THE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT LED TO THE BOWLING GREEN MASSACRE
The ubiquity of snuff films in the United States since 9-11 was symptomatic of a crisis of cultural capital. For 50+ years television had an unquestioned hegemony over the US media landscape. (It’s also interesting that these 50 years roughly overlap with the United States’ hegemony in world politics.) Television was a revolutionary and traumatic force that completely shifted how Americans became Americans. The sense of community that had before been engendered through shared architectural spaces-the church, the school, the cafe, the bar-was now engendered through the medium of the televised spectacle. Every time I’ve ever heard someone tell me the story of where they were when JFK was shot, the first part of the story always details their shock and the second part always details how soon they got to a television to be able to experience it with everyone else in America. Trauma creates an incredible sense of bonding and for an increasingly socially isolated population their sense of belonging to anything larger came to be mediated through the shared relationship to the television.
This sense of togetherness was an incredible high that America never was able to recapture, though it tried desperately over and over, with diminishing results. Everything on TV that could do so with any chance of not looking ludicrous for trying presented itself as “event television.” The moment in fictional cinema when the crisis occurs went from the Vorkapich style montage of spinning newspapers to the rapid cut montage of TV news anchors saying the same thing in different accents and languages. Every retrospective documentary about professional sports I’ve ever seen has a scene where someone, frequently an academic commentator, says something like “You had to be there-it was all that was on TV.” Our greatest nation-specific festival, the Super Bowl, is as much a celebration of what we can feel when we all decide to watch the same television program at the same time as it is anything to do with football. The TV inserted itself into the bars and schools and I remember getting to college and all the kids from different parts of the country realizing in certain aspects they had shared a childhood; the TV was something between a communal text and a pet that happened to be in all our living rooms at the same time.
If the JFK assassination was the first event cementing American identity in tuning in at the same time to the same thing and then remembering that rush over and over, it was also a plateau. Awful things from the Oklahoma City bombing to Columbine happened, and while everyone still flocked to their TVs and followed the details and commentary vigorously, no strangers are cornering you in a coffee shop (as several have done to me regarding JFK) to tell you where they were when either happened. That is, until 9-11.
My story of where I was when I found out about 9-11 is pretty much the JFK narrative. Our band teacher told us vaguely something bad had happened during the last period of the day, I took the bus home, and then everyone I knew from my parents to the couple that owned the deli down the street were glued to their TV sets for what seemed like and may have actually been several weeks, watching the towers fall again and again and again…
9-11 and JFK were bookends marking the opening and closing of the US as a TV society. In 2001, the thing that would swallow TV was making its way in the world. I’m talking, of course, about the internet.
Experiencing traumatic events through the medium of the internet isn’t unifying or edifying the way that experiencing them through TV is. The US-as-TV-society looked to the news for regularly replenished mythology, not information. This isn’t an irrational response-there is an inverse correlation between the importance of an event usually reported on national television and the event’s direct relevance to the immediate experience of the viewer. It’s considered a strange and novel thing to have shown up on TV and anyone who shows up on the TV frequently begins to take on the aura of the mythic. The TV encourages this.
FROM TV SOCIETY TO THE FRACTURED HIVE MIND
The internet is too fragmented and dispersed to sustain any narrative that there is a monoculure. Tragedies can’t be nurtured into seeming significant as individual events anymore; a single spree shooting can’t take on the cultural space a Columbine did when there’s another shooting that’s reported on every day or two. Terrorism can’t sustain its narrative coherence when it becomes plainly obvious that most terrorism that happens in the US is the result of domestic white supremacists. The “us vs. them” narrative that seemed on its last sputtering legs when the best argument its proponents could muster was “the war might be wrong but you have to support the troops” has morphed into a delusional need for social cohesion that can’t be sated. The political capital and the sentimental reassurance there was a single “them” to be worried about is now patently absurd.
Oddly enough, the internet initially seemed to be doing the opposite-incredible threads written in bits and pieces by complete strangers on forums like Reddit showed remarkably similar patterns of communication leading to the notion of the hivemind. However, the hivemind was quick to factionalize and each hive soon found its reach far more limited than it had hoped. If the TV was a tool of pacification, the internet is a tool of radicalization. It frees the “community” from all the external constraints of physicality and geography; as such its only means for the “community” to maintain itself as a coherent social entity for those who rely on it extensively is to test its adherents allegiance through the devaluation and dismissal of the outside world. If they fail to escalate the shared delusions, the user must admit to themselves that they are alone. The internet, since Web 2.0, has been specifically designed to encourage reliance on itself to the exclusion of other factors.
So when Kellyanne Conway keeps talking about an obviously fake “Bowling Green Massacre” or Trump invents a nebulous something awful that didn’t happen in Sweden, it’s a tactic similar to quantitative easing-the political currency of tragedy has been depreciated to where it can no longer do the thing it had done for the last 50 years and the Trump administration is attempting to print money to make up for the lack. This isn’t the propaganda technique of the Nazis but of Nigerian Prince scams . The propaganda is stupid and obvious so as to weed out those who might be too difficult to contain within the constructed hivemind.
My TV moment was sitting in my office four blocks away from the World Trade Center watching the World Trade Center come down on television even as the debris from Building 1 broke my window. But it was also a moment on the Internet, which stayed up until Building 7 came down and flooded the Verizon Building. I was typing shit like “watching the towers come down on TV oops a piece of debris broke the window” while I was watching TV.
The credibility and institutions of collective mass delusion have been breaking down for decades. On it’s deathbed confused and disoriented masses are grasping for a lifeline to any concept of reality.
In this moment, new political movements (represented by both an alternative left and an alternative right) have grasped the concept that the mass illusion that had stood before had been propaganda perpetrated by a consensus position (from coverage about the Iraq War – from incubator babies to Jessica Lynch, to the Snowden Disclosures, to Occupy Wall Street and Ferguson, to Syria).
A number of dangers are imminent: the wild success of a replacement damaging illusion, the continuation of disoriented public imagination, and the left making a ‘new deal’ with the right in order to fight the ‘other right’.
This kind of panic is extremely similar to the panic that set in during 9/11 and during the global financial crisis.
It’s the kind of panic, unfortunately, that power grabs can be made and wars can be justified. The left, it seems, would be willing to go to war with Russia because it’s so disoriented by the fact that it’s traditional enemy (the right) is telling it that it’s on the left and that the other right is the right right.
Doug Stanhope called it. America jumped the shark.
We can only be thankful and hopeful that the era of television’s dominance is at an end. Let us hope that the powers that be do not find a way to co-opt and manipulate the Internet to work against us.
Thus far the Internet has been a welcome, liberating and refreshing force. For those of you younger than 40, you cannot comprehend the incredible frustration of having to convince indoctrinated people of the truth prior to 1991. Of course, it is still frustrating; but at least we have a venue and medium for venting our frustration and ideas.
An example of yesteryears mass indoctrination can be revealed by my mother. Even today I will tell her about the criminality of the Clinton Foundation, or I may tell her that the 9/11 attack was an inside job, and she will scream at me, “Where are you getting all this information?” Clearly my mother who is 91 receives all her information through mainstream media which is of course the Ministry of Truth. I will say to her, “It’s all out there, Mom. It’s on the Internet.” She still doesn’t believe a word I say, but at least I feel better knowing that there’s someone else out there who thinks the way I do.
Yes, there are always going to be people who say stupid things. People will continue to be people and get confused. They will confabulate and they will even make things up. But at least we have a venue and a means to combat this. Prior to 1991, critics of mainstream media such as Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media had to conduct his criticism through the lens of mainstream media or through mailings.
We are far better off than we are used to be. Yes, we still live in a fascist dictatorship, but there’s the hope that maybe we can take these guys down.