Tag Archives: Journalism

Mass Shootings As Republican Anti-Politics

The several hundred mass shootings that have happened since Columbine have produced some literature from the shooters detailing their political ideologies or lack thereof. Given that a common complaint from the right leading up to their current moment of hysterical mass psychosis was “why does everything have to be political?” despite their clearly saying so for political reasons about everything from Colin Kaepernik to an imagined war on Christmas leaves me wondering whether these acts can and should be taken as acts of political terrorism and warning signs of our current situation in retrospect.

Columbine as Political Terrorism, Anti-Politics as Politics

The Oklahoma City Bombing, ostensibly a white supremacist response to FBI overreach in the handling of the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas, was framed by the Columbine shooters in the numerous written and taped materials later confiscated by the FBI as the opening shot of a “political revolution” of…well…there wasn’t an ideology, simply resentment and bloodlust. No one at the time looked at Columbine as a political act because it was politically incoherent. Yet over time, future shooters ranging from the V-Tech shooter to Vester Flanagan would cite the Columbine shooters as “inspirations” while carrying out similarly cold-blooded and politically incoherent shootings. These spiked in frequency in the years leading up to the current crisis to where there was nearly one per day, and met their official counterpart in a rash of racially motivated killings of unarmed black people, many of them disabled or children.

We are now stuck with a president who lacks any ideology beyond the glorification of resentment and violent displays of power. We are now stuck with a Congress and Senate that state their supposed remorse for the children killed in Newtown, the thousands of others in Las Vegas and elsewhere, then refuse to do anything to stop or even slow down their occurrence. They are essentially tossing Puerto Rico out the airlock as I type this. Our Republican representatives are sadistic voyeurs, mesmerized by the spectacle of their own deepest violent fantasies being offered as tributes from a distributed gestapo the way people burn goats as offerings to the devil.

If I might be allowed to play a game of id, ego, super-ego:

-The Congress and Senate Republicans are the super-ego who pose as the moral authority but are in fact just getting off on both the authoritarian thrill of screaming at the spectacle and the cozy, insular benefits it disproportionately accrues to them.

-The base is the id. The Republican base, perhaps best exemplified by Sandy Hook trutherism and Pizzagate, has grown increasingly schizophrenic and detached from reality. They aren’t guided by conscious concerns or their surroundings; they reimagine their surroundings in order to justify wanton indulgence of base impulses. It’s not a coincidence the people claiming they need guns “for their safety” are the ones assaulting people with them, that they believe they’re the chosen agents of Jesus Christ when they worship wealth.

-The ego is…irrelevant at this point? John McCain?

While much of the rise of the right could be seen as simply a perfect storm merger of the collective interests of white supremacists, Christian fascists, internet trolls, individual billionaires and large corporations, what ultimately brought them together were sustained outbursts of mass psychosis defined by mob violence and outright denial of reality-Gamergate, the police shootings of blacks*, the genocide by neglect going on in Puerto Rico, the denial that any children were shot in Sandy Hook.

The NRA, the 2nd largest right wing organization in the US behind the Republican Party, has a financial incentive to want mass shootings, because every time one happens, gun and gun accessory sales spike. Yet I think their hearty embrace of Trump and the violence of the current moment isn’t exclusively financial, though they have every financial interest in guerilla civil war breaking out and have even basically threatened it in recent advertising. This is after all an organization that exists as much as a culture of violent paranoid fantasy as a gun rights advocacy organization. They have been incredibly racist for most of their existence. They use “thugs” and “home intruders” as dog whistles to mean “black people” in tons of their literature. Their most famous spokesperson got the job because he was famous for screaming “Those damn dirty apes!” for fucks sake.

Violence as anti-politics is hardly a new phenomena, but has been accelerated through the return to tribal politics facilitated by the internet hive-mind and the slight decline in the financial fortunes of the privileged non-oligarch class.

Two years ago I wrote about the exceptionally banal manifesto that accompanied Elliott Rodger’s drive-by shooting in Santa Barbara, CA:

Rodger’s “manifesto” tells us a bit more. The MRAs, like Roof’s Stormfront folks, are the product of white men revolting over the fact they might not be as privileged as they once were. But Rodger more clearly outlines the surreal banality of the spiritually dead culture of privilege he was an extension of.

Rodger spends portions of his manifesto nostalgically lamenting how everything was fair and right with the world when he was a young man playing Pokemon, and how happy he was there was brand synergy between the cans of Mountain Dew he was drinking and the World of Warcraft MMOs he was playing. I’m not making this shit up, it’s all there. Rodger may have been the most boring person who ever lived.

By being more boring, Rodger takes on a weird interest. His privilege, and he had tons, is not enough. He fears the universe is manifestly unjust; that maybe women can’t actually be bought. In more optimistic moments he clings to the hope that maybe they can be bought but he just can’t afford them yet.

The surreal climax to his autobiography/manifesto describes his staking whether he’s going to kill himself and go on a shooting spree or not on whether he wins the Powerball lottery. He spends his time driving 8 hours across state lines because the Powerball tickets weren’t available in California. He can’t buy other lottery tickets because he doesn’t consider anything less than a couple hundred million dollars capable of making his life anything other than a story of someone tragically wronged by fate.

Part of how he’s wronged is by being a white man who can’t get literally everything he wants right this second. This being wronged doubles over on itself because his mother committed the cardinal sin of not being “white” so he can’t feel as fully wronged about his not getting everything he wants as he could if he were unambiguously “white”. Rodger spreads white supremacist diatribes all over his manifesto despite his being mixed race because white supremacy is an aspirational ideology.

Remember when Charles Koch, a man whose net worth equals a couple dozen Powerball jackpots and whose whiteness probably attracts moths, said when he was caught stealing oil from an Indian reservation: “I want what’s coming to me, and that’s all of it”?

Maybe Rodger was right about himself. He wasn’t crazy. He was just a loser.

Of course the opening shots of a revolution of anti-politics would be incoherent. That was the point. The longer we keep pretending the right is acting on rationales of anything besides the naked display of power through spectacles of opulence and terror, the more shit we’re gonna have to deal with later.

*It seems worth noting that Trump thinks the Central Park five did it but OJ Simpson is innocent. Perhaps by killing and sexually abusing Nicole Brown as violent tributes to the patriarchy, Simpson became honorarily “white” in Trump’s eyes. Trump clearly sees some of himself in Simpson and therefore could never believe Simpson was guilty.

Donald Trump is the Thing After Post-Modernism

What is to be made of the current collection of vernacular/folk “types” of people that frame the writing of the US cultural narrative? The “hipster”, the “troll”, the “social justice warrior”, the “alt-righter”, the “young professional”? Where do the archetypes come from? How do they drive the country’s current momentum toward postmodern authoritarianism?

Nearly all coverage of the hipster, despite never being able to confidently pin down just what the hipster is, has concurred that there is something sinister about the trend. What is the cultural undercurrent, the geist these critics were chasing?

A theory: What has made society so uncomfortable with the emergence of the so-called “hipster” is the predominant tone of irony; of insincerity; of a put on that is frequently described as “having nothing behind it”-but if the insincerity has nothing behind it, doesn’t it become its own truth? Isn’t a copy with no original simply a mislabeled original? And so shouldn’t the ironic eventually loop around into its own unironic self-appreciation? Or at least attempt to?

The “hipster” and the radicalization of conservatives developed along parallel tracks in response to the post-modern restructuring of society that followed the end of the post-war economic boom in the early-mid 1970s. When Robert Ashley dramatized the arrival of post-modernism in Perfect Lives as a story of people who rob a bank then bring the money back before anyone notices as various townies state their unease at a sinking feeling the money wasn’t there for some short time, was he consciously trying to invoke the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system? Was there a more post-modern event in the 20th century than the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system? Think about it-the signifier and signified, gold and cash, both functionally symbols despite the perceived “tangibility” of gold, legally divorced in a giant ceremony.

Despite the fact that gold is a placeholder for commodities and doesn’t offer much practical value besides as a conductor or tooth filling, the divorce troubled many. The money was there, but it wasn’t. Sort of. The success of Bitcoin among gold bugs despite its being even less traditionally tangible than cash speaks to the extent the appeal of gold was rooted in its being a symbol of limit and exclusivity. The symbol trauma of the end of the gold standard (one of many such traumas) has been one of the far right’s obsessions for decades now. Ayn Rand’s “A=A” satisfies both the conservative’s desire for a perception of solid reality and Baudrillard’s definition of hyperreality-the symbol (the written letter “A”) correlates to the symbol (the written letter “A”)-a closed loop of symbols.

If modernism was about insisting there’s an underlying particular meaning that can be codified, and post-modernism was about the dissolution/impossibility of meaning and the arbitrary quality of codes, then the thing after post-modernism is perhaps best dubbed Frankenstein Modernism-the attempt to reconstruct the comfort of fixed meaning from an environment that can’t allow for the comfort of a fixed meaning.

In an always-already doomed effort, the conservative ironically attempts to preserve the sanctity of “the real” by clutching desperately to the crudely symbolic-the flag, race, etc. Any conservative ideology must construct a sanctified past because its attempts to “conserve” the current status quo will always be undermined by the fact time goes forward and things change, up to and including the interpretation of the past-this dissonance has to be accounted for. Explanations and scapegoats are needed to maintain the conservative’s superficial sense of control over their surroundings.

In the conservative imagination this looks like the return to “sanity”, to the more comfortable prior status quo.  To the non-conservative, it looks like a strange and garish pastiche; the Hollywood reboot except real-even the players themselves seem to be operating, consciously or otherwise, on this logic-what else is to be made of the endless attempts by Trump and May to portray themselves as the return of Reagan and Thatcher?

What does this mean? The age of the remake is total; the age of high fidelity recorded media which has barely gone on for more than 150 years has swallowed society whole-there is no hope for a new thing or else why would there be such bitter and violent squabbles over the aesthetics of remakes, all the way from the Twitter harassment of Leslie Jones up through the selling of Donald Trump as fat Reagan.



Radio Without Money Episode 5: Brevity Is the Soul of Wit

brevity is the soul of wit

In this exceptionally brief (for us!) episode of Radio Without Money, the official WritersWithoutMoney.com podcast, Ross Snider and Aloysius VI try to put lipstick on a pig by discussing Daniel Levine’s disappearance, user analytics, the budget, Wikipedia, propaganda, Facebook’s new fact-check alerts and the conflation of “neutrality” with “objectivity,” journalism in general, the aborted Republican health care legislation, and the conflation of neoliberalism with traditional, progressive liberalism.

Podcast recorded Thursday, March 23rd through Friday, March 24th, 2017.

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How Are We Hating on People?

Journalistic articles are heavily schematic; of all the prose styles they’re the closest analogue to pop music. They use a very simple rhythmic pattern aggressively to get into your ear above all other considerations in a manner perhaps only surpassed by the prose advertisement, which in the print magazine works as the refrain between the verses of the supposed primary content. Sentimental and nostalgic reflections are shot back on its history; it gives grand retrospectives and revues of its greatest hits and it trains you how to passively consume it from about the first time you’re dragged out in public in a stroller. A news story catches and you hear bits of it every time you go to the supermarket or the drug store. It can’t be helped.

This tells you a bit, though not much more than the blanket statement that the majority of the songs on the radio work on a verse-chorus-verse structure. Other schematics are at play that change in their texture and attack over time much as the pop sound of today feels different than 40s big band sounds did.

The major difference that marks contemporary opinion pieces’ more specific coordinates and positioning in the circle jerk is the gerrymandering of where the locus of power lies and therefore the target our collective amorphous misgivings ought to be directed toward on any given day. Like cell phone contracts, a lot of crap is packaged together in ways it doesn’t need to be but in a manner meant to confuse the reader. The “ideological purity” of certain political stances is questioned for what are likely opportunistic reasons. Many of the misgivings about the practical applications of identity politics are put to these ideological “purity tests” in order to ironically obscure the valid part of the complaint.

When an article is shared on social media it tends to be simply as a triangulation of an earlier opinion. Often times the person sharing has not read the article. The news exists in large part at present as an external signifier of self; its a way of outsourcing the speaking of the mind so it appears our personal gripes are legitimized by the presence of an article the way that things become “real” for their having been presented on TV and not vice versa.

Part of this is media overload; there’s so much stuff out there. In the spirit of that great question “Is the chicken just an egg’s way of making more eggs?”, I must ask if the event itself and the specifics are simply now the rough draft for the eventual summary; I must ask whether the great novels will reach their truest purest form as Cliff’s Notes, whether the Cliff’s Notes will eventually be eclipsed by quick introductions and meta-meta-highlight reels, the “best” and “important” parts of things meant to represent the “best” and “important” parts of what were considered the “best” and “important” milestones of human culture? What was in an earlier age presumed to be the actual thing’s claims toward being the actual thing seem more and more tinged with the whiny taste of sour grapes. Who has the time to keep their ear to ground AND hold a job? No one whose job isn’t specifically keeping their ear to the ground. To be informed at this stage in history is not to be close to what’s happening but to be exceptionally fluent in spotting tells in the sleight of hand of summaries. We’ve all realized history is cobbled together from the surviving documents, not the events. This has always been true. Perhaps nothing more than a winking gentleman’s agreement sustained the perceived primacy of the event until now.

The journalist is not put in a position of having much or any particular easy recourse to self-respect at this point; the wages are low, the institutions hiring are almost all primarily expecting a person who can write PR bullshit. Whatever ridiculous claims to objectivity or public service…well, the claim of “public service” in an employment context at this point is essentially an excuse to pay people less than they’re worth. “But what you’re doing is important!” means about as much in this economy as if they put a shiny sticker shaped like a star on your paychecks.

The position of the young or old journalist at present would seem to be, especially on the most trafficked sites, the creation not of guided propaganda as may have been the case in an earlier time period, but simply the scouting out of persons already possessed of the desired worldview of the political body needing propaganda. The journalists themselves might still have silly pipe dreams of objectivity but the people with the money have no such concerns. There’s a large enough labor surplus at the moment where the lines between the serious journalism ideals of the 20th century and the internet induced Frankenstein of public relations and mild reporting are pretty much foregone conclusions; when a company puts at least the doublespeak of “innovation” or that they’re “looking for strong original minds”, it’s a formality and shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than such invocations would be if they were spotted in a dating profile.

Only the possibilities of panic or novelty can imbue the news with any sort of claim to our attention; while the pressure to be “informed” still exists, the suspicion that most of what goes on in the papers doesn’t actually have much bearing on our lives, for reasons of the pettiness of the content or simply the recognition that most of the population is firmly disempowered to make meaningful political change until the current oligarchy is collapsed. The current media giants mostly work to confuse and disenfranchise. They know that the popular narrative of the present is going to involve finger pointing and the fingers are all waving around anything and everything like the profession caught an advanced case of Parkinsons. Thomas Pynchon’s 3rd proverb for paranoids: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

People are pissed off. That’s easy enough to see. So the cases being made on sites like Salon, Slate and so on are revolving more and more around how define the demographic to go after when the pitchforks come out. Tellingly this demographic seems to be gerrymandered in these articles increasingly to avoid pointing out the simple and nearly universal target: the rich. The bankers. Their collaborators. The people who fucked shit up and keep fucking us.

Am I saying that the patriarchy hasn’t done awful shit? No. Am I saying that white people haven’t done awful shit? No. But any time that these lines are invoked without also calling out the heads of the large banks, the corporate heads, the administrators and middle men, the bought off legislators and careerists who’ve perpetuated the current corporate seizure of sovereignty in this country, I’m calling bullshit. We can advance the positions of women and the general disenfranchised in this country without becoming collaborators with the reactionary bourgeois.

I’d make some appeal to the better nature of these columnists here but I have little faith in them or that they’re reading this, so I’ll make an appeal to the better nature of the reader-don’t be timid about calling bullshit when there’s bullshit in the offing.

Identity and Politics: Considering Joshua Goldberg

He put the old cant of the lawlessness of art and the art of lawlessness with a certain impudent freshness which gave at least a momentary pleasure. He was helped in some degree by the arresting oddity of his appearance, which he worked, as the phrase goes, for all it was worth…This combination at once tickled and terrified the nerves of a neurotic population. He seemed like a walking blasphemy, a blend of the angel and the ape.-GK Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

Still another Goldberg fake, “Tanya Cohen,” was a radical feminist who wrote articles attacking sexism in video games and calling for laws banning hate speech — while his neo-Nazi alter ego attacked Cohen with anti-Semitic and sexist epithets.Newsday article on Joshua Goldberg

In college I had a couple classes with this kid who was tall and gawky and used to try to sell me pants he’d steal off the backs of trucks. He had a thick Russian accent and was horribly nervous and used to speak in lines from the movie Borat about the Jews. I was never quite sure if he was joking and I wasn’t sure if he was sure either. His presence was so unexceptional it hardly seemed to matter; his impression never threatened the domain of the real, and despite the numerous accolades and heavy discussion surrounding Sacha Baron Cohen in the media around that time, neither did Cohen himself.

The “subversive” element of Cohen’s films, which run on his playing an exaggerated character and tricking people not in on the joke into doing interviews with him, only exists in the moment of the interview and not afterward in the finished product of the film. His comedy is ultimately reassuring in its supposed “subversion”; the interview subjects might think Cohen is real but the audience is let in on the joke from the start. Cohen’s ability to fool his subjects makes the audience the ultimate insiders. They get to sit and look at everyone from terrorists to Noam Chomsky and think “Ha, what idiots, how do they not realize this is a joke?” Cohen’s career hasn’t maintained its momentum since it peaked with Borat’s success because it’s ultimately the same joke repeated over and over without the benefit of any special insight or virtuosity. It’s a forceful comedy from without. As I discussed in an earlier essay the joke frequently revolves around the dynamics of disappearance and deflation; here the joke itself is not the underlying pathos of disappointment but its flip side, the manufactured disappointment. In other jokes, the joker flirts with the absence of meaning but slinks away for fear of being bitten; in these the joker does the biting.

In the case of Cohen and the troll, the lack of identity paradoxically branches out into a multiplicity of identities. The lack of reality being asserted in the trick is in fact vampiric-it can only derive its pretense to meaninglessness by sucking on the strictures of meaning that surround it. At the same time, these “meanings” and their pretense to seriousness need to constantly assert themselves as such; they work in an economy and can’t be intelligently analyzed by declaring one the victor or gloating over the other’s defeat.

Joshua Goldberg was discovered recently as having taken on multiple “false” identities in an act of virtuoso trolling, being everything from an Israeli blogger calling for the extermination of all Palestinians to a member of ISIS to a white supremacist to a feminist attacking his white supremacist identity who he in turn attacked in his white supremacist persona. This strange circular saga finally ended with his outing by the original archetypal troll, the undercover government agent, the person we pay taxes to insincerely take on extremist personas. And with this connection made, this saga of split selves becomes that of one fictional identity, the undercover agent’s, protecting another, Goldberg’s, from breaking the internal coherence of the act’s pretense to fictional meaninglessness. If the terrorist act that Goldberg had been inciting had actually happened, it would undermine the entire point of his prior aesthetic. If Goldberg’s faking had produced something “real” in the form of a bombing, the implied point of his actions would have been put in danger.

So what does this “meaningless” mean?

Most internet writing is basically faceless. Most of the readers of this blog know who I am only because this blog has so few readers. The opinion asserted is the end product of the article. The textual self is the actual self on the internet. We can’t really say what Goldberg believed in, if he could be said to believe anything. Under his own name he wrote articles supporting total freedom of speech, which in and of itself is too insubstantial a political philosophy to do anything besides weakly frame the dominant body of work, the numerous personas he adopted. The charge against Goldberg made by the government is that he was inciting a terrorist act, the charge made by the numerous articles on the piece is that Goldberg undermined the confidence of the various editors and Twitter users he interacted with. The government has the better case.

The sites where Goldberg submitted articles to exist not to celebrate the individuality of the writers who produce their content but to continually recreate themselves and their readers in the lens of the nebulous “editorial standpoint” or “brand”. Popular bloggers and opinion writers in the present become such by endlessly repeating themselves in slightly different contexts depending on whatever the hivemind wants to look at that week. Most blogs and news websites have a uniformity of opinion in their content that would seem to suggest that behind the scenes they were having party meetings and purges. Of course, this probably isn’t the case. Why bother going through the annoying formalities of the purge when you can just hire or fire temps?

When we chastise Goldberg for the crime of duplicity and not simply the fact he was inciting violence, we must ask ourselves: how much do any of the people whose blogs we read really believe anything they’re saying? Do the faceless Buzzfeeders pumping out listicles do so with “sincerity”? Their claim to the real, to sincerity, then exists in the attachment of their name, and who actually checks the byline on an article of that sort? The anonymous Associated Press writer who attempts to uphold the illusory standard of journalism sans beliefs nevertheless ends up back at the point of a less honest bias for his troubles. When we create online dating profiles, do we really believe most of what we put in them? The solicitation of articles creating a collective and often quite narrow viewpoint maintains the power of the editor as funnel; a Joshua Goldberg reveals this function as funnel.

We are constantly implored to “sell” ourselves, the salesmen being the ultimate undercover agent, the false believer who must change gods as the market demands. “I couldn’t sell you this if I didn’t believe in it.” “I couldn’t sell you this if I didn’t use it myself.” It’s well known that advertisements and salesmen lie. But we symbolically construct our self from them (“ethical consumerism”, “the gamer”, etc. etc.). So when the product attempts to seduce us into a faith in it, we want to consummate this seduction in a way that leaves us respecting ourselves the next morning. The consumer identity is internalized in the readers of online news as much as it is in anyone else in a society that indoctrinates its citizens into consumer theology from day one. And lest we risk heresy when faced with capitalism’s Nietzschaen eternal recurrence-the point of purchase-we attempt to affirm. We want to say with confidence “I wouldn’t buy this if I didn’t believe in it.” We want to be insiders. We want to believe. Books upon books of consumer manuals each their own Summa Theologica guide us through the overwhelming multiplicities and outsource the endless work of discovering the true and correct means for practice and interpretation of the purchase. We want to be inside. We consume news to reaffirm we are.

And so, as a symbolic performance, the Goldberg case points not only to the “truth” as being a commodity. It stands in opposition to the Sacha Baron Cohen films selling the position to the viewer of being the true “insider” on the joke. It says there may be no “inside”. And so in the ensuing crisis of faith, the questionable “truth” of the journalist’s sermon/salesmanship must be affirmed through assertion of its “opposition”: the allegorical figure of the confidence man.