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Going Postal

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Mark Ames, Going Postal, Snowbooks, 2007

“Why did we let Ronald Reagan die calmly in his sleep, at age ninety-three, almost a quarter century after he destroyed everything decent in America? This book is an attempt to dig up Reagan’s remains, hang them upside down from the nearest palm tree, and subject him, at least, to a proper trial.”

So ends Going Postal, Mark Ames’ fascinating analysis of American workplace massacres. Read it and you will be asking much the same question yourself, regardless of your nationality. Not, why do they murders take place in the first place (though he does provide an answer for that) but, why indeed? Why did America let Reagan get away with so much and how can a man who was hell-bent on wrecking “everything decent” be celebrated as some sort of hero? And not just by big business either, but by white collar workers whose very lives he destroyed without them really noticing. The lower middle class duped into an environment where no jobs or benefits or salaries are safe, a workforce constantly subjected to downsizing, intra-work pressures and a top-down culture of fear.

Ames convincingly traces the rage murders back to the slave rebellions of Nat Turner’s day. He methodically examines each instance of protest and the conditions against which the slaves were rebelling, coming to the conclusion that far from being wide-spread revolutions, the rebellions were not only pretty much isolated incidents but in fact blueprints, if you like, for the workplace massacres that started in the US the same time Ronald Reagan came to power. “Every one of us is hard wired to be a slave, given the right conditions,” says Ames. “Through time slavery has mutated and adapted itself to our modern condition.”

Bad enough, you think, but looking at the AT&T employee hand-book he continues: “The modern American work culture derives from the same sources that defined slavery’s official work culture. When the master managed his slaves correctly, they often responded by fulfilling his expectations, with cheerful, boss-pleasin’ initiative. In the same way, most AT&T employees responded positively to their company’s treatment of them, just as the company expected. The overwhelming majority identify their own best interests in the Company’s, a relationship that only soured as the Reagan Revolution redefined the corporate culture’s priorities by giving executives the opportunity to squeeze as much profit out of their employees as quickly as possible for as little expenditure as possible, a tendency that has only accelerated, particularly under George W Bush’s presidency. Similarly, a large number of slaves saw their interests and their master’s as one, provided that the master upheld his end of this bargain.”

A supposed sign of a person who snaps is the “irrational persecution complex,” yet, in most cases, Ames argues, this is also a misconception: when examined it is mistreatment, singling out and being pushed too far—in other words bullying—that causes the need for “vengeance.” And that, Ames says, is when you’ve got a problem. It is the business itself, the masters that are “..one of the goals of these rage massacres—the perpetrators are attacking the entire company, the workplace as an institution, the corporate culture, at least as much as the individuals whom they shoot. That’s why there are no “random” victims—everyone in the targeted company is guilty by association, or they’re collateral damage. The goal is to destroy the company itself, the source of the pain.” The portrait of the freak that snaps, “the violent, unbalanced, murdering-at-random nut-case who goes postal,” is a fallacy. Rage murder sprees are “targeted vengeance,” be they “in offices, workplaces, post offices, and even in the most recent setting of this crime, schoolyards,” like the “doomed rebellions” of Nat Turner or John Brown.

“An unprecedented corporate cold-bloodedness..has overtaken America over the past several decades,” Mark Ames soundly says. He never once excuses it, but he does see them as symptoms of profound and brutal socio-economic changes in America. People don’t just snap, they are reacting to grievances, both specific and institutional. There is a traceable line from Patrick Sherrill (who was responsible for the first modern post office massacre, spawning a new mass-murder phenomenon and the term “going postal”) through to “schoolyard shooters” like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Harris and Klebold murdered twelve students and one teacher, wounded twenty others before killing themselves. In Columbine’s aftermath, “Americans wanted to blame everything but Columbine High for the massacre.” The motive, Ames says, was the scene of the crime: the school culture of bullying and the same socio-economic squeeze as the workplaces.

An example: “All of this is a product of the larger cultural cruelty and bullying that has been going on since 1981, when Reagan slashed school lunch programs for poor children in order to offset tax cuts for the rich. It was a whopping success: in only a few years some three thousand schools and four million children were dropped from the school lunch program, including one and a half million children living below poverty and still qualifying even by the new meaner standards.”

Mark Ames’ book may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s a necessary one. Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine was more an analysis of the media and the climate of fear, which is why the scene with Charlton Heston feels awkwardly bolted on, proceeded as it is by a trip to Canada that there is little correlation between gun ownership figures and murder rates. Ames on the other hand, performs a systematic analysis of rage killings, including the employment circumstances of the perpetrators, comparing this against the huge changes in American life since 1980. While no excuse, “rational debate is impossible in an irrational, cruel and credulous culture.”

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika and is Comics Co-Editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 7th, 2007.