Are you being mindful and living in the present, the latest guru on the cover of The New Yorker asks? The Apple Watch on his wrist buzzes him out of his distracted stupor. Have you remembered to breathe today?
Americans live in a long Now, disconnected from the past, hardly able to conceptualize a positive future. The past few years have been an eternal present of outrage. Every week, there’s a new reason to be angry, a new reason to be afraid. Opioid epidemics, sexual assault accusations, suicides, school shootings, dystopian fantasy movies. A torpor of meaninglessness and corruption is in the air.
My grandparents and mother grumble about fake news, but they still watch the major news networks on TV. Hardly anyone understands how pervasive media bias is. The narratives created by the hegemonic interests within America shape the discussions we have and the acceptable opinions one can have. Back in the 1980s, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman created the propaganda model of communication, a scheme to explain the systemic biases within the news.
Every New York Times, Washington Post, or Fox News article ends up following this model. Every piece of news they report on shares a similar set of biases, even when the narratives they tell seem completely opposed. All of the stories about Justice Brett Kavanaugh pass through the same series of filters within the corporate context they were created in; after all, each of the news companies is a profit-oriented business with economic incentives. When I search for some truth that will make me feel as though the world makes sense, I end up absorbing the editorial biases of the news sources.
Although it would be more fun if these filters were created consciously by lizard-people involved in a New World Order, the reality is unglamorous. A large amount of capital is needed to own a news company, so only the wealthy make the final decisions about the overall tone of the news published. These companies primarily generate revenue through advertising. They have to keep their corporate partnerships with advertisers. Otherwise their revenue dries up.
News organizations need to maintain strong relationships with the people within their respective political organizations, otherwise they wouldn’t be given the privilege of being on-site at such events or getting first access to breaking stories. This applies yet another filter to the news, since if the New York Times began criticizing their party of choice, they would quickly begin losing such privileges.
These filters allow a combination of the government and those who wield wealth or political power to create a cohesive filtering system around the news. The American elite disagree about their vision of the future, and have been becoming increasingly polarized. At this point, the polarized perception of the world by Democrats and Republicans has become alarmingly tribalistic. The two groups disagree on almost everything, but they both agree that the other side is the problem.
Beyond a certain threshold of frustration, those in conflict are no longer content with the objects themselves over which they are fighting. … They become mimetic doubles and forget the object of their quarrel; they turn against each other with rage in their heart. From now on each sets out upon the other as a mimetic rival.
The more antagonists desire to become different from each other, the more they become identical. This is the climactic moment that twins embody, or the enemy brothers of mythology such as Romulus and Remus.
–René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning [emphasis added]
Twin pitchfork-wielding mobs, the political right and left within the United States have become mimetic doubles of one another. They don’t know why they started arguing. At this point, all they know is that they hate each other.
René Girard is a structural anthropologist in the same tradition as Claude Lévi-Strauss. The structuralist approach, as Lévi-Strauss puts it, is “the quest for the invariant, or the invariant elements among superficial differences.” Girard analyzes the narrative myths of various religions, focusing on Christianity and cycles of violence stemming from “mimetic desire.”
Most of human learning occurs by mimicking the actions of role models. Mimetic desire is the uniquely human ability to desire what one of our role models desires. An infant desires what its parents desire. A college student desires what her favorite rapper, Kanye West, desires. A young programmer desires what his favorite founder, Peter Thiel, desires.
The mimetic cycle of violence occurs in stages. A community begins in a state of unity, acting toward a common purpose. As individuals naturally mimic their role model’s desire, they begin to compete with one another over a shared desire, which causes the thing they want to become scarce. Eventually, a scandal occurs, a situation in which one person starts to see another person as an impassable “stumbling block” towards getting what he wants.
Is Kavanaugh a predator? Who knows? The event in question is claimed to have happened 30 years ago. The facts are lost to time. Regardless of whether Ford’s double door story is true or not, the underlying pattern of the media’s narrative is timeless.
Girard describes Satan as the impulse to create a scandal, to accuse another group. Once a scandal occurs, the resulting social tension must be consummated. An angry mob has formed, and their anger will not dissipate on its own. A scapegoat must be blamed, regardless of innocence or guilt. The scapegoat is then killed to satisfy the mob and create cultural unity. The pattern of civil unrest being resolved through the community deciding to kill an innocent victim or ostracize a minority has been replicated throughout history and mythology, from Rwanda to the Crucifixion.
The mainstream, progressive media frames Kavanaugh as a predator who forced himself on a woman. Ford is a victim, a woman crying on live television. She’s hard not to empathize with. When a woman tells someone she has been assaulted, the default response is to believe her. People want to believe survivors and support women’s right to sexual autonomy. Kavanaugh is the evil male scapegoat who fits a bit too well into the narrative of powerful and unprincipled man. Kavanaugh innervates the masses.
On the other side, the conservative media frames Kavanaugh as an innocent man who is being wrongfully accused. He hasn’t been proven guilty, and the Progressives act as though it’s a fact that he’s guilty. To conservatives, Kavanaugh is easily empathized with. The woman is seen as a puppet of the progressive agenda, outraging the crowd.
Both of these narratives have the same structure with common elements. There is a Girardian scandal meant to trap the attention of onlookers. There is a victim, an individual or group who has been wronged. There is a scapegoat, an individual that the crowd is meant to crucify. There is a Satanic accuser pointing the crowd towards the scapegoat.
Both narratives begin with a victim, a common theme within political discussions. “Victimism uses the ideology of concern for victims to gain political or economic or spiritual power” (Williams translation of Girard). When one tribe feels that the other tribe has injured a member of their tribe, a scandal is inevitable.
As an example, two individuals’ emotions are riled up by the scandal. A woman reads a news article and her blood boils. She feels a pressing urgency to express that women’s experience is valid. A man feels a pressing urgency to state that not all people who are accused are guilty. Both people end up angry with one another, with no information being communicated.
With each scandal, the two sides become more outraged. Americans move further away from a resolution to the conflict. It becomes increasingly difficult for people in one political tribe to empathetically understand that the people in the other tribe also want to experience feelings of meaning, love, and attention.
Recently, Hillary Clinton has been quoted as saying that it is impossible to be civil when the other “political party wants to destroy everything you believe in.” If this cycle of compounding outrage continues, it will trend towards violence. Neighbors will war against neighbors, kin against kin, conservatives against progressives, progressives against conservatives. Fighting over the table scraps of the globalist elite wouldn’t free the people. It would turn closeness into isolation, and trust into suspicion.
I have a deep hope that the dam will not break, that popular culture can be rescued from its current positive feedback loop of outrage. Donald Trump and Kanye West recently met to discuss issues of prison reform, mass incarceration, and the decline of American manufacturing. When independent cultural producers such as West defy tribalistic media narratives, they lose a bit of their cyclical energy. New possibilities begin to open up for positive-sum games.
I love this guy right here. Let me give this guy a hug right here.
–Kanye West, before hugging President Trump
Logan Allen is a software engineer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter.