“Shock and awe” is a military doctrine that teaches how to quickly master events on the ground, to “…seize control of the environment and paralyze or so overload an adversary’s perceptions and understanding of events that the enemy would be incapable of resistance…” We first heard the phrase in March 2003, when the U.S. struck Iraq from the air with such overwhelming force that it easily invaded and defeated the Iraqi army (the following occupation, of course, was another matter).
The phrase is also a perfect metaphor for our alienated condition within the belief system I have called the myth of American innocence. We are shocked by the media’s cattle prods and awed by its repeated spectacles of innocence.
The three generally unacknowledged subtexts of our public life in the 21st Century are the permanent war economy, increased apathy and race. Those who profit from these conditions have historically convinced Americans to ignore them. But don’t all large, centralized states do this? Well, yes, but one of the conditions that make America unique is the extent to which we share in our own exploitation. Many of us do this by electing con men who promise to facilitate our denial and shift all blame toward The Other.
Many others do it by retreating in disgust from a polluted system, refusing to participate in civic life either because the system is irrevocably broken or in the belief that it was actually designed to be as brutal as they perceive it to be. From these points of view, we have very difficult choices, but both leave politics to those same con men.
Democracy requires participation, but countless Americans have withdrawn from the polis. Since 1968 we have voted less and less often, to barely fifty percent, the lowest voter turnout in the industrialized world. Except for brief periods of wartime cohesion, the long-term trend since the 1960s has been toward disengagement. Sociologist Robert Bellah argues that talk radio, for example, “…mobilizes private opinion, not public opinion, and trades on anxiety, anger and distrust, all of which are deadly to civic culture.” Almost the only public groups that grew in recent decades, he writes, have been support groups, which are “oriented primarily to the needs of the individual.”
Several factors led to this situation, including the exclusion of diverse opinion by the two-party electoral system, the realistic perception that the Democrats have abandoned their traditional working-class base and the general nastiness of the process itself.
There is indeed extreme polarization, but not between Republicans and Democrats. It is between voters and non-voters, those who have given up on (or in the case of some 5.3 million African-Americans, denied the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement) the process. Fully 43% of those who rarely cast ballots are racial and ethnic minorities. Youth understand that society has little need for them except as consumers, and the poor are indifferent to minor differences between the political parties.
Decline in participation is welcome news to the rich; but it also indicates that fewer people accept the basic assumptions of the myth of American innocence any more. Hence the continual need to re-invigorate the myth of innocence. This occurs in three major ways:
1 – Awe: On the positive side, media and politicians collude to present messages of denial. Characteristic themes include: “doom-and-gloomers” overrate our problems; global warming is a lie; unemployment is down; racism is history; the Iraqis, Afghans, etc, welcomed us; and the system is working. An essential part of this message is idealized visual images of the nuclear family and small-town, traditional values.
The media’s speed and frivolity charms us all. It conveys American values primarily through two film and TV styles. In one – westerns and other action films – the redemption hero intercedes to save the community from evil. Since 1990, when Islam replaced communism as the “external Other,” a new generation has grown up seeing literally dozens of movies depicting this threat, with a series of (white) American heroes (temporarily) eliminating the threat with Biblical ferocity. Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper are merely the latest and most honored of this genre. The other style is the ubiquitous Disney-style cartoons and children’s programming, in which, writes Todd Gitlin, “…characters are incarnations of an innocence that can never be dispelled.” And both films and TV continue to ignore demographic changes by portraying most positive TV characters as white.
TV news (FOX News aside) offers a parallel experience. Reassuringly calm, unemotional, authoritative newscasters place even bad news in the wider context of progress: It’s all good. Michael Ventura, however, measures how deeply “…people know that ‘it’ is not all right…by how much money they are willing to pay to be ceaselessly told it is.”
2 – Shock: The negative side (playing out simultaneously with the positive side) involves constant, low-level threats: AIDS, crime, teen pregnancy, satanic cults, child molesters, epidemics, terrorists and traveler’s advisories. Long before 9/11, local television (from which 50% of Americans received all their news) gave high coverage to crime: “If it bleeds it leads.” What about network news? Between 1990 and 1998, while the murder rate declined by 20%, murder stories on network newscasts increased by 600% (not counting O.J. Simpson stories). As a result, although serious crime has dropped steadily for three decades, most people assume that it continues to rise.
Indeed, the combative, confrontational style of many “news” programs (now we can include FOX) leaves viewers with the sense that style (the process, in psychological terms) dominates content, that conflict is the primary reality regardless of the issues being debated. Meanwhile, the subtext of spectator sports is that conflict always results in resolution, regardless of who wins.
And the most important sports events such as the Super Bowl are thinly disguised spectacles of nationalism. Most of those who criticize professional football players for “taking a knee” have forgotten or never noticed that the tradition of players standing during the playing of the national anthem dates back only to 2009, when the Pentagon began subsidizing the NFL.
But the dominant message is that our public life is constantly qualified by the threat of violence. Forty percent of newspaper coverage of children concerns violence (55% on local newscasts). Dozens of Hollywood movies feature home invasions. As a result, three out of four parents fear that strangers will kidnap their children. For much more on this issue, read The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More, by Barry Glassner.
Thus, in the midst of massive denial about a collapsing economy and environment and the real sources of terrorism, Americans fret about issues that TV chooses to present. Everyone can avoid discussing gun control when newspapers editorialize, “It’s Not Guns, It’s Killer Kids.” The message is clear – the most common source of our anxiety is the disturbed individual, the bad seed, rather than systematic inequities and corruption. “Thugs,” rather than discriminatory housing patterns, cause violence.
And TV chooses to define those who engage in violence. Our American obsession with individualism links happy denial with a constant, low-level background of fear. Our heroes act alone and so do our villains – if they are white. Predictably, white mass murderers (the vast majority) are labeled as disturbed individuals, “loan wolves.”
But the media can quickly shift to the opposite stereotype, quickly identifying the minority of violent people of color as terrorist members of broader social or racial categories.
Periodically, episodes of terror evoke the old frontier paranoia. And we have plenty of evidence that many of these events have been contrived. Then, as Ben Franklin lamented long ago, we quickly exchange our freedoms for a dubious sense of security.
Most of this bizarre mix of denial and fear mongering settles upon our traditional, black, internal Other. Despite easily available statistics to the contrary, when psychologists ask Americans to picture a criminal, 95% of us still picture a black man. Meanwhile, media images reinforce the official message of a “post-racial America.” For example, countless TV crime shows offer a vision of racial sameness by portraying blacks and whites as “buddies,” many of whom are policemen who team up to restore order in the polis. The (mixed) message is: It’s really dangerous out there, but together we’ve solved the racial issue. As a result of all these feel-good images, writes Benjamin DeMott, “The nearer at hand the perfect place and good life can be made to seem, the more needless politics becomes.”
The condition of simultaneous denial and distrust leads to paradoxical connections. Polls commonly reflect our belief that things were better in the old days; that things are going downhill, even when our personal outlook is rosy. We accept rising gas costs, global warming, violence in the Mid-East and regular atrocities of mass violence at home as the “price of freedom.”
Freedom as mobility: as other aspects of our national narrative lose their hold on us, the ability to get away while still broadcasting our status becomes more attractive. Robert Bellah suggests that the rich, unattached man is now the “roaming frontiersman” of the old myths, spending “more on his means of transportation than on his home.” For many, driving an attractive car may be the last way to be in the polis at all – once we emerge from our gated communities.
Indeed, the gated community has become yet another potent symbol. Four centuries after defining themselves in contrast to the demonic forces of the wilderness, whites are once more circling the wagons. 40% of new California homes are in gated communities. Nationally, 8 million people live in them, and 42 million live in condominiums and co-ops.
Here is a new image of madness at the gates: as we enclose ourselves in racially homogeneous, suburban ghettoes or high-security high-rises, we simultaneously imprison more people than any nation in history and warehouse millions of others in nursing homes.
Read Part Two here.