Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Processing tragedy

For the next few weeks, we’ll hear about the Virginia Tech shootings. The professional news readers, sitting in their seats of importance, less for their journalistic credentials than for their ability to sell units of consumer items, will determine the arc of this story. They’ll question the school officials, the police, the parents and anyone else that they can possibly impugn for a crime that has no real explanation. Is it possible to rationally come to terms with an irrational act?

We’ll read about the details, about the killer and how his life, actions, words, screamed “warning,” “warning,” “warning!!” Interestingly, for all those supposed signs of trouble, no one saw fit to intervene—that’s just not something we do.

On the day when lives came to a standstill for the families with college students enrolled at the school, media sycophants began swarming the Blacksburg, Virginia campus, like hound dogs after a scent, interviewing students still reeling from the shock of staring down the barrel of a 9mm handgun. Trying to make sense of it all, these young adults became painfully aware that this something more than a video game, or an exercise in virtual reality.

Like Columbine, some eight years earlier, almost to the day, mayhem was visited like some Old Testament act of vengeance upon a school campus. No longer a refuge where youth retreated to experience the life of the mind, the cracks in American higher learning were fractured by the “pop, pop, pop” of semi-automatic gunfire.

Since I dropped a biblical reference above, what gives at NPR, yesterday morning? Why did this supposed bastion of “hard news” and journalistic integrity have to resort to the faith-based angle of this story, involving an evangelical youth pastor, Matt Rogers. I realize that the majority of Americans self-identify as religious, but how often will people go to the well of faith, only to have their faith shat upon by a supposed loving God? Since the topic of mental illness and insanity are being discussed in terms of motive, why not talk about the insanity of trying to paper over this tragedy with an empty veneer of faith, at least the superficial kind of faith featured by NPR?

It’s difficult to process any event in our current media-saturated culture. As hard as we try to step outside the vortex of the 24/7 news cycle, it keeps pulling us back towards its core, shredding any attempts at objectivity and reaching our own conclusions. Americans feel most comfortable running in packs and we’ll seek our own comfort group on this event, like any other.

Cataclysmic events require some element of context. In trying to frame the killings of young people who had futures brimming with hope to look forward to, we’ll be bombarded with multiple rationales and none will bring any sense of satisfaction or modicum of comfort.

Like most issues involving loss of life, sides will get chosen and the polarization will begin. One side will demand that we take guns out of the hands of killers and the other will posture that we need more guns to protect us from cold-blooded killers that maim and murder. The Rambo choir will puff out their macho chests and insist that if they were there, they’d have shot the killer before he had a chance to squeeze off his first shot.

The sad premise of this position, in my way of thinking at least, is holding to this line of thought that we need guns to protect ourselves, invalidates the notion that we have still an implied social contract and that we can live our lives, not bother anyone and live to see another day, not being concerned with being shot up by some crazy, with easy access to a lethal weapon.

Familiarity with Neil Postman’s critiques of media and communication, at least helps me understand my own morning news experience today, at 5:30 am. While having my first cup of coffee of the morning, the CNN/American Morning team of John Roberts and Kiran Chetry were seen on location, with a set that somehow reminded me of the sets that ESPN and Fox use for Sunday afternoon football.

These two meticulously groomed, good-looking and well put together news hosts were blathering on about motives, the killer’s background, the way that the Virginia Tech campus had come together during a spectacular candlelight vigil, replete with chants of “Hokie, Hokie.” Then, we were treated to a cutaway, which Postman, in his inimitable way, would have been wowed by. As he wrote about in Amusing Ourselves to Death (I’m paraphrasing), …news items are stripped from local context, commodified, and given to the viewer in bit-sized chunks, separated by the "now.... this!" phenomenon, which serves to make the viewer dismiss it all as meaningless candy he or she can do nothing about. The "now... this!" phenomenon can be tried on any news broadcast. Tonight, for example, and update on the Iraq will be followed by ("now.... this!") Britney Spears' (or insert any vapid cultural reference here) latest escapades. Postman indicated that this serves to reduce it all to meaningless trivia.

This morning’s cutaway was of a 50-ish boomer, washing his classic automobile, while his wife sashays provocatively by, with her bedroom eyes and the poor sap is faced with the choice of finishing rinsing the soap of his expensive piece of machinery (with all its own psychological ramifications and what it says about his virility) and going upstairs for a roll in the hay with his well-preserved wife. Well, of course, he positions the sprinkler to rinse away the soap, while he is seen going through the door and then the camera shows the shot of the upstairs window, with the shades being pulled and the final camera shot of the water hitting the side of his Stingray, with the white soap dripping off the gleaming metal—what was the product? Of course: Viagra! Guns, carnage and hours of ample erections—good Lord!

There are certainly discussions that events like this one at Virginia Tech ought to promote. Unfortunately, meaningful dialogue will instead be superseded by psychobabble, politicos seeking to score points and garner support for their latest run for office.

I hope the administration and the community at large in Blacksburg have some real leaders. They’ll need some to get through the tragedy and maybe even more difficult in the short run, the damage that will be done by the media feeding frenzy that is now the norm when tragedies like this occur.

1 comment:

weasel said...

DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little; if you haven't read it, it would be pretty pertinent these days.