Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Art as Murder?

“The only thing that you can control, and you must therefore control, is the imagery in your own mind.”

— Epictetus

Until today I didn’t even know there was such a thing as white supremacist music.  Wade Michael Page knew; the “domestic terrorist” who killed six people at the Oak Creek Sikh temple in Wisconsin a week ago Sunday had played in a neo-Nazi band called “Definite Hate” and started one called “End Apathy” in 2005. So Page, when you think of it, has something in common with his immediate predecessor in mass murder, James Holmes, who perpetrated the Aurora, CO shooting two weeks earlier.  Despite their differences, in his case also a form of contemporary “art,” namely the Batman film, played some role in the buildup to his murderous violence.

Shortly after the Wisconsin tragedy I happened to pass the local movie house whose posters line the sidewalk.  One, cleverly combining sex and violence, was an extremely offensive, larger-than-life, depiction of a naked woman being groped from behind by a robotic zombie.

As any advertiser will tell you, you can sell anything if you connect it, sub-rationally, with one of our deep desires.  In this case (as in most) the desire is designed to unite people and create life; but what it’s “selling,” ironically, is a culture of violence and death.

Mind you, we’re not talking about a red light district in Vegas; this is the main street of a smallish American town.  Schoolchildren walk by these posters every day, mostly without adult supervision. What must they be thinking?

What are we thinking?  The day after the Aurora shooting four victims of the previous day’s terror came to pay respects to the dead and wounded: all four wearing Batman tee shirts!  I guess people will cling to their culture without ever asking where it’s taking them.

If I were a typical follower of today’s media, what would I understand about the Aurora shooting?  That he drove a white Hyundai, that he purchased exactly 6,000 rounds of ammunition (all totally legal), and dyed his hair bright red.  What I would not understand — what I would find it hard to think about in that welter of details — is, why is our country having an epidemic of mass murders?  Sixty of them since 1982.

That is the real question, after all; and even to ask it is to spot a very good candidate for the answer: we have a popular culture that’s filling our minds with violent images — and news media that distract us from understanding it.  A culture that smears over the distinction between fantasy and reality (when Holmes, playing the Joker from the Batman series, started his attack many thought it was part of the movie), and journalism more interested in lurid details or bland statistics than their meaning.  If the philosopher Epictetus is correct, we have defaulted on our most important responsibility as human beings — the care of our own minds.

There is a bright side.  We can get it back.  There is nothing to prevent you and me from stemming the flow of violence into our minds, as far as possible, and thinking for ourselves.  If journalists, or lawyers, need to ask, what was it about this particular person that led him to do this particular thing — looking for reasons in those who have left all reason behind — we needn’t join that exercise in futility.  Instead, we can look at our own vulnerabilities — and power.

I would not underestimate the potential impact of each of us, you and me, taking back responsibility in this way.  We are not talking about bodies or votes here, where numbers really are important, but ideas and images, which have a power of their own.

Clearly, if we want to be free of these murderous rampages we will have to face one very awkward fact: that the people who do these killings are part of us.  They have crossed the line between fantasy and physical reality, but that line is getting blurrier all the time for all of us (look at “Stars Earn Stripes,” NBC’s new war game reality show where celebrities play soldier).  The mental world of fear and darkness they live in is only an extreme form of the world we’ve created all around us — and therefore within us.

Mind, I am not against art.  I taught comparative literature at Berkeley for 40 years.  But stirring up our crudest animal drives is not art.  Driving ourselves into prisons of mental isolation is the opposite of art, a perversion of its purpose.

When an FBI spokesperson was asked why the agency did not keep closer tabs on an obvious lunatic like Wade Michael Page, he replied, there are “thousands of them” in the white supremacy movement (not to mention others).  Will we ever be secure trying to guess who is about to go over the edge?  No, but we will be if we can create a new, sane culture.  And while legislation may come in handy at various stages of that process, this is something we can only begin one mind at a time.

Michael Nagler is professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley and the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
Sam Husseini
The Most Strategic Midterm Race: Elder Challenges Hoyer
Maria Foscarinis – John Tharp
The Criminalization of Homelessness
Robert Fisk
The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge
Jacques R. Pauwels
Dinner With Marx in the House of the Swan
Dave Lindorff
US ‘Outrage’ over Slaying of US Residents Depends on the Nation Responsible
Ricardo Vaz
How Many Yemenis is a DC Pundit Worth?
Elliot Sperber
Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars
Chris Gilbert
In the Wake of Nepal’s Incomplete Revolution: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian 
Muhammad Othman
Let Us Bray
Gerry Brown
Are Chinese Municipal $6 Trillion (40 Trillion Yuan) Hidden Debts Posing Titanic Risks?
Rev. William Alberts
Judge Kavanaugh’s Defenders Doth Protest Too Much
Ralph Nader
Unmasking Phony Values Campaigns by the Corporatists
Victor Grossman
A Big Rally and a Bavarian Vote
James Bovard
Groped at the Airport: Congress Must End TSA’s Sexual Assaults on Women
Jeff Roby
Florida After Hurricane Michael: the Sad State of the Unheeded Planner
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Bradley Kaye
The Policy of Policing
Wim Laven
The Catholic Church Fails Sexual Abuse Victims
Kevin Cashman
One Year After Hurricane Maria: Employment in Puerto Rico is Down by 26,000
Dr. Hakim Young
Nonviolent Afghans Bring a Breath of Fresh Air
Karl Grossman
Irving Like vs. Big Nuke
Dan Corjescu
The New Politics of Climate Change
John Carter
The Plight of the Pyrenees: the Abandoned Guard Dogs of the West
Ted Rall
Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Emotion-Shaming
Graham Peebles
Sharing is Key to a New Economic and Democratic Order
Ed Rampell
The Advocates
Louis Proyect
The Education Business
David Yearsley
Shock-and-Awe Inside Oracle Arena
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail