December 5, 2007

Phosphors of Moloch

Reacting to something pippa said on the subject of media frenzies following a violent tragedy. She’s connecting the media reaction to the people who commit these violent acts. It’s not a difficult connection to make anymore, is it, when these people make the connection themselves just before they flip out, declaring that they want to be famous.

When something like this happens, the world suddenly shrinks. Nothing else is going on, but this. At least, that’s the feeling I’ve gotten in the past watching cable news. National coverage becomes focused like a laser beam to start the ball rolling making the most recent screwed up gun-toting coward a household name. Am I wrong, or is it not unseemly to have wall-to-wall coverage peppered with Cialis, Head-On, Schwab, and the latest Dodge Ram truck? People want to sit in a big truck and worry about their financial future while they try to get rid of that throbbing headache — but at least they’ll be able to get it up. Brought to you by: some loser with a rifle.

We used to say we watched because we didn’t understand. We were just trying to make sense of it. But I just don’t think we have that excuse anymore. In the information age, the perpetrators are giving us exactly what we asked for. They’re explaining themselves. They’re telling us that they want to be famous. Look at the length some people will go to for some time on national TV.

Watch a American Idol auditions, or Jerry Springer, or any number of venues where people can sacrifice their dignity for some air time. Have you ever heard yourself, or the person next to you saying “why would he/she do such a thing?” It should be obvious what these people are after. The lengths to which some of them will go are shocking, and that’s even before anybody picks up a gun.

I think that we really should understand this by now, at least on a superficial level. And the deeper level of understanding just may not be there at all. We understand it as much as we’re going to understand it.

It’s easy to blame the media. Actually, it’s too easy. Local media have something of a responsibility to report what’s going on in their back yard. When you are down the street from an explosion, you’re in the explosion. National media don’t have the same excuse. There’s a lot going on in the world; there is a lot that’s important and worth knowing. This is certainly one of those stories. And it should be reported within reason.

How many people are dying in automobile accidents today? From infectious diseases? How many other events have a likelihood of eventually touching your life? Many. But I am told that violent acts (like terrorist attacks and such) have some special, magical importance. The first time I heard that, I wondered if it was right. By the 30th time, it was sounding like a junkie’s excuse.

Excessive coverage has become a prize for the unhinged gunman. It’s the rocket fuel that gives their fame escape velocity.

Excessive coverage is not part of some healing process. It bandages neither a psychic nor physical wound. The victims do not rise; they do not draw energy from you, like the perpetrator does. It’s not part of some modern or new age panacea for grief. It’s something much older and fundamental.

In ancient times people worshipped at the altars of gods they imagined to be violent and capricious. They worshipped out of fear; they believed that their lives were in danger from these strange, inexplicable forces. They paid tribute, sometimes, with sacrifices of their most valuable possessions.

Today our most valuable possession is our time, a commodity which not even money can purchase with any certainty. The violent gods have different names, but we worshipers have not changed much. Willing supplicants are still giving sacrifice before altars to assuage their fear. As with all superstitions, some have found a way to use it to achieve their ends.

Posted by James at December 5, 2007 8:52 AM
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After columbine, I lost my taste for excessive coverage. My solution was to stop watching the glass teat. It has worked well for me. Last night is a good example, I read the Black Swan. It was a much better way to pass the evening.

Posted by: Mojoey at December 6, 2007 12:07 PM

Thank you. Your version was much more eloquent than mine.

15 years ago Columbine was unthinkable; now it's a mere footnight. I tested my theory this morning with G, who is even more news-savvy than I am. He could name every murderer from Columbine to Oklahoma City, and yet couldn't name a single victim. He didn't even know Charlie Manson killed more than just Sharon Tate.

If that doesn't say something, I don't know what does. The first day, you'll get the "we aren't reading his name" crap from the networks, but by day three of continuous coverage, they'll have interviewed his kindergarten teacher.

COMM 101, freshman year of college. On the first page of notes I took in that class was the journalist mantra: Fuzz and Was. Anything involving cops or dead people was what people wanted to hear about or read about.

Again, glad I changed my major.

Posted by: pippa at December 6, 2007 12:48 PM

We have a problem. I can't propose a solution, because I don't think there is a solution that ought to be imposed by the government. And I don't think a business can ever be trusted to have anything but its bottom line as a priority.

I think that if this is to change it has to be a culture change. Which means we just have to stop tolerating, call it like we see it, and try to be honest about it. It's an emotional subject. But I have a low threshold for emotional bullying and guilt-tripping. I learned all about that pry bar in my youth as a good Catholic.

No offense to Catholics, but we all take from our experiences something different.

Thanks for helping me to focus my feelings on this.

Posted by: James at December 6, 2007 12:55 PM

I'm glad y'all wrote about this. Much more eloquently than I would be able to write.

Posted by: leslie at December 6, 2007 1:36 PM

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