How I Imagine Mainstream TV News

NEWS ANCHOR: Coming up, we have an interview with an eyewitness who drove by the site where four Marines were murdered in Tennessee. She thinks she may have seen a car displaying a Confederate flag in the parking lot.

[pause]

NEWS ANCHOR: Wait, this just in: Police have identified the shooter. His name is Muhamm-

[stops abruptly, listens to earpiece, nods]

NEWS ANCHOR: And now we go to breaking news. Caitlyn Jenner has just chosen a brand of depilatory. Phil? What can you tell us about this?

The Media Hate All Religions: An Example

One thing Christians need to remember about the media and our self-styled elites: they don’t just hate Christianity. They hate all religion.

However, their progressive reflexes prevent them from attacking faiths they consider the province of “minorities.” This includes Muslims (1.5 billion practitioners, roughly 23% of the planet), Hindus (1 billion, 15%), Buddhists (500 million, 7%), and Other. The provincial mentality of the progressive files those believers under Protected Other Status, largely driven by the perception that, as majority non-white faiths, they must be some kind of victim class, even in their own countries.

Thus, we get twits like cartoonist Garry Trudeau accusing critics of Islam of “punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority.” Yes, a minority that comprises almost a quarter of the planet. Why, these plucky little guys even have their own countries and armies and everything, Garry!

But it’s not really about Islam, a religion that stands foursquare against almost every value dear to progressives. An orthodox Christian has more beliefs in common with a devout Muslim than he does with a secular liberal.

The left realizes this on some level, and so their hatred for all religion gets deflected onto Christianity. This has less to do with creedal concerns than with the fact that Mrs. Crabapple made them learn the doxology in Sunday School and that guy in that episode of that sitcom was SO obnoxious. Oh, and Footloose. In the liberal imagination, all religious people are John Lithgow.

Their contempt extends to the Dusky Other more than they can even see. It emerges in their reporting even when they think they’re being nice. Witness this story that went viral this week:

sikh

It’s a perfectly nice story about a decent guy named Harman Singh who took off his turban to cradle the bleeding head of an injured child.

But let’s look at the amazingly patronizing and wrong-headed way the story is reported. He is said to “place humanity over strict religious protocol,” with the assumption being that some element of the Sikh faith would prevent him from removing his turban to help another in a crisis.

Since Sikh do not remove their turbans in public, the reporters are saying that he had to violate his religious principles to help the boy. But as one Sikh writer points out, no Sikh would criticize this action because it represents “Sewa, where one transcends self to help the needy.” Refusing to uncover the head is a central element of Sikhism, but it does not override higher obligations of the believer to another in a serious emergency, and no Sikh would claim that it did.

Thus the narrative–good people have to violate narrow-minded codes of religious conduct and belief to do good–is a lie. Furthermore, it’s a patronizing lie. You can almost sense the nice little head pat the white reporters are giving to the gentle brown man for being a Good Example of His People.

A good man did a good deed. The media wants you to think he did it in spite of his faith, when in fact, he did it because of his faith.

 

Let’s Choose Not To Be Manipulated

Marshall-McluhandisIn the modern media ecosystem, the stories come faster than the mind has time to process. We find ourselves crouching into offensive or defensive postures, falling back on tribal catchphrases, and reacting too fast, too soon, and always with too much outrage.

I don’t have to go further than the last couple days to show how we, as Catholics (and I include myself), are all too ready to be drawn into the outrage cycle that stifles thought.

Round One: Dolce and Gabanna

Crass millionaire homosexual rape enthusiasts say something appealing about the role of traditional marriage and parenthood. I’d never heard of them before, but although they were right about the superiority of the traditional family and the problems with IVF, they were incredibly offensive in referring to other human beings as “synthetic.” Just because they gave Elton John the vapors doesn’t mean they’re our new besties, and starting petitions to support them is just silly.

Who’s to say the whole dumb thing wasn’t some orchestrated campaign by Elton John and the designers to grab some ink?

Round Two: Net Neutrality

This round is more specific to me, but amid some reasonable agreement and dissent, the comboxes for my article in the National Catholic Register featured a number of people repeating catchphrases right from the GOP playbook, few of which actually addressed what I’d said or the reality of net neutrality.

When you find comments about the FCC rules having anything to do with rates or government control of content, you know someone is repeating something they came across on social media, TV news, or talk radio. (The rules, which I don’t support in their present form, don’t say anything about rates or government suppression of content.) No consumer will ever benefit from letting monopolies do as they like with internet services and speed. That so many react with Pavlovian responses rather than careful consideration is just another indication of the death of nuance.

Round Three: San Francisco Cathedral’s Homeless Problem

KCBS reported that St. Mary’s Cathedral has a system that soaks the entryways with water to drive away the homeless. Of course, this is outrageous and needs to stop. No Church of Christ should ever treat the homeless in such a reprehensible way. Even worse was the terrible witness of those on social media defending the action as necessary because of those people. [UPDATE: The response of the Diocese.]

But stories don’t happen in a vacuum. The water system is not new. So why are we hearing about it now?

That should be obvious: powerful and wealthy forces are arrayed against Archbishop Cordileone‘s attempt to require Catholic teachers to be faithful to the teaching of the Church. I tweeted the reporter to ask why this story and why now, and if he replies I’ll post his answer, but it pushes credibility to the breaking point to assume the timing of this story has nothing to do with the Archbishop’s current fight.

Completely lost in reactions to the story is the great work of both the Diocese and the Archbishop for the homeless.

Someone with deep pockets is paying a high-powered media attack dog to go after the diocese. This is how the mediatainment ecosystem manipulates opinion and manufactures consent.

We should expect more of the same, and we should be prepared to react as sensible media consumers. Every story hides a hundred unasked questions.

And we certainly shouldn’t collaborate with it.

Outrage is a sweet drug. It provides a powerful emotional jolt to people on all parts of the social/political spectrum and allows us to set down markers for our own beliefs. I don’t exempt myself from this at all. I do it too.

But sometimes the outrage machine rolls right over us.

Fashion designers make a pleasing noise and we instantly jump into their camp, forgetting the whole rape thing and the crass consumerism of their overpriced garbage.

Our political tribe says one thing or the other about net neutrality, and rather than conceding that both sides have points that are both right and wrong, we start spouting tribal talking points, instantly shoving a complex debate to the extremes.

A story exposes something our side is doing wrong, and in reacting to it (correctly, in my view) we fail to ask just why this story, why now, and what part does it play in someone else’s agenda?

Media is two things: business and propaganda. Only incidentally does it inform or entertain. In modern news, the medium–how a story is reported and consumed, by whom, when, and why–are as important as the facts, because they shape the story in ways we do not perceive.

Nothing requires us to react. Nothing mandates that we jump to attention and wait for a treat every time the Ruling Class (the media and political elite) ring the bell. We can opt out. We can choose not to be manipulated.

How Did CNN Report on the New “Charlie Hebdo” Cover?

Like this:

cnn

CNN to Muslim world: “Please kill us last.”

Duly noted, dhimmis.

Here is the actual cover, which a news organization would, of course, show in its reporting in any other circumstance:

FRANCE-ATTACKS-CHARLIE-HEBDO-MEDIA-FRONTPAGE

“All is forgiven.”

 

Terrorists can murder and bomb and destroy, but whether or not they accomplish their goals–the destruction of civilization–is completely up to us. They can only defeat the west if we change our behaviors, which means they’ve been winning this long war as we cringe in fear and subject ourselves to increasing levels of surveillance and do things to our enemies that we would rightly call barbaric were they done to us.

They can never defeat us on the battlefield. They can only defeat us in our minds and hearts, and thus they are already winning and will continue to do so as long as we allow them to.

Related:

Charlie Hebdo and a Broken Europe

Dante: Mohammed in Hell

When Spider-Man Worked for Planned Parenthood

Yes, this really happened. Retronaut has found a special issue of Spiderman done in a collaboration between Marvel and Planned Parenthood. The art is by Marvel vets Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, but the writing is by Ann Robinson, who had a brief tenure as a Marvel executive, and no other known writing credits, for reasons that will be obvious.

The plot–and oh how I wish I was making this up–is about an alien called The Prodigy from the planet Intellectia. His voice can persuade people to do anything, and he’s using it to convince teenagers that sex doesn’t lead to pregnancy, and even if it does babies are great. He wants them to have lots and lots of human babies so he can take them back to his planet to serve as child labor.

You probably think I’m kidding, so…

Oddly enough, The Prodigy and Planned Parenthood both want kids to have plenty of consequence-free sex.

Spidey ain’t buying this jive:

Also: Spidey hates children. This is kind of … dark:

He makes quick work of the villain:

He spurts webbing into his mouth to shut him up:

… let’s just move along  …

Finally, he gets on with business of telling kids about sex…

…and, of course, where to go for “help.”

Because it’s not disturbing at all to have a beloved childhood hero pimping birth control.

And make sure you pick up their other fine publications:

Compared to the “Fisting is teh Awesomes!” stuff they churn out now, this is fairly benign, but it shows how PP has been snaking its way into popular culture and children’s lives for decades.

Exit question: Platform shoes–time for a comeback?

 

The Gell-Mann Effect

Murray Gell-Mann

Michael Crichton was not just a marvelous storyteller who could spot a trend ten years away and turn it into a ripping good tale, but also had a clarity and honesty in his writings and speeches about science and society that is sorely needed today. His rational approach to global “warming” was refreshing (links to pdf), and his critiques of the media were spot on.

In a speech called “Why Speculate?” (2002, pdf) he formulated what he called The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, which is something all media consumers need to keep at the backs of their minds every time they read.

It’s a more detailed version of a basic idea: I believe everything the media tells me except for anything for which I have direct personal knowledge, which they always get wrong.

Take it away, Dr. Crichton:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise
have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward–reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story–and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

I’ve been asked why I only commented on the historical part of the Cosmos documentary by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I confined my comments to church history because I know church history, and my comments on the rest of the show would have been the assessment of a novice: perhaps interesting to some, but hardly useful as a content critique.

My assumption would normally be that because Tyson is a scientist, the science content will be strong. He’s not a journalist, so it’s more likely the Gell-Mann Effect doesn’t hold in this case. He only gets into trouble when he tackles a subject on which is wholly ignorant (history).

But why would I assume that he’s a skilled scientist? I don’t know Tyson from Adam. Wikipedia tells me he’s an astrophysicist, and he may be a good one.

Or maybe he’s not. I don’t even have the critical mechanism to make that assessment, since I wouldn’t know a good astrophysicist from a bad one from a pomegranate. Maybe he’s just good at boiling complicated issues down to a 13-year-old reading level. We only accept his bona fides on the basis of the authority of others.

“Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a great astrophysicist,” we are told by people who should know. His list of achievements is impressive, and that’s the end of it. It’s reasonable to assume, in this case, that the science content of Cosmos is generally solid, even if the one element of the show about which I have direct knowledge is completely misleading.

This doesn’t apply to the mainstream media, however. There is a genre of science writing that can be quite accomplished, but it’s rather rarefied and hardly the norm. Most mainstream science writing is rewriting of press releases about studies from people who need coverage about those studies to keep grant money coming.

If a story is of the “a new study shows” variety, it’s almost always entirely worthless. New studies may indeed show somethingorother, and they may even be correct, but the signal-to-noise ratio in mainstream coverage of studies skews far enough to “noise” that you’re better off just ignoring the whole lot.

This is a basic truth, but it also creates a serious problem. We swing from one extreme to the other. We go from believing everything is true to believing nothing is true. Humanity has trouble with nuance.

So much material–and so much of it worthless–gets shoved like pork bits into the meat grinder of the mainstream media that it ultimately creates confusion. There is a breakdown in trust, not in the media (which we keep blindly looking to for accurate information, even while asserting that we don’t trust it!) but in the perception that truth is knowable. The data overload dulls our critical sense. Our bullshit filters are broken.

One after another people march through my comboxes asserting as ironclad truth things I know from primary evidence to be untrue. They are certain, and nothing will shake them from that certainty.

This terrible certainty is selective, and based almost wholly on a half-remembered account from an unremembered source. When it reinforces biases, a “truth” is accepted. When it challenges biases, it is resisted. It takes long study and careful cultivation of a healthy and engaged critical skepticism to sort lies from truth, and none of us can do it for everything. All of us will, eventually, make an appeal to authority, and that’s okay.

We just need to choose the right authority, or choose many authorities and weigh the evidence ourselves, rather than trying to take a shortcut to the truth by trusting a mainstream media that is clearly incapable of explaining most things accurately.

I’m going to let Crichton have the last word here, but do read his whole essay, and any others you can find.

Let me point to a demonstrable bad effect of the assumption that nothing is really knowable. Whole word reading was introduced by the education schools of the country without, to my knowledge, any testing of the efficacy of the new method. It was simply put in place. Generations of teachers were indoctrinated in its methods. As a result, the US has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the industrialized world. The assumption that nothing can be known with certainty does have terrible consequences.

As GK Chesterton said (in a somewhat different context), “If you believe in nothing you’ll believe in anything.” That’s what we see today. People believe in anything.

But just in terms of the general emotional tenor of life, I often think people are nervous, jittery in this media climate of what if, what if, maybe, perhaps, could be—when there is simply no reason to feel nervous. Like a bearded nut in robes on the sidewalk proclaiming the end of the world is near, the media is just doing what makes it feel good, not reporting hard facts. We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears. It’s not sensible to listen to it.

Personally, I think we need to start turning away from media, and the data shows that we are, at least from television news. I find that whenever I lack exposure to media I am much happier, and my life feels fresher.

In closing, I’d remind you that while there are some things we cannot know for sure, there are many things that can be resolved, and indeed are resolved. Not by speculation, however. By careful investigation, by rigorous statistical analysis. Since we’re awash in this contemporary ocean of speculation, we forget that things can be known with certainty, and that we need not live in a fearful world of interminable unsupported opinion. But the gulf that separates hard fact from speculation is by now so unfamiliar that most people can’t comprehend it.

Pope Francis in Time Magazine: Does It Matter?

The short answer is, “Of course it matters.” Pope Francis is Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. That’s a good thing.

But it’s not as simple as that, so let’s break it down:

The Good

1. Time is a fading relic of a dying media, but they still retain something of their former image, and the Man of the Year remains one of the few things they do that still generates some attention.

2. All eyes are on the leader of the Catholic church. That’s a good thing. In fact, it’s so good it outweighs what the cynics and critics will be saying. (We’ll get to that a minute.) It’s good for a simple reason:

3. People are hearing the gospel preached. That’s the goal of all we are and all we do: to preach Christ. Francis being declared “Man of the Year” can’t help but draw the gaze of an indifferent and distracted world, if only for a day.

4. This is the whole reason I’m delighted with the pope’s approach despite my misgivings about his occasional lack of clarity and somewhat reckless turns of phrase. Cardinal Bergoglio was a blank slate. Ratzinger never stood a chance: he took his seat on the Chair as JP2’s rottweiler: the Panzerpope. The die was cast from day one, and the dimwitted mainstream media, with their shallow understanding of every person and issue more complex than Paris Hilton, ran that playbook into the ground.

Francis was someone new. They couldn’t dismiss him. And when he showed a different pastoral style, they were confused even further. For some odd reason, their minds couldn’t grasp a pope who could believe all that the church teaches, and yet present it in a very different style. He must be changing the faith! Or, in the words of Time’s nomination blurb, rejecting “dogma.”

5. I hear rumors that Miley Cyrus was in the running., and indeed was an odds-on favorite. It’s a tiny glimmer of hope–one that will quickly fade as the media returns to its empty celebrity obsessions–that the vulgar lost to the sublime.

The Meh

1. I hear rumors that Miley Cyrus was in the running, and indeed was an odds-on favorite. It’s a sorry sign of the times that the choice was between the heir of St. Peter and a talentless attention whore. It’s a win for seriousness, but it should not have been a near-run thing.

2. I’m not going to start jumping with joy because a magazine I consider offensive and irrelevant noticed the bloody obvious: that one man commanded more media attention than any other person this year: stopped clocks, and all that.

3. The decision was partly, or perhaps mostly, political. He seems like an effective club for bludgeoning the right. The media has no soul. All choices, decisions, filters, and lenses are informed by political calculus.

4. Let’s recall some of Time’s other recent covers:

5. So, really: screw Time Magazine. Pope Francis ennobles it. It doesn’t ennoble him. They’ve shown by this decision that some flicker of recognition of goodness and truth remains in them. Or maybe they just stumbled backwards into the choice because the alternatives were just too ridiculous even for them.

6. It’s probable that they chose the right man for the wrong reason. Like many of my friends on the right, my little conservative antenna begin to twitch when people who believe awful things start saying nice things about a Catholic pope. They think he’s a “different” pope who will get rid of all that bad ol’ dogma and usher in a new age of gay marriage, abortion, women priests, contraception, and socialism.

They will be disappointed. They like him because they don’t understand him. He’s preaching exactly what Benedict preached, but in a new voice. Right now, they are responding to that voice. When they get down to the preaching itself, the party will be over.

Final Word

I’m happy to see Pope Francis as the Time Man of the Year. It would be foolish not to be happy. After years of scandal and attack, there’s a brief moment in which the world stops hating us long enough to maybe, just maybe, listen.

See, we have something wonderful: the truth, and the whole truth. We’re the only ones who have that fullness of truth, and that’s a powerful attractant. In a modern media age, getting the fullness of truth before a narcotized, self-obsessed, consumerist society gets harder and harder.

Francis has done something important. He has figured out a way to make people pay attention. Those of us already aboard the barque may get a little nervous as we enter choppy waters looking for people being drowned by this awful modern world, but as the saying goes, although a ship may be safest in harbor, that’s not what ships are built for.

You Should Be Watching “Arrow”

I’ve been enjoying the Marvel movie renaissance as much as the next geek, but I’m a DC guy and proud of it. DC has had renaissance of its own that far exceeds Marvel’s, albeit on the small screen. Thanks to the sure hands of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, they have created the most fully realized adaptations of any comic book characters to date: Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman/Superman Adventures, Batman Beyond, Krypto the Superdog (entertaining and underrated), Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited, as well as a fun Duck Dodgers revival, which had some DC fan-service. (Witness “The Green Loontern.”)

DC animation also gave us Teen Titans, the sorely-missed Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Legion of Superheroes, a slew of feature-length animated films (some of them, like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, superior to almost all the live action fare), and a decentish Green Lantern show. (I didn’t like The Batman at all, however.)

Smallville ran for a decade and was quite good, and now Arrow is filling the gap left by Smallville, including using Luthor Manor for Queen Manor. (Near the end of Smallville‘s run, a pilot was shot for Aquaman but it didn’t get picked up, for the very sound reason that no one gives a crap about Aquaman. The best use anyone has made of him, ever, was John DiMaggio’s voice work in Brave and the Bold. And this.)

I’d argue that DC’s achievement is the more impressive one, since we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of hours of continuity-based entertainment using a format closer to the original medium. Animation certainly fits better with comics than live action, as does the serial storytelling potential of good television. Indeed, I think the Batman animated series is the finest superhero adaptation ever, and Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the best Batman and Joker.

When Smallville went off the air, it left a superhero sized hole in the CW schedule, quickly filled by Green Arrow. The title was shortened to Arrow when the film version of Green Hornet failed and executives decided it was because people hated the word “green.”

Oliver Queen is not anyone’s idea of an A-list superhero, even though DC keeps pretending he is. He’s Batman with a bow in a Robin Hood costume, tricked out with silly accessories like a boxing glove arrow and a sidekick named Speedy.

Despite this, he’s carved out his own niche as DC’s voice of liberal doo-gooderism, which is appropriate because of the whole “Robin Hood” thing. Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil reinvigorated him in the 70s with a strong series of team-ups with Green Lantern, a little long on the preachiness but still entertaining. In recent years, the comics went off the rails a bit, although Kevin Smith did an acceptably decent job with him. Only in the animated series and in Smallville did he really show some potential.

The CW Arrow series messes with the continuity quite a bit, but most of it works pretty well, and it’s giving the character a depth he’s lacked. With the exception of the actress playing Laurel Lance (who’s rather bland), the cast is strong, grounded by an effective performance by Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen.

Since this is the CW, it’s full of too many pretty young faces and soap-opera digressions, and would benefit from the addition of older performers. Smallville had the likes of John Glover, John Schneider, Annette O’Toole, and Terence Stamp to give the proceedings heft among gleaming teeth and blow-dried hair. Arrow has Paul Blackthorne as Detective Lance and … that’s about it, except for rare and brief appearances by Colin Salmon, who seems to have made a career out of doing a lot with small parts. John Barrowman (of Torchwood and Doctor Who) had an important part in Season 1, but he’s not likely to return.

Despite this, the series is turning out good superhero action laced with moral depth. Arrow charges back to Starling City after missing for five years and starts killing the hell out of bad guys, instantly becoming Public Enemy Number 1. Following the loss of a close friend, he vows to kill no more, and struggles to be a better hero for a city in dire need. When Black Canary enters the storyline, we see the trials of people attempting to overcome their sins and find forgiveness, while also fighting for the right.

It’s not a heavy show, and I don’t want to overstate the moral qualities: it’s still 42 minutes of a guy in green leather shooting people with arrows. But amidst the fun it manages to tap some of those deeper elements lurking at the heart of good superhero stories.

For DCers, Season 2 has been rolling out the fan service big time. Season 1 gave us Merlyn (sorta), Felicity Smoak, Huntress, a pre-Deathstroke Slade, a pre-Speedy Roy Harper, Deadshot, and China White. In only 6 episodes, Season 2 has already introduced or named-checked Black Canary, Brother Blood, Amanda Waller (played by a tall, skinny actress; just … no), The League of Assassins, HIVE, Bronze Tiger, Professor Ivo, Ra’s al-Ghul (mispronounced, as usual, “Roz”), and Dollmaker. Roy Harper gradually is becoming a sidekick, and we’re starting to see what drives Slade to become evil. It’s already stronger than the first season: more assured, more tied to DC lore, with characters settling into their performances and excellent supporting turns by Blackthorne, David Ramsey (Diggle, a new character), and Emily Bett Rickards (terrific as a smart, funny Felicity Smoak).

You don’t even need cable to watch it. We cut cable last spring and stream all the episodes on Hulu. I think all of season 1 may be there. I know it’s all on Amazon and Netflix, and well worth catching up. Give it some time. Like any show, it takes a while for writers, actors, and production to settle into a good working groove. If you don’t like superheroes, this won’t change your mind, but if you liked Smallville and want a something a bit less high-school and a little more mature and darker, Arrow is a great choice.

Kennedy, Boomerism, and the Power of Media

Mark Shea had this to say on the cyclical paroxysm of Kennedy nostalgia that Gen Xers such as myself have had to endure every November for our entire lives:

Baby Boomers, being the incredibly self-absorbed people we are, are *still* dominating national discourse for the entire month of November with our conviction that an emotionally upsetting moment from our mummified Pepsi Generation Youth is something that Kids Today need to hear about yet again because we Boomers discovered sex, death, morality, and everything else worth knowing about.  Our parents were prologue to us.  Our children are our accessories.  History was born and will die with us.  So we Baby Boomers blather each year about how “America lost its innocence on November 22, 1963″.  That would be the America that endured the crucible of a Civil War, slavery, ethnic cleansing of Native populations, two world wars, the opening of Dachau, and the spectre of nuclear annihilation.  What all the “lost innocence” chatter means is, “I grew up watching Howdy Doody in suburbia and this was *my* first encounter with death that my parents could not shield me from. Since I am the center of all things, that means my emotional experience will now blot out all of human history in my epic narcissism.”

I posted this to Facebook with the observation that “Kennedy nostalgia always says more about whoever is doing it than about the inept and reckless man it supposedly commemorates.”

My friend Steven Greydanus suggested that (and I’m paraphrasing here) the instantaneous way in which everyone experienced the assassination of Kennedy, along with the live reports and film footage, gave the event a uniquely visceral quality that prior historical events lacked.

I wouldn’t deny that because, as I replied at the time, it’s McLuhan 101. Modern mass media alters our perceptions of events and even shapes those events. They don’t, however, change their historical significance. Perhaps the way in which the nation collectively shared that experience was unique at the time, but its uniqueness doesn’t lend it any special qualities in hindsight. The addition of television was the only new ingredient, and that indeed must have seemed shocking at the time.

But radio was a new ingredient when Pearl Harbor was attacked. People shared that experience faster than any nation collectively had experienced any great tragedy. And Pearl Harbor was certainly a greater tragedy with far more lasting impact than the Kennedy assassination.

What we’re looking at, then, is a progression in degree not kind: the collective impact of a tragedy on the national psyche accelerates from generation to generation with the advent of new technology. Are we to attach some metaphysical importance to this acceleration, imbuing the Kennedy assassination with some kind of added importance because people experienced it faster and more viscerally than people had experienced things before?  Will it be even worse when an assassination is projected on our retina implants?

We’re used to this now. We experience tragedies equal to or worse than the death of JFK with numbing regularity. We’ve watched wars fought in real-time on television. Even our bombs and missiles are fitted with cameras to send images of people just before they’re blown apart.

I remember “real-time” news from my own life:

  • The end of the Vietnam war
  • The death of Elvis (and if you don’t think the nation reeled when that happened, you’re not old enough to remember it)
  • Jonestown
  • The Iran hostage crisis
  • The assassination of John Lennon
  • The attempted assassination of Reagan
  • The death of John Paul I
  • The attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II
  • The explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia
  • Oklahoma City
  • The first World Trade Center bombing
  • 9/11
  • Innumerable natural disasters
  • Too many wars

I can tell you that, personally, Jonestown had a huge impact on me, not just because it was tragic, but because it happened at an age when I had not yet come to understand the true depth of evil at large in the world. It changed me, because it revealed a darkness that seemed incomprehensible to my 10-year-old mind.

And that’s how I know Mark is right. I know that a news story changed me. It wasn’t the “nation’s” loss of innocence. It was mine. And everyone has one.

We had national tragedies before the Kennedy assassination, and we’ve had far worse since. Yet 50 years on, Generation Narcissus still rehearses the rituals and repeats the fables of Camelot, recalling “where they were” when paradise fell. It’s not about the event, important as it was in our national history. It becomes about the emotional impact on a notoriously and peculiarly self-regarding generation.

My parents could describe Pearl Harbor and their reactions in vivid detail when I was growing up, but it was less about “where they were” and more about the horrors it unleashed. (My father was in the Army three weeks later.) But it is a memory of a differently quality, less centered on the “I” and the absurd idea of a “loss of innocence.”  In a country where every adult lost someone to war or knew a family who lost someone, the idea of the Kennedy assassination as a “loss of innocence” is a myth that could only be manufactured by Boomers.

Assassination nostalgia is undeniably a mass media phenomena, produced by new technology that allowed an almost-instant emotional convulsion of a nation in a more immediate and visceral way than ever before.  We’ve had worse since, yet I don’t see the same bizarre emotional exhibitionism from the generation who was young when the Twin Towers fell. I know, because I’ve taught them for years. (My students this year were one year old on 9/11/2001.)

Boomers have been shaping consciousness with their mastery of media for decades now, with each part of their self-created myth sliding neatly into its place. The Kennedy Camelot myth is their Garden of Eden, lost in Dallas when the nation fell from grace and sank into A New Era of Cynicism Unprecedented in Our History. (Except for all the other eras of our history.)

That they took entirely the wrong message from the event (in which a vain and feckless Cold Warrior was killed by a Communist) is only to be expected from a generation that got all the important things wrong.

The Mainstream Media School of Religion Reporting …

… most recently on display in the awful reportage about the Pope Francis interview, is illustrated by an old, old joke:

A man goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Help me, doc! I can’t stop thinking about sex!”

The doctor puts him on the couch and begins to show him ink blots. “What does this one look like?” the doctor asks.

“A penis,” the man says.

“And this one?”

“A vagina,” the man says.

“And this one?”

“That’s two people doing it in bed.”

The shrink puts down the pictures and says, “You’re right: you are clearly obsessed with sex.”

“Me?!” the outraged man replies. “You’re the one showing me all the filthy pictures!”

* * *

That, in brief, is how the sexually obsessed media–more interested in covering Miley’s gross, sad little bump-n-grind than a looming attack on Syria–transfers their sexual obsessions to the Catholic church.

Our job is to preach Christ, and him crucified, for free. Their job is to sell ads and papers to a decadent culture.

See also: The Anchoress.