Paul Bryant's Reviews > Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion from Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond

Going Postal by Mark Ames
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's review
Feb 03, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: true-crime, modern-life
Read from February 03 to March 01, 2010

Edited with a heavy heart, 16 December 2012


Mark Ames' argument : rage murders – workplace and school massacres – started in the 1980s and now there are a LOT of them. Americans blame this that and the other thing for all this hideous violence but they frantically avoid looking at the real culprit because to do so would mean they would have to face some harsh unacceptable political truths : it’s the conditions of life in workplaces and in schools, the toxic pressures of American middle-class life, which cause it all. In one word : Reagonomics. Or : rageonomics.

So this is an unabashedly leftist book which strongly reminds me of a title of an old union song – I wonder why it was never a big hit – “Can’t You See This System Is Rotten Through And Through?” Because Mark Ames does think that. Through and through.

Some characteristic quotes :

A person’s ability to adapt and grovel as much as required is almost the definition of normal. p41

We moderns are just as slavish and painfully docile as African slaves. p41

Kids are demonstrably more miserable today than they used to be. p226

Here’s Mark in an alliterative frenzy :

the normal and natural instinct is to resist reconsidering what one had once taken for granted as grossly unjust

As if you hadn’t guessed, Mark is saying that the socioeconomic pressures of unfettered capitalism make people miserable and then drive them mad. They encourage bullies and little Hitlers who get a free pass called “cost-cutting” and “efficiency savings”. But – here’s the thing – we do not acknowledge these modern psychological pressures because it’s all been normalised – everywhere is the same. Ain’t no more jobs for life. That’s gone like spats and galoshes, real gone. So MA makes this comparison – in slavery days many (at one time most) Americans didn’t appreciate that slavery was wrong or oppressive. No! They thought the slaves were better off in America than in Africa. So they were shocked – shocked and hurt! – when very occasionally a few pitiful slaves revolted. Ingrates! The Devil made them do it. They just didn’t know how good they had it, down on the plantation. Same thing now – office and factory workers and school students are the new slave class, and when some of these new slaves rebel, go crazy and shoot up the plantation we reel back and say – the devil made them do it, they’re evil, it was the parents’ fault, it was video games, it was drugs, the internet, breakup of the family, lack of religion, too much religion, blah blah, but we don’t say – yes, it was the oppression of being a slave and being treated with bullying contempt along with a maniacal work ethic and an obsession with success which made them do it.

It isn’t the office or school shooter who need to be profiled – they can’t be. It’s the offices and schools.

Yes, now we see, this whole system is rotten through and through! We don’t ever say that out loud, so MA is spelling it out for us. It will not make him the most loved author.

I have been conditioned to believe that Americans always rise up against oppression and that the good side always wins. The reality is that the oppressed rarely rise up, they always lose (in this country anyway) and they always collaborate with the state against those rare rebels to make sure they remain oppressed.

Whew! Mark Ames’ predicted earnings as an after-dinner speaker in 2012: zero.

One very striking part of MA’s portrait of American corporate life as oppression is the stats he gives on American’s disappearing holidays. I myself get 36 days off per year and I work a 37 and a half hour week and this is fairly normal in England. Compare this :

our 14 day average is just half of the European workers’ vacation time. That’s if an American even gets paid vacation time : today 13% of companies don’t even offer it, up from 5% in 1998. But even this exaggerates Americans workers’ holiday time. many Americans are reluctant to take even those few days off that they’re allowed, fearful of falling behind or giving the wrong impression to their superiors…. According to a 2003 survey by Boston College, 26% of American workers took no vacation time at all in the previous year.

Wow. (Now compare with that : in China no-one takes any holidays at all except the super-rich.)

On overtime there’s another huge basket of stats, leading up to :

Americans work 350 hours more per year than their European counterparts.

There’s a vast irony going on here. All the new voices which began to be heard in the 60s and 70s – racial minorities, feminist women, gay people – located the source of their oppression in straight white male culture, the despised patriarchy. Now, it’s the straight white males who are shooting up offices and schools and Ames is telling us that yes, all these years they’ve been oppressing themselves too. Kind of funny when you think about it. Or not, of course.

I like books which make strong in-your-face arguments, which are bristling with info without being scholarly, which are slangy and which grab you by your metaphorical lapels and say “Listen kid, this world is nothing like what they been telling you it is!”, which take on some urgent issue ripped from yesterday’s papers, which are the print form of the agitprop documentaries we see on the big screen these days, Fast Food Nation, Sicko, Capturing the Friedmans (you haven’t seen that one? you MUST see that one). And I love books which argue with and yell and poke at each other – books have been doing that since Socrates – and even though Columbine (the book) was published after Going Postal, Dave Cullen wrote enough articles about it to get Mark Ames’ complete goat. Here’s Cullen on Eric Harris:

Eric was an injustice collector. The cops, judge and Diversion officers were merely the latest additions to a comically comprehensive enemies list, which included tiger Woods, every girl who had rejected him, all of Western culture, and the human species.

Cullen summarises Eric Harris’ personal hatreds in one word : inferiors. And he thought everyone was his inferior. Ames inverts this. Not inferiors, that was just showoff stuff. Instead : superiors. When you analyse these shootings apolitically, as Ames accuses everyone of so doing, your chosen aetiology is always the personal, so you say : these people snapped, they were mentally ill, psychopaths. Can’t do anything about that, get those types everywhere. Move along, show’s over folks. Nothing to see here. (The NRA are quick to do this.) From MA’s point of view, this is a giant copout.

Ames (p61) :

Cullen’s breakthrough is essentially this : Eric Harris murdered because Eric Harris was an evil murderer. Cullen rides this line of reasoning further down the light rail of idiocy.

In pages 211 to 213 MA goes after Cullen like a he's a dangerous dog. He lists all the ways that Eric Harris’s life was a living hell because of treatment meted out to him by the jock bullies of Columbine. NONE of this is in Cullen’s book (I just read that one). Frankly, I’m amazed. One of these guys is right, but I don’t know which one.


In Britain the kind of rampage this book debates, the latest horrible example of which we are still reeling from, does not happen very often because we have truly draconian gun control laws. Actually, three such rampages have happened here - one in which a guy walked around the small town of Hungerford and shot 14 random people in 1987; the second, similar to Newtown, in which a guy went into a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1997, and shot 16 five and six year old children plus one adult before shooting himself; and one in June 2010 in Cumbria, a tranquil beautiful part of the Lake District, in which a taxi driver shot and killed four people he had problems with and eight random others. I often hear an argument from Americans against gun control which says – if you restrict gun ownership you will take the guns out of the hands of lawful people and leave them in the hands of the criminals. And also – the knowledge that lawful citizens could be armed is a powerful prophylactic for criminals. None of that means a tuppeny halfpenny damn to a guy stepping into his office with a duffel bag full of semiautomatics or a 15 year old with his dad’s rifle. None of these office/school shooters have ever been gunned down before they’ve shot their victims and themselves. The argument doesn’t work at all. Also, and this is a strange point - no hardened gangsters have ever gone on a rampage and shot a dozen people. That's a crime done by civilians, people who the police had never heard of.

Stats from today's paper:

Gun homicide per 100,000 citizens :

Mexico - 10.0
USA - 2.98
Australia - 0.1
UK - 0.03

The message from Britain is that gun control laws work. But I’m not preaching to Americans. The toothpaste is out of the tube, you couldn’t get guns under control if you wanted to. I am so sorry.


Although I think this is a brave book with a solid urgent argument, Mark Ames beats his reader to a pulp and leaves him limp and bleeding by the end. The last 50 pages are a total slog, there will be no one who doesn’t involuntarily shriek “Mark Ames, enough already, I can’t take it anymore” to the consternation of their partners, neighbours, offspring or pets. One huge problem about MA’s argument-book is that aside from a total Year Zero Pol Pot style revolution or a 1000 megaton Love Bomb I don’t see what can be done about the horrors catalogued in Going Postal. Two terms of Obama will not do the trick, I’m afraid.

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Comments (showing 1-36 of 36) (36 new)

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message 1: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Fantastic review. My standard statement after voting, yet, this time there is a truth in your review that strikes me to my liberal core -- the truth.

message 2: by Whitaker (last edited Feb 13, 2010 06:48AM) (new)

Whitaker This should be required reading together with Nickle and Dimed and Smile or Die. That'll really make anyone depressed.

Two terms of Obama will not do the trick, I’m afraid.

What two terms? After Massachusset's act of self-immolation? The only second act I see on the horizon is President Palin.

message 3: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Whitaker wrote: "This should be required reading together with Nickle and Dimed and Smile or Die. That'll really make anyone depressed.

Two terms of Obama will not do the trick, I’m afraid.

What two terms? After..."

Ack! Palin's the anti-Christ and the most blissfully self-unaware person I've ever seen.

message 4: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Now compare with that : in China no-one takes any holidays at all except the super-rich.

Don't forget the recent attacks on school children in China.

Paul Bryant Yes, I noticed that, a really weird rash of nutcases going into schools and shooting.

message 6: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Paul wrote: "Yes, I noticed that, a really weird rash of nutcases going into schools and shooting."

Chopping, not shooting. Not that it matters much.

message 7: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye This self-defence argument is rolled out all the time, and I'm pretty sure the US Constitution grants people a right to bear arms (whereas Michelle Obama has a right to bare arms).
I wonder how many normal innocent people with guns have actually ever used their guns in legitimate self-defence or to defend someone else, whether they actually shot it or just waved it.

message 8: by Noran (new)

Noran Miss Pumkin If you take time to read history--these type of killing are not new, but me the causation/inspiration is. Also with the wide span 24/7 reporting of these cases=spawn copy cats, or push others to finally do it. the gun issues in the US are tough to be kind. Automatic assault weapons have no place in private hands. I see the issue as an ER nurse. Yet now with a daughter-torn between having one for protection vs her hurting herself with it one say. I was bought up in a home full of weapons--I learned quickly to respect them.

Sarah I'm not finished with this yet, but I'm really confused about the Columbine stuff, too. Cullen's book was amazing, so I'm really unsure what to make of the statements he makes about the kids being bullied and whatnot. Has anyone discussed these two books in comparison?

message 10: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant Hi Sarah - the two books flatly contradict each other. One of them must be wrong. I think this is a very dodgy part of Going Postal, since we will rather believe Dave Cullen who studied this one incident rather than Mark Ames who is surveying the whole field.

message 11: by Bettie☯ (new)

Bettie☯ Great review! Convinced, however, that Going Postal is more my pea-brained line.

message 12: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant Ha, just saw that Bettie - nice one!

message 13: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant it's a cultural thing as well as a political thing, if the two can be usefully separated. Almost all the shooters in these massacres are white guys. Can't think of any females, and only one African American guy. You might think that African Americans suffer disproportionately from poverty & would have therefore produced more rampagers.

message 14: by Mosca (last edited Dec 16, 2012 04:23PM) (new)

Mosca Thank you, Paul, for reviewing a book that apparently needs more attention.

Since I have not read this, my 2-cents worth cannot apply itself to the merits/demerits of this author's work. So I will not address the particular results of his efforts in this book.

I also cannot address the UK or other countries.

But I will offer this anecdotal experience:

I am a very recently "retired" architect, who has worked more than 40 years in the American "professional" world. In numerous occasions, and with unbiased outside testing the quality of my work has been praised and remarked upon.

However the business community within the numerous outfits has, in the vast majority of cases, resembled the sociopathic hells run by the "bullies and little Hitlers who get a free pass " described above. In 40 years of American "professional life", I received one week of paid vacation. I was able to insist upon about one week of unpaid vacation every five years or so. I accumulated no retirement other than American public Social Security. This was over 40 years and about 8-10 accumulated different firms.

The usual work environment featured competitive anarchy with no rules--sabotage was, unfortunately, more frequent than assumed by outsiders. Collaboration and friendship among workers was very rare. Bullying, abuse, and exploitation from above was normal.

In 2008, during the Global Economic Collapse, my region was hit particularly hard; and about 65% of the profession's population around here was thrown onto the streets--some received Federal Unemployment Benefits; some did not. I gratefully took Social Security.

For the first 18 month of retirement, I spent every other night tossing within very real nightmares of anger and fury against dream bosses and/or dream coworkers. 18 months.

Now that I have settled into American Social Security Poverty, I've realized how fortunate I am to no longer be in that workplace hell. Today at 63, I would seriously rather live in poverty than return to that workplace of horrors. I could use the money; but it is not worth it.

But this is something we Americans are not allowed socially to say aloud. It is socially forbidden.

So, in closing, if it is the author's intent to awaken an American discussion of workplace realities in public. I salute him. But I am not holding my breath until that happens.

Just as a postscript: In 2001, close to around 3300 Americans were killed on September 11 in that terrorist incident. In that same year close to around 60,000 Americans were killed in accidents on the job (usually blue-collar industrial or construction accidents).

message 15: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant phew - thanks for that - were the various firms you worked for small outfits, i.e. less than 50 workers? Or were they large corporations?

message 16: by Mosca (last edited Dec 16, 2012 04:28PM) (new)

Mosca Very, very few Architectural firms hire more than 15 workers. Very, very large Architectural firms with more than 50 workers represent less than 5% of the total US architectural employee population. Some multi-national firms exist; but they represent an even smaller percent of the professions workplace populations. Good and decent firms exist; but usually not for long.

message 17: by Mosca (last edited Dec 16, 2012 04:45PM) (new)

Mosca Give 'em Hell, Moonie!

Keep the Faith!

Right to Work for little or nothing.

message 18: by Mosca (last edited Dec 16, 2012 05:08PM) (new)

Mosca "...just may call off sick tomorrow...

If your really pissed off, call in sick--"If I come to work today, I'm gonna get sick."

"...I'm going to quit now..."

But, hey, don't shut down your options until you've got a plan. Keep you brain gears cranking. But don't shoot yourself in the foot.

If you're smart enough to do IT, you're smart enough to chart your own course...and smart enough not to steer your sailboat into a squall.

I'm rooting for you, Moonie. >:)

message 19: by Mosca (new)

Mosca <3 <3

message 20: by Maciek (new)

Maciek I read the parts on Columbine when I was reviewing Cullen's book on the subject - my review is here - Interesting how none of the material in Ames's book was included in Cullen's, which presented the school in a completely different light.

message 21: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant I'll take a look at that review later today.... gotta go to my oppressive office workplace now!

message 22: by Maciek (new)

Maciek Thanks! Have a good (and quick) day at work! :)

message 23: by Mala (new)

Mala I'm reading Infinite Jest this month & in it a character remarks something like Who'll save America from itself! I watched the Connecticut massacre news in horror & wondered what's happening to America!
The very next day India had its own shaming headline: A 23 yr old medical student in the national capital Delhi,coming back from a movie show at 9:30 pm,along with a male friend,boards a chartered bus where she is brutally raped by five fellow passengers in the moving bus,she & her companion were beaten with iron rods & thrown out from the moving bus in semi- naked state,out on the road side to die.
The girl is now on a ventilator,fighting for her life. What was her crime? Only that she is a woman,out in the nite with a male. In India,a rape takes place every 22 minutes but this incident has shaken the nation to the core.
It's not a question of 26 or 1 person- people shd not become statistics.
The world's two oldest & largest democracies shd heed these two tragic events as a clarion call to enact stringent laws,laws with real teeth.
Enough is enough.

message 24: by Julia (new) - added it

Julia Paul, I came here from your review of Columbine, which I've also read. I heard Dave Cullen talk a few times in the past week after Newtown and think he's got some of the better ideas around.

Thanks for suggesting Going Postal.

message 25: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant These two books are bugging me now because they are diametrically opposed. I can't accept Cullen's diagnosis of the Columbine shooters, it seems retrospectively very superficial, and yet his book is absolutely not superficial, it's an excellent read; Ames throws out the psychological and replaces it with the political but his book is badly written ranting. Even so he has by far the better arguments. Yet he continually crudely overplays his arguments.

message 26: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Paul- I have read "Columbine" and have also seen Dave Cullen speak recently about the Newton tragedy. I am not sure what you mean when you sat he crudely overplays his arguments. Do you mind speaking more to this? I have yet to read your review of Columbine- so perhaps you speak more to this. I will take a look at it now.
Thanks! :)

message 27: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth oops- sorry for the typos and bad syntax. in a hurry...

message 28: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant Hi Elizabeth - no, it's Ames who overplays his arguments; Cullen isn't peddling a grand theory and indeed spends some pages dismissing all the accepted interpretations/explanations of Columbine.

message 29: by Mala (new)

Mala @ Moonbutterfly:

"Now I really want to read Infinite Jest. LOL"
I'll recommend this book to every thinking person. This is Foster Wallace's meditation on all things Americana,very prescient- a great book is always relevant.

"That is a horrible story! I believe I read somewhere Delhi is the rape capital of India. Is that true?"

Unfortunately,yes. The statistics speak for themselves & that's cos we left things to our govt & the justice system & nothing happened. But now ppl are out on the streets protesting,so hopefully things will change.

"Even in the US the punishment for rape is low. Rape is an incredibly humiliating crime, and one doesn't really understand it, unless you've been a victim. To combine this with torture is like being victimized multiple times."

My personal opinion is nothing short of capital punishment will act as a deterrent. Women & children continue to remain vulnerable sections of our society. But you know these human rights groups,more concerned with the offender's rights than the victim's!
In South Asian culture,where men expect virgin brides,a rape victim is a walking dead.

@ Paul Bryant: Sorry Paul,my heart was so full of those two events that when I saw your review on the feed,I blurted out!
Still pain is pain,regardless of race,nationality,gender,age & considering your diatribe against American Psycho,time & again,you shdn't perhaps mind my diversion.

message 31: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Paul wrote: "Hi Elizabeth - no, it's Ames who overplays his arguments; Cullen isn't peddling a grand theory and indeed spends some pages dismissing all the accepted interpretations/explanations of Columbine."

oh, geez. so sorry. i was in a hurry when i read your comment and see that i misunderstood. thanks!

message 32: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice Thanks for this review, which I'll complete when in a better frame of mind; couldn't do it tonight when I found out it was a polemic by one of our political "sides" against the other. I do feel that people here want an easy answer so as not to look at ourselves, but it is not "the Right" (or the Left) and certainly not "capitalism." Ugh! I'd say society is falling apart at the seams a little; American exceptionalism isn't so exceptional any more, community is lacking and it's often each nuclear family on its own--if someone is even lucky enough to have a functioning family. There is no frontier to send the more feral guys off to (and no Crusades, either) and no well-paying work at the blue-collar level, especially with the economy bad--which doesn't help! We are in some sort of period of transition where the old is gone and the new hasn't clarified. People are falling through the cracks of society, and those cracks are opening up like bad earthquake fantasies. Most of the guys who do these things aren't frustrated workers. They are--rebels without a cause? I'm pretty sure I'll lean toward the Cullen perspective. I will be more intentional and finish reading the review tomorrow. I'm very appreciative of its being here to read, Paul.

message 33: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant There is no frontier to send the more feral guys off to (and no Crusades, either) and no well-paying work at the blue-collar level,

You put your finger on two major sources of our current ills - there are a whole lot of people which the economy simply doesn't require at the moment or for the forseeable future.

message 34: by Jan (last edited Jan 08, 2013 07:37PM) (new)

Jan Rice Now I've actually read your review. Ames' hypothesis is in some ways reminiscent of 1960s-era psychiatric theories that the system was crazy and the crazies were having a normal response to crazy society (e.g., R.D. Laing). It reminded me of that. "The youth" all sort of believed that "back in the day."

Before the '80s, there was the Texas tower shooter in the 1960s, & he's the one who turned out to have a brain tumor. And here's one I recently learned about--from 1927!
No assault weapons but wreaked enough havoc--and apparently no copy-catting. Could our revolution in communication be tying us together in one big tangle, for better or worse?

message 35: by Paul (last edited Jan 09, 2013 12:42AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant yes, there's a history of these American massacres - this from 1949 for instance

and yes, again, I agree with you, Ames is a real throwback to 60s radicals with a very similar dire diagnosis.

message 36: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice Yes. I didn't know about that one.

It seems almost every generalization we make has exceptions. We say it's a modern phenomenon. We say they are always white -- and then there are the Beltway snipers. And the Michigan stabber, who wasn't even American.

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