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Single Lens Reflex



JP Sottile, aka The Newsvandal

When a 22-year old man murdered eight people at a massage parlor, the fact that most of them were Asian was only part of the story.

"The Danger of a Single Story" is the title of a TED talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that since 2009 has received 26,650,856 views. That bears repeating: more than 26 million views. In it, Adichie talks about the problem of seeing the world through, well, a single lens.

Usually the single lens perceived as the lens of white privilege. But much of the media coverage of massage parlor shooter Robert Aaron Long's killing of eight people in Georgia uses a single lens, too, seeing the murders purely as anti-Asian hate crimes.

As more facts emerged, it increasingly appears that Long's indoctrination into fundamentalist Christianity's "purity culture" was a major driver behind the murders of eight people at Atlanta-area "spas," the euphemism for the massage parlors that are prostitution fronts. Six of the murdered people were Asian women, two of them white, and one of the injured was LatinX. 

I think it's important to be precise, and precision means admitting that this mass shooting may not have been solely or even primarily "racially motivated." Instead, it looks like it was driven by a warped view of sexuality peddled by a retrograde, misogynistic and homophobic brand of fundamentalist Christianity. Fundamentalist religion has been weaponized in politics, and increasingly, it cannot be separated from the "purity" doctrine of white nationalism.

The 22-year-old Long was, as one writer termed it, not necessarily a victim but certainly a product of this brand of indoctrination. This does not detract from the surge in Anti-Asian racist incidents in recent years. Nor does it absolve the bullshit comments of the Cherokee County Sheriff's office spokesman, who commented that the shooter was having a "really bad day."

That most of the victims were Asian could and should lead to an examination of the intersection of sex work and the hyper-sexualized, hyper-misogynistic view of Asian women in Western society. But if we insist on cramming the facts of this massacre into an ill-fitting paradigm cut from our preconceived notions, it makes it easier for apologists to discount the arguments that must be made about anti-Asian racism, white supremacy, gender violence (and specifically, violence against sex workers that is rarely reported and even more rarely prosecuted) and, just as importantly, about the persistent, mind-warping views of sexuality being perpetuated by fundamentalist religion.

The Sin of Being Human

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Let's get to the facts. Robert Long is a case study, and even though one is tempted to dismiss him as (yet another) young, gun-toting guy with mental problems, he didn't choose his targets randomly. Instead, Long had "long sought treatment for his pornography habit and penchant for buying sexual services at massage facilities," according to The Washington Post.

"Long was plagued by the conflict between his belief that his obsession with sex was immoral and his dedication to furthering his faith," according to Tyler Bayless, his roommate at a Christian recovery facility told the Post.

“He was militant about it,” Bayless said. “This was the kind of guy who would hate himself for masturbating, would consider that a relapse.”

Long had spent time at two of the massage parlors he targeted, according to the New York Times.

Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma described a phenomenon in some parts of evangelical culture that he called “sexual exceptionalism,” in which sexual sins are implied to be more serious than other categories.

“So many men boil down how they’re doing spiritually to how often they have looked at porn recently,” Perry told The New York Times. “Not whether they’d grown in their love toward others, given generously of their time, or spent time connecting with God, but if they masturbated.”

Chrissie Stroup wrote in Religion Dispatches, a secular journal that examines the intersection of religion, culture, and politics: "I want to be clear. As Joshua Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University who has published research on religion and attitudes toward sex told RD, 'Sex addiction is simply not a credible defense for mass murder.'”

"One of the most significant conclusions Grubbs’ research points to, however," Stroup continued, "is that conservative Christian men are prone to believe that they have pornography or sex 'addictions,' even when they do not. Before he was apprehended by police, Robert Aaron Long was reportedly on his way to target the porn industry in Florida for violence similar to what he perpetrated in Georgia."

Withstand the Single Lens Reflex

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Sound familiar? This cartoon suggests that Chinese laborers would monopolize jobs that should go to white workers. George Frederick Keller, “What Shall We Do With Our Boys,” The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp, March 3, 1882.

Imprecision about the facts of this massacre, including the effects of fundamentalist religion, detracts from an important discussion of a still-acceptable strain of All-American racism that allows Americans to place Asians in a heretofore unbreakable category of "the other" that, in turn, produced the grotesquely paternalistic term "the Model Minority."

Historically, sex has been part of the equation. As Rutgers professor Sylvia Chan-Malik recently tweeted: "In light of the shootings in Atlanta, important to note that first exclusion law ever passed in the U.S. was the Page Act of 1875, which effectively banned entry of Asian (namely Chinese) women due to 'lewdness and immorality,' paving the way for 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act."

So this is all complicated. Seemingly unrelated issues collide. The apparent unrelatedness does not cancel out the reality that the collision is not random, but, upon closer examination, happens because the mental constructs are, in fact, related.

"Purity culture is about more than bodily purity," says Skidmore professor Bradley Onishi in his podcast Straight White American Jesus. "It's about national purity. It's about racial purity. It's about ethnic purity. Okay. So if we bring all these things together, we have a man who seems like he was brought up in youth group purity culture in a church."

Remember intersectionality? "The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage." (That's the Oxford dictionary, and the Brits should know.)

In the U.S., where people are obsessed with elevating or denying the country's original sin of slavery, the concept of intersectionality is often reduced to the single lens of skin color.

Here's the hard part. White supremacy is only part of the complicated equation. Andrew Sullivan, not usually my favorite neocon, noted on Substack that "Asians are targeted by elite leftists, who actively discriminate against them in higher education, and attempt to dismantle the merit-based schools where Asian-American students succeed — precisely and only because too many Asians are attending. And Asian-Americans are also often targeted by envious or opportunistic criminal non-whites in their neighborhoods. For Trump to give these forces a top-spin with the “China virus” made things even worse, of course."

"The more Asian-Americans succeed," he continues, "the deeper the envy and hostility that can be directed toward them. The National Crime Victimization Survey notes that “the rate of violent crime committed against Asians increased from 8.2 to 16.2 per 1000 persons age 12 or older from 2015 to 2018.” Hate crimes? “Hate crime incidents against Asian Americans had an annual rate of increase of approximately 12% from 2012 to 2014. Although there was a temporary decrease from 2014 to 2015, anti-Asian bias crimes had increased again from 2015 to 2018.”

Here's the kicker: Of the people committing violence against Asians, 24 percent of these attacks are committed by whites; 24 percent are committed by fellow Asians; 7 percent by Hispanics; and 27.5 percent by African-Americans. In general, Sullivan writes, hostility comes from every community pretty equally.

As Sullivan notes, anti-Asian bias, like all biases, "can infect anyone of any race, and the sample size is small and in one place. But it sure complicates the 'white supremacy' case that the mainstream media simply assert as fact."

People are complicated. Society is complicated. America is increasingly diverse, pluralistic, some would say, tribal. If the weaponization of Christianity shows us anything, it's that there is no such thing as a single lens. The people weaponizing religion know that; so should the proponents of tolerance.

To get to a real understanding of these murders, and so much of the contentiousness in America now, we have be willing to accept facts and see those facts, however contrary to our initial reaction, within the context of the larger issues.

We can and should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The failure to do so will only perpetuate that which we seek to end.

JP Sottile is a writer, journalist, and editor of Newsvandal, a curated daily synopsis of the news cycle. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Shame ::: Randy Newman

I Touch Myself ::: The Divinyls

I Have A Devil In Me ::: Churchwood

Death’s Got A Warrant ::: Patty Griffin

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Death Came A Knockin’ ::: Ruthie Foster

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