Elliot Rodger’s OMG chronicles

We’re about two weeks out from the Isla Vista massacre, and salacious round-ups of available social media information have given way to thoughtful columns about what it all means.

One of the most striking things about Elliot Rodger’s mental state, in his manifesto and elsewhere, is his insistence that, despite all evidence to the contrary, he was “a drop-dead gorgeous, fabulous, stylish, exotic gem among thousands of rocks.”

As many have noted, this and other details seem to indicate a privileged cast of mind taken to the extreme, which is why his rampage made for the perfect ‘teachable moment’ to a media increasingly devoted to narratives about patriarchy and white supremacy — Rodger was simply a malignant version of the latent biases within all of us; his violence an individualized form of the structural oppression embedded in all corners of our society, and so on.

The truth seems somewhat more complicated — the boy really did have a pedigree; one that, like so many others, decayed. The image above is one of Elliot Rodger’s grandfather’s many famous photographs.

George Rodger’s definitive posthumous collection is called Humanity or Inhumanity, covering his many years of work, including most famously his photographs of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. If his work resides in the tension between those things, it seems to have been resolved in his grandson’s only artistic creation two generations later, with Elliot’s realization of “just how brutal and twisted humanity is as a species.”

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Chauncey DeVega writes in a post about Elliot Rodger’s “pornographic imagination”:

While there has been a bit more of an intelligent conversation about sexism and misogyny, the narrative is focused–as often happens with racism–on some public whipping boy outlier (in this case the “Men’s Rights Movement” and the “Pickup Artist” community) instead of looking at how Elliot Rodger learned the lessons of violent, hyper-aggressive masculinity from a range of sources in American culture.

This is a rather broad, non-specific indictment; if we’re going to look at a “range of sources,” how about we start with the ones closest to him? His stepmother, for example, had a bit part in “Lovelace,” about the pornographic actress. And his father sells erotic photographs of women’s butts at famous landmarks, with names like “Cheeky Taj Mahal” and “Cheeky Eiffel Tower.” The picture that emerges is of a household with a relatively open and progressive attitude toward sex. Rodger’s manifesto, one notes, mentions the word nearly 200 times, and his overwhelming frustration at failing to lose his virginity drove him to “wish to punish everyone who is sexually active, because I concluded that it wasn’t fair that other people were able to experience sex while I have been denied it all my life.”

We’re all familiar with the school of left-wing free love thought that holds being discriminating about sexual partners to be a reactionary notion — it wouldn’t be “fair,” to a modern sensibility that, as Rob points out, holds self-gratification near the highest of virtues. Much of the ideological heavy lifting to make self-gratification the chief human pursuit was done in the area of sex; sexual liberation, gay rights, the campaign to normalize polyamory, theorizing about the oppressive structure of the bourgeois family, and so on. This sends a certain message; the world’s getting some, why aren’t you? The vague sense of envy — the left-wing vice if greed is the right-wing one — arising therefrom is something felt by many, but in the hands of this disturbed young man, it became something truly evil.

Dorothy Day walked right up to the brink of this precipice — she even had an abortion — but turned away dramatically, writing in 1963 that, “Sex is a profound force, having to do with life, the forces of creation which make man god-like. He shares in the power of the Creator, and, when sex is treated lightly, as a means of pleasure, I can only consider that woman is used as a plaything, not as a person.”

But Elliot Rodger’s essay was not ideological in the same way as other violent people motivated by sexual politics — such as, say, Valerie Solanas, whose manifesto Norman Mailer called “a magnetic north of Women’s Lib.” His sense of aggrievement mostly pertained to sex, but there are other details in the manifesto too; resenting his mother for not marrying a richer man, his own destiny as a millionaire.

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Now, butt photography wasn’t quite the nadir of Mr. Rodger’s creative career:

Peter Rodger’s career directing commercials was jolted when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks depressed the industry. In a quest that was partly spiritual and partly a failed business venture, friends said, he decided to make a documentary. He visited 23 countries in two and a half years, shooting a film in which he asked people as famous as Ringo Starr and as obscure as Asian schoolchildren a single question: “What is God?”

The film, “Oh My God,” sold only a handful of tickets when released in November 2009 and cost Peter Rodger as much as $200,000 of his own money, drawn from equity in a home, according to his ex-wife’s court filings, in addition to years of lost income.

This anecdote says so much about the spiritual impoverishment of the entertainment business. It’s exactly how you would expect a director of corporate advertisements to approach spirituality, as a matter of market research. Here’s a trailer of the movie:

The project even had an accompanying book called — I’m not making this up — The OMG Chronicles: One Man’s Quest To Discover What God Means To People All Over The World. From the excerpts available online, it is truly insipid stuff:

The reality was that I was convinced that God was an invention of man — a word, a figurehead, to give substance to something that couldn’t be seen, yet was probably the motor that drove our world. The scriptures of most religions were all metaphors for this, so I wasn’t denying the existence of God, merely concluding that the word used to describe this motor (God) had way too many meanings and was fashionably overused — and that’s what made the whole subject complicated.

You wonder about the sort of man who can spend two years talking to people about matters supernatural and still conclude religious texts are metaphorical, and that expressions of devotion are a “fashionable overuse” of them.

There was a time when it wouldn’t be impolite to question the parenting abilities of someone who mortgages his house to ask people what God is when he’s convinced He isn’t real. This might even be described as pathological behavior. Surely, given the father’s years-long preoccupation with the spiritual, it’s a bit odd that so little rubbed off on Elliot, but then again, this was clearly just an intellectual project to Roger fils.

If it were some kind of hermetic quest, I suppose it could be argued that it was worth the cost, financially and even on his family (Buddha did leave his son, after all). But when you read the director’s statement, you start to wonder if he was even capable of nuanced spiritual thinking, let alone passing insights on to his progeny:

I was frustrated with the childish schoolyard mentality that permeates this world—I call it the “My God Is Greater Than Your God” syndrome—where you have grown men flying airplanes into buildings shouting “God is Great”—where you have the leader of the free world telling the BBC in 2003 that he invaded Iraq because God told him to—where you have the constitution of a country (Iran) that dictates that its supreme leader is God’s representative on earth—where you have young men and women blowing themselves up (and innocent others) to buy a place into heaven. None of these concepts made any sense to me. Does it matter what I believe? Does it matter what you believe? And what is this entity that goes by the name of God, that seems to bring about so much friction, hurt and pain? So I decided to go around the world and ask people what they think.

Over a three-year period I traveled across 23 countries asking children, religious leaders, celebrities, fanatics and the common Man what God means to them. Along the way I experienced an incredible array of faith expressions and had no small number of unforgettable adventures. The film is a result of this journey. It is not about religion per se; it is about what God means to people throughout our human family. I needed to explore and discover for myself whether religion and religious people were the cause of all the worlds woes. And, as a person who wrestles with faith, I needed to determine whether God created man or man created God.

He thinks the relative power of gods is unimportant, and that Jesus and Vishnu are just generally congenial divine presences. When this sort of condescending religious voyeurism — and tasteful butt photography — is what passes for creative and spiritual sophistication among the entertainment industry’s elite, is it surprising that Elliot Rodger nursed delusions of grandeur? Moreover, when Peter Rodger clearly sees religion as an excuse for conflict and misuse of power, yet papers that fact over with a lot of mealy-mouthed relativism, is it any wonder that his son despised his father’s duplicity? He wrote in his manifesto, “If only my failure of a father had made better decisions with his directing career instead wasting his money on that stupid documentary.”

Should it surprise us that he began to see the same hypocrisy in the consummation of human relationships?

Further reading: E. Antony Gray — “The Gods of America

5 comments

  1. The politicization of the coincidental ramblings of a disturbed murderer is just distasteful. Apparently part of his motivation was sexual frustration. Why does this -have- to mean it was a political act? That’s called a wild guess. Did Son of Sam’s motivation of the talking dog represent our society’s, uh, pervasive talking dog culture? Unless, of course, you think all sex or all things are inherently political. Then you’re a totalitarian.

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    1. Well, like I wrote, his manifesto doesn’t seem ideological, but it does reflect certain assumptions and thought-forms that are worth noting. Also it’s interesting that his father and stepmother’s careers have been to some extent been built on permissive sexual norms, which may or may not have exacerbated his frustration.

      I think what you call politicization is just context; to MSNBC, it’s the context of patriarchy and male supremacy. For my part I think it’s more useful to look at his family and the culture in which he grew up.

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  2. The fact that it was an ideology or pervasive misogyny in society or cultural assumptions is totally possible. Is it the truth though? This is a question that everyone seems to have taken for a conclusive answer

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