The U.S. military coined the phrase “Shock and Awe” in the late 1990s and applied it to the invasion of Iraq a few years later. But I find it remarkably accurate in describing the American psyche.
Fear-mongering is the “shock” side. The “awe” side is represented by our old tradition of advertisers, real estate salesmen, stock brokers, hucksters, con-men and “public relations” specialists, as well as clergymen and politicians, who collude to reinforce our denial. Characteristic themes include: the market is always rising, “doom-and-gloomers” overrate our problems; global warming is a lie; unemployment is down; racism is history; history itself is a feel-good story of constant progress; the Iraqis and Afghans (and soon, the Syrians) welcome us – all translatable into “the system is working.”
An essential part of this message is visual images: idealized pictures of the America that Trump promises to make great (and white) again. You know what I’m talking about: green mountains, pristine coastlines, carefree drivers, youthful picnics, stylishly thin dancers, the family dinner, Sunday church, reunions at Grandma’s house and small-town July Fourth celebrations.
The speed and frivolity of the media charms us all and conveys our values primarily through two film and TV styles. In one – action and disaster films – the redemption hero intercedes to save the community from evil, traditionally in the last reel or just before the final commercial break. Since 1990, when Islam replaced communism as the external Other, a new generation has grown up watching literally dozens of movies and TV shows depicting this threat, but with a series of (usually white) American heroes eliminating the threat, and with Biblical ferocity. Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper are merely the latest and most honored of this genre. Disaster films work both sides of the fear/denial dichotomy by heightening anxiety (and perhaps anticipation) of apocalyptic punishment and then cleanly resolving the threat through the intercession of selfless heroes. It’s a world of crimson red, dark brown and black, with very little grey area (or grey matter). Guy stuff.
The other mode is the ubiquitous, cloying, Disney-style cartoons and children’s programming, in which, writes Todd Gitlin, “…characters are incarnations of an innocence that can never be dispelled,” where everyone talks out their problems, resolves them, hugs and remains friends.
It’s a pastel world of pinks and lavender. Gal stuff. And both films and TV continue to ignore demographic changes by portraying most positive 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.” Think positive or don’t watch at all.
Actually, even the calm Walter Cronkite father figures are now mostly long gone. What we have had instead for many years are actors such as Matt Lauer
who portray journalists and debate moderators, mixing in cornball humor and soft-core porn
so things don’t get too boring. With Fox news “commentators”such as these,
no wonder the Trumpistas get their opinions there. Again, Fox is only the most extreme, as this list of the “25 Most Gorgeous News Anchors” attests.
Indeed, it has been clear since well before 9-11 that both politics (best seen in our embarrassingly crude and irrelevant Presidential debates) and news journalism have been so “dumbed-down” that we now perceive them as merely alternative forms of entertainment. This is laughable, as it was surely meant to be. But it also means that for many of us “reality” simply isn’t real any more, that it’s indistinguishable from anything else that appears on the screen – or that it’s all good.
Thus, in the midst of massive denial about a collapsing environment and the real economic and spiritual 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 most common source of our anxiety becomes the disturbed individual, the bad seed, rather than systemic inequities and corruption. In this fantasy, immigrants and home-grown thugs, rather than discriminatory housing patterns and long-term unemployment, cause domestic violence. And Islamic fundamentalism, rather than American military intervention, causes international terror.
Periodically, episodes of real 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.
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. 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.
The condition of simultaneous denial and distrust leads to paradoxical connections. For years polls have commonly reflected our belief that things were better in the old days, that things are going downhill – even if our personal outlook is rosy.
This is our condition, and all Americans aged thirty or so have experienced some version of it their entire lives. But more broadly, the awkward combination of fear, denial and electronic stimulation has ruled our consciousness during the 65 years of television, which was born amid both the new consumerism and McCarthyism. Lucille Ball diverted us while Richard Nixon admitted, “People react to fear, not love.” I have argued, however, that the roots of this madness go back to the original confrontation of Puritans and Indians. Ever since, we have held the contradictory notions of chosen people and eternal vigilance.
When our national self-image has no shadow, we imagine that our motivations have the purity of white sugar on white bread, washed down with milk. We dream a world in which we are so good, so generous, so caring that no one – except for Satan himself – could ever doubt us. And the fear? Doesn’t much of it spring not also from the media but also from our own subliminal guilt?
Then, when we are attacked, the release of disillusioned energy drives us to astonishingly violent extremes. Our lost innocence (We have done so much good! Why do they hate us so?) and denial of death justify the fear as well as the revenge fantasies that support or ignore reactionary and genocidal behavior. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
Bad dreams constantly interrupt our 400-year sleep of denial. Waking exhausted, we reach for our devices. Denial and fear; fear and denial, all electronically mediated.