Politicians, journalists, and social activists know what any event means before it occurs. Thus, before the bodies were cold following this week’s on-air massacre in Roanoke, Virginia, we heard the usual refrains about the need for gun control, how the shooting relates to “Whiteness,” und so weiter.
And who can really blame them for jumping to conclusions? Man is, essentially, a meaning-making animal. We are the only animal that is self-conscious of our existence and death—and we seek to make sense of both. Even in our existential angst over the death of God and the absence of a unified meaning to the universe, we are, in our way, making meaning. It’s too much to ask for anyone simply to shake his head and move on after a shocking media spectacle. We have to integrate it into something bigger.
Thus, even those who self-righteously decried the tendency to “politicize the tragedy” were themselves “politicizing the tragedy.” Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars, for instance, claimed that,
The awful truth about the tragic shooting of reporter Allison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward is that they are both victims of the contrived race war that has gripped America.
This “contrived” race war is occurring, Watson believes, because of activists in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the mainstream media, and the Obama administration, all of whom are trying to keep Americans from overcoming race and coming together in peace. I can remember when we could count on Infowars to claim that every mass murder was a “false flag,” stage-managed by globalists bent on putting patriots into FEMA camps. This earlier interpretation actually seems more plausible than Watson's notion that America’s racial hostilities are generated by the mass media.
In reality, leftists are getting at something true (sometimes despite themselves) when they connect the recent shooting with “structural racism.” Modern America, like the modern world, is shot through with race, which informs, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, every aspect of society, culture, and politics. Even if the alleged shooter, Vester Lee Flanagan (“Bryce Williams”), is revealed to have had serious mental disabilities—to have really been a “human powder keg,” as he described himself—what’s important is that he understood his act through race. Race became more than political; it became part of madness as well.
Conservatives choose to think of “racism” only in terms of overt, directed, violent actions—the gruesome murder of Jame Byrd comes to mind. Since this kind of racism is quite rare, and inconsequential to society at large, conservatives can claim that “racism is over” and scold liberals for being “obsessed with race.” But this is simply denial, on the level of a man claiming he couldn’t possibly have lung cancer because he can’t see anything wrong himself.
There’s an irony to the fact that the recent shooting took place in the world of local news. For the past quarter century, stations like WDBJ have put on a dumb show of happy American race relations. You know the routine: grinning, multi-colored journalists, each earnestly reporting on Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere, enunciating in a General American accent, and acting as models for the “colorblindness” that is achieved only through rigorous “diversity hiring.”
With the image of a Black man pointing a gun at an unsuspecting White woman, all of a sudden, this blissful fantasy was disrupted. We had a fleeting image of a race war; the secret tensions, anxieties, suspicions, and hatreds that lie beneath the smiley face of American “diversity” all came to the surface.
It’s important as well that the murders effectively took place on social media and through mobile computing—the media that have replaced monolithic television as the world’s hive mind, Id, and conscience. Flanagan, in fact, filmed his atrocity using his smartphone and posted the results on Facebook in almost real time.
In watching the “POV” shots of the murder, we are reminded of some of ISIS’s spectacular acts of online terror, as well as hardcore pornography.
ISIS achieved a new kind of terrorism by moving beyond the battlefield and televised imagery; they invaded Americans’ minds through their Twitter and YouTube streams. ISIS effectively promises to “end America's way of life,” as George W. Bush might say; and they represent, perhaps even more than Osama bin Laden, the über-intolerant super-villain of liberalism’s worst nightmares. But then, ISIS communicates this by adopting the postmodern irony and snark of your average teenage girl in SoCal. Last summer, ISIS agents released photos of a religious decapitation with the tag line, “This is our ball. It’s made of skin. #Worldcup”
Hardcore pornography shares this double quality. On the one hand, it offers the viewer unending, omnipresent, on-demand access to the real thing. Indeed, the viewer is granted the right, almost like a surgeon, to look into the bowels of willing female performers. On the other hand, porn is a cheap substitute for the real, and its ultimate effect is the numbing and enervation of the viewer. Porn becomes a sign that signifies nothing. Ostensibly, it is a means of arousal, of getting ready to do “it”; but in the end, porn only gets you ready for more porn.
Much the same thing is happening with the “race war” launched by Dylan Rooff and Vester Flanagan. It’s much more, and much less, than the real thing.