Thursday, June 18, 2015

Stepping In Front Of An Oncoming Charleston Narrative

By: Ben Johnson

Sometimes I love Twitter. It gets a lot of flack, and rightfully so, for being nothing but screaming garbage for a vast majority of the time, but that’s just what happens when the dizzyingly vast and quick information flow of all humanity first codifies and then transmutes istelf into one continuous frenzied salmon run. Upon entering, it feels like you’ve voluntarily strapped on goggles and stooped to plunge your head into some high velocity, ice cold, extremely turbulent water from which vantage point all you can see is salmon ass and salmon shit. It’s not usually a great view. This more than anything else is what causes people to overlook the fantastic boon all of this activity represents to the general informational ecosystem.

A person shot and killed nine people at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last night.

Twitter is how I found out about it, and Twitter is how I learned about the early developments in the story. Twitter (by which I mean mostly the feeds of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jamelle Bouie, DeRay McKesson, and whoever the fuck @Bro_Pair is) was already processing the messaging and narrative and implications of said events in vastly more intelligent and complex ways than could be expected from the high-definition hairdo-bot first responders of televised national media on an infinite timeline, and did so all before Anderson Cooper even had a chance to take his thumb out of his ass and actually mention the shooting.

This is not to say that whatever transpires on Twitter is inherently more truthful than any given major media outlet run by a giant multinational conglomerate, or that Twitter's best sources of information are totally unaffiliated with media conglomerates, or that Twitter's responsiveness and immediacy offers value which is inherently superior to any given analysis mechanism which requires more weighty input than even the most thoughtful 140 characters. Unfortunately, Twitter’s tendency toward attention-grabbing, follower-accruing alarmism, even while hosting worthwhile discussions, eventually flattens out to a rough tonal equivalent of the similar commercially-motivated tendency of most media coverage. Additionally, Twitter's tendency toward thousands of immediate concurrent viewpoints also over time see the larger threads of each shunted off into more in-depth but no less worldview-pandering thinkpieces, each attendant to one’s demography-sundering content provider of choice. Twitter is after all a media outlet. There's a certain inertia involved. There are limitations.

And of course Twitter is also a metadata company with a market capitalization in the $23 billion range, like all metadata companies infinitely capable of funneling the exact nature of all the world’s fart jokes and political dissent directly into the highest bidder’s hands, and should thus be viewed askance. Twitter is a manmade, for-profit sluice through which information flows, the construction and upkeep and direction of which we tend to think of as a force of nature just because it seems impossibly large and godlike when viewed through the keyhole of just one user’s experience. But to be fair, $23 billion is a large and godlike number.

What I love about Twitter in the instantaneous aftermath of events such as this shooting is its ability to set parameters for discourse in advance of that discourse’s actual arrival, and to do so in a visible and participatory manner, with a kind of off-the-cuff honesty across the ideological spectrum. Before the conversation even starts, and before the facts are even in, Twitter is there to say “one of the things we will be discussing during this story’s development is the racial, political, and economic context of words such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘mental illness’ and ‘hate crime’ and their use or lack of use.” Twitter anticipates news as much as it relays news, and in so doing underscores both the utter spin-formula predictability of our more “traditional” news outlets and the extent to which societal knowledge is based on whatever weirdly filtered and truncated version of the truth most allows a few overpaid elites to still have a job. This goofy Twitter mechanism, through its enormity, allows for other truths to be considered, and forces the cynically intelligent manufacturers of truth to at least consider the watchdog apparatus before going off any less than half-cocked.

My version of the truth about the Charleston shooting, from what I can tell, is that a white person walked into a holy place, holy both in terms of the faith of its current congregants and the historical and political significance of its role in the formation and continuing struggle of African American identity, and killed nine people in an insane, hate-fueled act of terror. The words “insane” and “hate” and “terror” are all loaded with implications, and the words should all be used, and the associated implications should all be questioned.

From what I saw on Twitter last night, there seemed to be a preemptive attempt to frame the shooting “more” as an act of terrorism than an act of insanity. I understand that impulse. “Terrorism” ascribes political motives to an act of violence, which contextualizes the act within the forces of history. The media narrative around shootings such as this one tends to minimize this context, the way it always minimizes all context in an effort to eradicate whatever non-consumerist impulses an awareness of larger context might engender in an audience, but also especially when the particular incidence of political violence manifests in a way too eerily similar to the status quo’s systemic political violence. You know, the whole “white guys can’t be terrorists, terrorists are exclusively the other, and therefore everything is okay with you and your world, whitey, so you might as well buy some damn soap or whatever else our sponsors are shilling, seriously, don’t worry, this was just a solitary crazy guy, you have no complicity or involvement in this” thing. To call this something other than terrorism ignores some pretty glaring inconsistencies with the way American political blocs employ violence, such as how come this white guy can be at large for almost a day and then be safely and respectfully apprehended and walked around in a bullet-proof vest, all after killing nine unarmed black people, while in the same town an unarmed black guy can’t even run a hundred feet without being fatally shot in the back. It’s pretty clear that this is an act of terrorism, and that to call it so is necessary, as it is necessary to draw attention to the fact that we live in a terrorist state.

By the same token, this gunman is most certainly insane as well. He’s not just insane because he killed a bunch of innocent people, although that’s the version of insanity most readily tisk-tisked by corporate media. Sure, it’s insane to kill innocent people, and the people in the bible study group at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston were certainly innocent in any of the ways large and small in which “innocence” is socially defined. But there is a Machiavellian morality behind concepts such as guilt and innocence, which allows Freddie Gray and Walter Scott and Michael Brown to be labelled as guilty or at least not entirely innocent, and at the same time also creates a false equivalence between those slain in their bible study group last night and any other group of “innocent” people, like say for instance all worldwide billionaires not currently holding an actual physical gun, or for a less recent but just as relevant example, slave owners quietly sleeping in their beds. 

What is particularly insane about this act of violence is not only that it was violence against the innocent, and not even that the shooter disagreed with so widely held a definition of innocence as nine people in a Wednesday night bible study group, so much that this person apparently believed that the current amount of systemic violence and intimidation used to oppress African Americans is somehow woefully inadequate. This young man is insane not just for killing those people, but crucially for the degree to which any extralegal violence by a white person targeted expressly against a black person is functionally overkill. It is and probably will remain okay to call this man insane, but it should also be noted that our whole economic and political system is insane in much the same exact way.

And hate? Sure, of course hate. Of course this shooting is a hate crime. America is a hate crime. That we apparently got away with it, and that the essential hate crime of America’s formation and continuance was and is borne by coldly logical economic incentives in tandem with the self-reinforcing and patently illogical ideology of white supremacy, doesn’t make it any less of a hate crime. We have to reckon with that, as individual citizens and as a country. We have to reckon with all of this, all of the terror and insanity and hate. We can’t look at any one aspect of this shooting or this shooter in Charleston, like for instance the gun control aspect, and claim a blind person’s knowledge of the whole elephant. Especially since we’re all inside the same elephant. And that elephant is very much in the room.

Those are a few of my opinions about the kinds of Charleston Shooting narrative direction conversations I’ve seen on Twitter. That I have them doesn’t especially matter. I am not well-credentialed, or tapped into any kind of agreed upon authority structure, and as such my opinions will not be widely discussed or disseminated. But what I lack in legitimacy I hopefully make up for in the fact that I can say any damn thing I want, with as much conviction as strikes me, and not be worried about my livelihood the way a more “legitimate” person would be. I can speak whatever pure, unadulterated version of truth I see through my filters, and I can share it with you, and we can be salmon together swimming upstream in the same salmon shit-polluted river of information as Wolf The Fuck Blitzer. We might not actually be going anywhere, but at least we’re allowed to try, and at least along the way our conversations are our own.