04 May 2007

Violence in America - How the Press Propagates Myths

Michael Shaw brought this essay by Carla Blank - "Worst U.S. Massacre?" - to my attention. Blank was prompted by the press response to the recent tragedy at Virginia Tecch to ask whether the shootings there really were, as commonly was stated, the deadliest shooting spree in American history. Unsurprisingly, she discovered that it was not. In the process she uncovers a set of massive murderous events, often animated by racial and/or class motivates. She provides thimbnail sketches of five cases. Blank's essay orginally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle (2 May 07). One interesting question is how Blank's essay migrated from the Chronicle, to Counterpunch, to the FAIR page.

Among the episodes Blank depicts is the "Ludlow Masscre" (20 April 1914) in which the Colorado State Militia attacked and burned to the ground the tent city that striking Mine Workers had established when they were evicted from company housing. That day the Militia killed 24 men, women and children. The death toll in subsequent unrest reached the mid 60s. Photographer Lou Dodd captured the aftermath.


Perhaps one reason why the contemporary press wants to discount such events is that they are intent on presenting violence as the result of individual psychopathology - and hence as somehow exceptional and inexplicable - rather than as emerging from persistent, systematic social, economic and political conflict. Nothing either here or in Blank's essay is intended to diminish the tragedy at Virginia Tech. It was a horrible event regardless of whether it was record setting or not. But there is a real issue involved in how we frame such violent events in public discourse insofar as that framing will influence how we respond to them.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Equally interesting may be the question of whether the tragedy resulted from "psychopathology" or from the same class and ethnic grievances - here, perhaps, more perceived than actually suffered - as in the Colorado mine wars.

G.

04 May, 2007 11:54  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to thank you for your blog. It's so refreshing, with historical perspective. And brillant. Thanks.

04 May, 2007 13:59  
Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

But there is a real issue involved in how we frame such violent events in public discourse insofar as that framing will influence how we respond to them.

This is a real issue, since the discourses that are distributed by media sources become sources of understanding for millions of people.

And when there is no correction of inaccuracies, those understandings will stand as "fact" in the minds of people who saw them on CNN, MSNBC, etc.

I'm not sure if this is always something that is overtly "discounted," by the contemporary press, as you say. It seems to me that this kind of thing can just as easily happen out of sloppiness and lack of attention to details/history.

Whatever the reasons, there are now millions of Americans who are walking around with a certain understanding of the events at Virginia Tech.

PS: Haven't been by here in a while, since I've been slammed in school. Great stuff as always.

05 May, 2007 00:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree with your suggestion that reframing issues in the public discourse can result in new responses. I believe that societies, like individuals, possess a fundamental world view that informs their positions and responses. Just as it is unlikely to change a person's core beliefs, it is equally unlikely to have the person accept a frame that conflicts with their core beliefs. With that said, as America's collective, fundamental core beliefs are deeply rooted and unlikely to change, new frames that conflict with her identity are likely to quickly be rejected. In my mind, the real challenge is not to overtake the elements, but to make them work for you.

05 May, 2007 00:55  
Blogger Stan B. said...

It's amazing how the entire education/entertainment/news media industry has become one massive military mindthink. Just think of the "History Channel" which, in effect, serves all the above. Much of their programing consists of military campaigns, military personalities and even military hardware- throughout the centuries. Never a word of social activists, revolutionaries or peace movements of any kind, anytime...

05 May, 2007 02:03  
Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

dawei:

I believe that societies, like individuals, possess a fundamental world view that informs their positions and responses.

Well, I must say that I respectfully disagree with your suggestion that whole societies possess a fundamental world view. This idea, while widely appealing, ignores the variation which exists in societies, which are nothing more than collections of individuals.

While there are always dominant discourses which affect and influence world views, there are also counter-discourses running throughout societies. That's my understanding at least.

The idea of a "society," in any case, is simply an over-generalization. It's easy to talk about "American society," but it doesn't explain very much, considering the numerous ways that Americans think, act, and perceive of the world around them. What being "American" really is probably has thousands of different answers from Americans themselves.

Cultures aren't static; they are always in a state of change. This makes the concept of a "fundamental world view" a little dicey.

05 May, 2007 16:48  
Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

stanco:

Just think of the "History Channel" which, in effect, serves all the above. Much of their programing consists of military campaigns, military personalities and even military hardware- throughout the centuries. Never a word of social activists, revolutionaries or peace movements of any kind, anytime...

Man, this reminds me of something from a few years back. It was Martin Luther King day, and I checked the history channel looking for some kind of biography or special. No luck. I checked the program lineup and it was pretty much war for the entire day. Unbelievable. Haven't watched that damn channel since--and that was about 5 years ago.

One of the main issues I have with them, as you brought up, is that they seem to frame history and war as if they are synonymous. That's a problem.

05 May, 2007 16:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Well, I must say that I respectfully disagree with your suggestion that whole societies possess a fundamental world view. This idea, while widely appealing, ignores the variation which exists in societies, which are nothing more than collections of individuals."

R.A.:

I admit that my post seemingly denies the existence of the multitude of voices competing within a given society. However, that is not what I mean to suggest. There certainly may be competing voices within a given society, as well as different strategies offered on how to solve a given problem but this does not contradict the idea that competing voices share a common understanding of how the world operates. Let's take the debate over gun control as an example. On the one hand, the pro-gun camp argues that people should have the right to carry a gun in order to protect themselves from armed criminals. On the other hand, gun control proponents argue that if we remove guns, violence will drop because people will have less access to weapons. If we look carefully at both these arguments, we see that they both share a common core belief: human beings are inherently prone to commit violence against one other and we need to find a strategy to protect ourselves. Thus, while Jim suggests that a reframing of the issues is in order, I argue that reframing the issues will never be successful because new frames conflict with core beliefs that the majority of people who live within a given society share.

05 May, 2007 18:01  

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