‘Merica, Media, and Mongering

Alexandria Montgomery shares an in-depth look at ISIS, JFK, and our multi-media culture that sensationalized both tragedies

Bill Hicks: Voice of Reason in a Mad World


Photo implying that the motivation for reporting on ISIS is not the preservation of safety, but the generation of profit.

Alexandria Montgomery, Staff Writer

I found myself hopelessly tumbling down the amusingly cynical rabbit hole that is Bill Hicks compilation videos on YouTube. It started with a simple Google search, then suddenly I was watching this hopelessly jaded white male confront the racist, capitalist, and every other -ist cultural regime we exist under by way of stand-up comedy. And I did laugh; I laughed a lot. His impassioned criticisms were inspired by the shallow patriotic mentality — or perhaps third world superiority — we’ve all been conditioned into since birth. But as my knowing chuckles subsided, I was left with the emergence of a radical truth; or, perhaps, one tenet of a much more complex Truth.

In his “Executive Order 11110 And More” performance (see first ten minutes of this video),  Hicks made quite a humorous, but no less skeptically sound, mockery of the U.S. media’s coverage of the JFK assassination and the public’s consumption of it. Hicks punctuated each jab at the highlighted event with a voiceover impersonation: “GO BACK TO BED, AMERICA; YOUR GOVERNMENT IS IN CONTROL AGAIN. . .” At that moment, I couldn’t help but associate his caricatured act with the indoctrination of the Bokanovsky-fied children via hypnopædia in Brave New World. His monotonous impersonation of an all-knowing, sterile placater was sobering; an impressive oratorical allusion to Big Brother and his poli-tricks. Hicks was obviously saying something here that was deeper than the controversial physics of Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun shot. Hicks continued his satirical rant:

“Go back to bed, America. Your government has figured out how it all transpired. Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control again. Here. Here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up. Go back to bed, America. Here’s American Gladiators. Here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitaries […] congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go, America! You are free to do what we tell you! You are free to do what we tell you!”

I can always appreciate a good confrontation of “the Man”. I am black and I am woman; I couldn’t not appreciate such bravery and fervor. But because the intersections of black and womanhood are so often overlooked, the resulting confrontations never break the threshold to achieve collective attention, concern, and action. This is true for all social movements involving the intersections of identity, biology, and sociology. If relativity and personal significance are not present, neither will be the desired action. This is why so many social movements lose momentum and eventually flop. . . and this is why Hick’s message is so crucial to our culture as a whole: we are all mass manipulated by mass media. The bulk of Hicks’s criticisms — whether they be his spiels on psychedelics or patriotism — all converge at this crucial element. I think the universality of this particular performance must be heeded even now, decades after the applause settled. We still have a multitude of generations, cultures, and creeds disoriented into docility, even though what Hicks would call the symbol of that disorienting entity — that reel of Kennedy’s head snapping and Jackie Onassis’s infamous squirm — isn’t being force fed to the public. What, then, is sustaining this widespread fear? In search of more complete and relatable answers, I sat with Northmont’s brilliant Mark Kincaid and Cory Caudill to discuss the Kennedy assassination, political responsibility, and the elusiveness of both history and conspiracy.

With Mr. Kincaid, I opened the conversation with questions about the mental state of the nation as news of Kennedy’s death spread. What did it mean to see the most prized political figure shot in the skull? I found his initial recollection particularly revealing:

“I was only eight years old when he was shot — in the second grade. I grew up in a Catholic house and went to a Catholic school, so JFK was a big deal to us. The first catholic president, a total breakthrough from the previous white Anglo-Saxons so typical of the White House. But he struck a similar chord with most people. He was the first president born in the 20th century, he was a war hero, he had a beautiful wife. . . “

Kennedy was a vessel replete with American virtue. He had everything we tend to value in a culture so intimately tied with the development of our country: the friendly, handsome face; sufficient time spent in the trenches of war, fighting for our ever-threatened freedom; the gorgeous, youthful wife twelve years his junior. Kincaid even went on to say that many people regarded him almost as a “Camelot” of sorts. The assassination was a destruction of the subtle relativity that Americans loved about Kennedy. This is the key, though. The catatonic mourning the nation engaged in was not for Jackie Onassis and her famous blood stained suit. Americans did not ask themselves “What does this mean for his family? His kids? The white house?”. They instead asked, “What does this mean for America? For our freedom?” The resulting inquiry was not a confident indictment, but an insecure stupor.  These questions did not catapult the nation into a period of heightened patriotism. Instead, there was a widespread fear of what the assassination meant. Our culture has told us for years the amicability that good looks, allegiance to our country, and a heteronormative marriage come packaged with will insure us against any threat. There are invisible hints riddled in our lives that tell us otherwise, but we regard them as weightless anomalies; wrinkles that will leaven once under pressure (cue Hicks’s haunting voiceover: “Sit down, shut up. Go back to bed. . .”). But this was different. This refutation had visibility and leverage. There was no easy way to dismiss a dead president, a nation’s Camelot, as a weightless anomaly.

What did all this fear lead to? Mr. Caudill and I discussed this, and nestled in the conversation was an interesting point. He said, “Fear is one of the most powerful human emotions. When it permeates, it creates chaos and hysteria.” And while Caudill and I are decades removed from the initial catastrophe, those who lived through the assassination corroborate this. Individuals such as Ms. Rachel Brannon’s mother, Sue Shock, and her grandmother, Joanne Sparks, say that society shut down — all schools, shops, workplaces, and restaurants. So, the only choice was to sit inside as receive the constant broadcast of political commentary and the thousands of people paying their respects to Kennedy in the Rotunda of the Capitol. This piece of history, again, aligns eerily with Hick’s performance in the video:

“Pretty soon, we’re all going to be locked in our houses with no one on the streets but pizza delivery guys and armored cars with turrets, shooting pizzas through the mail slots of our front doors.”

The news tends to narrate a world full of “war, famine, death, AIDS, recession, depression”, yet fails to provide narratives that counteract the threats of all awful things. It seems that the news outlets we entrust to provide us with relevant information would provide us with just that. But instead, all these 7 o’clock broadcasts seem to foster a certain irrational behavior. Irrational doesn’t (always) indicate post-apocalyptic behaviors. It simply means behaving without ration, or logic. And it seems to both Hicks and Kincaid that the events surrounding Kennedy’s death were fed in a rather illogical manner. Kincaid continued his recollection:

. . . and we’ve had presidents die. My own parents saw FDR’s death, but this was a murder and we wanted answers. And I still don’t think we have all the answers.”

He goes on to talk about how in the Zapruder film, Kennedy clutches his neck with both hands — although he was allegedly shot in the back of the head. When you are hurt, you tend to direct your attention to the wound. Why did he grab his neck?  There have been many conspiracies resulting from this murky detail, but what is clear is that amidst all the fear and “shutting down” of society, crucial details were overlooked. Kincaid speculated further on this, saying:

“I definitely believe it was [some sort of] conspiracy. I don’t think Lee Harvey Oswald did pulled the trigger. I wonder if he was a double agent. . . Y’know, Kennedy had ticked off a lot of people. He was contemplating pulling Americans out of Vietnam. He had Lyndon B. Johnson upset, the CIA upset. As for theories of mob involvement, it’s a possibility. [Kennedy] had affairs with Marilyn Monroe, who in turn was affiliated with the mob at that time.”

And while it is fun entertaining possibilities (see this video of the infamous Umbrella Man in Dealey Plaza), it is important to recognize that discrepancies in logic and ‘holes’ in history are the very things we should strive to attack — with our questions, our inquiry, our patriotism. If not, the government assembles a truth and hides it away with the decades, which is no accident:

“The documents for these things aren’t released until years after the fact, so those who would ask the right questions are already dead.”

To lose accuracy and validity to fear of some unknown, distant threat is a mistake. At the time of the assassination, many people were asking the questions that Kincaid still wonders about, decades later. But our history books always seem to find a way to exempt the important questions and their equally important answers (cue Hicks: “Go back to bed, America! Your government has figured out how it all transpired. . . ). What mistake then, are we making by fearing ISIS? What details are being overlooked?

Mr. Caudill and I still have lingering confusions about what ISIS really is. But one thing we are both certain of: fear generates response. Fear has the potential to reap lucrative results; it tends to stimulate consumerism. Whether it be on a microcosmic scale — such as corporations playing on our insecurities to sell cosmetics and clothing — or a much larger scale. Historically, we have seen fear lead to a heightened gullibility in populations. During the second red scare, for example, we had people in staunch fear of Communism without the slightest idea of what is was beyond what Mr. McCarthy would tell them from the TV during dinner. Mr. Caudill shared that during the immediate aftershock of 9/11, there was a system created to gauge the severity of potential threats. He said it would flash across TV screens and was available 24/7. This has led to over a decade of islamophobic sentiments, so much so that it is a slight taboo to not support the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars. Did you catch that nuance? Incessant coverage of an exaggerated danger duped the nation into zombie-like fear, which led to nationwide support of two wars and countless hate crimes. Hysterical beliefs quickly permeate culture and society with little logical analysis; they are often based on imagined danger.

While there is certainly an innate danger attached to ISIS, it is nowhere near the degree our mainstream media sources would have us believe. CNN news will not tell us about the military-industrial complex. And if someone like Bill Hicks did try to tell us, we would counteract the (factual) warning with “knowledge” gained from watching the $547.1 million dollar American Sniper. With the barrage of misinformation and movies, music, and media supporting it, we forget to think. To say we are mind controlled by the TV may be is an inaccurate conclusion, but there is still a level of truth we must heed. We have forgotten how to think. Mr. Kincaid shared a particularly sobering account of this fact with me. He gave an extra credit assignment to all of his classes. The objective was simple; research Marbury v. Madison and write a short paragraph on what it meant for the country. Five points. He said out of about one hundred students, most had no idea what Marbury v. Madison entailed:

“I gave this extra credit assignment just to see how many kids were truly thinking [. . .] and the problem is, we allow these things to happen. I believe you get the government you deserve. If you want change, then vote everyone out of office in two years. We need to take responsibility, but everyone wants to shift the blame. There are responsibilities we must not shy away from. If you play, you pay. . . and I definitely think we are paying for our playing.”

We all have a choice. Each time we choose to believe what TV or Twitter or any other media format tells us without first seeing what we ourselves think, we are creating a world in which ignorance and fear is the foundation of our own security. Racism, capitalism, and every other oppressive -ism of our culture first begins with us. Mr. Kincaid stressed this during our conversation. In a time rampant with propaganda and hysteria, I believe it is especially important we exercise our rights as well as our influence. In a capitalist society, we are the consumers. In a media-driven society, we are the viewers. If we don’t like what is being broadcasted, we can always turn it off. This is true patriotism — the pursuit of preserving the rights innate to each and every one of us.

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Instead, ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy