“Are All National Tragedies Equal?”
Still in progress…
Like so many people from his generation, my dad remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing on November 22, 1963–when he first learned that J.F.K. had been assassinated.
A senior in college, he had the unfortunate experience of sharing his dorm room with a decadent descendant of the Southern gentry, a right-wing partisan who, upon learning about Kennedy’s death, whooped and cheered. Dad recalls many other details, too–but this one (for obvious reasons) stands out. His personal memory of this event sets it apart from all others, imbues it with an almost sacrosanct quality. Likewise, millions of Americans remember the President’s death in a way incommensurable with any other representation. And, even today, despite its countless depictions in the media, despite its cultural context as a national tragedy, the J.F.K. assassination still seems peculiar to people.
On January 28, 1986, I watched the Space Shuttle Challenger explode on t.v. I was in the 6th grade, staying home from school, avoiding the daily ravages of junior high.
The image still haunts me: two white pillars of smoke, billowing upward, then curling, folding inward. Like my parents before me, I experienced similar symptoms of loss, anxiety, helplessness. But something crucial was missing: nothing seemed peculiar about the event. Even though I might relate every unique detail about where I was, what I was doing, etc., I couldn’t seem to set it apart from anyone else’s.
What makes the one tragedy distinct from the other (besides the obvious differences)?
For me, the Challenger explosion has been framed as a national tragedy that enshrines death in a narrative endorsing patriotic values. Networks may have replayed the explosion footage ad nauseam, but it was often attended by the sentimentalized voice-overs of reporters and pundits.
For my dad, the J.F.K. assassination can not be framed at all–least of all by patriotism; indeterminate causes and inadequate theories surround it. Media coverage was tapered to the Zapruder footage, several minutes that could not be explained, much less sentimentalized. Even Oliver Stone’s JFK seemed a desperate attempt to explain the unexplainable; in the midst of a far-fetched conspiracy theory, he replays Zapruder’s video over and over again, which only offers more questions–no answers.
911 signaled a sea change, not only in issues of American foreign policy, national security, and executive privilege, but also in the quality of media coverage. In the absence of any evidence supporting a case for what brought about the attack, news networks indulged in popular patriotism, a sentiment that could conceal pronounced undertones of fury and vengeance. Cable programs, in particular, reinforced a rhetoric of single-minded unity–one much more subtle than the overt jingoism of The O’Reilly Factor.
On April 17, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people–including himself. Within minutes, even before family members could be informed that their loved ones had been shot, CNN had already dubbed it “The Virginia Tech Massacre,” an event, oddly and inappropriately, depicted in the media as both an assassination and a catalyst for American patriotism.
The video clip above features a segment from CNN’s “The Situation Room,” a strange hybrid-program that focuses on issues of politics, domestic security, and international news. The show presents daily news in an eye-catching, often riveting design. Even the solemn, resolute host, Wolf Blitzer (whose stage name was conceived to the sounds of drumbeats during the Gulf War) seems dwarfed by the spectacular set behind him. Half a dozen screens project the montage du jour, a rapid-fire sequence of images, stock footage, interviews, and virtual maps. Towards the beginning of every show, Wolf backs off from this staggering amount of information and defers his authority to the machine surrounding him. It’s a little like watching Captain Kirk ask the Starship Enterprise for an update.
Mercifully, as Wolf Blitzer reminds one interviewee, “they are speaking as one.”
Don Imus transcript
Don Imus On Al Sharpton’s Radio Show
Can we finally have a reasonable discourse about race in this country?
Earlier in the week, I was actually hopeful when Imus’ horrendous comment initially jump-started a stalled discussion about race. Here he’d gone on the air and said yet another offensive comment–nothing out of the ordinary for this ‘shock jock,’ right? Until a larger percentage of the public actually realized that he made the comment…possibly because two top-ranked college basketball teams, with considerable market ratings, were caught in the crossfire.
Rather than condemn Imus (who hasn’t?) or join in the narrow, prescriptive boundaries of debate on this issue, I’d like to cite the one comment that Sid Rosenberg got in before Imus and executive producer Bernard McGuirk began one-upping each other with racial slurs:
SR: Yeah, Tennessee won last night–seventh championship for [Tennessee coach] Pat Summit, I Man. They Beat Rutgers by 13 points.
Not to defend Rosenberg here, but seems like a pretty straightforward point. Sounds like a fired-up announcer on Sportscenter. Which is exactly why I’m wondering how (and why) Imus and McGuirk managed to spackle racial insults on top of sports-talk. Granted, this is Imus In the Morning, a show where the line between insult and information is fairly porous, but why imbed race into basketball (or visa versa)?
And so it goes: instead of a candid dialogue about race, in which a range of different perspectives can be addressed, weighed, and examined, we sit and watch a pat narrative of the individual racist unfold: he falls, he grovels, he seeks redemption in an environment in which race relations can somehow be restored. But restored to what? Post-Michael Richards standards?
And then…there are the various media pundits who employ chronic oppositional strategies to “confront” race. Usually, these involve selecting a scapegoat and excoriating him, over and over again, under the guise of a “fair and balanced” debate; then the scapegoat is rescued by another pop demagogue, ostensibly acting out of sympathy, who in turn excoriates the demagogue for his own prior racist/sexist/bigoted comments.
Here’s how it seems to have broken down over the past week:
*anti-nominal-Imus-spokesman (i.e., Sharpton)
*anti-liberal-biased-media (Fox vs. CNN/MSNBC)
*anti-anti-liberal-biased-media (CNN/MSNBC vs. Fox)