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The Trayvon Effect: Americans as Tragedy Addicts

When tragedy strikes, how does one tactfully suggest we’re wallowing in it too much?

I don’t know any dignified way to say this, but the reality is that we all—and the media in particular—are spending far too much of our limited bandwidth on the Trayvon Martin shooting.

***

To be sure, it is a sad tale of avoidable death and of the racial chasm in this country, made especially poignant by the youth of the victim. The authorities’ failure to arrest the killer seems outrageous. But how will this one case, by almost completely consuming the media’s entire capacity—as well as our own limited free time for public affairs activism and discussion—achieve anything meaningful?

When any important principle plays out in the form of a lively and compelling drama, we are all drawn in. But should drama and human narrative be the driving force in our discourse?

Of course, there’s inherent value in talking about societal problems, and making our voices heard. The problem with the Trayvon Martin saga is that it’s hard to see what concrete changes will emerge as a result of its domination of the public square.

With all the media hours spent parsing details, like who said or did what, when, and with what motive, it evokes other compelling whodunits dating back to the OJ case and beyond. These stories are cathartic in that they offer us a chance to express our opinions, to follow a narrative as a shared audience experience, to protest an injustice.

But once we’ve done that, what then? What is the consequence of our appetite—either fed by or created by the media—for one tabloid drama and morality tale after another?

While the vast majority of our bandwidth is devoted to these mini epics, everything else gets short shrift. Everything. Because, as those of us in the media are so often reminded, the public has trouble focusing on more than one story or one issue at a time. So that means that every week we have a Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman affair, or a Tyler Clementi/ Dharun Ravi controversy, or even a Rush Limbaugh/Bill Maher brouhaha, we’re unable to focus on things like the constant loss of civil liberties for all, the growing crisis for life on earth, and the destruction of democracy by corporate capital.

Big, complex issues are a challenge for the media to cover and for the rest of us to grapple with. A compelling narrative, complete with pathos and vivid characters, whether sympathetic or loathesome, is, on the other hand, a no-brainer. Easy to get involved with, easy to care about. And all too easy to put aside when a new compelling story takes its place.

But with so many truly pressing issues, the endless parade of no-brainers is becoming more and more of a serious problem. And what is lost in the Trayvon Martin case is that this particular situation—in which an innocent person was shot by a member of a Neighborhood Watch program—is actually quite rare.

With these fundamentally anecdotal and not fully representative public controversies, at least if we could identify a concrete objective and make some progress, that would be different.

Perhaps the tragedy of young Trayvon’s death could result in new laws about gun ownership or the responsibilities of those who use them. But how likely, really, is any kind of serious challenge to the gun lobby as a result? Pretty slim, I’d say, considering that the near-daily toll of innocent victims of gun violence have not loosened the death grip of the NRA on our political system. More likely—though still not that likely—is alteration of the so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws around the country that loosen the standards for what constitutes self-defense shooting.

As we go about participating in each “debate of the week,” let’s pause to think about what we do and don’t accomplish as a result—and what else is getting squeezed out of consideration in the public arena. Far more of our public conversation, for example, will have been devoted to the death of one innocent person than, say, to avoiding all-out war with Iran, with its risk to the lives of untold thousands or even millions of innocent people.

 

 

GRAPHIC:  http://media2.wptv.com//photo/2012/03/25/xtrayvon_20120325100125_320_240.JPG


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  • Buelah Man

    It is an apparent diversion. It is willfully used to further divide among races and classes. President Obama is trying his best to capitalize on this event… milking it for what it is worth… saying that if he had a boy, he would have looked like this young man.

    His ratings are falling like a bolder from a cliff, so he needs something…. anything to help boost them.

    Nevermind that there was a police investigation and no arrest. Does that mean the police force is corrupt or that all the truth isn’t known about the situation (meaning that the TeeVee isn’t telling you everything about the case)? Now they want to forgo that investigation and incite “hate crimes”?

    Something smells very fishy to me.

    Why this particular case? Why not illuminate ALL the shootings/killings with the same vigor? If the papers/TV/POTUS were to mention the other instances, which may not be the same color quotient, then their purpose may be turned on its ear.

    The POTUS should be embarrassed and ashamed. But the past shows that these are emotions he is devoid of.

    This is just one weekend in Chicago:

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-chicago-weekend-shootings-killings-violence-crime,0,5199265.story

    Not a peep on the MSM.

    • Mad Angel on FB

       Hey B’man  nice to see you here :)

      Mad Angel on FB

  • https://sites.google.com/site/themattprather Matt Prather

    When tragedy strikes, how does one tactfully suggest we’re wallowing in it too much?
    . . .

    Every week we have a Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman affair, or a Tyler Clementi/ Dharun Ravi controversy, or even a Rush Limbaugh/Bill Maher brouhaha, we’re unable to focus on things like the constant loss of civil liberties for all, the growing crisis for life on earth, and the destruction of democracy by corporate capital.

    . . .

    Very well said. And (of course) risky to say — since one can hardly tactfully say these things.

    I remember a time before I learned about the men behind the curtain, when I thought the image of the Wizard was the real deal, the end of the line, where the buck stopped. I remember when I believed there was no malign agenda behind it all.

    In those days, I would inwardly question the nature of the mass psychology that was galvanizing and polarizing, say, the students in class all around me, or all the people featured in the 2-10 minute segment on my local news channel. But I’d feel a little guilty for being contrarian, and accept that the majority of people should not be accused of fault for feeling as they do and being as they are.

    Now that I know there is a man and an agenda behind the curtain, the mass psychology question seems to be only thornier and more tragic. Why oh why are people so quick to bury their heads in the sand over, say, Iran-Contra, or the continuing occupation of Iraq by the US State Department and the military-industrial complex, and yet so quick to pose themselves as concerned, active members of a democratic society on the (relative) non-issues?

    Question people to their faces on why they care so much about Trayvon Martin and not the malignant culture in the US of dollar materialism and dollar imperialism… and you will be rejected from your premise and probably accused of secretly being a racist on top of that. 

    I guess this is all probably closely related to the issue of the controlled left-right paradigm in politics. We get left politicians and right politicians who give us non-issues to care about and spend our energy on and to feel empowered by when our side wins. And if your side is not within the controlled left-right paradigm, you can never win.

    If America were an airplane, the passengers would like the in-flight movies and the discussions and the debates and the gossip and the scandals they see and hear, and they’d prefer the left-wing-side or the right-wing-side of the aisle, but it would be an unspoken rule to never question the flight plan. Even as they approach and pass many critical points of no safe return.

    . . .

    Mr. Baker, I’ve skimmed or read all your posts by RSS for just about 2 years now, but recently I’ve started going back into them slowly and reading more closely.

    You really are raising an alarm (using no uncertain terms) and it must feel like you’re casting pearls before swine and your quality journalism is falling largely upon deaf ears.

    Of course you know you have a small group of people who “get you” and have high respect for you, but what you’re really after (I suppose) is broader public awareness and a paradigm shift in the mass political mind.

    Don’t ever fear that you’re on a losing campaign. I think you’re closer now than ever to something good. Like in the “hundredth monkey” concept:
    https://www.google.com/search?q=%22hundredth+monkey%22

    • Bongo

      Russ-you need to get on an MSNBC show–how about the Ed Show? Or Rachel’ Gatling Gun’ Maddow?
      I’d love to see people like you on those shows intead of their collection of political nerds (so-called pandits–what a joke) who shed no light, maybe some dandruff, on various issues.

  • Fearful

    There is something weird about the Zimmerman story, but I think you may have missed it, Russ. Ask yourself: do we even know who Zimmerman is?  Well, here is the company he worked for, according to reports http://digitalrisk.com/2011/07/digital-risk-honors-military-families-at-flag-ceremony/
    Also, did you get a load of this Joe Oliver character, who claims to be his “friend”?  There is a diversion going on here, no question about it…

  • Anonymous

     deke4 2 comments collapsed Collapse Expand Last night as I was watching Kansas win my phone rang. It was a recorded message from the NRA. I did not catch the name of the speaker but I can say this he didn’t sound much different than a snakeoil salesman. He was protesting the control of guns by the UN. He blathered on about (and once again gave only the second part of the 2nd Amendment) without mentioning the “Well-regulated militia being necessary to the maintenance of a free state” He repeatedly spoke about “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. I was not allowed the liberty of speaking to the person live but this idiot gave me one of two choices. “Press one if you oppose the UN regulating our gun industry”. Press two if you favor the UN doing that. Every person who listened to this canned spiel had the right to vote on one of the two choices. The right we didn’t have is the right to see what the UN proposal actually was nor did we have the right to debate why he was calling and the right to debate the gun control issue. I suspect the NRA fears firmer gun regulations because of the Florida Martin killing. I would like to have heard his response to my question. Are all gun owners part of a “well-regulated militia”. Press one if your answer is no. Press two if your answer is yes.I would have further dissected the 2nd amendment. The Founders of this great nation weighed each and every word carefully, realizing sometime down the road changes might have to be made. The part of the 2nd amendment that this snake oil salesman repeatedly mentioned was “The right of the people to keep and bear arms SHALL not be infringed”. Those founders were wordsmiths, if they meant that the right to keep and bear arms was never to be changed, they would have used a stronger verb than “SHALL”, They would have used the word “WILL” not be infringed. But alas, when dealing with snakeoil salesman, they fear repercussions to thei spiel.Edit Reply
    23 hours ago 1 Like F

    deke4 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    A codicil to deke4 post below. The UN proposal deals with the selling of arms on an international scale. It has nothing to do with owning guns within our borders. So the term “snake oil salesman” is aptly used regarding the misinformation the NRA agent made. Here is a wed site to check out the truth. http://www.factcheck.org/2009/
     Expand Last night as I was watching Kansas win my phone rang. It was a recorded message from the NRA. I did not catch the name of the speaker but I can say this he didn’t sound much different than a snakeoil salesman. He was protesting the control of guns in the US by the UN. He blathered on about (and once again gave only the second part of the 2nd Amendment) without mentioning the “Well-regulated militia being necessary to the maintenance of a free state” He repeatedly spoke about “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. I was not allowed the liberty of speaking to the person live but this idiot gave me one of two choices. “Press one if you oppose the UN regulating our gun industry”. Press two if you favor the UN doing that. Every person who listened to this canned spiel had the right to vote on one of the two choices. The right we didn’t have is the right to see what the UN proposal actually was nor did we have the right to debate why he was calling and the right to debate the gun control issue. I suspect the NRA fears firmer gun regulations because of the Florida Martin killing. I would like to have heard his response to my question. Are all gun owners part of a “well-regulated militia”? Press one if your answer is no. Press two if your answer is yes.I would have further dissected the 2nd amendment. The Founders of this great nation weighed each and every word carefully, realizing sometime down the road changes might have to be made. The part of the 2nd amendment that this snake oil salesman repeatedly mentioned was “The right of the people to keep and bear arms SHALL not be infringed”. Those founders were wordsmiths, if they meant that the right to keep and bear arms was never to be changed, they would have used a stronger verb than “SHALL”, They would have used the word “WILL” not be infringed. But alas, when dealing with snakeoil salesman, they fear repercussions to their spiel.

    • Mark Hoffman

       Your argument falls apart when you look up the meaning of the word militia.

      • Anonymous

        Well then, will it fall apart when it says a well-regulated militia? I suspect you did not bother to look up the UN gun proposal that the caller blathered about. It has nothing to do with people owning guns within their national borders. It has all to do with the international sales of weapons. It, hopefully, will result in foreigners not using guns made here to kill our soldiers. Need proof? Check the sale of guns to Mexico under Bush Jr. Check the arming of Afghans, a people who no nation, going back to Genghis Khan has subjugated. Britain tried 3 times in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. More recently check how well Russia did there after 10 years of fighting Afghans some 30 years ago. Perhaps you ought do a little more checking yourself.

        • Anonymous

          A codicil. Check the Afghan troops we are training and see how many have trained our Guns on our trainers.

  • Morocco Bama

    My sentiments, exactly. Great post and great comments. If only the “media” would spend more time on matters such as this.

     http://danielamerman.com/articles/2012/WorkC.html

    And for those who looked around that Digital Risk site, companies such as that, and the charlatans clustered at the tip of its pyramid, are at the heart of many of the problems we face today. Look at that management team and try not to vomit. In my inglorious past, I’ve worked (if you can call it that) side by side with these snakes. They’re soulless, self-centered, ego-maniacal sociopaths devoid of all humanity.

    • CQ

       You left out a word: narcissistic

      :-)

      I’m sorry you had to work side by side with snakes.

      At least you learned what characteristics to avoid. Most people are still clueless, sad to say.

      I so wish more people had access to that Amerman article. I wish the press would COVER real facts dug up by true patriots like him.

  • D.D.T. Kool-Aid

    Obviously youve never had someone in your family murdered…I have, and yes, the Police did not make a good effort to find the killer, even though his brother lived next door… Believe me, buddy, if a white kid was shot by a black off duty loser security guard wanna be savior, he would be in jail without bail…

    • Mad Angel on FB

       You bring up an interesting point DDT….was he shot in the back?

      Mad Angel on FB

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Edward-Kibble/1349341777 Paul Edward Kibble

    Russ: you’re fighting what must seem like small, rearguard skirmishes against wave after wave of armies that the National Ministry of Propaganda dispatches to keep the rubes in line. Boy, do you have your work cut out for you. Snooki’s baby! The Bachelor’s choice! Trayvon’s murder! Somehow the details all blend together into white noise that trivializes even the most momentous events into one question: who got the biggest Nielsen share on last nights headliner?

    What you’re asking for is a change in the way most Americans process information about the big bad world they live in. As a people, we’re big believers in what old-school Freudians called “the talking cure.” Thus, having a “national conversation” about, say, race (for the millionth time) has an intrinsically therapeutic value.

    And it does, or would, have such value, if—as you indicate—all the palaver translated from self-congratulatory “enlightenment” into sustained action (rather than a few dramatic but self-limiting protests—said as someone who repeatedly demonstrated against the Vietnam War for 5 years). But the talk becomes an end in itself, looping back trough the same tired memes like that self-swallowing snake of myth. This is—to again invoke Freud—akin to the neurotic ceremonial that must be repeated over an over again in exactly the same manner in order to give the illusion of control. Hey, we talked about Trayvon—looks like we’re finally getting a handle on this race thing!

    “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as Joan Didion famously noted. But in a largely post-literate society, story-telling has too often been commandeered by the power brokers who own the economy, with most of their media enablers working to ensure we stay clueless as to who’s really pulling the levers behind the great-and-terrible Oz mask. Micro-focusing on “emblematic” problems without thoroughly investigating their complicated social/historical roots guarantees that you’ll see only the trees, never the forest.
    From Oprah to Faux News, the pop-Kabuki rituals of guilt and redemption, featuring single players allegedly symbolic of larger, graver issues, are now so deeply ingrained in the national psyche that the Big-Picture approach you’re (rightly) advocating has become virtually impossible.

    Most people in this country are bored by/confused by/indifferent to large-scale narratives (factual or fictional—what, there’s a difference?) that try to analyze and explain the dynamics of predatory capitalism, warmongering, etc. Inside Job? Great doc—how many solid citizens saw it and did it change public policy? (Rhetorical question.)  War, Inc.? Hilarious satire seen and enjoyed by at least three people (myself included). A wholesale transplant of the national nervous system—the way we see and perceive events—is unlikely, and good look finding a surgeon who’s up for that particular operation.
    _______ 

  • Caitt22

    While it may seem to you that the Trayvon murder is over-covered by media, it is in fact one of those pivotal moments in our history as Americans. We are witnessing the ugly truth of racism in cold, hard, in-your-face  undeniable reality. As a white American and a mother of teenagers, I do not see color in this tragedy,only the loss of an almost grown child, whose parents put their hearts and souls into raising. But color had everything to do with its occurrence. As long as we choose to ignore racism and prejudice when we see it, our nation will continue to be capable of such atrocities as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

    • Russ Baker

       What you say is true, and yet in no way negates the fact that there has been a long history of publicized examples of racism, and what has changed? This was one man’s behavior, and the action of a single, relatively small-time law enforcement officer. Are you saying you DO advocate the wall-to-wall coverage of this at the expense of all other injustices that happen every minute? And if so, why? What concrete change will take place that has not in the past with so many other dominant stories on race? That it may be useful to you in teaching your teenagers does not mean it should dominate all other stories, which because of this you may never learn of.

      • Acala

        I don’t agree this tragedy had almost anything to do with racism. The fact is, and is proven in psychology for over years stereotypes tend to be lived up for in a lot of people and colors. Fact is, this incident was not about race, firstly because Treyvon was covered and “hooded-up,” as people have shown in the rallies. This case did not deserve the “wall-to-wall” coverage, unfortunately, there are tons of murder cases and violent cases where there is actual proof of racial profiling and yet you or no one hears about them. Why? The whole case became misinterpreted because of so much media coverage, especially for an incident that is so simple to figure out what happened. I’m hispanic myself, but honestly that doesn’t even matter, although if you haven’t realized yet after the storm of people calling this killing because of racism it only expelled reverse racism. They started referring to Zimmerman as “the white-latino man.” That to you isn’t racism? See this is all a circle, saying that the media tried too hard and resulted in involving too much of the public. That is not okay. WE are no one to judge or assume, because we don’t have any evidence in front of our faces. This is only for the forensic team, police, and jury to decide. 
        I am currently going to write a paper on this for my psychology class in college, and yet I probably will still not know anything accurate about this case.

        • Pres

          I’m confused by what you wrote. You said “[this incident] is so simple to figure out what happened” then you say “yet i probably will still not know anything accurate about this case”.

          If there is no accuracy, there is no precision, no “simplicity” [and limited truth if any, for that matter]. 

          Did you miss-type your thoughts or am i just not following you?

  • Bongo

    Another type of media no brainer is the constant repetition of so-called updates about Gingrich Santorum and Romney. Just goes on and on and on……….utterly boring, uninformative totally, useless waste of time wathcing this stuff.
    Meanwhile climate change, the loss of species, continuing pollution of our air earth and water with pesticides and the latest pollution atrocity, fracking for gas in shale deposits–all these are constantly ignored. PBS programs about our planet usually avoid these topics as well.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UREXMFRUMP73C72FL6ILOJD5HI Don

    This is a run of the mill incident that’s being used to stir up the Negro vote for Obama in 2012.  Nothing more.  Zimmerman probably acted irresponsibly, but so what?  Better a dead perp than a dead white victim as is so often the case when Negro thugs attack unarmed white people.  Negros get killed by their own kind every day and nobody gives a rat’s a**.  Why?  Well they can’t incite hatred against whites  by publicizing the dysfunctionalism of   “black culture”… a world view based on the ugliest, crudest, most uncivilized human  instincts.

  • Asd

    talk about missing the point. it’s not even that they’re wallowing in it, they’re not even taking it seriously, milking absurd points. 

  • Anonymous

    It always amazes me that the death of one person, while tragic, can grab
    onto people’s attention. Yet, tens of thousands of innocent children
    have been needlessly slaughtered in Iraq and Afghanistan in a similar case of stand your ground. Where is the
    outrage? Why are some kids worth more than others?