Eags performs a virtual autopsy on our visceral reaction to videos. Beheadings? KO punches to a woman's head in an elevator? How about a televised beheading of wife beater? Violence is a kissin' cousin of pornography hence the popularity of snuff films that have been sanitized with suitable disclaimers that the following images might be disturbing. If this is a (fair & balanced) critique of hypocrisy, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
By Timothy Egan
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The barbarians in Iraq and Syria had been beheading innocents, raping girls and slaughtering “infidels” well before a single awful video appeared of an American journalist being executed by a masked fanatic. The world shrugged.
Racism in the era of the first African-American president continued to drive the actions of police and festered in high places, well before Donald Sterling was caught on tape saying he didn’t want prominent black people appearing in public at games played mainly by blacks. Meh.
And about 1.3 million American women were assaulted by an intimate partner last year, with more than 150,000 of them being hit by a fist or something hard. It was just another stat in a jumble of disconnected figures — that is, until a professional football player was shown cold-cocking his fiancée.
We are roused to action by cruel realism, but only if it looks and sounds authentic. Reasoned calls to our better angels are no longer enough. It takes the YouTube snuff films of gangsters with a religious cause, or the fuzzy images captured by an elevator robo-cam, to move a nation.
Against this backdrop, President Obama on Wednesday tried to convince a fickle country, its citizens driven to their smartphones by national attention deficit disorder, to kill some bad guys. Kill, in a sort of war, at the ragged edge of a longer war nobody except John McCain defends anymore. For the moment, we’re with the president. But trust me: It will all change with fresh pictures.
Don’t expect the video of the commander in chief’s address to the nation to go viral. We got calm reassurance: “America is safer” than it’s been for some time, thanks to targeted strikes against key terrorist leaders, he said. We got explanation. The nihilists of ISIS “are not Islamic,” he said. The vast majority of their victims are Muslim. And a plan: The United States will lead “a broad coalition against these terrorists,” with increased airstrikes and training of allies in the region.
Fine. Good. Solid. And forgettable. It’s not entirely his fault. A crisis now follows something that pops up on TMZ or is released by hackers. After the slick smoking-gun-as-mushroom-cloud casus belli theater of the last president, we don’t trust the official version of anything. And not just in matters of war and peace.
“If you watch the nightly news it feels like the world is falling apart,” Obama said at a fundraiser last month. He’s half correct. Not many people watch the actual nightly news anymore, but millions watch the cinéma vérité of horrible things, from punching a loved one to beheading a journalist.
The president understands this dynamic, yet he seems helpless to do anything about it. He’s as reactive as the rest of the world. Nearly 200,000 people have died and three million refugees are wandering in despair because of the Syrian conflict. But the American public was resolute in not wanting any part of it until the beheadings of two of our citizens appeared.
“All you need to do is see the videos of the beheadings and we’re not worried about mission creep,” said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, this week, in making an argument for military engagement. That’s it in a nutshell: public policy driven by visceral reaction to videos.
And for the cherry on top of that dollop of honesty, consider the candid cynicism of Representative Jack Kingston, of Georgia, explaining the Republican strategy on Obama’s initiative. “We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well, and ask him what took him so long,” he said.
The National Football League, the top-rated source of entertainment in the land, has tolerated any manner of wife-beaters and even accused murderers in its employ. In the league’s cozy moral universe, it’s all pink cleats for breast cancer victims and salutes to the troops. But knocking out a loved one — eh, how about a two-game suspension. In the starting lineup Sunday for the San Francisco 49ers was Ray McDonald, who was arrested on suspicion of battering his pregnant fiancée. No TMZ money shot yet, so McDonald plays.
No person of conscience could watch the Ray Rice video without feeling revulsion. But that shouldn’t be the new standard for outrage and action. Trying to sway someone with an old-fashioned appeal — e.g., figures on the number of women who are kicked cold every day — is largely fruitless.
The other day, a leading scientist asserted for the zillionth time, after it was reported that the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hit a record in 2013, that we are on a path to global disaster with climate change. At the same time, the National Audubon Society released a report that warmer temperatures will disrupt half the bird species of North America, causing many to go extinct.
Do we need to see trumpeter swans falling from the sky or a three-toed woodpecker dropping dead in a fire-charred forest for this threat to seem real?
President Obama can’t go on vacation following a beheading because he’s not allowed to go off the video mood of the moment. Yet Dwight Eisenhower could golf his way through the scariest period of the Cold War, and Franklin Roosevelt could paddle around the waters at his refuge of Warm Springs, while crushing the Nazi war machine.
“The world has always been messy,” said Obama, a smart man, making a smart observation to a public that doesn’t reward that trait. “In part we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.”
It’s all about the optics. If Republicans repeal the new health care law, it won’t hit home until we actually see a cancer patient being denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition — death panel live! Not a bad idea. Ω
[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]
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