11 March 2011

Notes on a News Cycle

Kristin Dombek’s first piece for n+1 was “The Two Cultures of Life,” in Issue 10. The print issue is sold out, but the digital edition is still available.

At first the question was whether he was a lone wolf or a Tea Party operative, or at least influenced by the Tea Party, or perhaps just by our culture of hate, the vitriolic rhetoric of our culture of hate, for which either the former vice presidential candidate-turned-reality-television-star or people on “both sides” are to blame. It mattered what we called him because the shooting was rapidly becoming “a tale of two moralities,” or even “a tale of two Americas,” in which the shooting’s heroes and victims were our “best,” and the killer was supposed to be our “worst.” So what was our “worst,” exactly? Like everyone, I went to the internet to find out.

All we had to go on, at first, was his MySpace page. I don’t need to tell you how thick with both possibility and potential pitfall was his list of favorite books: there we found not only Marx’s Communist Manifesto but Ayn Rand’s We The Living, not only Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf but George Orwell’s Animal Farm. His YouTube videos seemed similarly bipartisan, consisting as they did mainly of syllogisms like this: “If you create one new language then you’re able to create a second new language. If you’re able to create a second new language then you’re able to create a third new language. You create one new language. Thus, you’re able to create a third new language.”

Then we discovered that during the midterm elections, the former vice presidential candidate-turned-reality-television-star had put a target over the congresswoman’s district. For about five delicious minutes, it seemed clear that it was all the former vice presidential candidate’s fault. But then it turned out that everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike, puts targets over congressional districts. Moreover, only two days before the shooting, someone on an important liberal blog had written that the congresswoman was “dead to him,” which effectively cancelled out what the former vice presidential candidate had done.

René Girard wrote in Violence and the Sacred that people never look more similar than they do when they’re fighting. Violence is mimetic. And mimesis, Girard argued there and elsewhere, is where violence comes from in the first place. Not from difference, which is what we usually think, but from sameness. We only become who we are by imitating others, which means we imitate even their desires (we want their things, their careers, the girl, the political power, even the power to tell the story, to find the answer), and then in that moment when we reach for the same thing, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror of the other and want to smash it.

Following the murders, when gun sales spiked across the country—by 60 percent in the state where the shooting took place, according to the FBI—sales of the Glock 19 semiautomatic, the killer’s gun, spiked the most.


The day before Easter in 1144, a young Christian child, William of Norwich, was found murdered. The primary documents suggest that he was only 12 years old, and that it had been a bloody death. It wasn’t long before Christian townspeople accused the local Jews of ritual violence. Their story, recorded by (among others) Thomas of Monmouth in 1173, was that Jews had crucified young William. In subsequent years the idea developed that his blood had been drained for use in making matzo for the Passover feast. William was made a martyr and then a saint. There were miracles; a cult formed; pilgrimages began. Hatred for the local Jews intensified until, in 1190, Christians killed all the Jews in Norwich who did not find shelter in the Norwich castle, and the Jews who found shelter in the Norwich castle killed themselves.

This script—“blood libel,” cult, pogrom—would be rehearsed countless times across Europe over the next eight centuries until the Nazi holocaust. Often, as happened with William, the product of the accusations was not just a massacre but a new saint. The blood libel embodied a typical sacrificial contradiction: to paraphrase Girard again, because young William was sacred, it was criminal to kill him (and the killers must be punished), but William became sacred only because he was killed (so you need the killers, to get the sacred). The point was to turn the Jewish scapegoats into proxy priests, and then victims (and then, after the “final solution,” to be jealous of their persecution, to fetishize it, and in some strains of American evangelicalism, to imagine that in the last days, it is Christians who will be the victims of the Antichrist’s pogrom, rounded up and put in concentration camps like Jews).

What did it mean when the former vice presidential candidate, facing criticism for having encouraged a rhetoric of violence, said that liberals should not be “manufacturing a blood libel” against her and the Tea Party following the shooting? By claiming to be victimized by a particular rhetorical violence that has historically been directed at Jews, this Christian woman participated in the long history of appropriating Jewish suffering for one’s own purposes, a history that includes the blood libels themselves. This made her claim not only abhorrent but maddening. And yet, in its invocation of another of history’s hall of mirrors, her admonition against blood libels was more insightful than she knew.

The whole thing about the ancient Hebrews had been that, unlike those around them, they didn’t sacrifice humans. Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, but then God provided a ram. Christianity was born from Judaism and borrowed this logic of substitution. By the time of the Norwich pogrom, Jews hadn’t even sacrificed animals for over a thousand years, since the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second temple. It probably goes without saying, but what the Christians of Norwich had accused the Jews of Norwich of doing most closely resembled what Christians did during the Eucharist, when they drank the blood and ate the body of Christ.

Virtually drank it and ate it, that is. If the Eucharist birthed virtual reality by replacing actual sacrifice with the power of the Word, then the history of the blood libel fantasy, and the pogroms it justified, is a reminder that for some, virtual violence will never be enough.


In recent years, the killer had become obsessed with lucid dreaming, which he called, in one of his videos, “conscience” dreaming. He wrote: “If I define sleepwalking then sleepwalking is the act or state of walking, eating, or performing other motor acts while asleep, of which one is unaware upon awakening. I define sleepwalking. Thus, sleepwalking is the act or state of walking, eating or performing other motor acts while asleep, of which one is unaware upon awakening.” In his videos, he typed these syllogisms over and over, like an apprentice sorcerer practicing curses. As if you can make things so by saying them; as if you can get in charge of language itself. The best clue we had to the killer’s motivation was the report of his former friend that he’d carried a grudge for several years against the congresswoman because at a previous “Congress on Your Corner” event she hadn’t satisfactorily answered his question, “How do you know words mean anything?”

It was only a few days before the nation was able to diagnose the problem: according to Gallup, the majority of Americans did not think the killer was influenced by our culture of hate. This violence, we decided, was not our fault. It was his. The diagnoses were rolling in—some people thought he might be bipolar, but most thought paranoid schizophrenic. He was a lone wolf and she was a blue dog and liberals who were trying to manufacture a “blood libel” for this Jewish congresswoman by blaming the tragedy on conservative vitriol were, according to one conservative blogger, “riding across quicksand on a horse that is dying beneath them.”

Today he is being arraigned again, on new charges, and I am remembering the entire January day I lost reading this shit. That day, “Giffords shooting” got 7,476,000 hits on Google. By the end of it, my own mind began to slip. If we said he was not a Tea Party member but a lone wolf, then he was a paranoid schizophrenic. We said he was not a Tea Party member but a lone wolf.  Thus, he was a paranoid schizophrenic. We sounded like him, making paranoid proclamations about who was controlling whom, leveraging performative language against the cacophony. We never look as similar as we do when we compete with each other over explanations for violence, in the comments sections of the blogosphere’s blame game.

I haven’t wanted to go out there again. Easier to stay inside Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and get my news links from people who think like me. But if Girard is right that sameness, rather than difference, is where violence comes from, this may be part of the problem in the first place. The internet now fabricates for us too small and homogenous a town, if we let it—our own personal Norwich—and a different opinion can feel like a whole reality, shattered, especially if the form it takes mirrors our own performative syllogisms. Then the reciprocal rhetorical violence piles up so quickly that it feels like a force of nature.

I usually think of the internet as virtual, but after the shooting I could feel it all around me and in my stomach like a physical storm. This is the virtual, anyway, a kind of sleepwalking, the body moving in a lucid dream. As the presidential campaigns loom, I can feel the storm rising again. We make this apocalypse together, tit for tat, but it feels so much like it invades us from outside. It’s exactly the sort of misunderstanding that’s always bent us toward sacrifice. The killer may not have been influenced by our culture of hate, but he embodied it precisely.

Image: From http://training.christysdogportal.com/.

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  • Kristin Dombek
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