The ads violate taboos to shock you. Their themes of traumatic injury try to coerce vigilance and a little adrenalin out of you. The ads’ use of jokey mischief to excuse in-your-face hostility is what we all know as passive aggression.
The post-traumatic themes are predictable. Rape is hot when unemployment makes men feel impotent, women are thinking about empowerment, and NRA gun hucksters are urging women to pack heat. The failed Hyundai suicide, the battered waitress, and the police lineup are all reminders of the grinding stress that comes with wild west capitalism’s assaults on the working poor. It’s logical that many of the ads invoke bad boy rappers playing at poverty and rebellion. As the target audience, you’re on the hook, between anxiety and a smirk. Be glad you’re not the losers shown in the ads. But then again, face it. In the back of the mind, pal, you too could face social death.
Gawd, even more italics.
Okay, here’s where it starts to get interesting. Bob Garfield, an advertising critic, says the edgy ad fad has been “aggravated by the Internet culture on which millennials dote, which he described as ‘no holds barred,’ where ‘a sense of permissiveness reigns.’ It ought to come as no surprise, he added, that ‘incredible lapses of judgment’ are taking place regularly at major brands and their marketing agencies.”
Now we’re talking about argument, logic, motivation, inhibition. And “lapses in judgment.” Let’s zero in by asking a taboo question about taboos. Is the edgy ad fad just one expression of a pervasive mentality in everyday life? What happens if we think of rampage killing and terrorism not as insane rage but as futile efforts to “win” headline attention by force in a world continually distracted by electronic buzz, gagging on cognitive garbage?
Usually mass killers seethe until their grievances become life-or-death, do-or-die problems, with “total” violence “the only way out.” Whether the problem is fanaticism or an organic mental disorder, it demands relief: life or death. If you succeed, you’ll feel reborn here or in heaven. Failure will bring social death or terminal despair, an inner Hell. You succeed by commanding world attention, which proves that you and your cause matter. You’re real, alive: your life has meaning. Even the corpses confirm your power over life and death. The logic emphasizes personal force. You made the herd pay attention to you. You changed minds, not through frustrating persuasion but in an instant, as if by magic. Fame—or infamy—is attention: the miracle drug to boost self-esteem. You become a celebrity like Paris Hilton and Sylvio Berlusconi driving a hatchback in a Ford ad with bound and gagged women in the back.
Most rampages and terrorist attacks have a copycat quality. The killers have to be aware of the competition for attention. Today’s sensational horror is tomorrow’s cliché. The Columbine killers dreamed of Hollywood glory, but after a blaze of infamy they’re dead as brand names in the trash. Most rampages since Columbine have been also-rans. It took the slaughter of school kids in Newtown to re-sensitize—to grab—the public. It follows that one of the best counter-terrorism tactics would be to minimize public attention to such outrages rather than to inflate them with howls of media horror and total Government mobilization. But of course the public is also trying to intensify attention in order to magnify the significance of the outrage and make a memorable, life-defining moment out of it. Everybody’s fighting against insignificance. In that sense we’re all in this together.
So terrorism draws on everyday culture. But it works both ways. You can see this process at work when shock jock media hosts grab attention by attacking “enemies,” trying to build to a climactic rant. National Rifle Association speakers such as Wayne LaPierre escalate their attacks to a do-or-die pitch. They aren’t trying to discover or convey information. They’re trying to “win” an argument or “score” in a contest. The goal of the “debate,” the money shot, is to humiliate and rout an opponent in order to compel attention like a terrorist or a victorious gladiator dispatching a fallen rival to thrill the crowd.
The behavior may be “just entertainment,” but it’s also morale-management, relieving boredom, anxiety, and depression by pumping up the nervous system’s fight response. In this way the practice is a form of self-medication, with the drawback that like caffeine or cocaine, it takes ever-larger doses of stimulant to work—as in addiction. And like addiction, it needs lies to make it respectable. Everyday attention grabbing has to use equivocation, euphemisms, and other techniques in order to manage an escalating violent grab so it can feel like real taboo violence without triggering a crackdown by sponsors and police.
You can see this manipulation in the language of celebrity rebels such as Glenn Beck. At the NRA convention in Houston his keynote address paid lip service to “tolerance” of gun control proponents while pumping up his listeners to “fight.” As in jihad, he whipped up the NRA faithful to grab victory or death, quoting Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death!” and teasing the faithful with crusader fanaticism: “We fight against those who deny the Creator.” Like a mullah, he repeated cosmic abstractions such as “freedom” and “God” that are emotionally hot but fuzzily vacuous. Meanwhile an “Iraq war veteran and Internet talk showhost is trying to gather thousands of protesters to march into [Washington DC] on Independence Day with loaded rifles on their backs.” This is rude animal threat display, but it’s also a desperate trick to get bigshot attention. Like Glenn Beck’s equivocation, it’s a fantasy on the edge of heroic violence, like toy guns that look so real that a frightened cop might shoot the kid brandishing it in his face.
The radical right’s capture of much mainstream media revives the death-anxiety and paranoid rage of the Cold War, with “godless Communism” threatening “Better Dead than Red” and justifying the tragic militarization of the American economy and mindset. After all, postwar America never really demobilized. It’s been constantly at war: real wars with overworked morgues and guilt, but also fantasy wars against drugs, “big government,” welfare cheats, one bugle call after another. Propaganda uses advertising culture to magnify official lies (Saddam’s “WMD’s”) with “smart weapons,” “surgical strikes,” and drones supposedly doing the dirty work. When each little war fails or runs out of gas, the paramilitary mentality has to find new enemies: illegal immigrants, say, or Mexican drug gang beheadings. The corporate military or the gun manufacturers inflame and then assuage your fears, and you pay for it in diminished health care, education, retirement, public infrastructure—i.e., quality of life.
The danger is that play is enchanting. We get enchanted, carried away. We enjoy it. When impassioned preachers foster enchantment, it’s a conversion experience. Getting pumped up, terrorists and rampage killers routinely work toward self-intoxication via “inflammatory” language. Media rant is popular exactly because “disenchanted” people would rather be high again.
So we find ourselves now hearing sly demagogues invoking grievances of the Confederacy, and the openly political NRA shooting from the lip at minorities and other scapegoats. In turn, the fragmented, corporate US government attacks health care and food stamps while splurging on “homeland security.” The nation’s secret intelligence forces now employ almost as many people as the US Army to spy on citizens it insists can’t be trusted, which could include all of us.
The militaristic mentality is evident in the addiction to righteous thrills. The NRA not only scorned the parents of the slaughtered Newtown kids, it entrenched its power by thwarting background checks and legitimizing military-style weapons and magazine for civilians. Even as the gun lobby subdues Washington, Glenn Beck is mustering faux Minutemen to fight the “tyrannical” government. And every victory whets the appetite for more conflict, more “enemies,” more thrilling do-or-die self-esteem. Big money manipulates the “populist” gun issue to keep government weak, prosecuting the battle against our “big government” to prevent taxation of the rich and regulation of a financial sector that’s “too big to fail” and beggars the working poor with impunity. When they reach extremes, ideas begin to blur into mirage.
“The center cannot hold,” growled Yeats. That fear is not new. What needs attention now is not just the center, but the logic that grounds everyday culture in paranoid and addictive thrills, and keeps threat display slouching toward real rage.
We’re social animals, problem-solvers with plenty of juvenile playfulness and curiosity. It’s how we’re built. Information glut maybe distracting and fatally intoxicating for some of us, but we swim in that cognitive soup. We’re not likely to give up that stimulation. Meanwhile we’re evolving strategies of coping with overload that may or may not head off murderous predatory grabs for attention. Tune out the buzz and stay tuned.