Geek profiling” refers to the automatic mistrust and harassment of anyone who rocked a trench coat or black nail polish in the days after the Columbine High meltdown. As with the highway of folks pulled over for Driving While Black, geek profiling drew suspensions, abuse, and mandatory counseling for a wave of kids whose only crime was Schooling While Weird. Then the geeks did something radical— they got their hands on the discourse.
It was this response that shivered the paradigm. While the gun control debate and the vilification of the media nexus (new and improved with hot Internet action!) raged like only business-as-usual can, a very strange thing started to happen. People began having something resembling empathy for the shooters— not for their crime but for their crisis, for what they told us about the terror and class divisions fissuring even affluent high school life.
As a crime, the Columbine shootings fit into a genre that threatens of late to become ritualistic: white boys in a town neither real city nor real country, but an area nonetheless distinctive for its small-l libertarian tenor, particularly on the right to bear arms. Ah, but the aftermath: while the Pro-Am parade of conservatives backlashed all over odd kids and the parents who fail to sweep-search their rooms, the young and the young-at-wounded-heart backlashed back.
Perhaps the central conduit for this has been Jon Katz, a Rolling Stone and Freedom Forum contributor who also writes a new-media column for the Web site Slashdot (www.slashdot.org), which banners every page “News For Nerds. Stuff That Matters.” It was Katz who invented the term “geek profiling.” He dropped it in his Slashdot piece “Voices From the Hellmouth,” named in honor of that great allegory of (white) high school angst, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Katz proposed that “the real story of Littleton wasn’t about violence but was about that high school was a nightmare for kids who are different.” The response to this “lit up the sky.”
The e-mails crashed his home machine every day for a week, more; they crashed the entire Slashdot site night after night. Thousands got through; he has no idea how many were lost. Coming from self-identified “geeks, nerds, dorks, and goths,” the notes recounted school traumas with the classic fervor of the brutalized and oppressed— and the fervor of those who, long silenced, are suddenly rising into speech. The students and graduates (whom Katz calls “survivors”) almost without fail confessed to having harbored murderous fantasies against the jocks, the preps, the school in general. And they pleaded for compassion for every terrorized teen.
I believe compassion to be a nonpareil ethical good. And as a refusal of the backlash and the clampdowns, as a human and humane countermeasure to absurdities like blaming violent media, the outpourings aren’t just abstractly noble but politically progressive.
But some things don’t quite add up. Ask all of your friends if they felt different and miserable in high school, and you’ll wait a long time for anyone to say, “Nah, I was well-adjusted and happy. In fact, I spent most of my time beating on the losers, huh-huh-huh.” That’s not to say that the creeps never existed— we know they did. But obviously, identifying with the oppressed group has a lot of cultural capital. For the moment, we have a nation in which everyone went to Woodstock and no one was the man.
Yet that nation, like the police chief in Casablanca, is shocked to discover brutality going on here. Perhaps it’s our peculiar fantasy that the education system is a bastion of enlightenment. Some French theorist we all like to make fun of deduced quite some time back that school (just like work or the army) is a jail-shaped box: a containment system to keep people in a useful order, brutally if necessary. And perhaps jails are the most plausible analogy to high schools, right down to the way that jocks, like trusties, enforce a cruel social order with the complicity of the teacher-guards and administrators.
Strikingly, the communiqués from school-jail come in a far-from-revelatory form. As dramatic as this body of stories seems, it’s the same ol’ narrative that has them sleeping in the aisles: “I was there, my group was persecuted, we suffered mightily because we were different, I felt murderous rage sublimated into misery and dysfunction.”
It’s the soliloquy of identity politics, as familiar and inflexible as any holy writ or talk-show guest. Only this time, for the first time in history, the group stepping forward to take its rightful place at center stage in the drama of marginalization and oppression looks exactly like the big ballers and shot callers that identity politics developed in reaction to.
The high school massacre in America does indeed jump class lines— and fascination jumps gender lines— but it’s the whitest, boyest crime ever invented. It’s located in the pop imagination squarely in the suburbs— that interzone devised by and for the middle class. The events, and their backlash, and their audience, make a remarkable story. But it’s the story of a fairly specific slice of the population pie. Katz on his own respondents: “Very, very few African Americans. Quite a few gays. Very few Hispanics.”
Gripping as Littleton and the aftermath have been for media outlets and Slashdot’s geeks, they barely register elsewhere. In the 93 percent minority school district of Oakland, California, it’s a cold topic. “The other day,” says teacher Nick Bacon, “a kid said, ‘Well, we’re not as crazy as they are in Littleton.’ Other than that, I didn’t hear anyone even mention it.” Any testimony on their own high school oppression? “Haven’t talked about that at all.”
The kids who are talking about it have learned the codes of identity politics elegantly. Among Katz’s responses, he received “hundreds comparing Littleton to Stonewall. I asked them, ‘Are you gay?’ Most of them said ‘No.’ It was just that the analogy struck them, that this was their politicizing moment.”
It’s telling that the analogy aligns outcast teens with gay rights rebels— the only other example of an identity group driven by the white middle class. But is it a fair comparison? Will geeks really get truncheoned for the crime of geekism? Will they be sent to the camps, made to wear badges in the shape of computer chips?
Unlikely as this seems, one suspects that had Katz’s respondents been older or had a more diverse history to draw from, they might have said that Littleton was their Emmett Till trial, their Feminine Mystique; with chutzpah, even their Auschwitz. In “Voices From the Hellmouth,” Katz himself said, “I hate to use the word but it reminded me of Holocaust testimony, describing the most awful experiences— being urinated on, being beaten up, crying every night, never being invited to places, just utterly worthless, really trying to survive.” (Emphasis added.)
Home alone on Friday night. Gas chambers.
Sucks to be a kid. Sucks especially if you decide against— or never learn— the moves for playing along with the popularity game. I know it from experience, and I believe it in reading through all this material. And of course students have a right to complain, and to fight for a better incarceration— even the baseball players. Yet at a remove from Littleton, current events mark a strange turn in the history of identity politics, which once bet its progressive stake on being a countermeasure to the power of relatively well-off white guys. The idea that this group could move into the slot of the oppressed, as well as occupying the traditional role of the oppressor, is rich with the sense that history has been outmaneuvered, and the margins excluded once again. Ironic, you might say— for all the relentlessly mocked overkill of the p.c. movement, the white guy has become the universal subject once again.