A couple of hours after the horrific Fourth of July parade shooting in prosperous Highland Park, Ill., I watched a video online of a song called On My Mind. It was from a 21-year-old called Awake the Rapper. His real name is the reason I was watching: Robert E. Crimo III, the man taken into custody by police as the Highland Park shooter.
It's hard, if not impossible, to find the video now. The most logical websites — YouTube, for instance — want no part of it.
What I saw was hugely disturbing, especially when you knew what "Bobby" Crimo was alleged to have done: murdered seven people at a Fourth of July parade.
Watching Crimo's video, it was crystal clear how troubled he was. You didn't have to read reports that cops had previously taken away 12 knives, a dagger and a sword from him after he had been called suicidal and a danger to his family.
Watch enough of "Awake's" videos and the combination of imagery and lyrics indicated to anyone reasonably sentient that the need for therapy is acute. (Sample "Awake" lyrics: "Like a sleepwalker, I am breaking through, no matter what" and "nothing can stop me, not even myself.")
But how does a vigilant world identify the distinction between psychopathy and art, especially when his own father — AFTER the police confiscation of the knives — co-signed a shooting permit for his son so that he could buy weapons?
The whole thing brought to my mind one of the 20th century's great, if tragically little-known books: Richard Schickel's Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity whose cover tells you that it's about "how our national obsession with celebrity shapes our world and bends our minds." The book was published in 1985.
I know about it for two good reasons: The late Schickel was the once-ubiquitous film critic for Time magazine and one of the book's original co-authors was going to be the late David Bazelon, an old friend who was a professor of English at the University at Buffalo. When Bazelon and another of the book's planned co-authors, psychiatrist and brilliant essayist Leslie Farber, dropped out, Schickel rightly considered all their input too good to be deep-sixed and went on finishing and publishing the book himself.
As relevant as so much of it still is, its biggest problem is that Intimate Strangers stops at the age of television. It doesn't begin to deal with the semi-apocalyptic changes the Internet was about to bring.
It was the insight of Schickel and friends that fame routinely replaced money and power as the key negotiable commodity in the post-TV era. Andy Warhol could offer his much-quoted law — how in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes — but the book doesn't begin to deal with the fact that the Internet has come close to making it a reality.
"Fame" is no longer the result of marketing communities coming together for just that purpose; it can be achieved by people who remain completely obscure to the whole world at large.
Bobby Crimo, aka Awake the Rapper, for instance.
One of the Internet's most concrete features is that the once miasmic and endlessly debatable subject of fame can now be quantified with ease.
Click on websites as easily counted as those containing "Awake the Rapper" and you find that there were two million clicks for one of his songs on Spotify.
To the middle class adult world so many of us inhabit, Crimo was an unknown, an underground struggler trying to make the transition from obscurity to consequence.
To a tiny but active community, though, he was known as a rapper obsessed with violence and death.
The trouble is that as quantifiable as the Internet is, its obscurity is maintained by the ineluctable fact of its hopelessly unmanageable vastness. It encompasses the world in a way TV never could.
We can, one day, know nothing of someone living in a basement in Ohio. The next day, we can find the person has become an "influencer" on the way to making millions of real dollars from the design and sale of products.
Or, in a case like this, we can start off with one of the hideously constant mass shootings that bedevil us all when the fight over the Second Amendment makes any solution all but impossible.
I don't think it's possible in a free society to routinely locate every example of psychiatric disturbance as flagrant as Bobby Crimo, no matter how voluble they become.
But if you work at it from the other end, look at it this way: If their technology can be stopped, so can they.
And something that we could actually call "American civilization" can continue. – The Buffalo News, N.Y./Los Angeles Times